We've just had dinner at the Brasserie Zédel, currently one of the hottest restaurant destinations in London. It's managed by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, former owners of Le Caprice, and current proprietors of The Wolseley and The Delaunay. I've got a quite a bit of time for Messrs Corbin and King: they've got the formula for the near-perfect restaurant down to a fine art. Let's remind ourselves about The Wolseley: I like the democratic service; a smart establishment where clients are served on an equal basis. My mother, for instance, is a regular; she's treated as royalty by the staff, and it's her favourite haunt when she's up in London from the Country. This is a Good Thing. I like the way they offer you a copy of The Daily Telegraph to read while you're waiting for your guest to arrive; even though you're probably only going to have a cup of coffee and a small plate of something or other.
And the service at Brasserie Zédel is very much along these lines- it deserves an eleven out of ten rating. Professional, discreet, not at at all in your face, utterly appropriate for the relaxed flavour of the joint; and in a restaurant with such a huge amount of covers there always seems to be a flunkey in a long starched apron hovering nearby waiting to attend to your every whim. This, frankly, in our day and age, is a remarkable achievement- and especially when the Brasserie Zédel offers food at such a reasonable cost. And democratic the Zédel most certainly is, with a strikingly mixed clientele. It's packed out: East End trendies, old biddies up from the Shires, Hammersmith PR Girls, fidgety couples on a first date (their eyes met over the office photocopier), hard-cropped Swiss Cottage intellectuals (sweet brown sherry at the Wigmore Hall), Fulham Sloanes, lavicious plutocrats (too many buttons undone, hairy chests matted with sun oil)- out to impress with a round of oysters and a bottle of iced Sancerre.
The Zédel is to be found in a windowless, slightly airless yet marbled basement, formerly the site of the uber-trendy 90's haunt, The Atlantic Bar and Grill- and what on earth happened to that? You walk down a flight of stairs, reminiscent of a Thirties' Picture Palace, all woven wool Deco carpet and shiny brass ticket kiosk. There's also an "American Bar" along Savoy lines. Oh, it's the talk of the town, all right.
The food is in that classic Parisian brasserie style. It's astonishingly affordable. There's a three course Prix Fixe at £11.25 a head. So far so good, But I'm not going to shout out from the rooftops. It's good, but it ain't that good, and for the prices they're charging, you're going to have to appreciate that their helpings are going to be a trifle ecomomique with the actualitié. I had the terrine de jambon persillé (£5.25), followed by a steak haché with frites served in a paper bag and a pepper sauce (£7.50). Both were goodish, the steak probably better than the slightly anti-sceptic and formulaic terrine. But the delicious and perfectly cooked ratatouille (£2.50) I would order again, without hesitation.
But I have a problem. I like the Brasserie Zédel, I really do; but there's just something lacking. It's without doubt a pastiche of the original La Coupole in Montparnasse, beloved of Henri Cartier-Bressson, Josephine Baker and Henry Miller. It reminds me of a brand new "French" restaurant as seen in Sunny Los Angeles. Everything is shiny, refurbished and spanking clean. You need a pair of sunglasses to glance at the refurbished gilded Edwardian Corinthian Columns. Is this the new London? For some, this isn't going to be too much of an issue, but for me it lacks that genuine patina of age, of a hundred years of nicotined plaster, of a Remembrance of Things Past, it lacks that certain je ne sais...
London has never been a brasserie sort of place, which is a genuine shame, as I am undoubtably a fan of the genre. And now suddenly there's a vibrant Parisian style brasserie in our midst, as if it had been there since the glory days of The Titanic: as if it had witnessed two world wars: full of people gesticulating, having affairs, making new contacts, sucking oysters from the shell, flirting, arguing, having a great time; with slick waiters acting as if they have been in business for over a hundred years... and yet...and yet, it's only been there for two months.
I'm torn between two schools of thought. It's a fake- but a very good fake. But for my money, I'd rather spend a bit more dosh- what's left of it- at The Wolseley, which somehow manages to re-create a fin de siècle vibe without screaming 'pastiche'. And that's no mean achievement. And, my god, I do miss those cigarette girls. Those thin uniformed girls in black stockings- with the trays.
The Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, London, W1F 7 ED (020 7734 48888)