Raymond Blanc’s Brasserie Blanc chain has recently seen a growth spurt of some French magnifiqueness.
But with this growth, can the chain wobble, become uncontrollable, too impersonal and formulaic?
Come with me to its successful branch at Gunwharf Quays, the latest one to have a slight wash and brush up after two-and-a-half years of trading. Located at Number One Gunwharf, known locally as the lipstick building, the makeover isn’t, I confess, too apparent.
There are a few more tables in the bar area and new chairs in the large part of the restaurant. Candlebra, white tablecloths and engaging, humorous food paintings by Winchester artist Jenny Muncaster are part of BB’s signature design within the spacious restaurant/bar.
Where this 19-strong chain differs from most is Monsieur Blanc’s keenness on quality food. No central kitchen is responsible for the diverse menu’s offerings, with all food cooked by chefs who can be seen performing their skills, not opening packets and stuffing a microwave with the contents.
The menu is peppered with French brasserie-triggered traditional iconic words: chicken liver parfait; fish terrine; olive tapenade; steak tartare; escargots de Bourgogne; chicken with Armagnac-soaked prunes; onglet steak; beef in red wine with lardons; Toulouse sausage, chorizo and cannellini bean cassoulet; Swiss chard and Gruyère gratin, fricassee of mushrooms, poached egg; smoked Alsace bacon, poached egg, curly endive salad, mustard vinaigrette; Béarnaise, Roquefort or pepper sauce with steak.
A two or three-course winter menu offers the likes of cream of haricot bean soup, rosemary oil, smoked mackerel terrine, cucumber salad, horseradish cream; beetroot & watercress salad and trout fillet, warm potato salad, grain mustard butter.
At £10.95 for two courses and £13.50 for three before 7pm, the restaurant was doing a roaring trade with shoppers out to finish the Christmas shopping with a meal. After this witching hour, prices go up to £14 and £16.45. The main menu ranges from just under £5 for soup, the Alsace bacon salad for £7.25, a 30-day aged steak with chips from £11 to a smoked rib eye for two at £56.
Friend Francoise and I both eyed the smoked mackerel terrine and the slow-cooked beef, and the simple in-house cooking was apparent and pleasurable. The terrine, with its meaty fish and shards of new potato, was excellent with bags of flavour. But the cucumber seemed superfluous and there was not enough horseradish cream to make a difference to this charming dish.
The slow-cooked beef, although tender, was under-seasoned but the sauce and parsnip hit highs as did a carafe of house red, a further trad nod to brasserie-style wine serving.
Neither of us had dessert but could easily have had a caramel custard, or a hot chocolate cream mousse, pistachio ice cream, and a very English-sounding sultana and hazelnut baked apple. Service is helpful and attentive.
And what of the usual chain wobble charge due to its growth? Not apparent at all. M. Blanc’s formule is bucking the trend. We paid just over £20 per head including a 50cl carafe (£10.75) and an excellent but expensive espresso (£2.95 a double). Tip was on top.
Brasserie Blanc, 1 Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth, PO1 3FR. (023) 9289 1320. Open 10am–10pm.
FOOD Four (out of five)
SERVICE Four (out of five)
ATMOSPHERE Four (out of five)
How to get there: Follow the brown signs to Gunwharf Quays. Once there look for the tallest building, bar the Spinnaker, which is known as the lipstick building.
Parking: There’s plenty underground at Gunwharf.