The whole experience reaches beyond the food and drink…

Let’s face it, any woman worth her salt (naturally of the Maldon Sea variety) knows her own mind. Such a mind, whilst eminently capable of focussing on ostensibly weightier matters, is likely to be finely attuned to matters of dining, shopping and sex in varying degrees, depending on her mood. However, when the three combine to spectacular effect, it is an experience she is biologically incapable of forgetting.

Enter the London Street Brasserie. If you have ever shopped at The Oracle in Reading and suddenly been struck by a longing to settle in a sophisticated oasis…If you have found your perfect dress in Reiss or House of Fraser and wanted to celebrate the moment with a glass of perfectly chilled Champagne…If you have been hungry, but not so starved as to be tempted by a dull chain restaurant… If you have tried on countless pairs of unsuitable jeans and found yourself hankering after a welcoming smile and an irresistible menu…If you have ever experienced any of these things, then the London Street Brasserie is for you.

At this particular restaurant, the dining, or lunching, is tempting from the outset (of which much more later); the shopping is right next door, but just far away enough to be a pleasant memory by lunchtime; and the sex, or rather the sexiness, is everywhere – in the laid-back elegance of the décor, in the wonderful service and in the food, heaven knows, definitely in the food. And the wine. A quick glance around confirms that movers and shakers of the male kind love it, but it is somewhere that ladies – from Jordan to Joanna Lumley – completely adore, for reasons that became clear to me when I met Paul Clerehugh, chef proprietor.

Paul is a restaurateur known to most people who love food. He is the owner of the Crooked Billet, the beautiful inn at Stoke Row that is as famous for its incredible food as it is for being the place that hosted Kate Winslet’s first, bangers-and-mash wedding. Paul took over the LSB site in 1999, having spotted that the vacant building would be the ideal site for a more sophisticated sort of dining venue. Over eight years on and beloved by those in the know, the London Street Brasserie’s star remains in the ascendant, having just been voted as one of the top 25 restaurants in Britain by the Caterer magazine and named as one of Egon Ronay’s top 10 UK restaurants.

At this point I have to declare an interest, as a keen shopper and indefatigable food lover. By the time I met Paul Clerehugh I had been to the London Street Brasserie before. Not just once, mind, but on many, many delicious occasions, every time alone, treating it as my very own secret pre-, post- or mid-shopping haven. I returned now not simply because I had ‘never had a bad meal there’ but, more specifically, I had always had an excellent meal there. Without fail, my time in the London Street Brasserie had left me feeling well fed, attentively served, rejuvenated and happy. I returned to meet Paul and find out not so much if the experience would be excellent (again) as to understand just why it is so good.

Paul himself is a truly charming man. Charming in the most sincere sense of the word – straight away I receive part of the answer to the ‘why it is so good’. He is a man who likes to make other people happy. Shortly after I enter the smart reception area to join him at his table, at around the time I take my first sip of champagne, I see it. This is a man who effectively designed his restaurant on the back of a napkin and came up with a space that feels both infinitely enticing and stylish. His passion is there for all to see, in everything from the menu to the kitchens themselves, where he still regularly cooks. Most of all his passion is right there on the plate.

On this occasion, and in the spirit of journalistic endeavour, I made selections that I had never tried before. After much girly prevarication I plumped for the pigeon (usually partridge) breasts, sweetcorn pancakes, spinach, port jus to start, followed by pan fried sea bass, sautéed garlic shrimp, caramelised fennel, saffron potato, herb purée, lemon hollandaise. In all honesty , I could have chosen any of the dishes before me, it is one of those rare menus where everything beckons. Plus, all the puds, ice creams, sorbets and breads are made from scratch. Moreover, they are spectacular value, with a two-course lunch available for just £13.50.

In the event, the pigeon was extraordinarily good – spot-on medium rare and perfectly poised on its pancake, I savoured each mouthful but still managed too eat it all in less time than it would have taken to choose a new pair of shoes. Lunching one, shopping, nil.

The sea bass was also a delight. Served with a skewer of plump, garlicky prawns, on its caramelised fennel bed, it was delectable. The food is brilliantly executed, but it also boasts real soul and flair. It’s not food just for effect, it is food with personality, the personality of an eloquent, well-dressed friend – precisely the sort of company you want to keep for lunch.

LSB WineI was dying to find out just how Paul achieved this standard of dining experience. It turns out that his Yorkshire-born Grandmother was a butcher and used to make pork pies to sell at Dewsbury market. In a time and place before McDonalds existed, hungry kids would eat strips of tripe from their stall, doused with Sarsons vinegar and Saxo white pepper. Paul later worked his way up through various kitchens, at one point working in the only restaurant in Northumberland to get into Egon Ronay – all Veal Holstein and Chicken Cordon Bleu. Now, with perfect symmetry, his own restaurant is being named by Egon Ronay as one of the best.

Paul’s passion for his vocation is evident when he speaks. Of the new season he says::

“Spring is fantastic for seafood. Seafood is fantastic: oysters, lobsters, scallops, langoustine. Then there’s the early summer veg, baby fennel, young carrots and leeks… Spring is a revelation, Mother Nature just wakes up and I’ve got all sorts of gorgeous ingredients to use.”

Fresh, local, seasonal ingredients are central to the ethos both at the Crooked Billet and the London Street Brasserie, which means asparagus from Yattendon, flavoursome, grass-reared Park White beef, fresh meat from Jackson Farm and his favourite rhubarb and custard on the menu when the time is right. Paul is also self-sufficient in lamb, mutton and hogget, by dint of the 15 acres of farmland he lives and rears livestock on, including 120 sheep and Blue Buff chickens.

Crucially, no less attention is paid to the wine. Paul does not subscribe to the minimalist approach and offers 60 different bins, 20 of which are available by the glass. From Pouilly Fumé to Wildflower, there are lashings of delicious tipples to choose from.

The whole experience reaches beyond the food and drink, however. The service is remarkable – polished and friendly. The serving staff, smart in every sense of the word, never fail to make a fantastic impression and make you feel like a valued friend. Then there’s the décor, including the original, local art, all for sale, by names such as John Simpson and Ian Humphreys, and the trad jazz playing gently in the background. Even the ladies loos have been given that special LSB feel with walls in opulent Farrow and Ball Brinjal and Jo Malone handwash and moisturiser.

Every aspect of the London Street Brasserie conspires to make it a true sanctuary, a haven where a girl can enjoy some glamour and a glass of something irresistible as she lunches on the best food in town. In fact, I’ll let you into a little secret – the restaurant is so completely fabulous, that quite often, I even ‘forget’ to shop.

Vanilla Magizine – Spring 2008