19 October 2011
What is Cigalon? Cigalon is a Provençal refuge in the heart of legal London - next to the Law Society and opposite the Temple. It’s also the Occitan nickname for cicadas - backing vocals to Mediterranean nights.
Best for: French cooking at its best. Client-clinching
Nearest Tube: Chancery Lane
There’s one more crucial Cigalon connection: Marcel Pagnol, a passionate Provencal film maker and novelist, celebrated his region in Jean de Florette and Manon de Source. These two films, and Peter Mayle’s famous Year, ignited the (perfectly understandable) British Provençal obsession. Pagnol’s inspirational presence permeates Cigalon. Its name is also homage to his 1935 film, Cigalon, the story of an arrogant chef whose restaurant is empty. Rest assured, this will never happen to our Cigalon.
Cigalon has been open a year and is the sister restaurant of Club Gascon; the brilliant foie gras focused City fixture in St Bartholomew the Great churchyard. Cigalon shares all the verve and clarity of its sister’s cooking, in the subtler and more restrained tones of Provence. I am lunching with my wife, who has something of the elegant French look of Audrey Tautou (Big Brownie Point Bruce) and has spent the morning looking at Cézannes at the Courthauld - so she is in Le Zone.
Cigalon is Provençal Immersion Therapy for the senses. The prevailing colours are lavender and steely olive gray: lavender trellises in the shape of honeycombs; interlinking circular lavender banquettes woven down the centre of the room like cars on a fairground waltzer; the wall hangings woven reeds, whilst above, beautiful potted olive trees mingle their leaves with ingenious black spoked spinning chandeliers. These are particularly intriguing - like avant garde ladies hats. You could imagine Emmanuelle Beart wearing one to Longchamps (that’s enough beautiful French film stars, Ed.).
The brightly polished silver kitchen is open to the restaurant. It exudes quiet professionalism - no swearing-unless as Katharine says, “It’s very quiet and in French.” Altogether this is a beautiful and subtle interior. No surprise that the Evening Standard has voted Cigalon one of the 100 most enticing places in London.
We are welcomed with juicy (not too salty) olive tapenade and excellent olive and spelt breads. I am a veritable bread Hoover and Katharine has to fight for her share of tapenade. She doesn’t win, but consoles herself with a glass of Petit Chablis, “buttery, lemony and petrolly - very good”, and then helps herself to a (generous) mouthful of my Sancerre-“Yum”. Yum is an ominous word and I decide to try my Sancerre, whilst there is still some left. It is “fruity, gooseberries - but with a refreshing citric edge”. See, I can play the wine adjective game too. But, in truth, both wines are absolutely excellent - our livers are lucky it’s lunchtime.
I start with a crisp, fresh tuna nicoise, made with marinated tuna confit, finely chopped anchovies, chicory, perfectly cooked eggs and sliced radishes - a delightfully balanced and authentically Provençal dish.
Katharine has the fish soup which has the beautiful southern French scent of fish stock, seaside saltiness and sweet, gently garlicky Rouille. It comes with all the complements: Rouille, grated gruyere and golden croutons. Katharine is happy, “Perhaps a little on the cool side, but it’s densely flavoured - excellent”. I try a spoonful - rich, deep, sea salt fish stock, and with that strange “hint of rock pool” that really excellent fish soup has.
Before main courses, a word about the Cigalon team-after all they are the people who make a room into a real restaurant. The waiters wear lavender braces and lavender ties and look cool doing it. Only French people could do this. I wouldn’t look good in a lavender tie and my friends would tell me so. That’s because I’m English - get used to it Bruce. Our waitress is pregnant (due in January, Katharine finds out), but is jolly, smiley and extremely helpful-very impressive under pressure in a busy restaurant.
Yann Osouf, previously of The Wolseley and Club Gascon, manages Cigalon and Baranis, the bar downstairs, with two friends and colleagues from CG. The trio are from Marseille, Nice and Corsica, covering the départments of the Provençal South. They are proud to showcase their home cultures here and their commitment gives the restaurant a unified theme and vision.
My main course is the special of the day; grilled halibut with poached potatoes - they are delightful, fluffy, yet waxy and steeped in the juice of the halibut, olive oil, lemon and garlic (signature essence of the South). A silver, mother of pearl split razor clam shell lies across the plate. Crowded along it, like commuters on a tube, are brown shrimps and the clam that used to own the shell. I soon remember that I don’t like brown shrimps –they always seem like refugees from a whelk stall - but that’s my own private prejudice. The overall dish is absolutely marvellous.
Katharine is a risotto girl. She goes for the spelt risotto with caramelised pumpkins and pistachios. I sneak a spoonful and much prefer the chewy, graininess of the spelt to risotto rice and the deep fried sage, the sweet stickiness of the pumpkin and the crisp pistachios, make an intriguing mix of textures and flavours.
For dessert Katharine has goat’s cheese feuillete and Black Cherry Chutney. Now I can’t bear goat’s cheese - I’d rather eat tarmac. But Katharine loves it and this is a lovely golden tartlet surrounding a pure white cheese. “Gorgeously crisp and buttery, and great, sweet/tart chutney”, coos Katharine.
My Café Gourmand comes with a selection of taster desserts (Katharine makes it absolutely clear that I will be having nothing but a glass of water for dinner). Anyway, bring them on: White chocolate rice crispies – a hit (!), melted Milky Bar and crunchy rice, Nougat, not usually my thing, but this is exceptionally well flavoured, and really clever lavender madeleines, dusted with bitter chocolate. They don’t spark a meditation on time and memory - but they are delightfully aromatic and do just about everything else.
And it’s time to leave Cigalon, a restaurant with a real sense of place and well planned point of view, rooted in Provençal culture. It’s a beautiful idea and also tastes marvellous. We’ve seen the future in Chancery Lane: it’s lavender.
Bruce Dear, head of real estate investors group, Eversheds