There are certain things that it’s not hard to cook. Mussels are one, provided they’re fresh. Chips are another, provided you have a good fryer. So when I went along to the newly opened Léon de Bruxelles (a franchise of Chez Léon, one of Brussels’ oldest restaurants specialising in moules frites) I thought we were probably in for a good meal. I mean, they’re Belgian, it’s their national dish…and it’s not hard, is it?
Our first impression of the huge restaurant on Cambridge Circus was that it was absolutely freezing. There were a few other diners here and there, but we were shown to a booth in an empty corner that was even colder than the rest of the restaurant. We asked to be moved, and were seated next to the window. With a nice draft. Although no explanation was offered about the temperature, we overheard the lady next to us (swathed in scarves) saying that that their heating was broken. Excellent. And so on to the food…
I ordered ‘creamy fish soup’ to start, put off by the hideous adjective, but heartened by the sourdough bread, rouille and cheese that went with it. I was expecting a typical fish soup, rich and velvety, comforting, deeply flavoured, with Gruyère to melt on top and crusty bread to dip in. What arrived was anaemic, flavourless, carelessly blended, with no cheese or rouille, just three sad looking croutons, coated in badly seasoned garlic butter. This is one of my restaurant pet-hates. If you’ve run out of something, or someone’s cocked up the ordering – come clean. Don’t assume I’m moronic enough to have forgotten what I ordered in the 10 minutes it’s taken to heat it up. King prawns cooked in chilli and garlic butter similarly turned up without the promised French bread, and with a side of straight-out-the-bottle Thai sweet chilli. And here’s me thinking we were in Belgium…
And so on to the main course. The restaurant prides itself on its mussels, of which it has 10 preparations, from traditional Marinières, to slightly bizarre Madras curry cooked with white wine and crème fraiche. Are alarm bells ringing yet? Moules Dijonnaise came in a generous cocotte, fresh, tasty mussels, but totally let down by the sauce, which was curdled and tasted of cheap, uncooked white wine. The frites, Belgium’s gift to gastronomy, were about the most disappointing part of the meal. Powdery, pre-frozen and lifeless, any true Belgian would have felt ashamed. A side salad was similarly uninviting, with fridge cold green beans (although it could have been the temperature of the room), and a salad dressing that had the decided aroma of concentrated lemon juice. French sourdough had, I suspect, been frozen and defrosted – although not completely – the inside was even colder than we were. An entrecôte steak with red wine sauce was perfectly adequate, but I’d rather pay the extra fiver and go to Hawksmoor.
I must confess, we ordered pudding just to see if it would get any worse. It did. A banana split waffle was like the kid’s dessert at Little Chef – aerated whipped cream that dissolved the minute it touched your lips, under-ripe banana and strawberry, and an average waffle only saved by some actually rather good strawberry ice cream. ‘Warm melting chocolate cake with chocolate sauce’ came with a thick skin on top from sitting under the heat lamp (lucky thing), and was heavy with cocoa, but light on actual chocolate.
And don’t think you can just go there for the beer. If you’re expecting an exciting list of Trappist brews and obscure Belgian varieties, you can forget it. It’s terribly pedestrian (Corona is one of the choices) – you’d get a better selection in a decent bar.
So what can I conclude? I honestly don’t know what they’re playing at – there’s a Belgo’s just round the corner doing this sort of cooking extremely well, with more atmosphere and a much more exciting drinks list. What annoyed me more than anything is that this food is so easy to get right – good mussels, good chips, good bread, decent salad dressing and some interesting beers. It’s not exactly Adrià is it?! What I had hoped would be a welcome change to the chain catering horror that is WC2 has in fact just turned out to be a Belgian Café Rouge. I’m very, very sorry Léon. But nil points.