Picking your way through the restaurants on offer in Upper Street, Islington, is a daunting prospect. However, for sheer good value, a cosy atmosphere and an amplitude of fine food, La Petite Auberge is the one to choose.
Real French bistro fare is quite rare in London where the brasserie rules. La Petite Auberge is an unpretentious place where you can enjoy a good meal at a modest price. It’s tucked away on one of those parades of mainly restaurants that make up the commercial part of Upper Street. It’s fairly small but has a mezzanine level at the rear and the front opens up in the warm weather with a few tables outside. It’s a cheery looking place whose name immediately recalls its Gallic counterpart – a little French inn where you might satisfy your hunger and slake your thirst and feel quite cosily at home.
La Petite Auberge is nothing if not absolutely packed with atmosphere. The interior resembles a junk – or shall we say, antiques – shop, packed as it is to the gills with all manner of old farming equipment and bric-a-brac, such as wooden wheels, lanterns, warming pans, carpet beaters, antlers, bottles, barrels and strings of garlic, onions and corn. However, it’s not an assembly that is self-conscious about itself, just things that have been acquired over the years to make these objets d’art a la campagne a talking point during a meal. Rustic Provencale just about sums it up.
There are many options here, from the a la carte menu of starters, mains and desserts with specialities including crepes, mussels and French sausages (Toulouse, duck and wild boar), some vegetarian dishes, a light lunch menu, a daily set menu and four set menus of three courses priced from £19 to £23, plus a special roast on Sundays. Starters include fish soup, duck breast salad, vodka-marinated calamari, snails and, yes, frogs’ legs. Mains offer chicken stuffed with spinach and ricotta, lamb steak with rosemary, rabbit casserole and pan-fried boneless trout. The light lunch menu has salads, baguettes, omelettes, croque monsieur and mussels. And with chips and most vegetables at a sensible £1.50 a portion, it’s hard to overspend at La Petite Auberge.
The daily menu is £6.95 for two courses or £8.50 for three and very good value it is. Many of the dishes are already on the main list and there’s enough choice to make it worth ordering from the set menu. Starters include a soup, smoked salmon salad, stuffed mushrooms, goat’s cheese salad, and whitebait. The mushrooms are packed with garlic and smothered in piping hot cheese, an irresistible combination. The roundel of goat’s cheese is warmed through and presented on a bed of mixed leaves with an accompanying jug of tangy French dressing to make another good choice. From the mains the artichoke gratine is a mix of chunks of the vegetable mixed with tomatoes in a thick cheese sauce, and very satisfying it is. The fish casserole proves to be an excellent mix of fresh salmon, tuna and white fish in the smoothest and creamiest of sauces with a julienne of mixed vegetables: very delicate in flavour and absolutely delicious. The bonus is finding it on a bargain-priced menu.
The excitement doesn’t end there, either. For dessert the set menu’s Bavarois parfait is a nice fruit and cream pudding with a mousse-like consistency. This one is flavoured with raspberry puree and served with a raspberry sauce to make a really top treat. The ice cream, chocolate or vanilla with raspberry sauce, is also recommendable.
For a smallish bistro, La Petite Auberge has an impressively large wine list, upwards of thirty bottles. The house wine is a very drinkable Grand Cuvee vin de pays d’Oc, in white or red, at £3.75 a glass or £12.50 a bottle. Other wines are priced from around £13 to £48 a bottle. There are dessert wines, the usual spirits and liqueurs, beers, soft drinks, juices and mineral waters, teas and coffees and all at reasonable prices.
The Last Word
Apart from a few exceptions, Upper Street in Islington is not an area known for the cheapness of its restaurants, which is why La Petite Auberge is so welcome. It serves good, honest food at a fair price that does not compromise on the ingredients or in the cooking. Here’s one place that the credit crunch has, mercifully, not affected yet.