The biting wit that whetted my appetite

Sunday Times Magazine 15 October 2017
Marina O'Loughlin joins us today as our new restaurant critic. She recalls how the late AA Gill had a formative influence on her


Marina O'LoughlinLe Colombier


145 Dovehouse Street, London SW3 6LB;
020 73511155, le-colombier-
Mon-Sat: noon-3pm, 6.30pm-10.30pm;
Sun: noon-3.30pm, 6.30pm-10pm

I read the words of Adrian Gill long before I ever thought I could go to the mythical places he described. I read them, marvelling that such a job — restaurant critic! — should exist. I read, slack-jawed, at his pyrotechnic turn of phrase. And I read him when I waitressed at provincial places with names like John St Jam, where arrogant tyro “chefs’' made fun of my interest in food.

Who did I think I was, wanting to go to far-flung, fancy-pants restaurants? “Whit’s crème Dubarry?” they’d spit at me while handing over the pass a “jambalaya” crafted from Uncle Ben’s,Trump-hued from quantities of tomato purée and turmeric, and studded with chunks of Mattesons smoked pork rings, furious when I knew the answer.

And I followed Gill from my native Scotland to That London by coach at a time when the hippest joint in my home town had loos entitled “Willies” and “Fannies”. I went to restaurants in the King’s Road full of plummy­voiced grown-ups with my enraged pal Maureen, who couldn’t understand why we’d spend a week’s wages on dinner when we could be out hitting the clubs and getting off with the English.

I once went to Le Colombier in Chelsea, inspired by Gill’s unusual hymn of praise. “I think I’ve found it,” he wrote, “that secret little restaurant.” It was “as close to ideal as you can get”, he said, all “hum and warmth, that fug like a friendly arm round your shoulder”, before exhorting us not to go and spoil it for him. So off I schlepped, only to be utterly bemused. I expected to have my socks knocked all the way back up the M1, my world rocked, my senses zapped into oblivion. Instead, posh middle-aged people in quite a lot of corduroy munched away on fatty rillettes, oysters, poncified lamb chops. Pfft, I sniffed: how old-school — not a creditable jambalaya in the house.

Now, 20 years later, I’m back to see if age has withered it further, or if my own withering has made me better inclined. This glossy former pub is still going strong, even if much of its clientele, well, aren’t quite. It’s a long time since I’ve been in a restaurant where my party seems the youngest by decades. There’s poignancy to the fact that it also appears to act as an unofficial canteen for the neighbouring Royal Marsden Hospital.

I arrive with a friend and her tiny, weeks-old baby. The effect on the assembled soigné seniors is akin to turning up hideously pockmarked, straddling a corpse-filled cart and bellowing: “Bring out your dead!” They are comically aghast. Everyone, including our urbane waiter, eventually relents (“He can’t really be French,” hisses the pal), but this is testimony to the perfection of the child, not to the tolerance of the company.
The food? It’s everything that the younger me singularly failed to understand. I don’t think the menu has changed much, other than a seasonal appearance of roast grouse, defiantly un-Frenchified, rôtie à l’Anglaise, perfectly comme il faut with its waffled game chips, bread sauce, red wine sauce and garlicky green beans. And it’s extremely fine, a mid-season bird just gamey enough before teetering over into rankness. Actually, I could continue purring “comme il faut” about the rest of our meal, like a terrible, cigar-breathed, cravated old bore: it’s almost a pastiche of a kind of utopian brasserie offering, the sort you hope to find in Paris and rarely do. (I went to Chartier and Le Grand Colbert a few weeks ago; it’s fair to say that atmosphere, not cooking, was the main draw.)

There are veal kidneys in Dijon mustard cream sauce; steak tartare; Dover sole meunière; all the oysters and langoustines and fruits de mer a Francophile could wish for. Who could resist oeufs pochés en meurette? Who, in fact, could be bothered with the labour-intensive nonsense that goes into this redoubtable Burgundian classic? The faff of reducing good red wine with stock, uniformly julienning smoky lardons, peeling tiny onions, then carefully poaching eggs in this heady liquor to be plonked on garlicky croûtes? Le Colombier could. I love their version not only for the lubricious pooling of the yolks into the bacony, reduced red wine, to be messily slathered over baguette, but also for the fact that it’s completely un-Instagrammable. The wine that the two poached eggs have absorbed gives them a disturbingly testicular, wrinkly pinkness. Looks hellish, tastes heavenly. Le Colombier gives zero figs for social media.

We have half a crab in its steel cradle, balanced on ice, with thick, wobbly, mustardy homemade mayonnaise; rosy-cored steak au poivre with proper frites and more green beans. We don’t even attempt to get newfangled: it wouldn’t be possible, even if we wanted to. This is not show-offy, complicated food, but it takes a lot of skill to get it this right.
There are moments that might cause the terrible cigar-breathed pedant to quibble: those French beans cooked till limp, not with the de rigueur squeak of contemporary vegetable preparation; tarte tatin — preshared between two plates in case having to do our own cutting should prove too tiresome — is a bit pallid and under-caramelised. But the whole experience, oldster disapproval and baby and all, is so intensely bourgeois and pleasurable that I can’t get worked up about it. Le shrug. Even the waiter eventually unbends enough to actually beam at us. I come away not knowing who owns the place, nor the name of the chef. Sure, it would be easy to find out, but it’s somehow, timelessly, irrelevant.

I appreciate this is, for me, an unusually AA Gillian paucity of words about the restaurant itself. I promise to go back to my usual completist ranting from now on. To my eternal regret, I didn’t ever get to meet the man himself. We had two friends in common who would occasionally issue the vaguely regal edict “Adrian would like to meet you”, but I bottled it every time: that fear of “never meet your idols”. Of course, now it seems the very QED of carpe diem. (I promise also never to lapse again into sub-Boris sub-Latin.) What a fool I was ■

SECRET INGREDIENT Our new critic always goes incognito