Although a lot has changed in Soho since L’Escargot opened its doors back in 1927, what has remained constant during almost a century is the high quality of the food, the charm of the staff, and the fascination Londoners have felt for it, decade after decade, for nearly a century.
The history of the restaurant is as colourful and full of flavour as its menu. The successor to Le Bienvenue, the first restaurant in London to serve snails back in Victorian days, L’Escargot got his name by its patrons’ demand, which was most fitting, given it hosted a snail farm in the basement. This would be the first of many eccentricities that have made the place such a legend.
From Coco Chanel to Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra to Elton John, this quaint restaurant residing in an 18th century Georgian townhouse, has been the favourite of the famous, the noble and the beautiful from the very beginning. On the upper floors, there are a series of private rooms for those who want to keep away from the public’s prying eyes and, at the very top of the building, the Snail Bar, which regularly hosts live music events.
Left to right: Salon Bleu, Salon Vert, and the Snail Bar.
The decoration throughout is colourful, inviting and eclectic, very French indeed. The walls are full of art and photographs of the many celebrities that have graced its tables, including artists such as Matisse, Hockney, Bacon, Freud and Blake among many others. There are armchairs covered in rich red velvet, crystal chandeliers, ornate ceilings, and elaborate mirrors… here more is more, and I love it. It wouldn’t work everywhere, but it most definitely does at L’Escargot.
Regardless of the time of day or evening that you choose to come to L’Escargot, there is a wonderful menu waiting for you. A la carte, afternoon tea, snack menu, Sunday menu, pudding menu and of course, one for cocktails and an extensive and professionally curated wine list. Head Chef James Tyrrell, who trained at Langan’s Brasserie with the great Richard Shepherd, has been at the helm of this kitchen for almost 10 years. As such, he has fine-tuned each menu until it is impossible to find fault in any of them. Tyrrell masters traditional French cooking with the best seasonal ingredients and often introduces a modern touch to instill classic dishes with a modern spin.
“At L’Escargot, we like respecting traditional French dishes and infusing them with an element of innovation.”
– Chef James Tyrrell
We had lunch in the front dining room, facing Greek street, which is my favourite, as it reminds me of traditional grand brasseries in Paris, with their large windows from which to watch life go by. You would guess right if you are thinking we had snails as a starter. It would have been a sin not to. Piping hot, swimming in garlic butter and topped with a thick layer of almost microscopically chopped parsley, they were simply irresistible. The truth is that only considerations towards my waistline and my heart prevented me from going to a second round. In case you are wondering, there is no longer a snail farm in the basement. For the last 20 years, the snails served at L’Escargot come from Herefordshire, from Anthony Vaughan’s farm, known as “The Snail Man”.
The front dining room at L’Escargot, where hundreds of international personalities have dined over nearly a century.
We also tried the lobster bisque, which is another reason why even royals would come here to eat. Rich, silky, and the colour of peaches at the height of summer. This soup – if one can call it that – has so many layers of flavour that you can’t help by wonder how many hours or days it takes Tyrrell’s kitchen to prepare the stock.
For mains, we kept it classic. My companion chose breast of pheasant Souvaroff and I went for the fillet of beef Rossini. Upon hearing our choices, our waitress, Aparna suggested we paired them with a bottle of Gigondas, Domaine Gour de Chaulé. This elegant wine is a full-bodied blend of Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah. Soft in the palate with rich berry flavours and easy tanins.
Two of the signature dishes at L’Escargot: escargots in a garlic butter sauce with parsley; and lobster bisque, the silkiest in London.
The pheasant was perfectly cooked: tender, juicy, full of flavour without being too gamey. The sauce was perfectly balanced with just a hint of truffle and morel mushrooms, which enhanced the taste of the bird. We know that L’Escargot only sources ingredients from the best suppliers and with this pheasant, we could be sure it had come from a game drive (later we were told that from Yorkshire) as we found a shot pellet in the meat, which is seen by the superstitious as a sign of good luck.
My Rossini was simply to die for. Melt-in-the-mouth fillet of beef (reared in southern Scotland by the Campbell brothers) with a slightly smoky sauce, rich, heady and shiny, made over a base of Madeira juice. The pan-fried foie gras on top was the best I have eaten in a very long time.
Served on a crouton, the fillet of beef “Rossini” is decadent and rich, soaked in a Madeira-based glistening sauce and finished with foie gras on top and bits of truffle.
We accompanied our main dishes with some green beans to make up for the pot of Dauphinoise potatoes we devoured, which were decadently creamy and velvety, clearly the product of following the three secrets of French cuisine: butter, butter and butter.
It would not surprise you that we couldn’t find space for pudding, even if the menu includes some of my all-time favourites, such as tarte citron, crème brûlée and chocolate soufflé. I guess I’ll have to come back soon.
Tel. 020 7439 7474
Words: Julia Pasarón