William Cash is delighted to find that the Soho institution is still very much home to London’s long-lunching epicures
When I knew that I was going to have lunch at L’Escargot in Soho the week before Christmas, I had to ask a certain type of guest to join me. The sort who isn’t going to turn around at 2pm, just as I was catching the eye of the waiter to open the second bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and say ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to be back at my desk at 2.30pm for a conference call with my architect in Las Palmas’.
A conference call? At 2.30pm when you have been invited to L’Escargot, founded in 1924? That’s almost a social crime. I try to weed out any such Conference Call lunch puritans from the annual Spear’s Contributors Christmas Lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club by adding to the bottom of the invitation: ‘Guests are advised to clear their afternoon diary’.
So I asked my friend Bunky Mortimer III – over from New York for the week before spending Christmas at the Olden in Gstaad – to come with me to Greek Street in Soho. Bunky is the cigar and ‘drinks’ columnist for Taki’s Magazine. He speaks French, and is a member of almost more clubs (including private cigar rooms) than Brian Clivaz, co-owner of L’Escargot (with Laurence Isaacson) which takes some beating.
‘Happy to come’ drawled Bunky. ‘But it’s a shame we aren’t starting the review at breakfast’.
‘But we are going for a long lunch,’ I said.
‘Yes but you can only judge a restaurant that claims to be a favoured watering hole of bon vivants by the face the waiters pull when you order a Poire Williams with your croissant, and a schnapps with your kedgeree’.
‘Well Bunky,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we order a different cocktail in between each course – “just to clean the palate” – and see how the waiters react?’
It was a shame that Brian wasn’t around for Bunky’s lunch visit as Brian might have been able to reminisce about long lunches (to the point of closing time) at New York’s Mortimer’s, owned by legendary ‘place de table’ owner Glen Bernbaum who died in 1998. In 1980s New York, Mortimer’s, along with Elaine’s, were the two most louche mid-Atlantic boulevardier central joints for raffish writers, artists, fearsome divorce lawyers, socialite under-achievers, decaying aristos, film makers, directors, politicians and mid-Atlantic industry captains.
L’Escargot is a mid-Parisian spiritual gastro-cousin of Mortimer’s. In London, you had a similar raffish haut bohemian crowd at the Ivy, L’Escargot and Langan’s (which Clivaz also now owns). During the eighties, the restaurant certainly kept some of the family-owned flaneur quality of Elaine’s in Manhattan when it was owned by Nick Lander and his wine authority wife Jancis Robinson – wine critic for The Times.
Just as Mark Birley was helped with the success Annabel’s in the 1970s and 1980s by hiring maitre d’ Louis Emmanuelli (always known as Mr Louis) so the Landers hired Elena Slavonia to run L’Escargot. Her inimitable style and uncanny ability to remember names and draw glitzy a-listers who wanted a chic French gastro experience resulted in L’Escargot often being nicknamed Elena’s Place by London’s demi-monde.
On arrival, Bunky and I were met by L’Escargot’s manager, James, who was certainly of the Emmanuelli school of old fashioned management. I don’t know if James has ever had to fend off any blows from belligerent clients, unhappy, say that the chef had run out of that day’s artichoke and truffle risotto. But he looks like he would effortlessly deflect any trouble without incident. Louis once told me that he had to gracefully continue with taking Shirley Bassey’s order after she took a shot at him with her left hook after he apologised that they had run out of asparagus.
So what’s L’Escargot like today? Has it gone the way of Rules and The Ivy – at least the original one opposite the theatre where The Mousetrap has been playing almost as long as the restaurant – and become an up-market tourist restaurant? Some might say whilst Rules is still a top London table, its atmosphere has become the culinary equivalent of being preserved like an Edwardian dish of Oeufs d’Aspic. The sort of place that the concierge of Claridge’s will send rich Americans hoping to see Andrew Lloyd Webber eating at a corner table; or has it re-invented itself for today’s louche, wealthy, slow-lunching Francophile a-list gastro crowd? . L’Escargot feels more contemporary, fizzing with modern epicurean energy as if it is till very much in is gastro-prime.
L’Escargot has been around in Soho since the early 18th century when Soho was part of the ‘countryside’ and the restaurant used to farm its own snails in their own basement. Hence the restaurant motto ‘Slow and Sure’ that decorates the basement area of the menu card; even today there is a plaster bust of 19th century owner ‘Monsieur Gaudin’ riding a snail emblazoned with the motto outside the restaurant.
Whilst few have complained about keeping up the quality of the snails – and the restaurant’s signature garlic and parsley sauce – over the last three hundred years, the famous restaurant had something of a reputational hiccup in the later days of it being owned by Marco Pierre White in the first decade of the 21st century.
