“ Address: Richmond House / The Square / Chichester / PO19 7SJ / Tel: 01243 534 200 „
Brasserie Blanc opened its doors in Chichester in mid-November last year, but for some reason it took us almost six months to eat there. In case you've not heard of the chain, there are nine Brasserie Blanc restaurants in the UK (and Chichester is the newest one). Their main claim to fame is their ownership - Raymond Blanc is a world renowned French chef, famous not only for his cooking, but also for his TV appearances. His Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford is one of the premiere UK restaurants, and his spin off outlets such as Maison Blanc (patisserie and desserts) and Brasserie Blanc all cash in on his reputation.
Once I'd booked the table, I happened to come across four pages of reviews on the Chichester Brasserie Blanc on www.TripAdvisor.co.uk, and I started to read them. To be honest, I'd say it was a fifty-fifty split between good and bad experiences. They were several complaints of poor service, but the over-riding theme was small portions and high prices. With this in mind, we approached our night out with some trepidation. We were unsure if we were going to be bedazzled with fine French haute cuisine or left feeling rather underwhelmed.
** L'Ambiance et Le Décor **
Our first impressions were good. The restaurant is done out just like a traditional French brasserie - lots of deep red banquette seating with brass railings. The walls are painted a deep red and adorned with many black and white photos of Raymond Blanc and his brigade of chefs. There were also plenty of colourful foodie paintings in a Picasso style (I'm no art expert, but you know the sort of thing I mean...a plate of three purple fishes next to an out-of-proportion bright blue cantaloupe melon...). It certainly smelt like a French restaurant.....despite the absence of the ubiquitous Gauloises chain smokers you'd find in any French Bistro.
I loved the tall candelabras dotted throughout the room - the candlelight really added a lovely ambiance to the room. Around the top of bar and on the opposite wall was a hand-painted La Fontaine fable in French. I managed to ascertain that one of them was about the fox, the raven and the cheese...but the fable wended its way so far along the wall my eye-sight gave out and I couldn't read the ending.
The restaurant seats 125 covers, so the noise levels can be high. Couple this with direct views into the kitchen and a frantic brigade of chefs, the clatter of pots and pans can be loud, but it does strangely add to the authentic brasserie atmosphere.
** Le Menu **
The whole premise of Brasserie Blanc is classic French cuisine at affordable prices - somewhere people will want to dine regularly, not just on special occasions. The menu is changed four times a year to reflect the seasons, and they claim that everything is made on the premises. Raymond Blanc states on his website that 95% of the Brasserie Blanc recipes have been written by him, usually inspired by his mother Maman Blanc.
In fact Brasserie Blanc is best summed up by a quote from the man himself "I am often asked what a Brasserie Blanc is. Well if the Manoir is a delicate waltz then the Brasseries are the Can Can. For sure, this is not a place for refined haute cuisine and three course meals. Rather, Brasserie Blanc is a place for relaxed enjoyment where I can offer you simple, high quality food that comes as close as possible to the meals that my mother prepared for me at home in Besançon and at a price that encourages you to visit us regularly."
In keeping with all good French restaurants, there is a prix fixe menu on offer, which is changed once a month to reflect seasonal and local availability. The prix fixe menu is a two or three-course menu from £11.00 for lunch, and from £13.50 for dinner, with the price including a glass of wine as part of the deal. We did glance at this menu, and although the starters looked very appealing, the main courses did not really offer us anything particularly tempting. Thus we moved swiftly on to the à la carte selection.
The à la carte menu is not particularly huge, but there is plenty of choice. Starters are priced at the £5 to £8 mark with French favourites like Moules Marinière (mussels) and Escargots Bourguignons (snails) being the most memorable and authentically French. Main Courses are priced from £10 to £21 and offers dishes such as Magret de Canard (duck), Saucisses de porc (sausages), as well as various steaks and fish dishes.
