By Ellin Stein
The best traditional French brasserie to open recently is not in Paris but across the Channel just off London's Piccadilly Circus. With its emphasis on robust but well-executed French bourgeois cooking, professional service, and—remarkably for central London—outstanding value for money, Brasserie Zedel has been packed since it opened in late June and demand shows no sign of letting up.
Owners Chris Corbin and Jeremy King specialize in grand cafés. Their previous, more pricey mitteleuropean offerings, The Wolseley and The Delaunay, serve as both all-day eating destination and fashionable urban stage. Though more of a people's palace, Brasserie Zédel retains a similar sense of theater and occasion, at once buzzy yet intimate.
Much of this is due to the setting. Located in what was originally the underground ballroom of a hotel that became a 90s nightlife hotspot, the huge room boasting what Architecture Today called "the best and most authentic series of 1930s interiors" in the UK has been sensitively restored, complete with mirrors, large marble columns topped with 23 ct gilded capitals, mammoth chandeliers, and a brass-railed staircase one can picture Fred and Ginger dancing down.
If the surroundings exude glamour, the food could not be more down to earth, characterized by classics like steak haché, boeuf bourgignon, vichysoisse, confit de canard, and even frog's legs. Escargots arrive out of their shells, basking in a perfect garlic butter and parsley sauce, while an Alsatian choucroute comes with a wealth of smoked porcine meats (bacon, sausage, pork belly, and frankfurter) resting on a bed of saukerkraut, a bargain at £11.95. Lighter options include grilled sardines, spatchcock chicken, or a perfectly poached salmon filet accompanied by chopped vegetables in mayonnaise.
Desserts continue along similarly traditional lines, with old favorites like Iles flotant, profiteroles, millefeuille, and a giant, rich mousse au chocolat. If you're looking for the eggplant foams, crab ice cream, or edible baskets of molecular gastronomy, look elsewhere.
The value-for-money ethic extends to the prix-fixe menu (two courses for £8.75, three for £11.25) and the well-sourced wine list. All selections are available by the glass (from £3.00) or pichet (small carafes starting at £5.70), as well as in bottles. Even retro aperitif Lillet is on offer.
Given the friendly prices, Brasserie Zédel's business model depends on high turnover, so bookings may be limited to two-hour slots. This means that service is efficient. A decent proportion of the 220 seats are reserved for walk-ins, but best to come especially early or late to bag one.
If you feel like continuing the evening, there's a separate cabaret space, The Crazy Coqs, with shows at 7:45 and 9:45 (separate admission). Or repair for a drink to the dark and chic Bar Americain, another art deco fantasy—even the wallpaper is printed with airplanes right out of Flying Down to Rio. Like the Astaire-Rogers films it evokes, Brasserie Zédel offers a temporary escape into a world of sophisticated glamour at a reasonable price.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Brasserie Zedel