Le Pain Quotidien recently celebrated its 25th birthday and the launch of its 25th venue, on the Fulham Road. Up till now, I had always seen Le Pain as the answer to Starbucks, a place where people who actually wanted to enjoy their coffee and enjoy someone’s company could go, as opposed to the legions who walk into every Nero, Costa, and Pret daily merely for a caffeine fix and rubbish sandwich.
So Le Pain’s dalliance into evening meals struck me as an interesting choice, fraught with potential danger. Possessing a distinctive style, of long communal tables, wood furniture, and quality – though light – dining options; Le Pain’s gear change could have either damaged this brand and lost what made them them, or failed to translate it into an evening dining experience. However, by and large, it has been handled well. With ‘Small Plates’ ranging from £6 to £8 and ‘Large Plates’ £12.50 to £14.50, a neat psychological trick is pulled off – you don’t feel that your ordering a starter and a main, but you can if you want to.
My companion and I ‘started’ with Tomato and Mozzarella and Moroccan Spice Lamb Meatballs respectively. Neither was too large to not serve as a starter, but had we ordered two other small plates we could have done a tapas thing and been satisfied. My companion’s Tomato and Mozzarella was perfectly balanced – not too much or too little of either of the main ingredient. The mozzarella was particularly good, devoid of any chewiness. Served with bread, the meatballs weren’t too spicy that the tender meat was overpowered in flavour. The bread is, obviously, worth commenting on. There is a saying that one can tell good bread, not by its smell or taste, but its sound – and the baguette had a satisfying crack to it.
For our ‘mains’ we ordered Roasted Vegetable & Organic Quinoa Gratin and Coq au Vin. The portion sizes for both were reasonable, enough when combined with a small plate to be filling, though perhaps ordered alone it might leave one not quite satisfied. My companion’s gratin was flavoursome and well textured – all the veg stood out distinctively. My coq au vin, it turned out, was slow cooked with wine rather soaked in it. This meant that the chicken, while tender and juicy, was itself not wine flavoured – though their was enough sauce to sort this out.
For dessert I tried the Fondant au Chocolat, which was very much on the Chocolat side, to the point where you’d think the chef could have abandoned all pretences and served melted chocolate in a bowl. Not that I was complaining.
Overall, I think that Le Pain is onto to something. They’re trying to exploit a gap in the market – a bright, southern European approach to evening meals, as opposed to the dark, heavy tavern culture of northern Europe. Unfortunately, we have a pub culture as opposed to a café culture for a reason – long, grim winters, one of which is threatening to hit us any day now. I’m sure that Le Pain’s new venture will succeed, if for no other reason than that the food is very good. However, I think they perhaps should have waited until spring to launch it, it is more naturally a summer place.