Last year my wife and I had a fine dinner at the then-new Alyn Williams at The Westbury. Previously, the Westbury hotel, just off Bond Street, had by no means been known as a dining destination, but the management has clearly been paying attention to this important side of the business, and in March another alluring restaurant opened in the same hotel: Brasserie Chavot.
The chef-patron, Eric Chavot, worked with some of the most highly respected names in UK French dining -- Pierre Koffmann, Raymond Blanc, Marco Pierre White -- and earned two Michelin stars at his restaurant in the Capital hotel. He later did a stint in the U.S. and has now returned to London to open what might be called a deluxe brasserie with glittering chandeliers, an ornate inlaid floor and plenty of mirrors and red upholstery -- which still manages to look modern and lively. While connected with the hotel (it's where breakfast is served), it has its own entrance on Conduit Street and gives a convincing impression of being a free-standing enterprise.
The crusty bread is excellent, though they charge for it, as they do for (filtered) tap water, which is right on trend in London but which I find inhospitable: I'd rather just pay an old-fashioned cover charge. Service varied: an aperitif order was incorrect, and (delicious) wine by the glass was not delivered promptly when food arrived -- worse, the waiter was quick to disclaim responsibility, blaming the delay on a colleague. That's bad manners in private life, and perhaps worse in a workplace. Yet most of the staff were friendly and able and were clearly proud of the restaurant.
Their pride is justified. Mr. Chavot is tinkering with the classics in clever ways, but he is not undermining them with random Big Ideas. A good example was a mackerel escabèche: its vinegary, oniony sauce had been aerated and was served on the side in a sauceboat. This dismayed me at first: part of the point of a traditional escabèche is that the quickly fried fish is left to cool in the acidic sauce -- almost like a post-cooking marinade. Yet this variant quickly grew on me, mainly because the sauce was so delicious, its sharpness perfectly balanced by other elements such as just the right amount of salt. The dish included citrus, too, which added a very different kind of acidity, now combined with perfume and sweetness. A little hit of chili was a bonus.
Ricotta-Parmesan gnocchi were a no-meat-no-fish option as a main course; they were fairly dense and sturdy in texture but were more flavorful than many other such dumplings I've encountered. A light Parmesan sauce plus a fresh, bright, quickly made tomato sauce (from which I wish the cook had removed the tough skins) were good partners; only the broccoli florets seemed discordant.
Unable to resist a cuisine-bourgeoise standby, I ordered daube de boeuf with grand'mère garnish including bacon, onions, carrots and mushrooms. It came as a generous block of slowly cooked beef, meaty, moist and tender yet not without texture, with a deep sauce in which flavors were thoroughly integrated; the vegetables were flavorful and soft but not cooked to mush -- in other words, decidedly not the way grand'mère used to make them. (If you got something as good as this in a brasserie in France, you'd probably be right to assume it was a fluke.) A side dish of potato puree was glossy with butter but not greasy.
A big baba au rhum with a refreshing accompaniment of thin sheets of pineapple was not uniformly soaked and not, to my mind, sufficiently rummy. There is at least one better baba in London: the one served by one of Mr. Chavot's former bosses, Pierre Koffmann.
The cooking at Brasserie Chavot is elegant, imaginative and sometimes new, while remaining familiar and well grounded in the (somewhat romanticized) brasserie-bistrot tradition of great flavor. My quibbles about service apart, this is a restaurant that could easily become a regular stop on visits to London.
Brasserie Chavot. The Westbury, 41 Conduit Street, London W1S 2YF; +44 (0)207 078 9577; www.brasseriechavot.com. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday, and from 12:30 to 9:00 p.m. on Sunday. Dinner for two about £125 ($195) including a modest wine and service.
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