There was a time about 10 years ago when London's Smithfield was not the place you'd head off to in search of good food. Good meat, perhaps, but skilful dishes cooked by talented chefs, not really. Fergus Henderson had just opened St John, but he was rather the exception to the rule.
Now, it's a different story. The area has a plethora of good restaurants, including a Michelin-starred venue in the shape of Pascal Aussignac's Club Gascon (winner of the 1999 Newcomer of the Year Catey) and, since September, its little gem of a sibling, Le Comptoir Gascon.
Located on the opposite side of Smithfield Market to Club Gascon, Comptoir started life in 2001 as the bakery and deli arm of the business, but this summer chef-proprietor Aussignac and his business partner, Vincent Labeyrie, took the plunge and put in 35 seats, turning it into a quintessential French bistro.
"People kept asking us if they could eat on the premises. We wanted to be part of the evening buzz of Smithfield rather than close at 7pm," explains Aussignac.
As with Club Gascon, he's anchored the menu in the South of France, dividing it into five sections: Humble Beginnings (a selection of sharing plates), Vegetarian, Fish, Meat and Desserts (or, if you prefer, végétal, mer, terre and sweet things).
There's nothing fancy about the food, it's all straightforward, flavour-charged, gutsy fare beautifully cooked by Aussignac (he's still doing lunchtimes at Comptoir to bed the restaurant in) or his head chef, Laurent Sanchis. Like Aussignac, he hails from the Toulouse area, so the food of the South is in his bones.
Present and correct are rustic classics such as whole roast poussin Landais (£12), onglet (flank of beef) with sauce bordelaise (£10), and cassoulet (£12), which had the Observer's critic, Jay Rayner, swooning with pleasure. "It was simply outrageous," he declared.
Rayner's review has helped fill the restaurant every night (45 covers is the norm). "People come in with copies of it and demand to have what Jay ate," laughs Aussignac.
There's no doubt the dish hits the spot, with its tasty leg of confit duck, garlicky Toulouse sausages and stew of white beans. And it's perfect fare for winter, as indeed is a shank of lamb served with flageolet beans (£12).
The Observer review also mentioned a shared platter starter, cutely titled Piggy Treats - "My girlfriend's idea," admits Aussignac. As you'd expect, this is a plate of pork charcuterie, including a confit made from pigs' ears, black pudding, chorizo, andouillette, pig's head terrine and some Bayonne ham - all identifiably piggy in taste and deeply satisfying served with crusty bread. In the last week of November Comptoir sold 100 of these platters.
Other successes when we ate there were a starter of three kinds of tomato - Noir de Crime, Annais and Green Zebra varieties - served with a delicate, light-as-air fromage frais (£7.50) and grilled squid with barley and tomato confit (£11).
When it comes to desserts, which Aussignac works on with ptissier Michal Rispe, the mantra of simple and traditional is just as effective - think lemon tart, hazelnut or apricot mousse, apple feuillet. And, cannily, everything on the wine list from bubbly to digestifs is available by the glass. The list is refreshingly short, but nevertheless interesting and fittingly southern French in nuance. Among the digestifs, incidentally, it's nice to see the like of Vieille Prune, poire William, and framboise alongside the more obvious Calvados and Cognac.
All in all, I would say Aussignac and Labeyrie have got it pitch perfect at Le Comptoir Gascon. Watch out for future awards.
What's on the menu
Make cassoulet in large quantities and put in any trimmings you have from other dishes - it'll add to the depth of flavour. We put all our trimmings from Piggy Treats into the pot. We also cook it slowly in our baker's oven, which is perfect.
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