It’s not really a chapel but if you worship top-end French cooking then come and sing with the choir
They must keep good records at Galvin La Chapelle; the sommelier asked if my dining partner still avoided red wine. It must be five years since I was last in and yet they had noted J’s allergy back then and remembered. That, I think, is a mark of a serious restaurant.
Another mark is that it’s still going. La Chapelle may have the advantage of being in an area of high disposable income, but that’s no guarantee of success as the svelte suits can choose to go just about anywhere. Even so, on the evidence of this Thursday lunchtime a great many of them choose to come here.
Not that it’s actually’that’ expensive, the set lunch is about £38. That’s not bad at all, especially in this temple (sic) to high end French cooking.
Inside you’d not notice that; the wooden-beamed roof arches airily above the smartly dressed tables and the timeworn limestone and original structure of the hall are very much in evidence.
Also in evidence is one of the bros, Jeff Galvin, at the pass – the kitchen is a corner of the room with, rather unusually, tables on its roof. The Galvins’ empire is so large that you wouldn’t blame him for taking a back seat, but here he is leading his team on a very hot day.
Sitting in the room, appreciating the wash of light that comes down and the coolness of the air, you can sniff French. Not just the aromas but the style of what we used to go to France for, formal yet a bit playful, or rustic and redoubtable. Today the formal in France can be stultifying and the redoubtable all too often inedible.
We go a la carte, I’m keen for the wife to try the Lasagne of Dorset crab, beurre Nantais and pea shoots. This has been on the menu since forever; another mark of a good restaurant is that it gives regular customers what they like, even if chef might be fretting to put on something new.
She loves it, I knew she would. That crab is so sea fresh, so sweet it fills the mouth even on the smallest bite, while the beurre Nantais, a classic creamy buttery sauce not seen these days as much as it should be, wraps around every forkful. The lasagne gives it all structure and heft.
I don’t think I’ve ordered soup in a restaurant in a very long time, I am not sure it even appears on menus anymore? Somehow on this hot day pea veloute really appeals to me though. It’s served in a classic way; first I get to appreciate the bowl piled with cooked peas, blobs of crÃƒÂ¨me fraiche, beignets of ham hock and fronds of mint, before the whole thing is inundated by the veloute to become a green lake.
The freshness of the peas is clear and the crÃƒÂ¨me fraiche is all the better for not being stirred through; firstly it keeps the vibrant green alive and then the randomness of its slight sourness keeps each spoonful interesting.
The ham hock beignets are little treats that bob to the surface now and then, like tasty shipwreck survivors, to be thoughtfully chewed. Basically, it’s pea and ham soup Jim, but not as we know it.
Pausing a bit to look around and drink a rather good and well-priced red, I notice that the room, although full, is not as full of suits as I expected. Quite a few people who are probably tourists, as well as people like myself who have the day off, are happily working the cutlery.
Grilled fillets of Cornish red mullet, lobster and cod brandade, fennel and black olives is my main, suitably light for the heat of the day. What an eye-catcher it is too, each item on the plate positioned neatly and without unnecessary fiddliness, the Galvins are not out for cheap Instagram fame, but nonetheless the old rules about how we eat with our eyes still apply.
I love the deep-fried sage leaves – a simple thing but effective, the aroma so powerful yet inoffensive. The fish fillets are delicately cooked, red mullet is a stronger flavoured white fish so it can stand up to the sage and the rich black olive tapenade.
Samphire gives saline crunch and the lobster and cod brandade, excellent in itself, is concealed in a jester’s hat of piquillo pepper. Leaves of astringent radicchio add extra flavour notes, alongside a puree of Pernod-ish fennel puree. It’s a great sum of parts and one I potter about in happily.
It’s good to see Galvin eschew the white asparagus for good old British green. I’ve never really understood why mainland Europeans prefer the thick-eared and ugly white asparagus. Here he teams it with crushed Jersey Royals, king of potatoes, to support a darne of Icelandic cod for P’s main.
There is nothing like a darne. A darne is a cut, made vertical through the fish, that creates a’steak’ and Icelandic cod is not just a great fish, but one produced to high standards of sustainability.
So, eat without worry. P certainly did, emitting little happy sounds as she went and remarking on the novelty yet perfection of the dusting of crushed hazelnuts on top.
We make our move to dessert, my raspberry cheesecake is a slice of perfection, each edge razor sharp as if cut with a scalpel. And it has a proper cheese subtle taste to it, not the sickly-sweet horror that gets passed off as cheesecake in so many freezer cabinets.
P has hot ValrhÃƒÂ´na chocolate fondant and blood orange sorbet, I’m not a chocolate fan so she has it all to herself, but from the way it goes down I was never in with a chance of a taste anyway
Staff are attentive without being oppressive, smooth without being slick. This is how’fine dining’ should always be, enjoyable and one shared with the people who make it and who take pride in what they do.
As we leave, the restaurant is still quite busy even at gone 3pm. Jeff Galvin winds down the curtain over the pass to signify end of service.
I don’t suppose it’s meant to be theatrical, but it is. The show was a tour de force and the review is in.