London-dwellers, if you are ever in need of a reminder that French cuisine is not just about fine dining frou frou, then a visit to Casse Croûte will sort you out. One minute you’ll be standing in a busy but ordinary street in Bermondsey and moments later you’ll be transported to a bistro somewhere in France. There’s a special place in my head and heart for all the finicky techniques and unpronounceable sauces of French haute cuisine, but there’s nothing more comforting and soul-soothing than rustic French fare. Casse Croûte is dripping in quaintness and kitsch; with all the red and white chequered tablecloths, knick knacks cluttering the shelves, and vintage signs adorning the walls, I should be describing it as a tad tacky. But instead I find myself grinning from ear to ear at the sight of it and telling everyone I know that it’s positively charming.
Of course it helps that the food is remarkably good. Looking the part will only get a restaurant so far, it has to taste the part too and every mouthful here had that ‘ooh la la’ factor. That’s my French for ‘my goodness, that was good…’, by the way. Like all the good French bistros, the menu at Casse Croûte is sparse if you like options, or wonderfully succinct if you’re a menu ditherer like me. Three starters, three mains, and three desserts – the offering changes daily and is written only in French in the big blackboard in the centre of the dining room. If your high school French is a little rusty or you’re a bit slow on the Google translate, you needn’t worry because the bubbly front of house staff are always on hand to translate…
Escargot, snails, slippery little suckers, whatever you call them… it seems people either love them or hate them. I am a lover, and is there a more French way of eating escargot than prising them out of their shells, covered in butter and enough garlic to keep vampires at bay for months? Probably not, but having them swimming in a creamy, herb-speckled sauce and overflowing out of a pastry case can definitely come a close second. Across the table, the coquilles St Jacques arrived. These scallops were generously coated in a white sauce and encrusted with breadcrumbs. The sweetness of this delicate shellfish managed to withstand the onslaught from the other flavours; a testament to the quality of the ingredients and the balancing skills of the kitchen.
If I was forced to pick, a chop would never be my first choice of cut in any meat, least of all pork. There’s always a higher risk of a pork chop being bland, dry or both; and the probability only increases if I’m doing the cooking. But a well cooked chop is a thing of beauty, simple blushing pink beauty. A certain someone, self-appointed pork connoisseur, gave the cote de porc charcuterie served with spinach and pomme boulangerie the clean plate seal of approval. Every last bit of meat devoured, every inch of the potatoes topped with breadcrumbs scraped out of the bowl. This was a winning dish.
My paupiette de veau also impressed, especially now that I am into all things stuffed and rolled when it comes to cooking my meat. Rolling up a piece of veal with mushrooms and more meat, pork in this case, seemed like overkill to me but trust the French to convince me otherwise. This juicy veal parcel came with mash potatoes, spinach and lashings of mushroom gravy… it was a simple dish, one that I even think I could pull off, but that’s sort of the definition of French bistro fare, isn’t it? A bit of home-style cooking, but on steroids. Eating this dish here would always taste better than at home because someone else has cooked it, their sauces have the most incredible depth of flavour, and I’m certain they are heavier-handed with the butter than I ever would be!
After much deliberation, we settled on a tarte aux cerises for dessert because cherries were in season, and hey, there’s fruit so it must be the healthier option… I’ll use anything to justify my love of pastry. I did have a minor quibble about the lack of a dollop of cream or custard on the side, but there were no complaints about the buttery, thin-crusted tart itself! Our whole Casse Croûte experience was rather fantastique, in the sense that the food was impeccable, but also that it whisked us away to another land. We may have physically been in Bermondsey but our minds and stomachs were most definitely in France!
Have you been to Casse Croûte before?
What’s your favourite French restaurant in London?
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