Awfully difficult, offally popular

Gavroche offal queue

News from what were once two of London’s most famous French restaurants.


It may seem a little unusual to begin a column devoted to enjoying the best restaurants, and occasionally their oversights, with a Notice of Forfeiture by which landlords tell tenants their lease has been terminated. But I trust readers will bear with me.

Particularly as this concerns a building that was my professional home for most of the 1980s. It would appear that the current management of L’Escargot restaurant, which I rescued after it, as LEscargot Bienvenu, had been closed in 1980, reopened it in 1981 and ran successfully until ill health forced me to sell it in 1988, have given up on this once-proud building.

My fear is that it will not be revived. Times, fashion, Soho, and what customers are looking for are all aspects of the restaurant trade that have changed substantially over the past 40 years. Yet the building’s interior has not changed that dramatically, making its renaissance extremely challenging.

The building itself is old fashioned. The kitchens are predominantly in the basement, with some cooking areas added on the first floor during the 1990s renovation. This means that its labour costs will always be high, food having to travel up several floors. In my era, this was compensated for by a low rent, the consequence of a very favourable deal between myself and the then freeholders, Castlemere Properties. They in turn sold the freehold to the late Paul Raymond’s Soho Estates, which remain the current owners but do not have any reason to be charitable.

Then there is the building’s layout. There is no outdoor area, no outside seating to attract passers-by. Inside, three levels need to be serviced: the extensive ground floor; a first floor which offers restaurant seating both at the front (which can be a private dining room) and the rear, separated by a servery; and a third floor with a glass roof that could also be a private dining room, and had been turned into a private members’ club under the last owners. It is altogether a large space, broken into different sections.

This set-up suited the customers of the 20th century who wanted privacy. They liked the nooks and crannies. We used to get numerous requests for corner tables. People liked the notion that you could close the door for even more privacy, that nobody could see what you were eating or drinking or with whom.

Today, restaurant life is very different, particularly in Soho. Chefs, rather than being tucked away, are to be seen. Customers would like to take in and watch the whole restaurant when they walk in. They do not want to climb stairs to reach another floor (getting customers to climb stairs is one of the biggest challenges in the restaurant business as customers invariably believe that they are missing out on something). We got round this by offering two menus with the added attraction of Elena Salvoni, Soho’s beloved maîtresse d’, on the first floor.

But two menus demand a large kitchen brigade, which today is another major challenge for restaurateurs. Who could find them, train them and hold on to them? Especially in an area where the emphasis is on a reasonably quick service and with this a reasonably inexpensive bill. Of all the restaurant sites nearby that I remember from my era, only Noble Rot Soho, formerly the Gay Hussar, and Quo Vadis remain – but the latter is supported by a Barrafina on the ground floor and a private members’ club upstairs and the former has an exceptional wine list. There are plenty of alternatives nearby but these tend to be smaller outfits offering fast food of many sorts: ramen, seafood, pizza, Thai, Israeli and Persian among many.

Escargot's Notice of Forfeiture

My conclusion is, sad as I obviously am to write this, that Soho Estates will have great difficulty in finding a new tenant for 48 Greek Street. I would have told Adam Price of Soho Estates this, had he replied to my initial email. Ironically, this notice is signed by solicitors Irwin Mitchell, of whom my old friend, the late Geoffrey Lander (no relation) was their non-executive chairman of business legal services, the same person who acted for me when I negotiated the lease on 48 Greek Street in 1980.

In my opinion, the future for this once-lovely building is a return to the past, to what it was originally built for: as a private residence.

Le Gavroche

It was a Monday lunchtime, a day and a shift when many restaurants, including Le Gavroche, London’s long-standing Michelin two-star restaurant, are closed.

But not on this Monday, 20 February 2023. Customers lined up outside on the smart Mayfair pavement of Upper Brook Street at noon. When admitted, they filled the dining room. The waiting staff were in their formal attire. And there was Michel Roux Jr, trim as ever, seemingly running round the tables full of expectant customers.

All of them were there for a purpose – to enjoy a one-off Offal Lunch.

On the menu were four offal dishes plus a dessert to be accompanied by six different wines. And these four dishes were far from straightforward. We began with a salad of veal heart, deep fried brains and tendon, with an excellent sauce ravigote. This was followed by slow-cooked lamb heart with a mint dressing, and then by a dish of braised tripe with a madeira sauce and black truffles (currently over £1,000 a kilo!) generously shaved onto our plates by Roux himself, pictured below.

Michel Roux and pig

There then followed the pièce de résistance, slices of pig’s head and trotter stuffed with andouillette and black pudding, accompanied by the procession of a pig’s head round the restaurant on a large silver platter. And finally, a slice of an extremely rich, classic chocolate opera cake. Of the wines, the Alsace Gewurztraminer 2017 from Léon Beyer was delightful, as was the B de Biac 2016 from Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux, and the star wine was the southern French red La Tour de Gâtigne 2015 Duché d’Uzès.

Of the four courses, my favoured dishes were the initial salad and the tripe dish of which I could have eaten twice the quantity. The stuffed lamb heart, a favourite of both Michel Jr’s late father Albert and his late uncle Michel, was just too strong for me, while the pig’s head was served in such generous portions that I doubt anybody managed to finish it all.

But the lunch was a joyous occasion and, at £180 per person, including all the wines and the service, was priced extremely fairly as this also included a couple of books, among them a copy of Les Abats by Michel. Whereas the cost of the raw ingredients involved may have been less expensive than normal, the work involved would have been intricate. When I asked Roux about the preparation for the main course, he told me that his head chef, Rachel Humphrey, had started boning out the pig’s heads and trotters on the Friday morning beforehand.

Roux also explained how the lunch had come about. Matthew Fort, once The Guardian’s restaurant writer, a trencherman and offal lover, used to celebrate a lunch once a year featuring offal at Le Gavroche to which he would invite all his family. He had suggested to Roux that maybe an offal lunch would appeal and, now that his restaurant is closed on Mondays, he thought he would experiment. The full house as well as the smiles on the faces of the happy customers as they tried to walk up the stairs at 3.30 pm proved that both Fort and Roux were absolutely correct.

When I asked Roux whether these would continue, he said he is planning a few more, possibly influenced by specific regions, seasons and wines. Keep an eye out for the Gavroche newsletter.

Le Gavroche 43 Upper Brook Street, London W1K 7QR; tel: +44 (0)20 7408 0881