Monday, 10 January 2011

LADIES WHO LUNCH

The Communal Table at Le Pain Quotidien
On Mondays, I do my "other job", that is, looking after My Old Man of Kensington. When people ask me what I "do" for him, I am sometimes tempted to wink naughtily and smile knowingly. Or reply that I am "a gentleman's companion", with all its Victorian connotations. In reality, I am his secretary and half a day a week, usually on a Monday, I go to his large house in Notting Hill to help shuffle papers, take dictation and listen to his sometimes rather risque stories. He's an interesting man: his father was Sir David Kelly, a high-achieving diplomat, who was Ambassador to Moscow during the Cold War. Laurence (for it is he!) himself has a strong association with Russia and has written biographies of two of Pushkin's contemporaries, Alexander Griboyedov (author of Woe from Wit) and Mikhael Lermontov (author of A Hero of Our Time). He has interesting, more ancient antecedents too: one of his relations, on his mother's side, was an aide-de-camp to Napoleon at Waterloo, and subsequently fled France after killing someone in a duel.

I love Notting Hill, and often say it's the area where I'd live if I won the lottery (I envisage a large house, with a big room to house my grand piano, and a spacious kitchen). I love the idea of living "in town", and would far rather move further into central London than out to the country. Notting Hill is such an interesting area, from the station on Notting Hill Gate right down Portobello Road to the Westway, where Halal meat shops rub shoulders with designer clothes shops and chi-chi delis. There are streets and streets of elegant houses, leafy squares, and cobbled mews where horses were kept before the motor car became the favoured mode of transport. Sometimes, when I leave Laurence's house, I wander the surrounding streets (he lives on Ladbroke Grove - at the smart end), enjoying the architecture and the people. Other times, I meet a friend, who works near Notting Hill Gate, for lunch. We have lately switched our allegiance, again, from the bistro in the Nicole Farhi store on Westbourne Grove ('202') to Le Pain Quotidien on Notting Hill Gate.

Le Pain Quotidien ("the daily bread") originated in Brussels in 1990. Founder and chef Alain Coumont wanted simple bread, hearty and wholesome, with a firm slice and a good crust. Unable to find the right bread for his restaurant, M. Coumont opened his own bakery. Le Pain Quotidien now has over 140 restaurants/bakeries worldwide. The first PQ I visited was on Marylebone High Street; there are now branches all over London (I went to one behind Oxford Street the day I purchased my piano to recover from the shock of putting such a large transaction through my Visa account!).

PQ has what it calls a "communal table" in each branch, which is just a fancy way of saying a big table, around which about 20 people can sit. If you don't want to go communal, there are smaller tables around the dining space, with wooden benches. The interior tends to be similar from branch to branch: upmarket French patisserie, with lots of scrubbed, bleached wood, exposed brickwork and old posters. The menu is not huge, and the main focus is on the "tartine", an open sandwich, made with a very good wheaten bread, with a variety of toppings such as avocado and crab, rare roast beef, pesto and parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and rocket, and such like. There are daily specials, salads, hot main courses and some very naughty patisseries and cakes - if you've still got room for a little extra something. It's good value - the servings are generous, and everything I've tried at PQ has been tasty and interesting. It's not flashy food, but the high-quality ingredients and imaginative combinations make it an enjoyable dining experience.

Meeting not one, but two friends for lunch today, we enjoyed chilled glasses of Rose while perusing the menu and caught up, having not seen each other for several weeks. Around us, the restaurant had quickly turned into Macbook Central, and everywhere I looked, there were laptops open or people busily tapping away at their iPhones (PQ has free WiFi). Some inoffensive classical music - barely loud enough to be intrusive or recognisable - played in the background. Lunch - a tartine, a glass of wine and a single espresso came to £16.50/head, which, given the location, seems reasonable.

You can buy bread and cakes, and other delights including something extremely naughty-but-nice called Brunette, a praline spread (a little like peanut butter or Nutella, only much, much nicer), from the deli. I have to admit the Granola was stupidly expensive, but it was rather delicious - and reminded me that I really should make my own.....

The Pain Quotidien

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