Special Gascon (serves four)
1 extra-fine foie gras (duck liver)
Salt and pepper
500g green pine needles
Remove all veins and nerves in the foie gras and season. Heat a large, heavy pan, add pine needles and burn them until they smoke. Place a wire grill on top of the smoking needles to protect foie gras from the embers and put the seasoned foie gras on the grill. Cover and quickly smoke foie gras.
Remove from the grill and place in a small terrine. Cool for one day in the refrigerator.
To serve, slice the foie gras finely and serve. The terrine will last for one week refrigerated.
FOR AA Gill the meal was "as close to heaven as I am ever going to get", Fay Maschler called the chef "patently skilled", and Jonathan Meades praised his daring in "going against the London trend" with the menu.
The big shots in restaurant reviews, the ones that can fill a reservations book to bursting, or empty it with a stroke of a pen, have plugged just one line about Pascal Aussignac since he arrived on the London scene six months ago: that he's a very good cook who, with business partner Vincent Labeyrie, has opened a very good restaurant.
Aussignac is not so coy as to deny loving the success of Club Gascon - "It was quiet for the first week, then Fay Maschler came in. It's been wonderful" - but there is nothing remotely arrogant about this Frenchman from Toulouse who turned his back on 13 years in some of the top restaurants in Paris (including Guy Savoy at his eponymous restaurant, fellow Gascon Alain Dutournier at the Carré des Feuillants, and Gérard Vié at Les Trois Marches) to open up next to Smithfield meat market in September last year. Not content with filling the 60-cover restaurant at lunch and dinner, he now plans to open a delicatessen specialising in food from south-west France. It will operate as a wholesaler, selling direct to chefs, and as a retail operation selling speciality food, including semi-ready meals that can be finished at home, to a discerning public. Opening hours will be 3am-8pm. "I want to do bakery and lots of unusual food from Gascony that you can't easily buy here. I hope it will happen soon, but, you know, with English builders... "
English builders appear to be one of the few aspects of London life that Aussignac has a problem with. He raves about everything else - the area around fashionable Smithfield; his appreciative clientäle made up of City types at lunch and Londoners and a smattering of French at dinner; even the police ("The boss came and welcomed us in the first week and said if we needed anything to call him. That would never happen in France"). He loves the fact that, unlike Paris where it is difficult for a newcomer to make his mark, London is not - yet - saturated with restaurants. Above all, he loves the freedom he has found in London to experiment.
Aussignac risks the wrath of compatriots in his suggestion that French classical cuisine can be "boring", but the dishes in his dégustation menu - he rejects the term "tapas" or "meze" - offer a gastronomic tour of the area between Bordeaux, Toulouse and Biarritz which certainly breaks the mould. The menu is divided into six categories, customers typically ordering four or five small dishes without being bound by the starter-main-pudding routine. "For lots of people a main course can be too big, particularly at lunchtime, and people can be uneasy ordering two starters. Here you can eat one or two dishes and spend £10, but you can also spend £100. I have adapted the cuisine for the capital and for modern eating habits but I have been careful not to disturb the Gascon way," says Aussignac. He argues that his approach is more exciting because you get more flavours during a meal, and that it suits lighter eating habits while respecting a powerful culinary tradition.
The Route du sel category includes jambon de Bayonne (£4.50) or rillettes (£3.50); from Le potager come vegetable dishes such as piperade basquaise and stewed beans (£4) or la garbure and confit from Béarn (£6); while dishes from L'océan include a Luzienne of plaice fillet (£6.50, see recipe above) or roast tuna, andouille and chervil sauce (£7.50). Les pƒturages is the place to find an old-fashioned cassoulet Toulousain (£6.50) or roast confit of duck (£6.50); while in Le marché Aussignac tests new dishes such as a roast lobster and roast foie gras in a chestnut sauce or seven hours-braised ox cheek with Little Gem and oranges, both so new as to be unpriced at the time of going to press.
And then, of course, there's the foie gras. A whole section of the menu is dedicated to nine takes on duck and goose liver (there's a tenth if you count the foie gras dish on the pudding menu). Real aficionados can come here for an orgy of foie gras.
Not for Aussignac, though, the safely classical approach to foie gras. He insists that he keeps respect for the product, but brings it bang up to date with dishes such as a striking sushi of foie gras "Pau-Tokyo" (£7), which he serves with a vibrant green cucumber granité; a sherry-marinated foie gras served with a mizuna salad and glass of sweet Maury wine ("because it's a perfect match"); and foie gras macerated in a sweet apple liqueur (he won't divulge which), which is then mi-cuit, thinly sliced and served with an apple compote, apple glaze and crispy apple slivers. "You either love it or hate it," says Aussignac.
He tries to give as broad a spectrum of taste combinations and textures as possible. For the foie gras terre et mer (£8) a whole liver is placed in sea salt for 24 hours to give it the softest texture before it is served with crab; a pan-fried tatin of goose liver comes with caramelised turnips (£11.50); there's a carpaccio of goose liver with xiphister sauce (£8); while the more traditional duck ravioles with foie gras à l'ancienne (£5.50) are served with a sorrel sauce that gives the dish a contemporary sharpness. Among the best-selling foie gras dishes is the grilled duck foie gras with grapes (£8) which is presented on a slate with very crispy thin bread. "You have to have very good quality foie gras for this. If the texture is not good, the dish is finished," says Aussignac. Another favourite is the only foie gras terrine (£7.50, see recipe) on the menu, the Special Gascon, where smoking the liver over fresh pine needles supplied from the Landes by post gives it an unusual, smoky taste.
Respect for the produce he uses, and its position in French gastronomy, is a recurring theme with Aussignac. "I want to be real, authentic, but not boring. I try to let people discover new combinations and flavours, but I respect tradition too." He buys his weekly 30kg requirement of foie gras direct from a producer in Gascony. Other Gascon specialities are flown in weekly. Fresh produce comes from L Jalley in New Covent Garden who, in turn, shops at Rungis market in Paris; and fish is from Cutty's on the advice of Mark Edwards at Nobu.
But, if Maschler and her like have drawn in the punters since the restaurant opened, credit for getting the whole project off the ground in the first place must go in part to another restaurateur. It was Mourad Mazouz, of Momo fame, who saw the potential of their business plan and introduced Aussignac and Labeyrie to his own bank. Loan in hand, it took a year to find the right premises, and another year of builders and designers to transform the former Lyons Corner House - a listed building owned by a housing association - into a trendsetting eaterie.
Aussignac wanted to carry the mix of traditional and contemporary through to the decor to make customers feel comfortable. "The restaurant feels old, as if it has been here for a while. That means customers trust it. You don't get that feeling of trust if a place is too new, too shiny." The marble walls and the wooden flooring have been left untouched, but a window frontage and huge windows down the side of the building make it seem light, modern and approachable. Tables are dressed simply in white; flower arrangements are striking, with a single colour set against the foliage; and the waiters - all French - are in simple black from head to toe.
Comfortable banquette seating along one wall has encouraged guests to strike up conversation with other guests - unthinkable in many smart London restaurants - and Aussignac recalls when three parties ended up pushing their tables together and ordering a bottle of Champagne between them. "It's not what people expect from a French restaurant. Sometimes French people think they know best and they give this impression in service or in the ambience of a restaurant. That's not our style. Maybe that's the real difference at Club Gascon." n