The Michelin-starred French restaurant Roussillon has just launched a ‘Mini-Gastronome’ programme. This means that on the first and third Wednesday lunchtime of every month children aged 11 and under get to eat a free seven-course menu designed to introduce them to top-class cooking while ‘exciting their palate and their eyes’. To be perfectly honest, I think most children are enough of a pain without excited palates and eyes, but it might be worth a shot. However, what child to take? I can’t take my own son because he is now a big teenager and much too busy slamming doors and leaving wet towels all over his bedroom even though returning them to the bathroom would involve what? A walk of almost three yards? (And it’s downhill!) I don’t want to borrow a pre-school child because they are tedious and need help in the toilet. I then think of Angus, the 11-year-old son of my friend Louise. He is smashing as well as an interested and adventurous eater. But Louise is a good and responsible mother who would never, ever allow her son the day off school — if you are clever, I guess you can co-ordinate with school holidays — to eat Michelin-starred food. ‘You bet, count us in!’ she says when I call. I hope she and Angus won’t get in trouble with nosy, educational-welfare types so will not reveal their surname, which is Crombie. Angus’s middle name is Argyle. Louise’s husband, Stuart, who is quite Scottish, named him before Louise could even get a look in. She wanted Archie. Angus has a brother called Cameron and a sister called Rosie, and he is mad for tropical fruit. It’s all Louise can do to keep in him guavas. Heavens, I do hope they can’t be identified. I’d best not add that they have a dog called Bunty.
Anyway, I have given A.A. Crombie a notebook to record his observations. I also hope he will effectively write this review, so I can go off and do other things, like pick up wet towels, which, as it happens, only takes a minute but it can save so much resentment! A.A. Crombie’s first observation on approaching Roussillon is ‘nice window’, which is perfectly true. Roussillon is a curious little place, situated in a peaceful, pretty residential street on the Pimlico–Belgravia border and fronted by a large bay window that is very nice indeed. Inside it is, A.A. Crombie notes, ‘very nicely set out’ which is also true. There is a slight ladies-who-lunch air about it, but it’s also spacious, elegant and restfully decorated in aubergine and cream. There appears to be a bit of a plant thing going on, too: an orchid on the table; flower prints on the walls; the menu covers are copies of antique book-plates displaying herb drawings. A.A. is particularly impressed by the ‘bastard rhubarb’ and ‘bastard rocket’. ‘Funny menu,’ he writes. ‘Good use of the word “bastard”.’ How could anyone claim this isn’t educational?
Roussillon specialises in classic French cooking using British produce with an emphasis, it turns out, on planty things, hence the floral-themed decor. Indeed, alongside the à la carte there are seasonal garden menus where the vegetables are the main focus, although, that said, even the meat dishes have wonderful planty things going on, like accompanying sautéed nettles or salads of Kentish spring leaves. Whatever, lunch, at £35 a head (which can include up to two children per adult on the appropriate Wednesdays) is terrific value, including three courses, half a bottle of wine, mineral water, coffee and all manner of surprise treats, like our initial nibbles of baby carrots, baby radishes, warm flaky pastry straws served with a mustard dip, and cucumber, ginger and crayfish brochettes. ‘Great snacks,’ writes A.A. Crombie. Being as dumb as I am, I hadn’t really thought beyond the child angle on this. I now realise that we might be in for some seriously good food. I am quite wrong, though. It is shockingly, heart-stoppingly, deliriously good. If there is anything worth taking a kid out of school for, and hitching along for the ride, it is this.
First, A.A. Crombie’s seven courses. This, can you believe, is what A.A. Crombie gets for nothing: light green pea soup with soft ricotta gnocchi; seared scallop with wild asparagus; steamed cod and crispy courgetteskin tempura; braised lamb shoulder with herb mashed potatoes; elderflower gelée; thin rhubarb millefeuille and petits fours. Here is what A.A. Crombie writes in his little notebook: ‘Soup so tasty; brilliant scallop with baby asparagus; very clean toilets [this relates less to a dish, more to a necessary activity]; divine cod and fride [sic] courgettes; lamb too good for words; the most delicious elderflower jelly in the world; rhubarb undescribable [sic]; it’s all plates of paradise; the servicing is very good; it is all sooooooooooooo gooooooooooood!!!!!!!’ He doesn’t write: ‘Deborah is my favourite person in the whole, whole world, and so pretty too, with a lovely figure’, but I am sure this is only due to lack of space. Alternatively, it could be due to a lack of focus due to a very excited palate and eyes.
The adult lunch? Abso-bloody-lutely fantastic. I start with the ginger risotto served with scallops and sautéed squid and it is superb: moist, velvety, cooked to split-second perfection and with a beautiful yet not overwhelming ginger kind of glow. It makes me realise that the risotto I cook at home actually isn’t risotto at all; just rice cooked in chicken stock. It is pathetic and laughable. After eating this kind of food I fear I might never cook again. What would be the point? And, in this respect, it only gets worse. There are slowly cooked beef cheeks so tender and melting and deeply flavoured that I want the dish never to end. Damn those cows for not having even bigger cheeks. Then a lychee vacherin that is crisp on the outside, chewy within, served with a wondrously aromatic rose cream. Louise, who purrs throughout like a kitten having its tummy tickled (she doesn’t get out much), has the sautéed green asparagus served with a veal jus, then the sea bass and sautéed nettles (brittle, salty, delicious) and then a crunchy lemon curd served with a lime givre that she describes as ‘thrilling’ and ‘one of the loveliest things I have ever eaten’. Enough, already? But I haven’t mentioned the amuse-bouche of a single ravioli with baby asparagus in a veal jus, or the pre-pud warm-up of mango sorbet with melon liqueur, or the freshly baked breads or the mini-mountain of Normandy butter or the charming service that is almost effortless or the very clean toilets … yup, I do think we have mentioned the very clean toilets, actually.
In short — hurrah, there’s a first! — Roussillon is a dazzling little gem that manages to serve exquisite food without being either pretentious or chichi. Go with a child, go without a child, what do I care? Although, with a child, it is sensational value and if they have to skip school, what the hell, it is an education of sorts and will give them a completely new spin on ‘bastard’. Just write them a sick note. Louise was going to write a sick note for A.A. but he said don’t worry, it’s fine. He said: ‘I told my teacher yesterday that I’d be ill today.’ Oh, well, that’s all right then.
Roussillon, 16 St Barnabas Street, London SW1; tel: 020 7730 5550).