Technical mastery and a keen eye for creative, compatible combinations ensure Pascal Aussignac’s excellent Smithfield restaurant is more than worthy of its Michelin star.
With Sir Horace Jones’s Grade II listed meat market looming in the near distance, and a number of the capital’s best restaurants nearby, Club Gascon is in an area almost ominous with culinary repute. Housed within one of the many beautiful buildings in the horse-shoe of West Smithfield, Club Gascon certainly looks the part, even if its grand Victorian Portland stone building gives way to what’s actually a surprisingly small dining room that only really becomes intimate when it begins to fill. Looks-wise, it’s classically French, with some gorgeous marble walls and a few flurries of flora the only slightly snazzy bits amidst immaculate white napery, velvet chairs, gleaming glassware and soft, warm spotlights.
For such a petite little spot, it can feel surprisingly exposing when other tables aren’t filled, so try not to get there too early. But as the local lawyers and architects begin to drip in, joined by the City boys, couples and foodies from further afield, Club Gascon really comes into its own, mocking that early atmosphere with intimacy and even romance. Meanwhile staff are just about second to none, and boast a phenomenally good grasp of even the most complex constituents on a menu that heaves with considered elaboration.
While Club Gascon has achieved culinary notoriety for showcasing the best of south-west France, Pascal Aussignac’s impressively accessible menu isn’t constrained by what’s gone before in Gascony (even if it is monitored by Le Comité Renaissance). Authenticity certainly plays a big part, as does seasonality, but Aussignac is clearly not afraid to jazz things up a little with bits and bobs obviously not reared a la ‘douceur de vivre’.
A really good lunch menu at £25 for three courses is one way of keeping things affordable, and can usually be done and dusted within an hour, so it proves pretty popular throughout the week. If you’re looking for something a little more leisurely then the a la carte selection comes courtesy of not-inexpensive small plates, so it’s probably best on both the pocket and palate to avail yourself of choice and give in to what’s an incredibly good tasting menu at £60 (£90 with wine).
A very sound selection begins with a brilliantly rich and earthy ballotine of New Forest capon (simply a large chicken on these shores, so roosters, relax) with trompettes, Jerusalem artichoke and a sprinkle of black quinoa that brings some perfectly pitched nuttiness. This leads into crispy frogs’ legs (brilliantly garlicky) with morels and pine (aromatic and earthy), pickled salsify ribbons and the only dud element of the whole meal - a fluffy pine dough that may well show plenty of technique but which is oddly textured (foamy) and tastes of little.
The daintily powerful nuggets of foie gras studding a salt cod infusion (in the form of a thin, but powerful broth) might be slightly too soft for some delicate souls but their rich, velvety sweetness works beautifully with the seaside-fresh saltiness of the consommé. Peppery nasturtium roots add further texture and taste.
The menu’s highlight, roasted goose, is perfect. A thin layer of crisped fat gives way to beautifully sweet, pink goose which is joined by a clove-heavy mulled wine choucroute, some puntarelle and what appears to be contrasting reductions of both of the latter, plated diametrically for a very pretty green and red frame for that delicious bit of bird.
Things finish pretty spectacularly too, with a complex (but perfectly balanced) slate of ‘Marmite’ king cake (briochey and sweet), iced kumquat, thin strips of nutty nougat, aromatic clementines studded with caramelised seeds, and some gloriously good Marmite caramel that flitters deliciously between salt and sweet, with yeastiness hovering throughout. There’s certainly a lot going on but it’s just about perfect – if you like Marmite, that is. Apparently it divides opinion?
A surprisingly varied wine list keeps things as close to Gascony as possible, with over four hundred drops plucked from across the south of France. There are a few that are exclusive to Club Gascon, and more than a few that will impress clients, but if you’re sampling the tasting menu it really does pay to pair with wines – something that’s done pretty impeccably (and for £30, inexpensively).
The l’Empreinte de Saint Mont (2010) from Plaimont is a slightly citrusy, lightly oaked blend that works wonderfully with that earthy, rich ballotine, and while the 2010 Les Vignes de L’oublie from Domaine D’Escausse is a similarly fruity white, it has enough about it to stand up to all that garlic and pine coming through the frogs’ legs. A 2011 Cuvée Alexandra from Domaine de Tanella in Corsica’s Corse Figari works well with the salt cod consommé, but is eclipsed by the job the 2003 Château Vieux Barrail, Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion does with that beautiful goose. It’s a typical Bordeaux blend that accentuates the sweetness of the bird, but isn't overawed by the clovey spices in the mulled wine choucroute. The 2010 Domaine Berthoumieu Symphonie d’Automne is a sweet and woody finish to a selection that’s clearly very well thought out.
The Last Word
In an area teeming with destination restaurants, Club Gascon stands up against the very best. You’d have to cross a pretty large expanse of water for a more thoughtful, creative and passionate culinary trek across Gascony, so this place is pretty much a must for any food-loving Francophile.