Last year at this time, when Britain was freaking out about horsemeat, its chef-patron, Fred Berkmiller, was one of the few brave enough to stick up for eating horse. "We mainly do steak tartare with rump steak of horsemeat," he told the BBC, adding that demand for this dish was high. Not that Berkmiller's supply was to be confused with elderly Dobbin or drugged-up racing horse from the knacker's yard. He made it clear that he sourced his supply from a farmer in the south of France who breeds the animals specifically for meat. It's evident that Berkmiller's defence of horsemeat did him absolutely no harm. Au contraire, on a bleak Tuesday evening, his restaurant was as busy as a Paris bistro on the weekend.
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I chose the steak tartare in a show of solidarity with the chef for having the guts to keep on serving it. In recent years, environmental health officials have been demanding that if restaurateurs want to serve raw meat, or a rare burger, they must prepare it using the absurdly wasteful "shave and shear" method. An intact piece of meat must be seared to a high temperature on the outside, so eliminating any surface pathogens, and have its cooked surface shaved off. Only then can the central part of the meat be minced or chopped to make steak tartare, carpaccio or that rare burger.
Faced with this guidance, many restaurateurs have simply taken these dishes off their menu. But since a recent attempted prosecution of the London burger restaurant Davy's was dismissed by the judge because Westminster Council failed to submit any evidence that rare or raw meat prepared in the customary way is unsafe, the bureaucratic onslaught on raw/rare meat might abate somewhat.
At L'Escargot Bleu, they serve their steak tartare with a flourish. Out comes the meat on a wooden chopping board with all the necessary elements - egg yolk, minced shallots, capers, Tabasco, parsley, et al - and everything is mixed according to your preferences (spicy, less spicy etc), then served with Melba toast, a faithful rendition of this classic dish. Equally trad was a starter terrine of soft, compliant leeks, their low-key homeliness pepped up with black olive tapenade, a dressing of crushed walnuts and capers, and a green salad with mustardy vinaigrette that was, unfortunately, so vinegary that no wine stood a chance against it.
A similar rogue vinegar presence had stamped its mark on the uninspiring boiled cauliflower, broccoli, and carrot that accompanied main courses, and in the Ravigote sauce that rolled up alongside a steaming pot-au-feu of Shorthorn beef (another fine rare breed). Once again, three cheers to L'Escargot Bleu for serving this quintessential French family cooking dish, and a further three for its "nose-to-tail" approach, using cuts like tongue and cheek, but it tasted like a dish half done. The broth was insipid: perhaps it needed more gelatinous marrow bones or oxtail to deepen its flavour. Or maybe the whole thing needed more time on the stove: the beef was still offering resistance in the mouth. Given longer cooking, the broth might have been reduced somewhat, and been served, as is customary, first as a soup, then with its tender meat and root vegetables following afterwards, alongside mustard and assorted sauces. Although it was less ambitious, the grilled sea bream fillets on puréed potato with Jerusalem artichokes, and robust red shellfish bisque, flavoured with cognac, worked much better.
On the dessert front, there was no fault to find with a patently fresh tarte au chocolat, served in a primrose-pale pool of crème Anglaise. Its base was a degree or two too thick possibly, but this finger of Breton-style sable (shortbread), topped with a sticky chocolate mousse glazed with salted caramel and walnut halves, constituted a most satisfactory confection by any measure.
Some basics could be improved here: the baguette, for instance, is pappy and industrial. But L'Escargot Bleu is run with that infectious energy, style and enthusiasm, the French call "elan", and that puts even me in a forgiving mood.