Olivia Potts goes all Gallic on a visit to the Grosvenor Hotel’s ‘second fiddle’
I have a real soft spot for brasseries. A brasserie done well is pretty much my platonic dining experience: proper, traditional, unpretentious French food in comfortable surroundings. Good steak, sauces mounted with butter, rapées and remoulades, enough frites to build a dam, cheap wine, and a pudding menu which contains custard in at least two different forms. What more could you possibly want?
Brasseries (and bistros, for that matter) have become a byword in the UK for substandard pub grub; on the high street they’re lacklustre chains that are about as French as Pizza Hut is Italian, and in hotels, ‘brasserie’ just means ‘cheaper than our flagship eatery.’
I’m not saying that they need red chequered table cloths and a man with an accordion, but La Brasserie could afford to relax a little and stretch its legs
La Brasserie in Chester has me nervous, as it potentially fits snugly into the second category: it sits on the ground floor of The Chester Grosvenor, right smack bang in the centre of the historic city, clothed in the distinctive black and white half-timbered frontage. It plays second fiddle to the better known, recently renovated and frankly fancier Arkle, which features in the Michelin guide (although it’s still lusting after the Michelin star its predecessor held before its rebrand). Is it just a sop to those who don’t want to pay the Arkle prices?
But the first signs are good: the menu is enormous. Not in terms of dishes, but physical size. I could power a small boat by wafting it. We are led to a banquette-flanked table, and I spy multiple wines available by the carafe, and a clutch of custards. So far, so extremely French.
We start with oysters, which are exactly as they should be: large, creamy and tasting of the sea. Generous baskets of bread and good, salty, French butter arrive soon after, a mix of rye, focaccia and white. My juniper-cured trout is plated prettily, with ribbons of cucumber, and little pops of orange roe. The trout is thick and luscious and the juniper cure comes through with a gentle ginny hum. It all sits on a neat slice of pumpernickel. It’s a classic combination of ingredients, but handled well. Scallop à la Française is well-cooked, with fresh peas, crisp lardons, and little wisps and frills of pea shoots. It is fresh and Spring-like.
A steak au poivre feels like a good test of a brasserie. And the steak is pretty good, tender and full of flavour, served pink, with a generous puddle of peppercorn sauce. Most of the fat is gorgeously rendered, rich, beefy and plump, with just a couple of chewy bits. A separate dish accompanies it, overflowing with frites, and two onion rings as big as DVDs. The chips are great, just on the delicious side of very salty, and the kind of crisp that means that one out of every ten is almost hollow. The outside of the onion rings are perfect: hot, crunchy, and dotted with nigella seeds. The inside is a bit stodgier, and the onion itself is bland, but this felt like bad onion luck rather than anything else. In any event, it’s hard to be truly disappointed by an onion ring bigger than my hand.
The braised beef short rib holds its shape like a perfect illusion, until it gives up under the slightest prod of the fork; soft and sticky, and sitting on top of roasted cauliflower, with pickled shimeji mushrooms, and gremolata, it’s a smart, and balanced dish.
The rhubarb and custard is delightful: the custard tart filling is flawless, and the sharp rhubarb compote and sorbet are predictable but perfect foils to it. The pastry is a little blonde, and therefore leaning just a little toward the soggy, but it’s a small stumble in an otherwise excellent pudding.
You’d have to physically restrain me to stop me ordering the crème caramel. It is loaded up with charred orange, little nuggets of fizzy orange honeycomb, praline, hazelnuts and a scoop of ice cream. All of these are well-made, competent, and individually delicious, but they detract from the main event. A creme caramel doesn’t need Suzette sauce, or ice cream. I can’t help but feel that rich, wobbly cream would be even lovelier in its original incarnation, bigger and prouder, with a moat of bitter caramel around it.
And this is the thing. It’s all technically good, each dish is neat as a pin, and nicely seasoned. We enjoyed everything we ate. But I can’t shake the niggling feeling that something’s not right. That it’s all a bit… fussy. The joy, for me, of a brasserie is that it’s a little bit informal, often hearty, always charming. It should be fun. And La Brasserie is lovely, the food is good, and the service is top notch. But it’s not fun.
Calling yourself La Brasserie is a statement of intent; if you’re going to make it your name, you need to lean into the genre, even if it’s a little bit kitsch, a little bit silly. I’m not saying that they need red chequered table cloths and a man with an accordion, but La Brasserie could afford to relax a little and stretch its legs. There are glimpses of the ideal kind of brasserie at La Brasserie, and it’s not just in the giant menus, it’s in the preponderance of steak grills, the simple veg, the great frites, the potential of the crème caramel. It just needs to stop trying so hard.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type, so tea rooms are measured against other tea rooms, casual dining against other casual dining, fine dining against other fine dining.
1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Oysters 8 Bread 7 Scallops 7 Cured trout 7 Steak au poivre 7 Beef rib 7 Custard tart 7 Crème caramel 6
All tall ceilings, big banquettes, and little glowing lamps