Rowley Leigh is an exceptional chef.
By this I mean more than he is an exceptional Head Chef, which was the role Leigh fulfilled for almost 20 years until December 2006 at the ever-popular Kensington Place, near Notting Hill tube station in London. Leigh also had an exceptional career path as, rather than starting in the kitchens as a callow youth, he went instead to Cambridge and only began to learn to cook aged 27. He then had an exceptional teacher in Albert Roux of Le Gavroche, for whom Leigh fulfilled numerous different roles learning about butchery, pastry and buying techniques as well as how to cook the kind of French bistro food that will never go out of fashion. Leigh also has a natural talent for writing about food and has over the past 12 years been a columnist for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and now the Financial Times.
Leigh has always had a clear vision of the place he would one day like to own. “It’s an Anglo-French brasserie with carefully cooked food served in an aura of affordable luxury,” he explained to me. “A cross between La Coupole in Paris and Wilton’s in Jermyn Street.” This vision existed even before Kensington Place opened. He was in fact persuaded to join this restaurant by his partners only on the promise that collectively they would realise this at a later date. But KP, as it was affectionately known, proved too popular and Leigh’s vision seemed unlikely ever to be realised.
Leigh’s Le Café Anglais has now just opened, however, with two exceptional corollaries. The first is that at 57 Leigh is at a stage when most chefs are looking to move away from the daily physical challenge of cooking and into a more executive role. He does admit however that age can bring with it one natural advantage: his wife and two daughters are extremely keen to work in the restaurant while his seven year old son is, apparently, even keener to get behind the bar.
The second is that Le Café Anglais has opened in a former McDonalds site on the second floor of Whiteley’s, a shopping mall in Queensway, west London. That it is doing so is a marriage of convenience. The mall’s landlords are keen to improve the image of the mall, which has seen better days, and have therefore made Leigh several financial inducements. On top of the £2.2 million he has raised via a mixture of loan notes and equity from 53 shareholders, it is these inducements such as a dedicated lift on to Porchester Gardens that have made the total refurbishment of this restaurant that seats 170 and incorporates a bar and a private dining room possible.
But despite scepticism about opening in a shopping mall, Leigh firmly believes that this room and location are just what he has been looking for for so long. With floor to ceiling windows across one entire wall there is abundant natural light - a huge boon for anyone eating or working in a room sensitively designed by Stiff and Trevillion. And he hopes that a west London site will continue to provide not only a steady stream of shoppers but also residents, those in the numerous media companies round about or anyone travelling to or from Heathrow since his new restaurant is only five minutes from Paddington station.
While this restaurant aims to replicate the affordable luxury of a bygone era (there was a Café Anglais in Paris from 1815 to 1900), Leigh’s menu highlights a particular style of cooking that has, he believes, been somewhat neglected. Just behind where Leigh, or his Head Chef Colin Westal, stands at the counter between the restaurant and kitchen is a bank of rotisserie ovens that deliver succulent roast chickens, whole or in parts, with a variety of sauces; French and English partridges; pheasants; legs of lamb which form, alongside Dover sole, sea bass and lobster, the basis of the menu.
Leigh is also staking his reputation on reviving the former fashion for hors d’oeuvres with modern interpretations of kipper pâté, artichokes vinaigrette and oeufs en gelée, reminding us that simply prepared fresh fruit is a long overlooked way of finishing a meal. A classic wine list includes 50 French, 50 Italian, 5 German wines and Chapel Down, an English sparkling wine by the glass.
Good restaurants in shopping malls are unheard of in the UK but Leigh’s could be the exception that proves the rule.
A gastronomic alpine jewel
Norbert Niederkofler, Hotel Rosa Alpina, San Cassiano, Alto Adige, Italy, www.rosaalpina.it
Norbert Niederkofler left his native Alto Adige to learn to become a chef and now runs the wine bar and grill, the fondue stube (perfect for an après-ski snack) and the St Hubertus restaurant in this charming, family owned Rosa Alpina Hotel with breathtaking views across the mountains. Memorable dishes from our last stay included tagliatelli with porcini; a saddle of deer with rosehip gnocchi and a chocolate soufflé with fior di latte ice cream.