20-21 Newman Street London W1t 1pg www.themandrake.com
It’s not often a sommelier offers you a Welsh RosÃƒÂ© but, as Nick discovered, everything at Serge et Le Phoque is a bit different, but all in a good way.
To be honest, I found the Welsh Rose, from Ancre Hill Estates, a bit too sharp, for my taste but full marks for sommelier Bert Blaize, for suggesting it. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone wine-wise, sometimes.
He’s also got some orange wines on his thoughtful list, he even has an orange by the glass, so if you fancy getting in on the trend for natural wines you’re in the right place. Once you’ve found the place, that is.
The entrance to Serge et Le Phoque is through the Mandrake Hotel, a dark alley-like space, so that those of us coming in from the sunshine wearing slow to change Reactolite glasses have to feel our way forward, a bit like old Ghost House in funfairs.
Inside, the Mandrake Hotel is really rather elegant, lit by the central atrium that’s open to the skies. Go up a floor and then head onward to the outside (inside) terrace to find Serge et le Phoque.
It means Serge and The Seal, the kind of seal that get bashed on the head that is, not the kind that closes envelopes. Sounds better in French too, because in English it sounds like the name of one of those bland bands you’d hear at every dinner party back in the 90s.
All the walls are festooned with living greenery, apparently grown abroad, and draped down the three-storeys. It creates a sort of desert island effect, accentuated by a wooden hut that houses the bar, as well as by the decking floor beneath your feet.
So on yet another searing hot day in London, this is a very pleasant spot to have lunch. There aren’t that many restaurants with outside seating, and even fewer where you don’t get your food seasoned with diesel smuts or have to spend every five minutes politely declining to finance a passing gentleman or lady of the road.
They would not feel comfortable in here anyway, this is the London branch of Serge et le Phoque Hong Kong’s Michelin-starred restaurant, and is headed up by interior designer Charles Pelletier and Chef FrÃƒÂ©dÃƒÂ©ric Peneau. It’s a bit flash but in a cool way, the kind of cool that costs money.
Normally I would clutch defensively at my wallet when entering this kind of place, but the set lunch is advertised at three courses for £26. That’s pretty good, I paid £26 for one course in a place last week.
The lunch menu is also commendably short and there’s nothing on it that I wouldn’t want to eat. Or P wouldn’t either, so she has the Burrata, Apricot, Watercress and Fresh Almond for her starter and I go for the Devon Crab, Saveurs D’Antan Tomato Salad, Gooseberry Vinaigrette.
What is an antan? I hear you ask. Well, having read Catch-22 I know it means’yesteryear’.’Ou sont les Neigedans d’Antan?’ Yossarian asks the airbase commander, to annoy him.
Here it means different coloured heritage tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, as all tomatoes once did. The zing of the toms, along with the gooseberry vinaigrette, is perfect against the wonderfully sweet crab. It’s a pretty plate too, perfect for summer.
P finds her burrata properly creamy inside, just as it should be, and dressed with teeny-tiny coriander seeds and something she likes, but can’t identify. I give it a go, I think it’s popcorn. Interesting.
I like beans, I perhaps should have been a Tuscan. So, Wild Dorset Cockles, Borlotti Beans and Parsley calls to me. Beans and shellfish are a good mix, the beans greedily absorbing any of the juice that escapes from the shells.
Fantastic cockles; sweet, slightly chewy, briny and plump. And generous in number, too. The beans I would say were either new season and cooked from fresh, or last year’s cooked from dried. You can tell when beans aren’t tinned, they are always less prone to go mushy and are larger too.
Seared Hake, Elderflower Beurre Blanc, Girolles and Bottarga for P. The hake as usual loving being fast cooked and the large puddle of beurre blanc a welcome treat, not enough chefs still make, or know how to make, the’old skool’ stuff like beurre blanc. Hint, you can’t cook it on a barbecue.
Bottarga adds a salty flourish and who doesn’t like girolles, often called chanterelles. They are the quintessential summer mushroom, sunny in colour, slightly peppery in taste. Now’s the time to get them before they go.
We shared some (extra charge) sides; fabulous pommes pont neuf, supersized fries to be gleefully dunked into a pot of bearnaise, and a fat, juicy, slice of aubergine topped with miso and grilled to a buttery umaniness.
Dessert of a simple but elegant Peach, Goats Curd, Rose Water & Pistachio was just right on size and weight, and cheese was unusually not an extra supplemental cost, I hate it when set lunches try and upsell you on the cheese. A thoughtful selection of cheeses, this including a Welsh one. Fair bit of Welsh on the menu.
On Bert’s recommendations, we had a Rata Truffe with dessert. This is made by macerating truffles in unfermented grape juice with some eau de vie. Very unusual. All Bert’s wines by the glass had been new wines to me and all were very good, even if I wasn’t so keen on the Welsh one.
Serge and the seal is certainly a bit of a find, literally.
Really lively, thoughtful, cooking that knows what it’s doing and does it very well.
I liked the casual hipsterness, the relaxed and confident wait staff, and the setting in the open air right in the middle of London is excellent.