January 28, 2006

Elena's (L'Etoile)

30 Charlotte Street, London W1
020 7636 7189

Elena's is a Charlotte Street institution. The kind of place that, in my case, I go to with my boyfriend's parents, or perhaps my parents, when they are feeling in an old-school mood. Apparently, it used once to be a rather high-class brothel. Elena herself - well, let me just celebrate a true legend of the London restuarant scene who, despite old age and infirmity, wears her scarlet lipstick with panache and has a face from the silver screen, as she makes the rounds of her clientele.

It certainly is old-school - signed b&w photos of many establishment celebrities on the wall, and classical, mostly French cooking in the kitchen. The 'best table' is to the left of the door as you enter, in the window but somewhat secluded from the rest of the room by a glass screen, and on the side that doesn't get a draft from the door when it opens. When I went last week, I was not at my usual super-hungry pitch due to ill-advised mid-afternoon snacks from the cake shop below my office, and was a little daunted by the rather rich-looking menu. But I forgot one of the central precepts of classic French cooking, especially in establishments favoured by celebrities: the portion sizes are made for those trying to keep slim while still eating three courses, so I needn't have worried (or ordered the extremely light, salad-based first course rather than the richer one that I was really tempted by)

The quality of the food is good. My starter of a chicory salad with asparagus, chorizo, croutons and poached egg was true to its description, the poached egg immaculate. My main course - slow-cooked lamb 'confit' - was equally so - not going to win the stars for innovation, but perfectly executed, extremely well-presented, tasty stuff. My creme brulee was also classic - none of the twists (raspberries, weird shaped dishes) that you might get elsewhere, but absolutely as creme brulees have probably been made for the last century. It does feel like a step back in time, right down to the waiters with their heavy French accents.

Prices are not cheap but about average for a decent West End meal - mains around £12 upwards, starters £7 upwards. Not breaking the bank, as some online reviewers have claimed. The wine list is solid if not spectacular. The clientele is generally not of the younger generation, so I wouldn't recommend it for a twenty-something birthday party or something, unless you have a particular kind of frineds.. But if you want to have a diner a deux in a grown-up way, or take your parents out, or an old-school client, Elena's definitely makes the grade. It has the shimmer of glamour without any of the in-your-face design, yabbering media darlings or vaguely intimidating menu that come with so many other upmarket West End joints.


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