There's much to enjoy at this Kensington outpost of the popular chain, but as a destination it falls just a little short short.
Nestled snuggly just a step below Kensington High Street, and enjoying the privileged dual aspect of a corner block, Aubaine has the kind of location that many eateries would give limbs for. The olive and lavender plants that dominate the windows suggest the channeling of a little bit of Provencal to give weary West London shoppers a taste of their summer retreats, but inside it's a different affair, with post-industrial exposed ductwork mingling with rustic cabinets, and design led seating and heavy metal tables sitting awkwardly with what is, on closer inspection, plastic shrubbery. It feels just a little like every constituent part of the design is vying for attention, resulting in something that's somewhat cacophonous and distracting.
Aubaine at night is without doubt a very different prospect to the daytime offering that seems to dominate the restaurant’s thinking. Consequently, the atmosphere during the evening suffers from this skewed focus. Charming and helpful staff do their utmost to compensate for the lack of buzz from a quiet dining room, but ultimately the consequence of concentrating on the daytime shoppers is that it's just not the same once darkness falls. By contrast tables are hard to come by during the day, and the availability of fine patisseries and excellent teas - or cocktails and light snacks for the less conservative - make for a satisfying break from a hard day’s shopping.
For a restaurant that advertises its bakery credentials so vividly, serving slightly stale stone-baked bread with unsalted butter really isn't the best start. However, this seems like an early blip, as from then on dishes are, on the whole, excellent.
At upwards of £10 starters aren’t cheap but they don’t disappoint. Fried squid is fresh and reassuringly varied in shape - the batter is crisp and salty, the chilli punchy and the aioli delicate. Similarly impressive is the asparagus with duck egg and hollandaise – the egg soft boiled to perfection, the hollandaise rich and unctuous and the asparagus allowed to speak for itself.
Mains range from £11 to £24 and the style is as varied as the price – from burgers and steaks to pigs' cheeks and scallops. Lemon sole is delicious and a technical success, even if it does lack some refinement: the tartare sauce is a touch coarse and the portion is nothing short of huge. A fine rib eye steak shows a deft hand at the grill but the accompanying fries and béarnaise show too liberal a use of the salt shaker, and the presentation might strike some as odd. Served on a wooden board with a paper cone full of fries, it might be a hint-of-the-gastro-pub too far for some in this postcode.
Desserts offer some unadventurous staples on the a la carte (sorbets, cheeses and fruit salads), or a selection from a patisserie tray which really should be sought out - the range of éclairs, cheesecakes, mille-feuille and macaroons are as visually enticing as they are delicious (and make Aubaine worthy of a visit in their own right). The pistachio macaroon is particularly impressive, with excellent textures, a strong flavour and a pleasingly garish colour.
The wine list at Aubaine presents perhaps the restaurant's only truly coherent offer. A short and well considered list of French classics of both colours reads really well, though those with deep pockets will take most pleasure as it errs toward the high end. A lower end Vin de Pays d’Oc shows that there is care throughout; it has a smoky complexity but is smooth enough to complement the more traditional offerings on the plate. If you're looking for something a little different, then Aubaine offers a range of fine teas, some excellent bubbles and an inviting cocktail list.
The Last Word
To stumble across Aubaine after a hard morning’s shopping would be to find an Aladdin’s cave of satisfying choices and treats. Once the throng of the High Street has gone, however, the lustre fades slightly from the lamp.