I could have have called this post 'A Tale of Two Restaurants'. I'm standing at the upstairs bar of Village East, Bermondsey, a stone's throw from The London Dungeon. I've been standing there for a very, very long time. Waiting to be served. Both the barmen think they're Tom Cruise in 'Cocktail'. They're spinning martini glasses into the air, pouring liqueurs from great heights, working the till with hip gyrations- as if they're dance extras in Saturday Night Fever. It's all slightly embarrassing, and to be frank, a bit of a yawn. They think they're cool, but as my 10 year old niece- going on 19- would say 'are so totally not'. To my right are two boys; skinny creatures with straggly beards. They pick up on my raised eyebrow. I ask them what they're drinking. The barman's making patterns in cocoa on the surface of their brownish coloured cocktails. Espresso Martini, they tell me. Vodka flavoured with Coffee. They sense my disapproval, and shunning me, like some ostrasized beast, turn away in unison.
This is not my place. The strange thing is that I don't think it's got anything to do with my late youth. I don't think I would have liked it even if I had been twenty years younger. Dear old Claudio at Harry's Bar. I can't imagine him serving an Espresso Martini or keeping thirsty clients waiting for fifteen minutes as he shakes his way through a Cucumber Mary. Still, I feel rather at home in Bermondsey, with its narrow cobbled streets, and Hogarthian vibe. It's a bit like being in a Leon Garfield novel. Bill Sykes's manor. It has the feel of an English country town- with The Shard standing in for a church spire.
We meet up with an old, and discriminating friend, Michael, and move on to Casse-Croûte, a few doors up. It's a tiny French restaurant with a very different integrity; all red checked table cloths, Charles Trenet crooning on a bakelite radio, stained Absinthe posters (actually I made that up, but there could have been). The problem with this sort of place is that it can almost become a caricature of itself. A caricature of 'le zinc'. The nictotined ceiling has been painted in burnt umber, all of six months ago. It's never seen a Gitanes in its life. The young chap who serves us sounds French. Very French. Lots of Zzzz going on. You almost expect him to drape onions around his neck, wear a striped Breton shirt and to radiate garlic breath. Not that I would dream of stereotyping anyone. How d'you say?
I've been rabbiting on about French food for years now, and Casse-Croûte is a welcome return to the delights of simple French cooking, presented well. I detect a trend: there's Jeremy King and Chris Corbin's Zédel, their Colbert in Sloane Square and Joel Kissin's newly opened Boulestin in St James's Street, which I've yet to eat at.
The restaurant, of course, is packed out, with a very mixed crowd. We make friends with a young couple at the next table. A pretty girl with peroxided blonde hair and yet another scrawny beardy type. Kenny Everett springs to mind. I admit to her that I write a food blog. She seems reasonably impressed but my cover's blown when she sees my iphone- It's one of the older types, slimmer, more streamlined, with a touch of Deco, but to her eyes this went out with the ark. My 'hip' status plummets. 'I think you'll find', she says, 'that the so- and so- iphone, Model XZY takes much quicker photographs.' The Kenny Everett association vanishes when they start canoodleing at the table. We return to the food.
Mrs Aitch had the goats cheese salad, which was served luke-warm, almost cold. She looked a little bit disappointed. Michael ordered the creamy mussel soup: it tasted good, but was certainly not generous: the helping was definitely on the mean side- but with these sort of prices they're going to have to cut corners somewhere, aren't they? I had the marinated red mullet, which was subtle and hit the spot. This came with a simple green salad, nicely coated and tossed in dressing. So far six or six and half out of ten.
The main courses were much better. Mrs Aitch had hake with a white bean pureé. It was excellent. The fish was cooked perfectly, and the beans made a jolly alternative to the dreaded mashed potato. Michael ordered a classic pork tender loin, again perfectly cooked, with creamy mashed potato. I had a slowly cooked beef daube, in a glossy rich, beefy sauce, served with pearl onions. It was excellent, well presented and generous.
For pudding, the pear tart was fine. Mrs Aitch enjoyed a gooey dark chocolate pudding which was a 'fix' and 'hit the mark'.
Wine was red, and of the house variety, served cold in a carafe. All this was a good thing, but then a much-needed second carafe failed to materialise, despite asking for it quite clearly. And by then, it was too late. I suppose if your English ain't up to it, the way forward is to smile- and ignore; and there for The Grace of God...
But another grumble was the coffee. We expected it to come black, with, perhaps, a tiny jug of milk, but instead, were given creamy cappucinos- almost insulting- as if this was the sort of plebian coffee les rosbifs enjoyed after dinner. I'm a fully signed-up black coffee drinker and although I can just about stomach a cappucino at breakfast, it's the last thing I want after a rich pudding.
I like Casse-Croûte, I do. I admire their simple menu, it's great value (around £35 a head, including wine). The food is cooked well and looks professional on the plate. They most certainly know what they're doing in the kitchen. But at these prices they're going to have to cut corners somewhere, and this shows in the slightly disappointing first courses. And for such a small restaurant, service is erratic, quite probably Lost in Translation. And, through no fault of its own, it lacks that authentic patina created by the greasy vapour of twenty thousand French cigarettes. Two and Half Cheers for Casse-Croûte! Booking is essential.
Casse-Croûte, 109 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XB (020 7407 2140)