Ms Roux cooks up a classic
209 Westbourne Park Road,
When Emily Roux, chef daughter of chef Michel Roux Jr, who himself is the son of chef Albert Roux, opens a restaurant with her husband Diego Ferrari, former head chef of Roux classic Le Gavroche, expectations will be high. Preconceptions too.
Sure, this Caractère, their new place in Notting Hill, may not be wearing a tie. Or a blazer. Hell, it might even be clad in trainers. Albeit Boxfresh. There’s a unisex loo and a wine list that’s more novella than epic. And no tablecloths. But with a genesis like this, how can it be anything other than Le Gavroche gone west?
Caractère. This is a proper dining room, grown-up without being formal; smart but not overly stifling. It has the spirit of a modern brasserie, but one with decent acoustics
With ease, is the answer, as Caractère is very much its own beast. I remember its last incarnation, as Bumpkin, a faux rustic ‘concept’ for Notting Hill dwellers who cared little what they shovelled in their mouths as long as there was rosé and room for the baby buggy. Average roast chicken and forgettable salads were served up by scrubbed-face slashies (actor/actress/screenwriter/tech guru/yoga coach/whatever), forced to wear T-shirts with some naff slogan. ‘Ooohh arrrr!!’ or ‘Get orf moy laaand.’ You get the gist. So anything would be an improvement. Even a branch of Subway.
But this is a proper dining room, grown-up without being formal; smart but not overly stifling. It has the spirit of a modern brasserie, but one with decent acoustics. Those big curtains behind the door to stop the wind whipping in. And smart marble tables with comfortably plush velvet seats. And softly civilised lighting, the sort that encourages gossip and that why-not, one-for-the-road last glass of wine.
Waiters may be dressed down but service is immaculately drilled. You can take the Roux out of Le Gavroche but you can’t take Le Gavroche etc, etc. Glasses (huge bloody glasses) are kept eternally topped up, indecorously crumpled napkins replaced, and a waiter is at your side the moment you so much as arch an eyebrow. Don’t be fooled by that lack of tie.
Then there’s the menu, oddly divided into ‘traits’, such as ‘Curious’, ‘Subtle’, ‘Delicate’, ‘Robust’, like a cheap range of own-brand scents at Superdrug. I’m not quite sure what to do, or how this works. And almost find myself asking what the ‘concept’ is here. Oh the shame. But it turns out they’re just starters, mains and puddings. Who knew?
The cooking, as you’d expect, is cracking. There’s a trio of amuse-bouche thingies, some snacky things with ham and a fake Bourbon biscuit with an intense fish filling that bode well for what comes next. Like scallops, big as a baby’s fist and immaculately cooked, in the most exquisite and silken of beurre blancs (above). There’s a hint of autumnal earth from a salsify purée, and a nudge of mustard, but it’s a dish that happily straddles the classic and the modern. Soft, sweet, immaculate mackerel comes with confit baby beetroot, a study in subtlety and discretion, with a whack of verdant acidity from a bright parsley ‘condiment’.
Serious cooking, serious service, in a room without pretence. Not so much mini-Gavroche as major Caractère.
Monkfish is beautifully charred yet retains an essential, primeval purity, its sharp citrus sauce scented with the merest whiff of aniseed. Again, pretty, but pretty fantastic too. And the balance is as sublime as ever. Best of all is a celeriac ‘cacio e pepe’, possibly the best thing ever to happen to this ungainly root. It has the peppery bite and creamy allure of the truly Italian (this is a classic of Ferrari’s youth), a dish of both parsimony and pleasure. An instant bona fide barnstormer. In fact, the only mild bore is the oxtail ravioli. The mirepoix (diced veg) may be immaculately cut but the flavour seems to have wandered off. I expect a beefy bellow and instead get an underseasoned aside. But it’s the rarest of slip-ups. Because Caractère is a class act from start to end. A place that respects its heritage, but is not in thrall to it. Serious cooking, serious service, in a room without pretence. Not so much mini-Gavroche as major Caractère.
About £40 per head