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Brasserie Zédel, W1 — La Vie En Rose And A Feast For £20

Old Soho is no more, or it’s only ever found in traces. Just behind Pret (and next to Pret), you might get a strange sense of déjà-vu like something out of a Woody Allen film. But the reality soon hits you, and you have a near-death experience as you get hit by a passing rickshaw blasting Justin Bieber from 2012, or you get caught in a stag do stampede on Greek Street, as the rats from the nearby bins are watching your every move.

Well, this Corbin and King’s sort of a tripartite venue (restaurant-cum-bar-cum-cabaret) is better known as the Brasserie Zédel, and it is the ultimate refuge, just behind Piccadilly Circus.

As I recently pledged to review places that offer great lunches for around £20 a head, partly to beat the January blues of being soul-crushingly skint, I didn’t have to look far.

You descend into this enormous dining hall, with the casual atmosphere of 1920s Paris wafting through. Ensconce yourself at a corner booth table (if you ask nicely), and enjoy the embroidered pastel napkins, a ceremonially white tablecloth, and polished cutlery before you’re handed a menu in French (this, of course, is an act, but they will prize it out of your hands the moment they lip-read your poor GCSE French as you’re trying to navigate the prix-fixe offer, and despondently hand you the simplified — English — version).

Having my funny bone smacked by the passing cheese trolley is a newly discovered kink. I loved the illusion of choice, as I inevitably ended up picking up the whole truckle of Roquefort.

I also loved ordering wine by the pichet, making it harder to tot up the units imbibed, which always makes me giggle like Gerard Depardieu before he weed over the Air France carpet.

Before the waiter gaslights you with their daily specials, which are something out of a dinner lady’s fever dream, and seem oddly batch-cooked and messily dolloped onto plates with a massive ladle, order the wonderfully doughy hot baguette instead, and fearlessly unpasteurised butter to start with. Focus on their set menu (prix-fixe), which offers 2 courses for a very reasonable £15.75, or 3 for £19.50.

My favourite starter is that piquant remoulade, that oh-so-simply orchestrated marriage of thin batons of celeriac, mayonnaise (not squelched from a tub), dijon mustard, and verdant, fresh herbs, all in a tart canon of creaminess, shaped as a quenelle.

The main dish comes in form of curried ‘butter dhal’, a silky, stewy delight, or a chopped Steak Americain. I would probably advise going for the former option, as this is consistently good, and offers the much-needed, spicy winter hug on a plate. This may or may not be followed by their excellent chocolate & caramel tart (and for once, caramel is not salted! Hoorah! Wait…how can this be? Are we seriously free of this cult of salted caramel which seems to have found its way into everything, from ice cream to shampoo? Its omnipresence often gives me nightmares of being drowned in the salty gloop as Meghan and Harry jump out to force-feed me more of it. Seriously, all food seems to have merely become a vector to mainline salted caramel, and any place that doesn’t is one giant leap for mankind.

The tart of tarts. Photo credit: Milton Tomic

You can, of course, order anything else from their extensive menu, distinctly split into vegetarian dishes (if anything French ever truly is meat-free), ‘luxe’ (dressed Dorset crab, anyone?), fish, or simply ‘meats’. I fiercely declare that their choucroute, priced at £19.75, is phenomenal, and I urge you to consider stopping whatever you’re doing right now, and order their ‘Alsacienne’ option, with a wonderful, tender, cured belly of pork, adorned with an additional frankfurter, nestled on a mountain of sour cabbage, potatoes, and a twist of mustard. It can be difficult to romanticise this Alsatian dish (it certainly won’t put a spring in your step the following morning), but I will lovingly defend any comforting, beige food, as an antidote to tasting menus and haute-cuisine. It unfailingly delivers that oomph, that oaky saltiness. I have included its portrait here, but comfort food is never Pinterest-worthy (and it doesn’t have to be). I would implore you to wash this down with their reasonably priced corbières, but this of course is optional. And you needn’t have ordered a starter if this was playing on your mind, and there’s no need to do your weekly shop after you’ve had this.

Choucroute Alsacienne. Photo credit: Milton Tomic

As I’m sat in this penumbra, the shadow cast by the live band behind us playing anything from Edith Piaf to Zaz, I’m dragging the last piece of exemplary, crusty baguette across the plate and mopping up the excellent sauce…and I completely lose track of time. The atmosphere here truly is next to none.

And though the turnover of staff is vertiginous, 10 Downing Street-style, the difference is that this lot here are all equally competent and attentive. I mean, they fed us bread, repeatedly. And butter. Corbin & King get the needs of the populace.

Once you feel like gout is impending and cholesterol has risen substantially, you have a choice. Lest you think you are going home now. Instead, you are better off gravitating towards the darker, more intimate Bar Américain, where you’ll get a clean slate of waiters, a similar drinks menu, and salty popcorn (they know what they’re doing). Or you can scuttle away to Crazy Coqs, and listen to Jay Rayner play the piano uninvited.

In truth, the veil of sophistication and content leaves you with little desire to do much other than be placed horizontally in bed, wondering why London can’t be a bit more like this, a bit more often, and a bit more so outside W1, or N1, or EC1.

In all seriousness, Brasserie Zédel is a bit of a time machine. There’s the romance of Paris, the lights of Lyon, and the temperance of London. All somehow congruent in its almost faux-bistrot atmosphere, which is so perfectly loveable. I wouldn’t go as far as drawing parallels with ‘Allo ‘Allo, but it sure is a step up from Fawlty Towers and having an all-day breakfast sarnie lobbed at you by a chain-smoking waitress.

I will be back quicker than you can assemble a Tesco Somerset Brie cheese board, like I regularly did in lockdown, promising that Zédel would be the first place I’d be back at. And I was.

Milton’s favourite London lunches — around £20:

Noble Rot, W1D and WC1N (menu changes daily, £18 for two or £22 for three courses. Optional wine pairing available — and strongly recommended)

The Baring, N1 (£12, or £15 with a glass of house wine)

Quality Chop House, EC1R (£25 for three courses, and you must have the rhubarb panna cotta)

Café Murano St James, SW1A (£23 for two unbelievably good courses)

Franco Manca, various branches (they also offer student discounts in partnership with Unidays, but the bill is unlikely to top £20, even with drinks and service)

Bao, various branches (£15, includes curry cheese, short rib, hispi cabbage, and just about anything to your heart’s content)

Côte Brasserie, various branches (rein yourself in, you’ve had enough French food for today — but the 3-course £20.95 set menu is unmistakably, consistently good)

All prices are correct as of January 2023. Places like Noble Rot, The Baring, and Quality Chop House will almost certainly require a booking to avoid disappointment.

By Milton Tomic, Food and Drinks editor