Exmouth Market in London is one of the best foodie streets I hadn’t heard of, let alone visited or eaten at till recently when I was invited to Cafe Pistou, a recent addition to what looks a burgeoning street of delectable treats in Clerkenwell. Wandering along Exmouth Market I wasn’t sure what to expect, except that it would have to be somewhere a bit special to stand out in a compact area where every second shop front is either a trendy restaurant with a new approach on creating or serving food. It is definitely a street I will be returning to again and again, judging by the number of places I’m going to need to eat at.
However, this crisp, warm spring evening I was a man on a mission. To visit Cafe Pistou and also learn about that classic French aperitif, Noilly Prat from the makers of the drink itself no less. As a confirmed Francophile I had been treated earlier that same week to a Champagne experience with Moet & Chandon and was now learning more about another firm favourite, Noilly Prat – a good week all round.
Cafe Pistou is a pistachio coloured brasserie occupying a corner plot with a decent sized outside seating area or terrace. The wooden tables outside are adorned with pots of lavender and sitting in the square it does feel as if you have been transported from London to a corner of France.
The concept of Cafe Pistou is simple, good quality Provençal cuisine reinterpreted for the urban diner. The menu has been created by Alex Mackay who spent years working under and with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons as well as co-authoring recipe books with him and running his own cookery school Le Baou d’Infer, in Provence.
With Cafe Pistou Alex has crafted a menu consisting of lite bites, small plates and large plates. Be warned that the Cafe Pistou philosophy is that everything is served when ready so a single plate, or everything could arrive at once, as opposed to the traditional way we are used to being served. This might not be how everyone wants to be served but, agree with the philosophy. Serve everything when it is ready.
On the evening we were sampling a range of small plates and lite bites in which he had used Noilly Prat to enhance the flavour of the dishes. There were tarts, croquettes and oysters, the latter of which is the classic accompaniment to Noilly Prat when served as an aperitif.
There is an air of ‘scalability’ to Cafe Pistou. If this restaurant does do well, I could see other branches opening in the not too distant future. Is that a bad thing? In my humble opinion it wouldn’t be as it has a certain charm and essence which does remind me of holidays in France.
Back to the Noilly Prat. Most of us probably use Vermouth as either a replacement for white wine when cooking (something I was guilty of till that evening) or as part of the classic cocktail, a dry Martini. When cooking with it I usually go by the rule of a dash for the pot and a dash for the chef but I don’t normally serve it as a drink in its own right. But Noilly Prat has a lot more going for it than that.
The drink, one France’s finest vermouth brands, is crafted from a blend of Picpoul wines and unique, complex recipe of twenty spices and herbs. The idea behind it is to perfectly capture and encapsulate the flavour of Marseillan in the South of France. Grapes grown in the region are subjected to a hotter, drier climate year round. Combined with the sandy soil it leaves grapes and wines with a drier, sunnier taste.
We began the evening with a glass of Noilly Prat, then went on to sample some of the delectable bites Alex had created before learning more about the history of the drink from the makers themselves. All in all a wonderful lazy spring evening for a Francophile who can’t wait for his next trip abroad.
For an authentic aperitif experience try serving Noilly Prat the French way.
2 parts Noilly Prat Original Dry
Twist of lemon peel
Ball of ice – about the size of a golf ball
– Add ice to a white wine glass
– Pour Noilly Prat Original Dry over the ice
– Stir once
– Take the lemon peel and squeeze over the rim of the glass
– Garnish with a twist of lemon peel in the glass
– Serve with oysters
Vermouth almost became a pastiche of itself in the past, we all know and dislike how it was often mistreated back in the 80’s but give the French classic another chance, you’ll be happy you did!
8-10 Exmouth Market