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Les Deux Salons
It was 10pm and I was just leaving Les Deux Salons near Trafalgar Square when, for the first time since I started writing this column 21 years ago, I was stopped by an FT reader. He inquired whether I had enjoyed my dinner – and also whether I preferred this restaurant to Arbutus and Wild Honey, the two others belonging to chef Anthony Demetre and his restaurateur partner, Will Smith.
As the reader put this to me, I was already grappling with an old, baffling question: how is it that certain individuals have the knack of identifying what people want to eat? That is certainly what Demetre and Smith have done with their first three restaurants, even in unpromising locations.
Arbutus took over a restaurant near Soho Square that had seen better days; Wild Honey transformed a failing club in Mayfair. Now comes the hat trick with Les Deux Salons, formerly a bar belonging to Pitcher & Piano, for which the two men and their business partner paid a premium of £300,000. Within just a month of opening, it is now a serious rival to The Ivy, a few blocks north, as a place to eat pre- or post-theatre.
There is, of course, more than just personal chemistry involved. Smith let slip anxiously that the total investment is more than £2 million, but looked a lot more relaxed when he added that they had just served 150 customers for lunch and would serve 270 that evening – far ahead of budget and testimony to their very fair prices.
Considerable credit for the fact that Les Deux Salons (the name refers to the two private rooms on the first floor) is so empathetic must also be given to the designer Martin Brudnizki. Paris comes across instantly with the lights and mirrors; and the floor, made of tiles from a Turkish quarry, is stunning.
The grander scale of Les Deux Salons also seems to bring out the more expansive side of Smith and his team. The practice of offering every bottle of wine by 250cl carafe stunned the leading American sommelier we were dining with. Never before had he been offered the chance to taste an £80 bottle (J Alberto Malbec 2009 from Bodegas Noemia) and then choose something else if he didn’t enjoy it.
For Demetre, Les Deux Salons represents a bigger change and not just because the menu is more overtly French than at his other places. For the first time, waiters are not running the food up the stairs; instead it is being shuttled by electric lifts. Such is the chef’s distaste for food that has gone even slightly cold that he is also serving several dishes in Staub cast-iron pots. These are highly effective (do follow the waiter’s advice not to touch them) for the hearty main courses that feature in the £15.50 three-course menu at lunch and between 5pm and 6.30pm.
Dishes that displayed a much defter touch included a fricassée of wild mushrooms with a poached egg from Clarence Court farms in Cornwall; a ravioli of rose veal where the ravioli is not pasta but thin slices of the veal folded over cavolo nero and goats’ curd; a warm sweet onion tart with figs; an Elwy Valley lamb Barnsley chop grilled on the Josper oven; and a fillet of Cornish plaice stuffed with shrimps and kaffir lime served with salsify.
I have come away from my three meals at Les Deux Salons with only two disappointments. The first is that Demetre needs to lighten up on his desserts. By concentrating on French classics such as Paris Brest, rum baba and bitter chocolate mousse he presents too heavy a selection. I would like to see more fruit and sorbets.
The second problem cannot be resolved, however. One of the distinctive pleasures of eating at Les Deux Salons is that all the staff on the floor seem to be enjoying themselves too, most certainly because Smith is there leading from the front. It is a great shame that the kitchen brigade cannot witness all the pleasure they are giving.
The only losers from this opening look likely to be Mrs Demetre and Mrs Smith, who may see even less of their husbands.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Les Deux Salons
40-42 William IV Street, London WC2N 4DD (020 7420 2050)