Best Of British
The london chef, renowned restaurateur and columnist Rowley Leigh is now at the helm of "Le Café Anglais". His vision is for it be a real hub of life.
Bayswater, West London. in the grand dining room of Le Café Anglais, chef Rowley Leigh takes me to see his new oyster bar. the old bar that it replaces was, he says, “a little cold”. When he opened this unusual establishment, which used to be a fast-food outlet and hasan entrance that opens straight into a shopping centre, hisidea was to add a family restaurant to his impressive string ofcatering achievements. After a brilliant student career at Cambridge, he tried his hand at farming butquickly returned to writing, before “accidentally”ending up as a chef. He explored cookingalongside the talented Roux brothers at Le Gavroche in London and it was not long before he opened Kensington Place, which became the benchmark for cool and trendy eateries in the 1990s. During these golden years, he won the prestigious Glenfiddich prize three times for articles published in “The Guardian”, “The Independent” and “The Financial Times”.
Le Café Anglais, however, is the achievement that he claims to be most proud of. Rowley wanted the restaurant to be a hub of life rather than just a beautiful place to eat. His restaurant has thus been home to winetasting events, quiz and bridge nights and special events with writers and cinema directors. This summer, he also came up with a “tapas picnic” idea as another way of creating a friendly atmosphere among his tables. Fundamentally, Leigh is exasperated by customers who scientifically analyse his brilliant menu and forget all about enjoying their meal. He cannot understand why you might not order a dish because somebody else on your table has already chosen it!
"We are determined not to become a club for fashion victims or city traders."
“I wanted to create something that was more than just a restaurant. I wanted it to be an institution for the local community. I am delighted that my customers come from a range of backgrounds: families come in on Sundays, and we have lots of senior citizens and foreign visitors too. We are determined not to become a club for fashion victims or city traders.”
Nonetheless, Rowley’s cherished idea of creating an atmosphere of equals, which welcomes anyone for a starter and a glass of wine or an afternoon of feasting on brasserie-style game and dessert treats, was not an untrammelled success with the first version of Le Café Anglais. The aim of the new Oyster bar is to draw in local young professionals attracted by the informal charm and simplicity of a quick lunch or sandwich, explains Rowley.
“We serve our fi sh of the day in four different styles and I have noticed that the most popular is without sauce. I think that good cooking, with quality ingredients that are cooked and presented as they should be, is still pretty rare in London. I feel that cooking from scratch has been left behind in the wake of new precooked vacuum-packed meals. You have to understand cooking if you want to serve it correctly. And believe me, that is no easy task.”
The Oyster Bar menu includes six types of oyster, upmarket sandwiches (warm smoked eel and horseradish, East Coaststyle lobster roll, and more), but also simple meals, like steak and chips, fi sh pie or omelette.
Rowley Leigh applies the same refined and profoundly altruistic spirit that inspires his cooking to his writing.
Rowley Leigh naturally applies the same refined and profoundly altruistic spirit that inspires his cooking to his writing, which makes him one of London’s best-loved and respected food columnists.
“After sixteen years in journalism, I thought I would run out of inspiration, but that hasn’t happened yet. The Financial Times has given me a column that enables me to personally visit and carefully assess each restaurant I write about. I am glad that my column has no photos, because pictures often destroy the articles they illustrate and prevent readers from using their imagination. And it is not easy to wax lyrical about food in a newspaper. I think it is better to make good choices than to say too much about them. In writing, that’s a principle that is incredibly liberating.”
GRIDDLED PLAICE, PEA PURÉE AND MINT VINAIGRETTE
SERVES 4 – PREPARATION: 15 min. COOKING: 45 min. INGREDIENTS: 8 plaice fillets of about 100 g (4 oz) each - 450 g (1 lb) fresh or frozen peas - 4 spring onions - the outer leaves of a lettuce - 1 glass of white wine - 125 ml (¼ pint) fresh single cream - 1 bunch of mint - 500 ml (1 pint) white wine vinegar - 125 ml (¼ pint) sunflower oil - 2 teaspoons of sugar - a pinch of nutmeg - 200 g (½ lb) pea shoots - olive oil.
Prepare the purée by lightly cooking the spring onions in a little butter. Add the finely cut lettuce, then the peas, 3 or 4 mint leaves, a pinch of nutmeg, half the sugar, and salt and pepper. Pour in the white wine and let it simmer on a low heat for 30 min. Once the peas are very soft, add the cream and quickly reduce the mixture. Put it through a blender to turn it into a purée. Season. For the dressing, roughly chop the mint leaves and put them in the blender with the rest of the sugar and salt. Bring the vinegar to the boil and pour it onto the leaves. Start the blender and progressively add the oil. Season to taste. Salt the plaice fi llets 10 min. before cooking. Brush them with sunflower oil and then fry them in a hot pan or on a griddle. Leave them to brown for 1 or 2 min. before turning them over. Cook them for another 2 min. on the other side. To serve, arrange the fillets on a small bed of purée and add the dressing. Season the pea shoots with salt and olive oil, and arrange them on the fish.
SERVES 4 PREPARATION: 40 min. COOKING: 20 min. INGREDIENTS: 300 ml (½ pint) fresh single cream - 300 ml (½ pint) milk - 4 egg yolks - 50 g (2 oz) unsalted butter - 100 g (4 oz) finely grated parmesan - Cayenne pepper - 12 anchovy fillets in oil - 8 thin slices of brown bread.
Mix the cream and the milk. Put aside 1 tablespoon of parmesan. Add the rest of the parmesan and gently heat in a mixing bowl on top of a pan of simmering water. Let it cool completely before adding the beaten eggs. Season with salt, white pepper and Cayenne pepper. Lightly butter 8 little ramekins of about 80 ml and fill with the parmesan cream mixture. Place the ramekins in a bain-marie and cook at 150°C (gas mark 5) for about 15 minutes, or until the custard has thickened. Drain the anchovies and mash them into the butter to produce a smooth paste. Spread the paste on the slices of bread and cut them into fingers. Grill them in a Panini machine or under the grill, turning them once or twice until they are hot and golden. Just before serving, sprinkle the remaining parmesan on the custards and brown them under the grill.
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Text : Trish Deseine - Photography : Deirdre Rooney