Kensington’s own slice of Provence

232 Brompton Road, SW3 2BB, Tel: 020 7581 1101,
Cost per person without wine: £35

THE website of Cassis, Marlon Abela’s new venture, says proudly that the interior matches its cuisine. The cuisine, though, is Provencal, an inherently rustic sort of food, with snails and hunks of meat and tomatoey vegetable dishes, meant to be eaten under trees or in red-tiled kitchens among flagons of wine. Marseille, Aix, Avignon.

Or, in this case, South Kensington, and the matching interior is one of sleek surfaces, Julian Opie portraits and large windows. This is, one can only conclude, a very SW3 type of Provence.

I’m not sure if the rusticity of the food concept and the sleekness of the restaurant work when put together. Abela – the catering heir and Rich Lister – is an expert in providing luxurious, global and thus perhaps occasionally bland “dining experiences”. Though nobody could call his Greenhouse, with its vast wine list and Michelin-starred food, or Umu, his Kyoto-style place in Mayfair bland, those sorts of comments have been made in relation to A Voce, his Manhattan Italian.

I fear Cassis may have caught a little sniff of what some say A Voce suffers. Although everything is attractively put together, it all feels a bit sterile, like you might come here with your beautiful husband or wife or partner and talk about…nothing. Or sit there wishing you were somewhere else. It feels a million miles from the sort of place in the sun where you’d hunker down with fish soup and large hunks of baguette. But maybe that’s the point. We are on Brompton Road and there’s nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise. It would be kitsch.

Indeed, our fellow diners were the beautiful Sloane crowd – and there were a good few elderly denizens of the area there too. Dressed ever so slightly scruffily we felt a bit (ok, very) out of place – but were not made to feel in the slightest bit uncomfortable by the excellent staff.

So, far from Provence – the Roman aqueducts and fields of lavender exchanged for the smart kitchen shops and bars of Brompton Road – we settled down for our meal.

To go with an aperitif of blueberry Royale, we had a few “petites bouches” – some parcels of fried tortellini stuffed alternatively with spinach, foie gras and cheese; snails in pastry, and some fried whitebait. The parcels may have been faithful to Provence, and artfully done too, but they tasted like undistinguished party snacks all the same (that said, the ones with foie gras inside were impressive). The whitebait was just fishy (I never like the things, but if you do, these are probably quite good) but the snails – now, these were excellent. Earthy, silky jewels encased in moreish pastry and herby sauce. Phew.

Starters were very strong indeed. The soup I had contained squash and chestnuts with a dollop of cream. The broth was savoury and smooth, the chestnuts rich and sweet and then, the indulgent whorl of cold cream just to make you swoon. I loved this soup and hated to share it with my companion, who was anyway preoccupied with his extremely generous board of good country terrines (including hare) served with chutneys and toasts.

For mains, I decided to get into the spirit of things and order the bouillabaisse even though it’s a dish that scares and impresses me in equal measure. This one terrified me: it was an enormous bowl of clams and several types of white fish (the contents changes daily) placed in front of me before a gallon-sized pot, or so it seemed, of that famous viscous brown fish soup was poured atop. Now, looking carefully at the menu it appears the dish was for two people – why did nobody stop me? Anyway, I didn’t make great headway because I was struggling – I found the soup too severe – stern and fibrous and without any forgiving buttery sweetness. The seafood portion was so industrial-sized that I blanched and desisted before doing justice to what I’m certain others would have called a magnificent dish. I will confidently say, however, that I’ve had better rouille, which was served on the side with gruyere and croutons.

My companion had lamb about which he was pretty over the moon. Lamb’s not my favourite but the bit of his rack that I tried had a good, deep flavour. It wasn’t as hot, or even as warm, as I was expecting but maybe lamb cools faster than other meat. It’s worth pointing out that the ratatouille that accompanied all this was one of the nicest dishes: vegetables wallowing in their own aromas, helped along by home-made tomato sauce. I confess I filled up on it rather, perhaps denting my ability to wrestle with the fish.

Pudding was jolly nice. The Grand Marnier and orange soufflé is a source of great pride, and I found it impressive though very sweet a bit too goopy (it came out surprisingly quickly for a soufflé). Chocolate tart with pine nuts was lovely. Dessert cocktails may be best left alone: we had a pink one modeled on strawberry cheesecake and a tiramisu one that was, frankly, garish.

But Abela knows what he’s doing and most things are as they should be. You can count on great ingredients that are well-sourced, cooked well and a stonking, even flustering, wine list to go with it all. The only thing missing, oddly, is that flavour of Provence, some spilled red wine perhaps, or a portly grandmother at the next table, to take the shiny edges off what feels like a global product.