Restaurant in London
French Bistro & Delicatessen
David Harfield revisits Farringdon to swap disco biscuits for duck magret at the superb French bistro, Comptoir Gascon.
One of my first trips to London as a young adult was for a hedonistic night of clubbing at the world-famous Fabric nightclub, rather incongruously situated in the Smithfield Market area of Farringdon. When our ragtag gang of raving students emerged from the techno dungeon, bleary eyes blinking in the early morning light, we were even more discombobulated than usual to see butchers unloading carcasses and greengrocers stocking crates of broccoli for the early rush. With no spare brain cells available to process this information, the only option was to hang out in a 24/7 McDonald’s (ah, the glamorous glory days of youth) to kill time before our long train ride back to Sheffield. I return some ten years later and I’m glad to find that, whilst my intention for visiting the area has changed, the Fabric doorway is still standing strong, albeit bolted shut – it is 13:00, after all. McDonald’s anyone? I think not.
There has been a recent surge of restaurants and bars opening up around the area over the past few years, making Smithfield a go-to place for foodies looking for decent meals out as well as fresh produce to cook in their homes. Far from being a new kid on the block, however, Comptoir Gascon has graced Farringdon locals with its delectable French cuisine since 2001. As part of the Club Gascon collective, headed up by Michelin-starred chef Pascal Aussignac and which includes the excellent Provençal restaurant Cigalon, the eatery is well known for serving top quality meals in the style of his homeland in the south of France.
Walking into the high-ceilinged venue really is like stepping into a local bistro in France, from the courteous, accented greeting, to the racks of wine along the wall and through to the rich aromatic smells wafting from fellow diners’ plates. Doubling as a delicatessen, Comptoir Gascon also serves spices, herbs and seasoning from Gascony, loaves of bread baked fresh every morning and, of course, the aforementioned bottles of wine. In terms of décor, not a detail seems to have been missed in terms of recreating a typical French dining scenario. This is best represented in the organised clutter of memorabilia that line the shelves, including cacti ironically placed in watering can, a large vintage clock and an empty, dark green Nebuchadnezzar (or is it a Jeroboam? I always get my biblical measuring terminology mixed up – either way, it’s enough to get Mary Magdalene good and sloshed).
After the charming and informative manager talks us through the menu, we order up a feast and sip our preprandial tipples, mine the house cocktail of Crémant and Cointreau with a strip of orange peel creating a sparkly, citric delight and my date’s a chilled Lillet Blanc. The Piggy Treats arrive on a large slab of slate and, resisting the joke to make a porcine-related joke that I know won’t go down well, I dive into the charcuterie platter. The cold meats and pressed terrine are delicious but special mention has to go to the black pudding that’s so soft it seems to evaporate in the mouth. A tender rillettes of duck delivers a subtle kick (more of a gentle toe) thanks to the dusting of Piemonte chilli throughout. Also on our table is a plate of thickly cut salmon joined by vanilla-marinated beetroot and a small globe of verjuice-soaked crème fraîche, the sweet and buttery theme of the dish suiting the Peyres Roses white wine from Gaillac.
We munch on fresh bread in between courses – not usually a habit of mine but it’s tough to resist when the accompanying butter is sprinkled with sugar and spice (yes, yes, and all things nice), satisfying every imaginable taste bud. Our table soon fills up again, this time with a duck magret whose barbecued skin is sliced into and offers six lean, sumptuous mouthfuls. Hats off to the cassoulet, a recipe that won the restaurant the esteemed title of ‘Official Embassy of “Cassoulet” in the UK’; a tender duck leg rests on a bed of white beans and even down to the crumbly, texture of the lightly-herbed Toulousain sausage (made from pork minced on site), this dish is unmistakably French.
I remember the duck fat-fried chips and ‘crazy’ salt (the loco ingredient is chili) from when I visited the venue about five years ago to check out their ‘Best Burger In London’-crowned duck and foie gras burger and they still satisfy the palate, all spicy and saltine, just as I remember. We do our digestive systems a solid (terrible imagery, apologies, couldn’t resist), by ordering a bowl of smoky green vegetables and, along with a glass of particularly agreeable and beautifully coloured Domaine d’Escausses also from Gaillac, bring the main course to its plate-licked conclusion.
As he clears the plates, we grill the manager on the secret of the flavours that keep customers and critics alike coming back for more of Comptoir Gascon’s authentic, slightly idiosyncratic cuisine and his answer is simple: fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Not to mention an outstanding kitchen team, I’m sure. For dessert, we stick to espresso with chocolate and chilli, the Piemonte pepper rearing its spicy head once again, giving our mouth a strong chilli kick (full boot this time), tempered by the coolness of an impressive pear sorbet whilst a glug of Armagnac provides a soft, pillow-like landing.
I may now be a decade older and wiser than when I was first in the vicinity of this restaurant (not the fairest test, as I think that after a night of intense clubbing, the average Trafalgar Square pigeon was probably more sage than me) but it’s taken me until now to realise that I should adopt Comptoir Gascon as one of my treasured locals, even if I do have to define ‘local’ as a 20-minute cab ride from my Camden flat. One thing’s for sure though: it won’t be years before I return to this perfect little bistro. Must check their policy on glowsticks…
David Harfield is a freelance food and travel writer and the director of the social media solutions company PepperStorm Media
Photographs courtesy of Comptoir Gascon
|Reviewer's Rating||★ ★ ★ ★ ★|
|Need to book||Advisable|
|Clientele||Friends, dates and businesspeople|
|Restaurant good for||Couples, Doing business, Meeting up with friends|
|Cost per head||Medium|
|Dining Options||Lunch, Dinner|
Very friendly staff.
Very reasonable prices and voted in several of London’s ‘Affordable Eats’ top lists. Starters from £6.50; Mains from £12 and Desserts from £4.
Last updated on 09-03-2016