On the face of it, naming a restaurant after a book by Albert Camus, the French existentialist, is a slightly odd idea. In addition to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus was one of the pioneers of absurdism, the belief that life is fundamentally meaningless. Apart from L'Etranger--usually translated as The Outsider--his oeuvre includes such pessimistic titles as The Plague, The Myth of Sysiphus and The Fall. I can understand why a group of politically-minded punk rockers would want to name their band after one of Camus' books, but a restaurant? It's a tad pretentious.
The explanation is that the owner, like Camus, was born in Algeria. Ibi Issolah graduated from the University of Law in Algiers, went on to get a masters degree from the Sorbonne and maintains that if he'd stayed in Algeria he would have become a high court judge by the age of 30. No doubt that's true, but he chose to come to London instead and pursue a career as a restaurateur. He started at the bottom--as a barman at the Café Royal--and worked his way up to become the general manager of the Altantic Bar & Grill. L'Etranger, which opened in 2003, is his first solo venture.
From a design point of view--the firm responsible is Andy Martin Associates--L'Etranger is light and airy, in spite of being reasonably compact. No doubt it helped that when I went there on a Tuesday lunchtime only half the tables were filled, but I gather it's packed in the evenings. It attracts an older, moneyed crowd drawn from the residential streets off Gloucester Road. (One regular described the typical L'Etranger customer as a French sugar trader with a holiday home in Mauritius.) Rather predictably, the man at the table next to mine had his mobile permanently glued to his ear.
When I ran my eyes down the menu my first thought was, "Oh no. Not another Nobu knock off." But a closer inspection revealed that a considerable amount of thought had gone into it. The head chef, Jerome Tauvron, used to specialize in Middle Eastern fare and, in addition to black cod, the menu includes slow-cooked lamb on a bed of aubergine and an unlikely trio of lavender, saffron and wasabi crème brulées. Tauvron has worked under Pierre Gagnaire and Alan Ducasse and there was clearly no lack of ambition here.
I started with salmon sashimi and, for my main course, had roast pork with black truffle mash, while my extravagant companion had King Crab tempura followed by Kobe beef (a snip at £49). Everything was very good--particularly the little flash-fried cubes of beef--but best of all were the desserts. My companion had the chocolate platter, while I opted for the apple tart with caramel fudge and vanilla ice cream. The Middle Eastern influence was clearly detectable in my pudding, which was almost overpoweringly sweet.
L'Etranger is a client of Sauce, the restaurant PR company that in a previous review I wrongly identified as being wholly owned by Gordon Ramsay. (In fact, he only owns 10%.) They're clearly doing a good job here since Issolah recently boasted to Caterer and Hotelkeeper that his average weekly takings at L'Etranger are over £40,000. Indeed, so oversubscribed is the 50-seat restaurant that Issolah has had to open a bar beneath the restaurant to accommodate the overspill and he's about to embark on a third venture in Dulwich. I daresay if he'd remained in Algeria, he'd be running the country by now.
There are now so many Asian fusion emporia, particularly in this part of London, that L'Etranger may need to re-invent itself at some point as a French-North African restaurant. But for the time being, Ibi Issolah deserves to be as proud as his Nobel Prize-winning countryman.