Oxford Street has never had it so good
Update 14/2/17 – this restaurant has now closed
Although by no means the most incongruously positioned restaurant I’ve ever come across, Piquet is nonetheless oddly located. Wedged in-between a faceless office block and a hair salon, it sits opposite a building site and part of Oxford Street’s branch of PC World. Inside, though, is a seductively classy decor that’s a subtle blend of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Gothic revival and other art terms I’m not really qualified to use.
The charmingly Gallic staff were friendly and efficient across all my visits and I was quite taken with their country squire-esque uniforms resplendent with autumnal colours, twill weaves and checked patterns. The menu is a mash-up of French and British, but the kitchen has avoided most of the hoary old brasserie classics from both sides of the Channel and instead serves up a litany of dishes that transcend their plain descriptions on paper.
First things first
‘Beef tea’ brings to mind Bovril, a concoction you either love or hate. Here it’s more of a clear, moreish consommé-style cockle warmer complimented neatly with unctuous meaty morsels of oxtail and nutty mushrooms.
It’s arguable that it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference what meat you use in rillettes, at least until you’ve had Piquet’s duck rillette. Meatily creamy with a smooth and dense mouthfeel, it’s both very pleasing and subtly different from the pork rillettes I’ve had. A special mention has to go to the small, sharp and slightly sweet silverskin onions and the tart cornichons on the side – no hunk of paté or rillette would be the same without them.
I’m a big fan of sweetbreads and the portion here was surprisingly large. The voluminous pillowy hunk was very smooth and fatty – it was almost too rich. Its unctuousness was enhanced by the creamy, exceptionally smooth mash and buttery lettuce. The mushrooms provided excellent contrast with their richly complex flavours of slight sourness and nuttiness with liver-like hints. It’s spot-on winter food.
The smooth sorbet wasn’t inedibly icy, but was still very cool and had the distinctive sweet sour sharpness of apple which was matched by the complimentary blackberries. The yielding and not-too-sweet shortbread on the side was a tad out of place, but it was useful for scooping up rogue dollops of cream.
Going back for seconds
I’ve historically been against pies, but successive restaurants have been demonstrating how the baked puffy things should be done. First, the rabbit-filled pasty-esque beast at Paradise Garage and now the snail pithivier at Piquet. Although the chewy, gently earthy snails were surprisingly subdued and the moderately thick, creamy green filling unidentifiable, both were still enjoyable – especially when taken with the sharp and rich sauce on the plate. The fluffy soft and layered pastry was impressive and shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Piquet’s cod cheek casserole has a vaguely Spanish/North African feel to it, with the lightly unctuous and tender fish medallions melding well with the sticky meatiness of the chorizo-infused sauce and the firm, almost chickpea-esque white haricot beans. I couldn’t detect the alleged presence of baby squid, but the chopped herbs added extra fragrance and richness to this neo-cassoulet.
Of all the desserts I tried at Piquet, the vanilla ice cream was the least satisfying. Although smooth and not too icy, its flavour was predictably muted. This did allow the distinctive sharpness of the blackberry compote to take centre stage though, while the buttery crunch of the tuile wafer bowl wasn’t the liability I thought it would be.
I was expecting the pressed suckling pig to turn out like a brawn or head cheese, but the beautifully balanced and powerfully rich strip of pork was even better than that. Its joyfully meaty, salty and fatty qualities were enhanced by the rich and crumbly black pudding and thick, mildly sweet prunes on the side. Counteracting all this richness was a sharp and smooth cauliflower purée. This could well be one of my dishes of the year, if it wasn’t almost upstaged by the venison main below.
Piquet’s sliced loin of venison was beautifully simple. Cooked rare, it had a musky sweetness and subtle nuttiness that I wasn’t expecting from such pink meat. The buttery soft chestnuts and sharp quince purée were both very well-executed, but ultimately overshadowed by the chunky and coarse part-dumpling, part-meatball faggot which elevated the venison to even giddier heights.
After such sublime meatiness, the dessert of chocolate and passion fruit custard was a disappointing crash back down to Earth. The mildly bittersweet chocolate mousse and moderately sweet and sharp passionfruit counterpart weren’t bad, but they just couldn’t hold my interest – not even when the layers were broken down and mixed together a little. The slightly peppery and honey-esque tuile on the side was just plain odd.
Don’t be disappointed when you order the crab ravioli and only get a single one. The large, lone raviolo is more of a dumpling and a mighty fine dumpling it was too. The skin faded into the background, allowing the crab filling to take centre stage. Devoid of crustacean texture, it was more like a fish ball but it still had the evocative salty tang of crab. It was made even more delicious by the umami slap of the diced tomato pieces and the thin, yet lightly moreish sauce. The only real disappointment here was the muted samphire, although its light crunch did at least provide some contrast in texture.
Although the ‘pot roast seabass’ sadly wasn’t served in an actual pot, it was nonetheless exceptionally pleasing thanks to the meaty, zingy fresh bass. The fish, which puts to shame other, far more mundane bass dishes from elsewhere, would’ve been more than sufficient on its own. It was nonetheless joined by taut, pleasingly sour mushrooms, creamy cauliflower and a moderately thick sauce that was surprisingly sticky and meaty, adding an extra, lip-smacking level of flavour to this already accomplished dish.
