Who could possibly say where we’d be in this country without the guiding influence of the Roux brothers? What would eating out in England mean? I doubt we’d be the foodies we profess to be today; I doubt we’d marvel at the ritual and theatricality of fine dining in quite the same way. There’d be no point of reference – who would Ramsay be screaming at if Albert hadn’t screamed at him all those years ago? Perhaps we’d still be eating in Berni Inns; perhaps there’d be more Stroganoff on menus. One thing is for certain though, dinner out wouldn’t ever be quite as special – we wouldn’t expect so much from our restaurants.
The Roux brothers arrived in London the 1960s and realised that something was missing. Food in England was still grey and dreary; there was a lingering hangover from wartime rationing and the dull thriftiness that followed. Albert and Michel (Snr) opened the doors at Le Gavroche in 1967 and changed the nature of eating out. People realised that food could be sexy, they suddenly saw that dinner could be gloriously extravagant, that it could be about living to eat, not eating to live.
So a meal at a Roux restaurant is sexy – yes, sophisticated – yes, but daunting also. Dinner at Le Gavroche or later at Michel Roux Snr’s The Waterside Inn at Bray was never a simple affair, never just a bite to eat. If the Rouxs brought fine dining with them, they also introduced the concept of the gastronomic blow-out. Have you ever had a tasting menu at Le Gavroche? I have, and I can tell you, it isn’t something you’ll forget in a hurry. The food is exceptional: elegant, inspiring and rich with tradition. It is also artery-bustingly French. Lighter today than in Albert’s early years, but this is still the sort of meal that might make your cardiologist cry. To illustrate my point, I offer you the signature dish: Soufflé Suissesse – a Gruyère and Cheddar soufflé baked on double cream.
Memories of this wobbling mass of soft, cheese-laden creaminess come back to me as we saunter into Roux at the Landau. As Jonesy gleefully recounts details of a seven course ‘journalists’ lunch’ he’s enjoyed earlier in the day, I begin to sweat. I’m taking my new editor out for dinner and I’m suddenly sure that we’re going to be stuffed senseless and left vomiting in the loos like bulimic fifteen year-olds. I fear things might get ugly.
Thankfully, as we sit down at our table in the sumptuous dining room, it starts to become apparent that this is no normal Roux operation. No sign of anything close to the aforementioned soufflé, no menus in French; in fact, very little that you might call classically French on the menu – they bring us champagne and that’s the first Gallic nod of the evening. This is a new joint venture for Albert and his son Michel (Jnr), and so far it all seems mystifyingly reformist. The menu itself is modern, light and seems to draw on a wide range of European influences. Sure, there’s a sauté of foie gras on offer, but more interesting are the gentle nods towards Spain and its rich culinary traditions. There’s chilled gazpacho or seared octopus with spiced pork jowl (pork jowl, I hear you ask – cheap cuts?!).
Said jowl is sublime; soft, giving and lip-coating in its fattiness, an ideal corruptive foil to the wholesome discs of octopus. Jonesy battles through with his salt cod brandade and startling black calamari. He doesn’t say much, he’s saving energy for digestion, but takes pictures; so impressed is he by his dish’s simple, yet mildly gothic appearance. Our sommelier, Zack, is a gentleman and the wine flows freely. Jonesy indulges in a crisp Vermentino to help him focus, before moving on to fine red Burgundy. I’m offered a delicious Rueda white, and claret with my lamb. The lamb is delicate – best end, and served on cracked wheat with marjoram and olives. Once again there’s a simplicity and lightness of touch when it comes to form and presentation, I’m amazed there’s not more drama, more pomp.
Rabbit stuffed with chorizo and presented on saffron-scented Calasparra rice is an elegant celebration of contrasting textures and is technically faultless. Interestingly, this is a dish that once again takes inspiration from Spain and the smoky tapas bars of Valencia where the traditional paella Valenciana incorporates each of these three central ingredients. Jonesy is delighted by the progressive pan-European awareness and tucks in with gusto, thoughts of lunchtime seemingly far away. After a brief repose, we both decide we’d be nowhere without a cheese course, so Zack swoops in with consummate skill and furnishes us with crystal glasses filled with Sauternes – 1998 – light and delicious. The cheese ends up having a decidedly English bias and just about finishes us off.
Roux at The Landau is an impressive venture that not only revels in modernism, but seems to welcome a diverse range of influences. Essentially, there’s nothing too interesting about a restaurant that prides itself on these qualities. It’s just when you consider how tightly the culinary heritage of the Roux organization is bound to France and French culture that you realise what a departure from classicism this is. The food is delicious, fairly-priced and accessible, it’s the sort of food you can enjoy at dinner after just recovering from a languorous lunch and I, for one, am relieved.