Michael and I and our duo in crime had been planning our first double date for some time. All good friends and lovers of food, there was nothing to do but pick a good restaurant. When Michael and I had wandered along Brick Lane the weekend prior to our big night out, we had spotted a seemingly random and charming looking bistro amongst the queue of curry houses. Chez Elles stood out from the crowd with its French name and impressive number of happy heads that could be spotted on the other side of the glass.
We took our investigative skills one step further, peering closer at the appealing quintessentially French menu and tucking the cute name into the back of our minds for some internet research (tripadvisor) once we got home. As a result, we made a reservation for four and all got excited for some truly French fare.
Service: From the moment we arrived until we left we received top quality service. Considering the staff are all very, very French and I am a demanding customer, it’s fair to say that the service was impressively good. Chez Elles has a genuine ‘family-run’ feel, with both of our waiters for the evening making a real effort to please. I think you can always tell when someone is doing their job simply because it is their job, or when someone is doing their job because they care about what they are doing – at Chez Elles, I was given the definite impression of the latter, which was extremely refreshing.
The young male and female waiters that served us on the night were both personable and likeable, for different reasons. The male was very polite and accommodating, continuously nodding & smiling in response to our requests, whilst the female was much more blasé & confident in her manner, but got involved with our conversations and jokes. Aside from their apparent yet positively differing personalities, they were timely in bringing our courses and clearing our plates, and refilling our water jug. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble.
Ambience: Chez Elles has a really delightful ambience. The dim, romantic, candle lighting coupled with the hotchpotch of cute & quirky antique trinkets gives the place real character. The restaurant is overwhelmingly cute with all sorts of knick-knacks dotted around, including different patterned tablecloths; bird-cage lampshades hanging from the ceiling; intricate plates & mirrors adorning the walls; birds & flowers stationed in various corners; and brightly coloured candles sprouting from weird & wonderful candle holders.
There is also an entire array of intriguing seating available, featuring, amongst others, everything from vintage, ornate white chairs; bar stools; collapsible chairs; booth seats; and benches.
Usually I would be the first to voice criticism of this bizarre jumble of décor (as you can tell from my review of Mildred’s restaurant’s interior), but Chez Elles pulls of rustic chic effortlessly, for which I must applaud them. The variety of lamps and flickering flames of candles illuminating hidden corners of the room and casting shadows gives the place a somewhat sexy vibe. I can’t really believe I’m saying that about a restaurant, but it’s true (… or perhaps I’d just had one too many by this point?!). No, in all seriousness the restaurant’s ambience is truly wonderful, and is of course supported by the happy, chatty diners that fill every available spot.
^ Just look at that handsome twosome. Furthermore, unlike most foreign restaurants serving up Italian/French/Indian, etc. cuisine, Chez Elles actually succeeds in giving you a true French experience. Everything from our waiters (almost humourously) heavy French accents, to their style of communication and service (a little abrupt at times, but always with a smile), to their casual every day clothing – that just so happened to be a B&W striped dress for our waitress (not at all what one associates with France, right?), to the script used on the menus, with classically French cuisine translated from French to English, had you really feeling as if you were not stationed smack bang in the middle of Brick Lane, but dining in a quaint suburban village somewhere in the French countryside. Chez Elles has an atmosphere unlike any restaurant that I’ve visited for a while.
The seeming lack of effort and comfortable surroundings for both its staff and customers is what I think makes it so brilliant & unique.
Food: I would love more than anything to rave about the food. Honestly, nothing would give me more pleasure than to tell you that Chez Elles fed me the best meal that I’ve ever eaten, in light of the treatment by the staff and how awesome the setting is but, unfortunately, that would be a lie. We kicked off our 3-course meal with some complimentary bread & butter. A nice gesture and one that I think should be fulfilled by any self-respecting, decent restaurant. As it was free, I do not wish to be too harsh, but the bread was a little dry. From what I could see, they had many slices pre-cut on the side ready to dish out, allowing all of the moisture to evaporate. The butter was good & rich though, so at least they got that French part right!
As for starters, the girls (Tina & I) got the Burgundy snails cooked in garlic and parsley butter (£7.50), whilst the boys (Dan & Michael) went for the homemade duck rillette (£7.50). The snails smelt so amazing it was untrue; Tina and I couldn’t wait to tuck in and fish out the hidden treasures from under their glistening coats of parsley. They were also served with a much more appealing hunk of warm, crusty bread to mop up their flavoursome juices. The snails had a beautiful texture, silky smooth and not at all chewy; in fact, they were cooked to perfection. What let the dish down, however, was the overwhelming amount of oil encasing each snail. It left both Tina and I feeling quite greasy, which is not exactly what you want after your first course.
The guys’ duck rillettes were equally good. They really enjoyed the different texture to the more usual pate, parfait, or terrine that one usually sees featured as a duck starter, however, they sadly felt that the meat was lacking slightly in flavour. Despite the gherkins and caper berries adding a fresh zing to each bite, the duck by itself seemed to be missing that overpowering meatiness, or seasoning for that matter, and also had a slight gritty fattiness to it that could easily have been smoothed over by another element being added to the dish. The bread it was served with was also a little on the charred side. I think overall their mutual view was that the dish had a lot of potential, but hadn’t been executed quite as well as it could have been.