After that pair of zingers, the almond tart was a big comedown. Despite the topping of large, flaked almond pieces, the tart didn’t taste much of almonds at all. It tasted more raisin-ish due to the fruity filling sandwiched inside. It wasn’t especially rich or satisfying, even with a dollop of whipped cream on the side, but was satisfactory enough.
The Piquet bar menu
If you can’t get a table in the main basement dining room, or just want a quick bite and drink then there’s always the upstairs bar. With the possible exception of the mildly uncomfortable table and chairs, it’s hardly a consolation prize. The cosier, more moodily lit space feels more romantic and the bar menu has some unique dishes of its own, alongside a few favourites from downstairs.
The distinctive taste of the meaty mackerel went surprisingly well with the lightly earthy beetroot. Tinged with horseradish, the beetroot proved surprisingly effective at cutting through the relatively oily richness of the fish.
Thin slices of fennel sausage proved to be much like saucisson sec, but with the sensibly moderated taste of fennel cutting through the porky fattiness. A small helping of sharply dressed salad made me feel less guilty about devouring this much cured meat in one sitting.
If you need more greens, then the chicory salad would be a good choice. Lightly bitter leaves were joined by soft, but distinctively nutty walnut pieces and segments of musky sweet pear. I usually prefer my blue cheese bold and pungent, but the subdued blue used here was more appropriate as it blended in better with the other components to form a very satisfying salad.
The exterior of the pork galette resembled a fish cake, but the filling was most definitely strands of moist porkiness. Accompanying this pork cake, for the lack of a better term, was a salad and a mayo-like sauce oddly flavoured with capers and chives that nonetheless complimented both meat and veg.
As light desserts go, you can’t get much lighter than a few fruity cubes of citrusy sugary sweetness. The soft, dusted truffled chocolates were fine, but the real contrast to the pate de fruit cubes was the banana-like flavour of the dark, bittersweet cocoa nibs.
The Piquet tasting menu
It’d be easy to assume that the kitchen would simply slap together some of the smaller dishes from the bar menu along with a bigger main from downstairs to form the tasting menu. Obviously, that wasn’t the case with the kitchen instead drawing together some of its biggest hits for its self-described ‘chef’s market menu’. Perhaps inevitably, not everything was quite as good as it was before – the duck rillettes were a little looser and wetter in consistency compared to the first time around. Although somewhat coarser in texture, it had also lost the mysteriously creamy unctuousness that had so beguilled me the first time around.
Thankfully, the crab raviolo was just as good as it was before. The only difference in this iteration was the modestly saltier samphire, although it was still a tad too soft for my liking.
It wasn’t all just repeats of dishes I had the good sense to order before, of course. The beetroot salad was a revelation. The differently coloured slices of beetroot had a gentle earthiness balanced out by a fruity sweetness that was unexpected, but nonetheless delightful. It might have all just been a placebo effect caused by the bright colours, but the tart dressing, bitter leaves, crunchy macademias and tangy pomegranate were all top class, without a doubt.
I usually avoid salmon that’s not sushi or sashimi as it tends to be cooked to within an inch of its short life, rendering it stodgy, heavy and dull. That definitely wasn’t the case here – the gently flaky yet still meaty flesh was gently buttery and surprisingly light. The skin was crisp and evocatively salty, while the wrinkly kale, creamy cauliflower puree and thin moreish sauce kept things varied.
It was back to familiar territory with the venison loin. Although the deer meat didn’t have quite the same depth of character as before, it was still of a higher order than most venison dishes. The faggot on the side was still sublime though – I could quite happily eat a whole bowl of the earthy, crumbly, meaty ball-shaped heart wreckers.
The bramley apple sorbet was still tremendously evocative of the original fruit with its cool, sharp sweetness slapping me awake from my encroaching post-meat slumber.
I’m a firm believer in the overall supremacy of the French cheese pantheon, but there were homegrown delights to be had on Piquet’s mixed selection of British and French cheeses. First, the duffers. The unidentifiable French blue had a heavily muted chalky astringency that left me cold. The nameless French washed rind semi-soft cow’s milk cheese did a bad impression of a good brie, with the inoffensively creamy yellowish cheese outshone by a notably astringent rind.
Far better was the surprisingly milk and mild British goat’s cheese which had the kind of pleasingly astringent rind that I’d normally expect to find on a blue. The creamy, smelly, runny and slightly sour Stinking Bishop vied with the nutty and sweet aged Comte for top place, with the latter only losing out as it didn’t have the salty crunch of crystallised amino acids that, for me, is a mark of a truly exceptional Comte.
In a better world, every high street across the land would have their own Piquet. The classy decor and straightforward dishes resplendent with punchy flavours make Piquet one of my favourite restaurants in a city where’s no shortage of places to eat. Cote, and other substandard Gallic wannabes, can only hope, wish and dream to be as good as Piquet. The only things that give me pause for concern is the only occasional wobble in consistent execution and anxieties about how the currently autumnal and wintery menu will adapt to the warmer seasons. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from eating at Piquet. Of its comparable nearby competition, only the superlative Newman Arms is in the same league. Now go.
What to order: Sweetbreads; Apple sorbet; Pressed suckling pig; Venison loin; Crab raviolo; Pork galette
What to skip: A few of the cheeses and desserts.
Address: 92-94 Newman Street, London W1T 3EZ
Phone: 0203 826 4500
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon – 15.00 and 17.30-23.00. Bar, Monday-Saturday 11.00-23.00.
Reservations: highly recommended on or around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service: £40 approx. (£60 approx. for the tasting menu)