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French Restaurants in Holborn

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      20.07.2001 01:27
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      Restaurant Review of Maison Novelli - 29 Clerkenwell Gn London EC1R 0DU Maison Novelli, brainchild of Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, is a two storey restaurant situated in an unobtrusive location at Clerkenwell, a stone’s throw from Grays Inn Road. The brasserie on the ground floor is reminiscent of an Ikea showroom with its monochrome décor in hues of blue and green, stark white cotton tablecloths and white blinds hiding away the uninspiring view of lunch-hour traffic outside and a building site opposite. The décor was basic and simple which is the antithesis of the characterful cuisine on offer. The atmosphere was quite formal and the clientele seemed to consist of businessmen. The room was slightly stuffy with poor ventilation and as my friend Kim and I are both non-smokers we found that the cigarette smoke seemed to linger. The music was a trad-jazz mix which was thankfully of a volume to be talked above. The staff were very attentive. They themselves seemed to be a mixture of French and Italian whose attention to detail was impeccable. Within minutes of having arrived at the restaurant we had been seated by one waiter, served 3 types of delicious rustic bread by another and our food order was taken by yet another waiter. It seems that they have plenty of staff who each have a specific role to play. I was not impressed however with the forceful attitude of the wine waiter over our choice of wine. I am a Chardonnay fan and anything from Australia usually treats me well. He assured me that the Coldstream Hill Chardonnay from Yara Valley Australia was definitely a medium Chardonnay and he recommended and almost insisted we try the Chablis instead. Thankfully I stood my ground and the Chardonnay was absolutely perfect. This made me doubt whether the waiter’s knowledge of wine was as extensive as their wine list which seems to cover all tastes. You can expect to pay £25 for a bottle of wine. There is a very good se
      lection of 183 bottles ranging in price from £24 for Chardonnay to £150 for Dom Perignon. The Chardonnay was beautifully dry and slightly oaked. Our wine glasses were kept topped up at a pace which allowed us to savour the wine. Jean-Christophe is renowned for his desserts and fish dishes. The fusion of food on the menu is an eclectic mix of modern European dishes. The starters are predominantly fish (6 out of the 12 starters are fish) and the main courses have a farmyard flavour (chicken, lamb, venison, beef, duck, and of course the chef’s signature dish of stuffed and braised pigs trotters). The menu does also cater well for vegetarian tastes providing delicious concoctions of seasonal produce such as Spinach and Roasted Pepper Tartlets. You can expect to pay £8 for a starter, £20 for a main course and £6 for a dessert. The main courses are of monstrous proportions though so beware as you may find it unnecessary to order side dishes at an extra cost such as pommes frites, vegetables or mash (which incidentally we found to be far too salty). I chose from the anomalous mixture of starters the Sweet Onion Soup with Gruyere Glazed Garlic Croutons. It appeared a golden pond of soup with an artistic swirl of olive oil glistening in the centre. The garlic croutons were innovatively served on the side but there was not a drop of gruyere in sight. The soup had a sweet onion taste and was flavoured with enough garlic not to make me unpopular with my co-workers later that afternoon. Kim’s Confit of Mixed Pepper and Rocket Salad with Aubergine Crisps was presented as a symbiotic mix of fresh crisp leaves and a tangy dressing which contained hints of garlic. The proportion of parmesan shavings scattered throughout the leaves was well measured. Unfortunately the aubergine crisps were missing in action which was a disappointment as was the lack of a waiter bearing a pepper grinder which Kim considered lacking somewhat. Jean-Christophe is fam
      ous for his amazing combinations of flavours and aesthetically pleasing presentation. His most elaborate dishes can look deceptively simple. When my main course of Pan Fried Halibut with Mariniere Dauphinoise Mussel and Saffron Emulsion and Fine Herbe Tuile was presented to me I understood why Jean-Christophe was awarded AA’s chef of the year award. He is an entrepreneur in the world of cuisine. You can tell from the presentation of his meals that he not only concentrates on the flavour of his dishes but on their visual appeal too. The intense flavours of my halibut blended beautifully with the mussels in their garlic and herb sauce and the dauphinoise potatoes were the perfect accompaniment. Jean-Christophe seems to dig into his box of tricks to develop simple ingredients into miracles. He combined steak, mushrooms, potatoes and rice to create Kim’s Beauford Glazed Roast Beef Fillet Pommes Carlos, Wild Mushroom Risotto in a Barolo Wine Sauce. Jean-Christophe adds unusual vegetables and inspired garnishes such as the pattypans (miniature squash) and the strands of fresh herbs strategically placed to bring vivid colours to the whole dish. Despite how fantastic the beef looked Kim demurred whether to send her dish back as the beef which she had requested be cooked to a “medium” specification still had blood running from it. In their favour the staff treated us with the utmost care and returned her beef quickly, albeit having removed the vegetables which had originally appeared with the dish. The absence of a steak knife was another notable error. Jean-Christophe’s dramatic and unusual presentation was never more present than in his range of desserts. Whilst Kim deliberated over the choice of dessert I salivated over the artistic creations which were being paraded past us. The dramatic and unusual presentation of each dessert made us yearn for elasticated waists on our skirts so that we could partake in more than o
      ne of these delights. We settled for Tiramisu with Kahlua Liqueur. Here Jean-Christophe partnered simple Tiramisu with tuile (which is similar to a shortbread biscuit) and 3 sauces (white and dark chocolate and Kahlua liqueur) to form an extravagant model boat. The base soaked in Kahlua was light and delicate yet had a rich flavour. The web of spun sugar lying atop the boat added elegance whilst the delicious berries surrounding the free standing structure added what we convinced ourselves to be a healthy element. By the end of the meal Kim and I were in a haze of happiness, satiated after our delicious dessert (and the bottle of Chardonnay!) when the chef and owner of the restaurant Jean Christophe appeared at our table and asked if he could join us. Now whether this is the norm at Maison Novelli for the chef to mingle, or whether he had been told by his staff about my scurrilous note-taking throughout the meal or whether he just considered us to be two attractive young women who were enjoying his cooking (hopefully he had not heard our orgasmic shouts over the Tiramisu!) I do not know but it was definitely a good opportunity to get to know the man behind the chef’s apron. Despite the fact that Kim and I knew that we would be returning to mountainous piles of typing on our desks back at Grays Inn Road we felt it would have been rude to decline Jean-Christophe’s offer of champagne and a chin-wag, besides which we were keen to understand how he concocted such delicious ideas, from where he got his inspiration and above all else he was an absolutely gorgeous Frenchman yielding a bottle of champagne with a promise of an extra hours reprieve from copy typing contracts!!

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