I was once taken to a restaurant in Nice, called La Petite Maison. If anyone hasn’t been, I urge you to go at your first opportunity. It serves classic Provençal cooking at extortionate prices by a grumpy Maitre d' and is extremely hard to get a table at.
The Maitre d’ there is called Nicole, a stout but glamourous lady in her fifties (or possibly sixties) who moves from table to table administering service like a mother hen feeding chicklets with a terrifying bluntness, sending the ‘my husband and I’ Tripadvisor reviewers into a soapbox style fury.
But it's packed, day in, day out with the kind of wealthy local and international customers that you might expect to have no patience for such apparent rudeness, coming back time after time and ordering their salad Niçoises and bottles of rosé like well-behaved school children, while Nicole barks instructions to waiters and rolls her eyes at petty requests.
It took me a while to understand how this restaurant was so popular, and why people put up with this apparent abruptness. But when Nicole suddenly arrived at my side and filled up my glass and poured a splash of olive oil on my plate of tomatoes, I realised I felt good, loved, totally looked after, and weirdly proud she had noticed me.
She had seen me and my plate and thought - with a natural instinct for other’s comfort - ‘you need more oil’. I found myself thinking 'when in London does this ever happen?' I’ll never forget that.
Long-standing Maitre d’s, especially female ones, which of course are the best, seem to be a dying breed.
This is especially the case in London, where individual restaurants and staff have a lifespan of around a week before they’re either too unhip and close, or rolled out and thinly spread around the rest of the country. Both Ollie Dabbous and Marcus Wareing have recently been quoted as saying ‘I don’t want to be doing this in 10 years’ , cementing the short-term turnover culture of today’s restaurant concepts.
What kind of message is that to your customers? How will anyone feel, investing their time and money in your hospitality, hopefully slowly turning this relationship from a one-night stand into a long-term affair and making you their regular Friday night mistress, that you’re so happy to be serving them you want to sell up and get out as soon as the coffers are full?
Elena Salvoni was perhaps London’s greatest ever Maitre d’. Her story is well known, so I won’t re-hash old tales, but forced to retire at 90 after serving Francis Bacon, Ella Fitzgerald, Peter O’Toole, and Robert Niro (and counting them as regulars and friends) says all you need to know, really.
|Elena with guests|
Her restaurant L’Etoile in Charlotte Street must be undergoing some kind of PR push by its owners - and evil HR department - Corus Hotels (boo, hiss), because I was invited to go and review it.
Now that’s an air-punch email if ever I’ve had one, as personally, I can’t get enough of crumbling old French bistros with nicotine-stained pressed Edwardian wallpaper and ‘wall of fame’ framed photographs of celebrity guests. This is the kind of look and feel that concept boards for Balthazar or Cafe Rouge or hundreds of others long to get right.
Elena’s L’Etoile belongs to that special club of old French Bistros that London does better than anywhere, even France. Opened in 1897, and looking like it hasn’t been updated since, it breathes decrepit charm. Tired, of course. The lighting is too bright, and the tables could do with candles, but it’s so well worn in I couldn’t help but fall in love.
Of course Elena is no longer there, but the feeling of being under the control of an enduring and established Maitre d’ is, with two highly efficient waiters never missing a beat, informing me we were at Ben Kingsley's favourite table, after I enquired shamelessly about famous regulars.
Food is French bistro classic, and I ordered what I always order, the same as I order at every other bistro, because that’s what you do in French bistros, and that’s why they never change these menus.
Celeriac Remoulade with Serrano Ham and pea shoots
Fresh and simple, good mustardy remoulade and generous slices of ham. The Pea shoots (although not exactly in season) were a welcome fresh hint to the dish.
Chicken Liver Parfait
Smooth and delicious, with a little layer of fat just enough to be a pleasure. Personally I found the brioche one step too rich and calorific, light toast would be better.
Pan fried breast of corn fed chicken, wild mushroms, baby gem lettuce, tarragon cream sauce
A perfectly cooked chicken breast - if I'm honest I presumed it would arrive over-cooked and dry as a bone - so I was pleasantly surprised with the moist centre and crispy skin. The wild mushrooms were soggy and slimey - 2 minutes more in the pan with a it of pepper would have done them wonders. But the tarragon sauce was spot on, as unhealthy and rich tasting as Bearnaise but (I hope) with fewer calories!
Chips - should have been French fries - pommes pont neuf are a bit naff now.
Rib Eye Steak Sauté Potatoes, Baby Onions, Red Wine Sauce
Really good, juicy etc. Ordered extra green beans (to be really different) and got a huge bowl.
A bit sweet, and not sure it needed the extra things on the plate, but I ate it all.
Wine was a bottle of Latour Bourgone Pinot Noir (£38). Light and easy.
I'm not really sure of the agenda behind the PR push, as by 9pm, the restaurant was almost full, with a mixture of couples, lone regulars reading The London Review of Books, and larger tables of work parties, family gatherings and friends.
As we left at around 9.30pm on a mild Autumn evening in Fitzrovia, I must admit to being slightly under the old spell of net curtains, ancient claret-coloured velvet, Burgundy and rare steak. And passing the Huckleberry Finn set decor of noisy Barnyard and its Conversed teenage staff, and a half-empty Lima and its menu of flash-in-the-pan fashionable novelties, both looked faintly absurd. I wondered what Elena or even Nicole would make of them.
I was invited to review Elena's L'Etoile