BY OLIVER GOTTO
As a nation, we are not pre-disposed to lunch. It does not sit well with us, chiefly because we often feel that we should be getting on with something more productive. It is therefore, as so often is the case with gastronomy, up to our continental cousins to show us the delights of the mid-day meal, for they are inveterate lunchers of the first order.
I recently lunched at Rowley Leigh’s ‘Le Café Anglais’ in Whiteleys. The breeze block stairway isn’t an entirely promising entrance, yet Leigh has developed a fantastic area that gives more than a passing nod to Parisian art deco. There is a wonderful bar, where I would feel quite at home supping oysters or sipping sharpeners, but on this occasion I opted for something more substantial.
The room itself has a unique atmosphere and despite being only a third full, it retained a buzzing energy.
As I was attending with several friends, we decided to opt for a set menu and started with a selection of hors d’oeuvres to share.
The idea of sharing naturally created a cloud of nervous politeness among my fellow diners, but all it took was one bite of a wonderful anchovy toast with parmesan custard to break through it. The kipper pate with soft boiled egg was buttery and smoky.
I was less convinced by the raw tuna with ginger that seemed a little incongruous, and whilst it was fresh, I felt that it lacked any depth. Mortadella with sweet onions was much as mortadella often is; not enormously interesting.
Hake with brown shrimp and garam masala came with a big bowl of fragrant rice. The fish was cooked perfectly and the spices weren’t over the top and despite the fact one of our group was determined to tell us the inexorable link between human effluent and shrimp, they were eaten with gusto, which perhaps tell you more about the people than the shrimps.
This was swiftly followed by a barely set panna cotta with aromatic strawberries, which was delicious, but in the wrong crockery. I like my panna cotta to have depth.
One reason lunch is so seductive is that it can open up a world of possibilities. Just as Arthur Smith said, “I couldn’t really see the point of having lunch unless it started at one o’clock and ended a week later in Monte Carlo.” And whilst I managed to remain on British soil, Café Anglais left me with a feeling that lunch would move seamlessly towards more drinks and yet more food. What else could you ask for?
Oliver Gotto owns Butchers Hall, the popular food hall situated in the heart of the Surrey hills.