As part of his guest editorship, Bob Cotton has chosen evergreen London site Le Caprice as his favourite restaurant. Tom Vaughan takes a look at its most recent menu
"Sophisticated nursery food" is how Mark Hix, chef-director of Caprice Holdings, describes the menu offering of the 60-year-old restaurant Le Caprice. "It's not the kind of food you think long and hard about. You can eat it with a fork while you're doing business."
The restaurant first opened its doors in London's St James's in 1947 under the watchful eye of Mario Gallati, former mâitre d' of the Ivy. Closing in 1975, Le Caprice was successfully reinvented in 1981 by Caprice Holdings, which has continued to manage it ever since.
Six months ago Paul Brown was appointed head chef, a post once occupied by Hix (he was promoted to executive chef for the group in 1990) and he has carried on the menu in the same style as regular customers know and seemingly love, spending an average of £40 a head at the 90-seat restaurant.
The menu moves very much with the seasons, with starters such as asparagus and pea soup (£6.50) and summer vegetables, seared scallops with samphire and sea purslane (£15.50) and wild herb salad with oak-aged feta (£9.50), but also ensures it maintains classic dishes such as crispy duck and watercress salad (£10.25) and steak tartare (small £9.25, large £15.75). "It's partly kept as the kind of place where people can order without looking at the menu," says Hix.
For the mains, salmon fishcake with buttered spinach and sorrel sauce (£14.25) is the one dish that has stayed on the menu almost since the restaurant opened. For the rest, again it's a mix of the seasonal and the familiar. Roast rack of Herdwick lamb with arroccina beans (£25.75) represents the best of the seasonal meat while other dishes contain early summer ingredients, such as roast fillet of cod with sea beets, olive oil and parsley (£19) and grilled calf's liver with spring vegetable hash (£18.50).
Change isn't something that Le Caprice's customers are too inclined to embrace, and the reliability of the restaurant's offering is mirrored in the longevity of the kitchen's suppliers, with both the meat and the fruit and veg suppliers having provided for the restaurant for many years.
There is, however, a dedication to getting the best of seasonal produce on the menu, says Hix. "For example, when white truffle is there it'll be on, when the cèpe season starts we'll make sure it's straight on," he says. "Our customers know what season we're in and have often been coming here for a long time, so would immediately notice if we didn't do justice to the seasons."
The dessert menu is changed regularly, says Hix, with no long-standing dishes, and is a mix of British puddings such as banana sticky toffee pudding with crème fraîche (£6.50), butterscotch and clotted cream ice-cream with toffee sauce (£6.25) and West Country cheese selection (£8.75), and more European dishes such as vanilla panna cotta with cherries (£6.50), prosecco jelly with nectarines (£7.50) and a French cheese selection (£7.50).
The secret of 26 years of continued success? "People trust the menu," says Hix. "We give the customers a comfort zone they're happy in but make sure it changes enough to keep them excited."
What's on the menu
- Green asparagus and pea shoot salad with soft boiled duck's egg, £10.75
- Sautéd foie gras with caramelised apples, £15.75
- Spaghetti with surf clams and chilli, £9.75/£14.75
- Thai baked sea bass with fragrant rice, £24.50
- Roast Goosnargh duck breast, confit leg and foie gras salad, £23.50
- Ballindalloch rib steak, £26.50
- Raspberry mousse with honeycomb choc ice, £6.75
- Amalfi lemon cheesecake, £6.50
- Peach melba tart with ripple ice-cream, £7.50
Le Caprice, Arlington House, Arlington Street, London SW1A 1RJ. Tel: 020 7629 2239