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L'Esperance Restaurant, Surbiton - Reviewed By Paul Blake

158 Ewell Road
Tel: 0208 3907564

One of the challenges of writing a restaurant review is knowing quite where to pitch the praise and quite when to pull the punch.

The problem, you see, is the big E - Expectation. Time after time one can sit down to dine "knowing" that it's going to be grand only to find that, well it really wasn't all that. Why? It's that big E again.

As I type I glance down the list of popular restaurants and I see two that I know well (one local to my parents, the other nearby where I used to live) and I guarantee you won't get a "bad" meal at either, but is the overall experience really that good in either? I'd say not.

"Where is all this leading?" I hear you ask. Or perhaps that's "Get on with it!"

Well, OK, I will.

We were taken on this thirtieth of January to L'Esperance in Surbiton. A new venture in an old venue it was, until recently, a lack-lustre eatery, before that a purveyor of musical instruments where Clapton bought his first guitar and going back to the 20s and 30s it was even a Waitrose. The decor and layout is understated with few frills but it's stylish and the boss (who seems to do absolutely everything except cook) is friendly and relaxed and charming.

We arrive early and the chef is front of house and gives us a friendly smile as we are shown to our table, for a while it's just us.

Before the menus arrive there is a moment to check out the mercifully short specials blackboard. Things look promising with the offer of Sea Bream with asparagus and crayfish, but the menu entices more.

A little amuse bouche of tomato and mozzarella with a thick pesto of mint, coriander, garlic and almonds, sets the scene for an eastern-med/middle east kind of event which is quite at odds with the French-style menu but was a real appetizer and so I'm just being picky.

Back to the menu and between us we go for Cappucino of Pumpkin with Smoked Bacon, Tarte Fine Nicoise with Salmon and Terrine of Foie Gras with Red Onion Marmalade. For myself and Mrs B the pumpkin soup was a winner, but it was so much better than just that. It was light without being watery, it was big on flavour but not overloaded by the smokiness of the bacon and seasoned perfectly it was so good that a little bread was required to send the bowl back clean.

On to the mains and we ordered two of the Tuna with Creamed Leeks and Sauce Vierge, one Sirloin with onions and thyme spuds and I had Sea Bass with pureed Jerusalem Artichokes and seafood sauce. I have to say I was a bit nervous of "seafood sauce". These days heaven knows what one might be served in such a thing, but I needn't have worried.

It's rare that I choose the best thing on the menu (my wife seems to have that knack, or is that just plate envy?) but tonight I think I got it right. I had two fillets of Sea Bass which was an unexpectedly generous portion, but I ain't complaining. The artichoke puree was almost a foam, and with the bisque-like seafood sauce it was absolutely delicious. The fish was cooked well too with a good deal of browning and crisping to the skin (which I love) and yet the flesh was soft and not even close to being overcooked. I snuck a bit of creamed leek, thyme potato and sirloin from my friends' plates and nothing negative to report there. The steak had the most fantastic char grilled flavour but I was keen to get back to Bass.

We downed a Chilean Merlot at £17.75 which was a reasonable price for a reasonable wine. The wine list was a little disappointing, although if I'm going to be down on a French-style bistro for be a little up on French wines then perhaps I should hold my tongue. Then again, I might have ordered French if the selection had been a bit more eclectic and less run-of-the-mill. But it's a personal thing.

For pud we tucked into Vanilla and Armagnac Creme Brulee (beautifully smooth with a lovely crunchy top) and a tarte tatin which was huge and well flavoured with a good bite to the apples but the pastry was flat and flabby and all in all it let the side down.

We passed on coffee but were treated to a little glass of the boss's favourite dessert wine which was a lovely touch.

Service wasn't included and the whole meal came to a really very reasonable ninety-four quid including wine.

The place was quiet with fifteen covers including ourselves by the time we left but it was, after all, a cold Wednesday in January and the place is newly open.

But herein lies the rub and the business with the big E.

We weren't expecting much from L'Esperance but what we got was lovely, so a big tick from us. But, if I tell you you've got to go and you'll love it, well maybe you'll go with the big E on your shoulder and you'll think it's not so good. So this is my recommendation. Go and make up your own mind - but I DO recommend you go.


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