Pre-Theatre Dining at Palm Court Brasserie:
Those of you who like eating early in the evening are well placed to take advantage of one of London’s biggest bargains. The pre-theatre dining menus in many London restaurants are just a fraction of the price of the a la carte. So, if you are happy to eat before 7 pm and don’t expect to linger at your table, it’s a great way to dine out on a budget.
I visited Palm Court Brasserie on a typical London Spring day – cold and raining. The sort of Sunday you just want to stay in bed with the papers and a mug of tea. But lunch was booked and I had high hopes that a bit of French ambience would inject some va-va-voom into my day.
Palm Court Brasserie is in Covent Garden, in the heart of the West End, a well- placed venue for going on to the theatre after the meal although it’s an area so popular with visitors to London that it can be hard to find a reasonable price restaurant. Invited to review the pre-theatre menu I kept an eye on the time. If I had a theatre date – a matinee say – I would want to arrive around 12.30 for lunch and be out by 2 pm.
The restaurant looked small from the street, but in fact was surprisingly large, reaching back some way and decorated with lots of plants, mirrors and French posters. We were seated at the window which was great for people watching. A long, wood- panelled bar in the front room was elegantly paired with comfortable leather banquettes and French café chairs.
The tables sported white linen tablecloths covered with white paper cloths and paper serviettes. Whilst we all prefer white linen serviettes, the growing use of paper is perhaps a reflection on the need to preserve the planet’s resources. One of the ways restaurants can do this is to reduce their laundry bill. Now that plastic straws are out – my drink came with a paper straw – I might just have to get used to paper serviettes too. Fresh flowers on the table were pretty and colourful.
Our drinks order was taken promptly – a glass of house red for my companion and a St Clements for me – a refreshing glass of fresh orange juice mixed with bitter lemon.
Half an hour went by from our arrival to the order for our meal being taken. Had I been going on to the theatre I would have been growing rather tense. But, of course, Sunday lunchtime isn’t a normal pre-theatre dining time and once orders were in, the food arrived promptly. A basket of freshly sliced baguette was accompanied by small pots of butter and tapenade.
The pre-theatre menu has 4 options for starter and main courses. Starters include soup of the day (wild mushroom on the day we visited) and baked wedge of brie in filo pastry with cranberry chutney. My companion chose Chicken Liver Parfait, red onion marmalade and toast. A slice of parfait was tasty, the kind you might have seen in many French markets, the marmalade adding the requisite foil for the rich liver. My Citrus Marinated Salmon, celeriac remoulade, dill oil was pretty on the plate, generous slices of salmon surrounding a little heap of remoulade. The salmon tasted fresh but lacked the citrus flavour I was expecting. The remoulade – a dish I adore – was similarly lacking in flavour, its mustard kick rather absent.
Main courses on offer included Rainbow Trout with garlic crushed new potatoes and hollandaise sauce, Gammon ham, spring onion mashed potatoes and charcuterie sauce, or beef or risotto. My companion chose the Beef Bourguignon and mash. This dish should be top notch in any French brasserie. The portion once again was generous, the beef served attractively in a small cast iron pot. While the meat was tender it was strangely flavourless. There was no rich, red wine reduction that would tell of long, slow cooking. The mash was somewhat gluey rather than light. This was disappointing. I recently ate this very dish in a London gastropub where the meat was meltingly tender and its sauce so deeply flavoured that I had to mop up every last drop.
I chose the vegetarian option – Wild Mushroom Risotto, truffle oil and crème fraiche. A large portion arrived looking very appetising with a pile of mushrooms on the top. This was the most successful dish of those we tried. Although a bit over salted, I liked the rosemary flavour that came through although the truffle oil was less obvious. The rice was al dente as it should be.
We ordered a couple of side dishes (all at £3.95 and not included on the pre-theatre menu) to see what the kitchen could do with vegetables. These were sad. The buttered carrots had no flavour at all. A sprinkling of caraway seeds would have lifted the dish with little effort. I purposefully chose the Petit Pois à la Francaise as this a classic dish for a French brasserie. It was overcooked, the peas were not the delicate petit pois but a larger, less tender variety and there was no sign of the lettuce that forms part of this dish other than a few strips of a dark green, unidentifiable item which might once have been lettuce, but had wilted away.
We enjoyed our desserts. My companion’s Classic Crème Brulee had a lovely firm caramel topping which cracked beautifully as the spoon shattered the surface. The caramel flavour was very good and the custard beneath was light. My Valrhona Chocolate tart with mint Chantilly was moist and deeply chocolatey. It was accompanied by a ball of mint Chantilly and a smear of raspberry coulis. A third option included a selection of ice creams and sorbets.
The atmosphere at Palm Court Brasserie was happy. There was a general sense of bonhomie and families and couples alike were tucking into Sunday lunch. The table alongside were enjoying mussels and gorgeous looking desserts.
Despite the slow start, we were out within an hour and a half. As for value for money, the pricing was very reasonable, especially in Central London. The menu offered £15.95 for two courses and £18.95 for three (with a £2 supplement for the beef bourguignon and another £2 for the Chicken Liver Parfait). We were full after our three-course lunch as the portions were generous. Overall I would describe the food as filling if not thrilling. The same can be said, I should point out, about restaurants in the area that charge three times these prices and if you want somewhere other than a chain restaurant it can get very expensive.
As a pre-theatre meal menu, the price is good, the venue is cheerful and comfortable, and you will leave well fed and in time for your production.
Palm Court Brasserie, 39 King Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 8JS