** Notre Repas **
I had great difficulty in choosing something I liked on the starters selection. This is not something I usually have a problem with, as my tastes are wide and far-ranging. It just seemed there was nothing that really grabbed me on the Brasserie Blanc menu. I didn't fancy snails (too chewy) or a cheese soufflé, so I dithered between Tian d'Avocat (avocado salad with lemon, coriander, dill and chilli dressing) or Rillettes de Pintade (£6.50). I wasn't exactly sure what Rillettes were so we asked the manager for an explanation before we ordered. Basically Rillettes is similar to a pâté. The meat is cubed, salted heavily and then cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to shred, and then reform into a paste. The Rillettes de Pintade in Brasserie Blanc are made with chicken and guinea fowl and served with soused (pickled) vegetables. Our starters were presented to us about 20 minutes after we ordered, and the waiter asked me if I wanted some "pickled fish" with my Rillettes. I said "no thank-you" as I had no idea why I'd want some pickled fish with my starter. Meanwhile I wondered where my soused vegetables had got to. It seems I had misheard the waiter as he was offering me the "pickled vegetables" that were supposed to accompany my starter. Our waitress kindly brought the jar over to me and added two teaspoons of pickled vegetables to my plate. To be honest they didn't much improve the dish, and I felt I'd chosen badly with my starter in this instance. The Rillettes were tasty enough, with plenty of meaty strands of chicken and guinea fowl bound together with a hint of aniseed (perhaps fennel) in the mix, but it was a bit of a boring dish. The soused/picked vegetables were quite nice - tiny gherkins, silver skin onions and carrots in a dill infused vinegar. The dish was accompanied by two slices of brown sourdough bread. All in all it was OK, but nothing special. I think a leafy garnish would have added a bit of colour to the plate and provided a nice palate cleanser from the fatty Rillettes and bitter tasting bread. As it was, the dish was a bit beige and boring looking.
My partner choose Moules Marinière (Loch Fyne mussels in a white wine and cream sauce - £7.40). The waitress brought a finger bowl for the mussels just before they were served, which is always a nice touch as it can be a messy dish to eat. The mussels came in their own lidded cooking pot, and the lid was then removed and taken away. Sadly the pot was huge, but the filling inside was not. There were a rather ungenerous portion of very small mussels, lots of empty shells and a small puddle of liquid at the bottom of the dish. The lovely thing about Moules Marinière is that you inevitably get a huge slosh of white wine, onion and cream cooking liqueur left in the pot after you've spooned out and eaten all the mussels; you can then sip it much like you would a soup. Sadly at Brasserie Blanc there was hardly any cooking liqueur left to sup after the mussels. No matter - what was there was tasty enough - it just could have done with a bigger portion. We looked forward to our main courses instead.
For my main course, I chose an old favourite of mine, Gambas Grillées (grilled king prawns with garlic mayonnaise and chips - £17.50), something I invariably eat whilst holidaying in the sun. I received a wooden board with four large king prawns, a bowl of French fries and a pot of garlic mayonnaise. I was surprised not to receive a finger bowl, but when I saw the prawns I realised I wouldn't need one. All four prawns had been butterflied and then cooked on the griddle, so I could easily scoop out the flesh with my fork. The French fries accompanying the dish were nice and crispy, and the garlic mayonnaise truly delicious - creamy and sweet. I'd ordered a Roquette and Parmesan Salad (£2.75 extra) to accompany my prawns as I do like some greenery with seafood. The prawn dish was the nicest one of the evening...even if a little expensive. It worked out at over £4 per prawn :o(
For main course, my partner ordered a rather un French Boeuf Stroganoff (Beef Stroganoff served with pilaf rice). The stroganoff was served in a deep round bowl with a mould of garnished pilaf rice to the centre. The beef was tender and melted in the mouth - what there was of it. This was an extremely mean portion I must say. The bowl was huge and the stroganoff covered just the very bottom third of it. Tasty it might be, but it was a rip-off at £11.50.
To be honest, we didn't find the Dessert selection very French, nor very appealing. I don't consider Rhubarb and Custard (even if they do call it Crème Anglaise!) or Steamed Lemon Sponge to be French dishes - they sound a bit English school dinners to me. Granted the Chocolate Fondue served with Strawberries and Assorted Biscuits sounded a bit more like it, but it was priced at £11.00 for two so we moved swiftly on.....to Tesco on the way home.....where we purchased some ice-cream for DIY desserts in front of the TV.
