I was initially thrown when I first set eyes on the entrance to Le Cercle. This new French restaurant in Chelsea has already won itself a fearsome reputation, but I wasn't expecting it to exude such Olympian self-confidence. There's no sign, just a discreet doorway sandwiched between two bamboo trees and a flight of stairs leading down to a basement. Clearly, this was a restaurant that felt no need to blow its own trumpet. It reminded me a little of Le Gavroche which, according to the latest edition of Harden's, is one of the four most expensive restaurants in London. Had I brought enough money to cover lunch for two? Was I a little underdressed in my jeans and shirtsleeves? More importantly, would they let me in if they saw me arriving on my bicycle?
As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Le Cercle is a "smart casual" restaurant. It's one of those places where being overdressed would be a far greater sin than being underdressed. Indeed, I could have walked in wearing my bicycle clips and no one would have batted an eyelid.
"When we first opened, people used to dress up when they came here," said Graham Munton, the front-of-house manager. "Now, if anyone comes in in the evening wearing a suit, they'll take one look around and go home and change."
In keeping with this relaxed atmosphere, Le Cercle is a "French tapas" restaurant, meaning diners are expected to choose from a large selection of small dishes rather than go down the traditional route of starters, main courses and puddings. This style of eating--known as "grazing"--is undoubtedly the big culinary trend of the last couple of years, but Le Cercle can't be accused of jumping on the bandwagon. On the contrary, the executive chef, Pascal Aussignac, can reasonably claim to have pioneered this fashion. Aussignac was among the first restaurateurs in London to introduce tapas-style dining when he and his business partner, Vincent Labeyrie, opened Club Gascon in 1998. Le Cercle is the latest addition to their rapidly expanding restaurant empire, with the next one--an all-day bistro above their gourmet deli in Charterhouse Street--due to open this autumn.
There are various theories as to why "grazing" has suddenly taken off. Some people think it's connected with the ever-increasing popularity of pan-Asian food, with its bite-sized portions. Others believe it's because the sort of people who go out to expensive restaurants are more weight conscious these days and don't want to gorge themselves on large helpings. Still others think it's due to shortening attention spans, with modern diners becoming bored with whatever it is they're eating after three or four mouthfuls.
Whatever the explanation, I'm all in favour of this trend. It enables a restaurant's customers to experience the full gamut of what a kitchen can do without having to stump up for an interminable degustation menu. My dining companion and I had seven dishes between us, ranging from smoked haddock with mashed potato to summer truffle tartine with wild roquette, all of them extremely good. The highlights were rabbit stuffed with prunes and apricots, warm lobster salad with creamed avocado and a chunky disc of pressed foie gras accompanied by a miniature brioche.
Le Cercle was extremely busy, given that this was a Thursday lunchtime in August--about 75% full--and the manager told me it gets so popular at night it's virtually impossible to get a table. It's quite light and airy for a windowless basement, combining a bar and restaurant separated by a white lace curtain. With it's neutral, washed-out colour scheme and angular, geometric shapes, it reminded me of the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange.
Given Le Cercle's proximity to Sloane Square--it's located on Wilbraham Place, just off Sloane Street--our fellow customers were a surprisingly unglamorous bunch, clearly attracted by Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie's excellent reputation for French cooking, rather than because this was a restaurant to be seen in. In terms of clientele, it's a far cry from the nearby Daphnes, still the reigning champ as far as the ladies who lunch are concerned. In other words, don't be intimidated by the location or the exterior. Once you get inside, Le Cercle is remarkably unstuffy, with friendly staff and cheerful customers, and the prices are pretty reasonable, too. My companion and I got away with just under £80, which was at least £20 less than I was expecting to pay.