Can a restaurant be cute? Each time I walk into Casse-Croûte I want to give it a tickle and start cooing dementedly…
Hervé Durochat has opened this bistro on Bermondsey Street with Alex Bonnefoy, ex-sommelier at The Arts Club and chef Sylvain Soulard. It’s the second venture on the street for Hervé, already co-owner of the buzzy tapas bar José opposite.
A beautiful room looks like a pastiche of all the very best bits of a fantasy French restaurant. Antique empty bottles of Ricard and Suze lurk in one corner, an old Michelin man model sits proudly at the back of the bar, French radio station RTL plays in the background, Orangina is on the menu: la belle France. A blackboard reveals a reassuringly short list of daily dishes, three starters, three mains, three desserts. Head Chef Sylvain Soulard worked for Morgan Meunier for twelve years at Morgan M, and before that worked for renowned Francophile and restaurateur Max Renzland at Michelin starred Monsieur Max in Hampton Hill. Working alongside him is Romain Perrolaz, ex-sous chef at the Saturne Table et Cave in Paris. It’s a team with plenty of nous both in the kitchen and out front.
The brevity of the menu allows you to “have the lot” Mr Creosote style, if at least three of you arrive. Jeroboam of Champagne optional. Talking of Champagne, let’s bowl straight in with the wine list: it’s a chiselled little beauty. I like this list a lot, and here’s why:
1) Zero flab — 7 whites, 7 reds, 2 fizz, 2 rosés. A lean list ready to pounce on you.
2) Champagne at £7 a glass. Really HACKS me off seeing house Champagne at £13+.
3) Alex has used four good suppliers, all pretty niche, all worth championing.
4) Value appellations like Saint-Chinian, eschewing most wanky, expensive regions. The white here is fantastic.
5) £18 entry point, and very decent too. Cue unabashed necking.
6) Everything by glass/carafe. No longer a rarity in London, but still shows ambition.
7) No obviously glam domaines (apart from off menu, up sleeve), requiring engagement with the staff to find out more.
8) 100% French. It’s a proper bistro, and they have the balls to go all the way with it.
9) White Côtes-du-Rhône, so rarely seen on lists, and at £24 a tempting option.
10) Cheeky off menu bottles. This allows them to have some fun, with surprises to be had.
On the most recent visit I spotted several serious producers lurking in the fridges; Frederic Mugnier, master of sublime Chambolle-Musigny, and his Nuits-St-Georges ‘Clos de la Marechale’, Meursault from Henri Boillot, and Château Talbot. Borrowing the phrasing of a Kiwi chap I once worked with, the wine list “is not here to f**k spiders” (it’s not here to mess about, mate).
Alex has installed a proper temperature controlled wine fridge for all of the wines, something of a rarity in a small restaurant like this in London, and indeed for such a short list — this kind of detail adds another sheen of quality.
Oh yes, and there happens to be some serious moves being thrown by Sylvain and Romain in the kitchen. Some highlights of several visits:
SALAD NIÇOISE (£6.50) — Gooey egg, proper tinned tuna, good anchovies. Tick, tick, tick, classic Niçoise of joy.
TARTARE DE DOURADE (£6.50) — Roughly hewn chunks of sea bream with a zippy citrussy dressing, roasted cherry tomatoes and a dainty salad alongside with some pleasantly bitter leaves in the mix.
SOUPE DE MELON (£4.50) — Cold soup of melon, some crisped ham. The day was a scorcher when we had this, and helped to take the edge off.
RAGÔUT D’ESCARGOTS, CRÊPE VONNASIENNE (£6.50) — Three small discs of crêpe soaking up an oozy, rich ragôut, punctuated by earthy snails. Very pretty on the plate. Georges Blanc would be proud of those airy crêpes.
BAVETTE AU POIVRE, GRATIN DAUPHINOISE (£13.50) — Beautifully cooked beef with each slice featuring a juicy crimson core. Dauphinoise potatoes are a little underseasoned (as Sylvain later admits) but no matter, it’s a good and decadently creamy dauphinoise.
MIGNON DE PORC, VENTRÉCHE ALSACIENNE, COMTÉ (£12.50) — Chunk of pork fillet on top of wonderfully cheesy, Comté laden mash. Crisped shard of Alsace bacon. Mash was scooped up and chased round the plate.
JARET DE VEAU, FAÇON MARENGO (£11.50) — Knuckle of deboned and rolled veal, a huge wodge of meat, with a marengo sauce reputed to have been created for Napoleon. Gutsy dish but a little underseasoned, lacking a bit of kapow.
QUEUE DE LOTTE, TAPENADE, COCO BEANS (£13.50) — A hulking great slab of seared monkfish, sitting on a muddle of coco beans, tomatoes, carrots, with a punchy black olive tapenade .
We have an unimpeachable Crème Brûlée and an excellent Clafoutis with apricot served in its own cast-iron Staub. £4.50 a pop. Pretty unbeatable, even for a dessert dodger.
Casse-Croûte has joie de vivre running through its DNA from the red and white chequered tablecloths through to the original framed letter on the wall from culinary legend Paul Bocuse, sent to Hervé’s grandfather when he was running the gite Auberge la Ferme in St Genis-Pouilly by the Swiss border. There’s coq au vin and tarte au citron; quail à l’orange makes an appearance; Edith Piaf warbles from the radio; gold wallpaper features the Fleur-de-lis — it could all descend into mawkish cliché and parody, but somehow it doesn’t.
A final detail I love is the shelf at the back in the passageway leading to the kitchen. Hervé wants this space to be used when they are at bursting point, a spot to perch and have a drink with some charcuterie and rillettes, watching everything coming out of the kitchen while engaging with the chefs if the mood takes you. There’s an old map of France against the wall so you can plot your next visit while you drink. Knock back a tincture of liqueur de génépi, obtained from the maceration of génépi flowers grown in the Alps — tastes like boozy Listerine.
It’s tiny, it’s overflowing with bonhomie, it’s cute. Casse-Cûte.
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