Once we had decided to leave, the bill came quickly and promptly. Service is not included at Brasserie Blanc and is left to the discretion of the diner. (NB: A 10% service charge is added to the bill for any party of 6 or more). Our bill came to £62.00 for two starters, two main courses, a salad, a pint of lager, a mineral water and a carafe of wine. Not the most expensive of meals, but not the cheapest either. The fact that the portions were rather on the small side did make us question the value of the meal though. Afterall, we've eaten a three course dinner for two at Café Rouge in the past and come away both replete and with some change from a £50 note. I really do think Brasserie Blanc need to up their portions or glam up their garnishes / accompaniments in order to improve the perceived value of the food on the plates they're serving.
** Le Service **
I had booked a table for 7.45pm as a surprise for my partner's birthday. We received a very friendly greeting from the General Manager Handre Joubert when we arrived. He quickly checked his computer and then informed us they were just sorting out a table. He seated us to the side of the restaurant with the menus and wine list and fetched us a couple of drinks from the bar. We had no problem with this, as it as pleasant enough area, and it gave us the chance to peruse the menu at length. We were then shown to our table about 15 minutes later. I sat with my back to room and had a view of the bar and the kitchens further along. I had a couple of queries on some of the dishes on the menu, and the manager explained them to me very well.
Our waitress was a very pleasant young lady, who dealt with our order swiftly and accurately. She brought us more of the free bread and butter that the Brasserie offers when we polished off the first four slices rather quickly. The white bread was very tasty indeed, but we both thought that the brown bread was a little odd tasting; I suspect it was some kind of sourdough.
The only thing slightly remiss was that we did not receive the jug of tap water that every other table had, and we were not shown the specials blackboard with the dish and dessert of the day.
When we arrived, despite it being relatively early in the evening, the restaurant was seemingly full to capacity. Strangely it emptied out to about 50% full by about 8.45pm, so I imagine the earlier business was perhaps due to theatre-goers having a pre-performance meal.
The whole restaurant, including the toilets, was very clean and well looked after...but there again after six months of trading so it should be.
** Les Boissons **
As you'd expect in a French restaurant there is a rather large wine list of predominantly French wines, as well as a selection of fine wines for the more discerning diner. Evidently, Brasserie Blanc sources all its French wines direct with the producer. Handily, some of the wines are sold by 50cl carafe, which is great if you're like us, in that I don't drink much alcohol, but himself likes a tipple (or ten), but he can rarely manage a full bottle on his own. Instead he plumped for a 50cl carafe of a passable Sauvignon white wine...although he did say it could have done with some more chilling. In case you're not a wine lover, Brasserie Blanc do, of course, offer a full range of soft drinks, as well as draught Kronenburg 1666 and Guinness.
** Recommandation? **
To be quite honest, Brasserie Blanc was somewhat of a disappointment to us. We weren't expecting cuisine to the standards of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, but we did expect good, wholesome French cooking. Sadly we came away somewhat hungry, and rather under-whelmed. The service was first class, but the portions and the menu were not. Café Rouge nearby may be a chain restaurant, but I'll stick my neck out here, and say I've had much better tasting food there in the past, and the prices are a lot more reasonable. Given a choice between dining at Brasserie Blanc or Café Rouge in Chichester, I'd definitely choose Café Rouge...which is a sad indictment on the standard of food and menu served up by Monsieur Blanc. I'll maybe return to Brasserie Blanc at some stage, but I certainly won't be rushing back there. The damning reviews on www.TripAdvisor.co.uk were somewhat correct in their assessment - the portions are mean, and some of the dishes lack-lustre. A half-hearted recommendation with three stars from me.....as it is really rather average.
** Rien d'autre **
* Open seven days a week with midweek opening hours being Lunch - 12.00pm to 2.45pm and Dinner - 5.30pm to 10.00pm. They are open all day on Saturday and Sunday.
* The restaurant has no private parking, but there are two pay and display car parks nearby - one in Market Avenue and another smaller one off New Park Road (NB: parking charges do not apply after 6pm)
* All the major credit cards are accepted
* Good access for the disabled or infirm
* There are nine Brasserie Blancs across the UK, including Leeds, Bristol, Oxford and Portsmouth.