The restaurant was bought by Clivaz and Lawrence Isaacson and opened again in 2014 with the restaurant also becoming (like Boisdale) a private members club. You don’t need to be a member to eat in the restaurant but membership has other benefits: getting invited to special members lunches and dinners; priority booking; discounts for hiring three private rooms. They also have their own special upstairs bar/library area.
One judges a historic French restaurant by its signature dishes and on such small details as the type of Poire Williams the club favours. Bunky started with the foie gras (if a French restaurant can’t source the very finest foie de gras it is finished) and I went for French onion soup. I was looking to taste a little fino sherry or white wine in the consommé and beef broth that was perfection: the onions had a delicate, almost stew-like consistency that made the move to the famous snails effortless. There was still plenty of room for a dozen, and to add some drama, we decided on snails which were flambéed with Ricard. This appealed to Bunky’s belief that alcohol should be served with food with any reasonable excuse.
We decided to share a Chateaubriand with béarnaise. This may sound like an unimaginative choice but we were testing the classical credentials of a restaurant that stands up to be counted as a London ambassador of French epicureanism. You don’t go to L’Escargot for trendy pan-fusion cuisine, just as you don’t go to Burger King for its beef bourgignon.
A good béarnaise sauce can be the marker between an average French restaurant and an excellent one. It only takes half an hour to make but you can’t make it in advance and the classic techniques involved in getting the mixture right involves much skill and precision. Its success depends on clarifying in butter, emulsifying in egg yolks and white wine vinegar and judicious use of tarragon and chervil, both minced and chopped.
I can report to Brian that the restaurant’s Bearnaise is the best I have tasted in London in a decade. Clivaz knew what he was doing when he appointed Oliver Lennik as head chef – Oliver was formerly of The Connaught under Michel Bourdin and Angela Hartnett. Brian is a former President of The Reunion des Gastronomes – founded in 1899 and the grandest of Britain’s invitation-only gourmand societies for the hotel and restaurant industry. He is a main Board Member of the Academy of Culinary Arts, a founding Director of Home House in Portland Square and he oversaw the elegant transformation of the fusty old Arts Club in Dover Street into a chic new Mayfair gastro-club. Oh, and he’s most recently opened the Devonshire Club.
So Brian is a true heavyweight perfectionist – in every sense of the word – in international restaurant circles. He has also gone on record to say that his mission is to revive the lost art of the ‘long lunch’ – an art form that some felt died out when restauranteur Peter Langan in LA, aged 47, following a mysterious explosion at his house.
Both Langan and Clivat also share another mission: to gently dissuade ‘bores’ from clogging up their tables. Had Brian been there, I think he would have enjoyed Bunky deciding that the gap between the serving of the foie de gras and our snails was the perfect moment to try the ‘Cocktail du Jour’ – a White Lady – whilst keeping our eye on the neighbouring table who – by 2.30 pm – were still not on their main course. They sure were eating slow, as well as doing every justice to the Cocktail menu, including sampling the Martini de Vendange which I was told by our charming waiter was a house specialty: G Vine Floraison gin, creme de figure, red wine vinegar and aromatic bitters.
Whilst we admired the creation being carried over the next door table, I noted Bunky taking sly notes for his new ‘Upper Class Guide to drinking’ which opens with a well-researched essay on the subject of drinking at breakfast.
As we got into our second bottle of Chateau Fortia, a very decent Chateauneuf-du-Pape – it was only 2pm – and Bunky had recovered from the trauma of deciding to miss out on the Tournedos Rossini, I asked if he was related in any way to the legendary owner of Mortimer’s in New York of the 1980s.
‘Only spiritually,’ Bunky replied. ‘We both agree on a simple rule of eating out in good restaurants. You judge the table you are given not by where the table is but by who you are surrounded by’.
Just as the success of Mortimer’s in New York was largely because it was run like a private club (the best table was window table ‘1 d’ ) so a similar approach has helped with the success of the latest incarnation of L’Escargot. It’s not a club, per se, but those who enjoy the restaurant most feel they are members of the worldly Club of socialites, roisterers, Langan-esque business figures, writers, media types, Rich Listers, lawyers and blue bloods that have always sat at the banquettes of cafe society.
Whilst you don’t need to be a member to book, you do need to be a signed up member of the long lunching epicurean classes to get the better tables, especially in the front dining room. Let alone a window table. I’m sure I’ve quite a way to go before being placed at the best window table but by goodness, I’m looking forward to lunching my way there.
William Cash is editor-at-large at Spear’s