Restaurant review: It’s Hampstead’s turn to head to the C�te

Cote Brasserie, 83-84 Hampstead High Street, NW3

�Just three months ago I reviewed here a rather silly restaurant in Hampstead High Street called Ping Pong (dumplings that bloat you, bum-numbing stools) and now, from the same impressive corner and light-filled site there arises like an extremely hip and laid back Phoenix a very welcome and overdue outpost of Richard Caring’s Cote empire. Because C�te is a useful concept – classy brasseries that will work for a dinner date, but still you can pop in to for a solitary brunch or else an extensive Sunday lunch with all the family, including pernickety Gran and the bloody noisy kids. Caring, of course, is the owner of such milestone London restaurants as The Ivy, J. Sheekey, Daphne’s, Le Caprice … oh, everything really – and in C�te we have echoes of the trademark d�cor along with food to rival most of them, with the bonus of a rather less damaging bill. A year ago I reviewed the Highgate branch and predicted that in restaurant-starved N6, here would be quite a hit. So it has proved – and although this latest incarnation might well put quite a few well-established NW3 noses out of joint, I foresee exactly the same success in Hampstead.

I was there for lunch on the day it opened – the Monday of last week, a perfectly traditional English August Bank Holiday (depressingly dark and drizzly) – and the joint was fairly hopping. A good deal of day tripping families – not too heavy on locals, I think. Except at my table: upstairs in this cool, monochrome space with dark walnut accents and large light-reflecting bevelled mirrors, my guest was the much-praised award-winning children’s writer and illustrator extraordinaire, John Burningham. For more than fifty years he has lived in Hampstead with his much-praised award-winning children’s writer and illustrator wife – Helen Oxenbury. Between them they must have chalked up a hundred books – including treasured classics such as John’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing and Granpa. To date he has sold four million books worldwide, his strongest markets being Japan and Korea; I expect there could be some sort of wildly inappropriate joke about this snippet of data, but I’m damned if I’m the man to make it.

In addition to the Hampstead house, John also has a place in France – and at this time of year that is where he would tend to be, but he has been busily preparing for not one but two upcoming London exhibitions – one a retrospective at The Fleming Collection, a handsome gallery in Berkeley Street owned by the Fleming family of banking and 007 fame – rather fitting, as John was the original illustrator of Ian Fleming’s trilogy Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. The other show is at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

Classic menu


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But now to grub: John is no cook, he tells me: “I’m hopeless. I never think of it till I’m hungry, and then I open a tin’. But he is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about food and wine – which is all you need in a lunch guest, really. The menu is extensive: classic French brasserie – so much so that I decided to pursue an absolutely classic route: moules mariniere and steak frites Bearnaise: are they up to doing the ordinary, extraordinarily well …? John was going for breadcrumbed calamari rings with lemon and parsley and a tartare sauce, then pan roasted duck breast with gratin potato and a griottine cherry sauce. This turned out to be rather a delicate take on the hearty Hungarian staple: here were perfectly pink and tender prettily fanned out slices with a good and creamy dauphinois, the cherry just tart enough. “It is hard to find duck like that,” he said. “It’s excellent.” He had been equally praising of his calamari, which came crunchily coated and served in a frying pan, the tartare alongside. “Very good indeed. No hint of rubber, which is what you always dread”. He thought that the sad lack of even one single flower on the table was more than made up for by the large and proper white linen napkins. “In France, you’ll often get things that look like Moroccan knickers.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen napkins that look like Moroccan knickers, so I asked him how he knew that that was how Moroccan knickers looked. He said it was a guess.

My moules were good and nuggety, the sauce so fine that it would have passed muster as a damn good creamy soup. The steak was a properly aged piece of sirloin – though cooked rather more than the medium rare requested – with good and golden frites in a paper-lined trompette … and the Bearnaise was sensational. I had actually been rather miffed that they were charging �1.95 extra for it – but I’m very particular about Bearnaise, and by God, this was truly the real thing. A side of French beans was also exemplary. So then (in addition to the complementary filtered water in a chic little stoneware bottle) we sipped a Fleurie – pricey at �27.50 – which contained, according to the list, ‘several punnets worth of soft red berry fruit’ – which was true enough on the nose and in the mouth, but the swallow, I have to say, was rather less red berry than gooseberry. And we talked of the happy politeness and easy efficiency of Grace, our gap year waitress who had been bussed in from the Highgate branch for the opening. “I like working up there because I live very near and I can just roll out of bed and into C�te”. Sweet: from bed to C�te, in just a single somnolent tumble. We were further electrified by the presence at the opposite table of Baron Samedi, the terrifying Haitian voodoo master as last seen (a bit more Ian Fleming) in Live And Let Die. Yes! Here he was in Hampstead, the witch doctor: ebony skin, rolling eyes, near naked to the waist and wearing a black top hat with a purple ostrich plume: I am not kidding. He would have struck a fearsome note, but for the fact that the inflexion in his voice was that of Graham Norton.

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Sublime

I continued my classic path with a cr�me brulee that was, for once, unadulterated, and completely perfect. John had ordered a coupe noir – vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate sauce – but in error they delivered a chocolate fondant. So they quickly followed up with a coupe noir … and left us the buckshee fondant! Which was gooily sublime. So … C�te: a hit, a palpable hit. And here’s the recipe for success: make sure that the meat is tender, the service loving, and the owner Caring.

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Tel 020 7435 2558

OOpen Mon – Fri 8am – 11pm. Sat 9am – 11pm. Sun 9am – 10.30pm

FFOOD 8

SSERVICE 9

TTHE FEELING 9

CCOST Lunch and early evening set 2 courses �9.95, 3 courses �11.90. Otherwise about �80 for a three course meal for two with wine.

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