French fare with added va va voom

 
Timothy Barber
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CHABROT BISTROT D’AMIS

9 Knightsbridge Green, SW1X7Q1, 020 7225 2238, www.chabrot.co.uk
FOOD
SERVICE
ATMOSPHERE

Cost per person without wine: £45

ON a wall inside the entrance to Chabrot Bistrot d’Amis hangs a large black and white photograph of a grizzled paysan emitting a gummy grin as he pours red wine from a magnum bottle into a bowl. It’s an image as Gallic as the word “cliché”, but in this place it happens to be more than just that. The old codger is demonstrating the tradition of “chabrot”, in which, to make the most of your soup, you add red wine to the bowl when you’re near to finishing it, using it to wash down every last, soupy residue.

Malheureusement, they don’t bring you a magnum to enact the ritual at Chabrot Bistrot d’Amis, but a tiny complimentary jug of plonk is enough to indulge a bit of Froggy whimsy. The thing is, while the photos of peasants, the globe lights, the huge mirrors, the bentwood chairs and the Basque-pattern tablecloths at this restaurant might scream teary-eyed affectation of a Café Rouge variety, it doesn’t feel overdone. It’s actually a rather modest place – a slim little restaurant off a tiny Knightsbridge side street (like Diagon Alley overlooked by the One Hyde Park residential behemoth), and the food, I have to tell you, is really rather marvellous.

There’s that soup, for instance. On my visit, soup du jour was a white bean concoction with thin, semi-crisp pieces of bacon floating in it, and streaks of olive oil dashed across its surface. It was as gentle as a spring morning, but shot through with flavours that made one dream of cassoulet in Carcassonne and Emmanuelle Beart prancing around in Manon des Sources – every ex-schoolboy knows the bit. It was sensuous and lusty, and swilling wine into the last velvety mouthfuls only enhanced the sensation. God it was good.

The starter menu is divided into froid and chaud dishes, all simple things on the face of it – snails in parsley butter, Basque charcuterie, and bone marrow. But chef Thierry Laborde, who had a Michelin star at L’Oranger a while back, has a few tricks up his sleeve. My chum’s duck liver paté with Comté cheese wasn’t what you’d expect – rather than a smooth mousse paté, the duck livers were sealed and finely chopped with oodles of herbs, creating texture and depth. But it was the cheese that was the real surprise: a Yorkshire pudding made with Comté-infused batter. Laborde’s nod to his adopted country, taking our culinary first-born and sprinkling it with French magic. “Taste’s lovely with the paté,” said my friend, “but it’d be sensational with roast beef.”

Laborde’s speciality is a sharing dish of roast chicken stuffed with foie gras, and there’s a lamb shank dish for two – all very chummy, as is the relaxed bistrot atmosphere. We decided to go separate ways though – my friend had a pale, tender slice of grilled veal, dressed in a musky coating of sage and rosemary, which was fine if not quite memorable. I had lamb cutlets that were the best thing I’ve eaten in 2011. Easily. A trio of small, trimmed chops came rolling in silky juices, their loose, rose-pink meat as sweet and giving as any I’ve tasted, with charcoal, garlic and herbs washing through in the aftertaste. The first mellow mouthful shut me up and I barely spoke until I’d cleared the plate. Accompanying, a tasty ratatouille of aubergine chunks and cherry tomatoes.

Onto desserts, which were no less vibrant. I had a tart that was topped with young strawberries, including a handful of wild ones. My friend had a ball of Trou du Cru cheese with a vinaigrette dressed butterhead lettuce served in a bowl next to it, a savoury combination that sparkled.

The wine list is excellent, as you’d expect, and if our waiter was a little too enthusiastic at times – please, I’m fine to pour my own water as and when I want – I’ll forgive him. The food was just too good for that to matter.

I’ll share this with you. A few days earlier I had met with Pierre Koffmann, the chef who is le papa of French cooking in London. I asked him where he’d eaten recently that had impressed him. “Ah, Chabrot – eet’s merveilleuse,” he responded instantly. No arguments there.