Tom discovers small plates packed with modern French flavour in fashionable Notting Hill.
There’s something reassuring about Cépages, a Notting Hill bistro with French wine coursing through its veins. It may be the unselfconsciously bare brick walls, scuffed wooden floor and sherry casks that serve as occasional tables. Or the soft, dusky light (a sort of electric gastro-gloaming), cheerily Gallic waiters and battalions of empty wine bottles, featuring the superstars of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Most of all, perhaps, the easy, unforced feeling of a true neighbourhood restaurant, in a part of London where such things are all too rare.
The menu (don’t be put off by the French ‘tapas’ chat) mixes the heartily bourgeois with an occasionally elegant flash of haute. So a half-dozen snails, blisteringly hot, drowning in garlic-sated butter. And a small Camembert, spiked with rosemary and dribbled with honey, baked until oozing, then attacked with thick hunks of sourdough toast.
Vegetables are treated with respect: crisp discs of beetroot wear a hearty scattering of feta, as well as tart slivers of orange, fistfuls of thyme, with roasted hazelnut for extra crunch. It merrily melds the crisp, clean and creamy. Crab, pristinely fresh and immaculately picked, is mixed with a discreetly sharp mayonnaise and comes wrapped in ribbons of mooli. Blobs of avocado stand guard at its side.
I usually avoid foie gras but here it arrives, fat, bronzed and indecently rich. Like a disgraced fashion tycoon, albeit with a whole lot more taste. Brioche offers sweet, toasted ballast, while an apple and Calvados compote provides welcome acidic relief.
Best of all, two ravioli of langoustines, the pasta so ethereal I fear one errant breath will blow it away. A pinch of fresh morel sits on top, while inside, asparagus is mixed with pert chunks of crustacean in a creamy melange. It’s old-school, grand French cooking, with a gently modern feel. A dish that shows exactly what this kitchen is capable of.
Their wine list, carefully chosen and predominantly French, has lots of good stuff by the glass, with a few magnums and jeroboams, plus enough depth to keep even the most exacting of oenophiles sipping with glee. In fact, everything at Cépages is suffused with easy charm and delight, the sort of place where you linger over ice-cold Poire William, slip back in your chair and wonder why the hell you haven’t been here before.
About £25 a head. Cépages, 69 Westbourne Park Road, London W2; cepages.co.uk.
DRINKS: Olly’s non-Provençal rosés
Rosé is as diverse as every star in the Milky Way twinkling a unique shade of pink. The warmth of vineyards around Nîmes is a reliable French haven for bargains. I’m also finding beautiful Spanish rosados with a little more richness. More textural, these are perfect when dining outdoors. For an all-rounder, my pick from South Africa is a peach. I couldn’t resist including an English rosé sparkler to take your tastebuds to heaven.
WINE OF THE WEEK: BARON AMARILLO RIOJA ROSADO 2020 (13%), £6.99, Aldi. A peach and a cherry elope to the sunshine. Staggeringly good price.
L’ARÈNE DES ANGES COSTIÈRES DE NÎMES ROSÉ 2020 (13%), £6.69 until 27 July, Waitrose. A gorgeous blend of fullness and elegance, this price is a steal.
BABYLONSTOREN MOURVÈDRE ROSÉ 2021 (13%), £14.90, shop.thenewtinsomerset.com. Silky and magical, this South African rosé is becoming an annual fixture of splendid summer sipping.
CHIVITE LAS FINCAS ROSADO GARNACHA 2020 (14.5%), £19.99 as part of a ‘mix six’, Majestic. Barrel-fermented for richer texture. Spicy and fresh, great with food.
CAMEL VALLEY PINOT NOIR ROSÉ BRUT 2018 (12.5%), £32, camelvalley.com. One of the finest sparkling rosés on the planet. I adore it for a treat.