For mains, it was three orders of the handcut raw beef tartare with homemade French fries (£16.50), and one order of the chavignol goat cheese, olives and dry tomatoes tapenade, spinach and caramelised onion tart served with salad (£12.50). I do not claim to be an expert on beef tartare, but this was probably the worst that I have ever encountered. It was edible, but not pleasurable, and very unlike any other beef tartare that I have ever had. The meat didn’t actually even taste raw and was served in long stringy pieces versus being cubed; I would liken it to minced meat that has been fried for 15 seconds. It was really rather strange in texture and none of us particularly enjoyed it, which was a real shame as it was probably the dish that we had all most looked forward to and had the highest expectations for, with it being a French restaurant and all…
The chips, on the other hand, were excellent. They had the perfect ratio of crispiness to fluffiness and were a true delight. Our waiters also came through on serving the endless tiny pots of tomato ketchup that I requested, so that was a major plus for service in my book.
Dan had the vegetarian tart, which he was kind enough to let each of us sample, and I must say that we all had major food envy as a result. I am not one for savoury pastries, tarts, or even vegetarian meals when I am eating out, but it was exquisite. The tart had a crisp edge whilst the central pastry was cooked beautifully and melted in the mouth. The mushrooms were flavoursome and chewy and added a nice contrast in texture to the juicy tomatoes. The strong goat cheese added pockets of hard-hitting, tangy flavour, which was complimented wonderfully by the sweet, caramelised onions & balsamic drizzle. The side salad was light and fresh with a tasty dressing. All in all, a great dish and a nice portion size. I would recommend ordering this dish.
For puddings we had three chocolate moelleux, milk ice-cream and coco crumbles (£7.50) and one ‘café liégeois’ – coffee ice-cream, mascarpone ice-cream, a shot of espresso coffee and homemade chantilly (£6.50)… I think it’s fair to say that we are a group with similar taste buds!
The chocolate mouelleux hit the spot nicely. It was a great dish on which to end our feast; the moulleux had a texture somewhere between a sponge and a mousse, which I claimed I thought was ‘light’, only to be shot down in flames by Tina and Michael who told me it was anything but – firstly, clearly we have different chocolate capacity scales and, secondly, well obviously if it involves chocolate it’s going to be a little heavy – I merely meant that it wasn’t a really dense, stodgy pudding that left me wanting to be slumped on the sofa in my PJ’s for the rest of the night.
In short, we all really enjoyed the moulleux. I could have done with a little more cake-to-mousse ratio but that is really a personal preference due to a severe hatred of mousse (why does anyone want to eat air?). The pudding had a deep, decadent & delicious chocolate flavour, and every mouthful felt like a hug from the inside. It was warmed to a lovely temperature that went down well with small spoonfuls of the milk ice-cream. On the ice-cream front, however, we all would have preferred a vanilla bean ice-cream or something that had a little more flavour as an accompaniment to the chocolate galore. I understand that their intention was probably to make the moulleux the star of the show, but the ice-cream just seemed to be adding a cold element rather than contributing anything of note to the dish. The coco crumbles added crunch and an extra dark chocolate hit, which I was most grateful for, as we all know I love contrasting textures! It was a good dessert and definitely my favourite part of the meal.
Dan controversially got the ‘café liégeois’, which I say only because ice-cream on its own for me is not a dessert; it is the side to dessert, or else it comes served atop a homemade waffle cone with lots of crunchy bits & bobs shovelled on top. Of course, I know that for many a scoop or two of ice-cream is a satiating dessert, but it simply does not do the job for me. He loved it though, and to be fair it did have a few elements to it, with layers of whipped cream and a crisp chocolate-y twill standing proudly to attention out of the ice-y concoction. The coffee ice-cream had the right strength of coffee incorporated, and there was a slight contrast in texture when scooped up with the thicker whipped cream. The chocolate twill would definitely have been my favourite part of that pudding, but Dan couldn’t get enough of the overall product, so thankfully we were 4 very happy bunnies.
Seeing as it wasn’t a school night and we were feeling rebellious, we had a round of (start of the night) night-caps; Baileys (£4.20) and amaretto (£4.20) on the rocks for Michael and I, and espresso martinis (£8.00 each) for our lovely dates.
The drinks all went down a treat, as most do. The espresso martinis were the only choices that involved any skill and were done well. At this point we asked for the bill which much to our, or I should say the girls’, delight, came with a small, cute glass jar filled with sugar-coated pick n’ mix (the absolute sure set way to my heart).
As Tina and I continued to pig out and the boys eye-balled the bill, yet another surprise gift arrived in the form of shots! Our lovely waitress offered a choice of two liqueurs; I was kind enough to let everyone else go ahead and choose so I could try a sip of theirs before picking myself – neither were pleasant (it’s pure alcohol after all), but I found one to be much more acceptable than the other. We invited (/forced) our waitress to join us for a round, which she did, much to hers and Chez Elles’ credit as it just shows the laid-back nonchalant attitude of the management, which is what makes an evening at Chez Elles so enjoyable.
Price: The total bill, including 12.5% service, came to £206.90, which is not at all something to turn your nose up at for 3 courses, post-dinner tipple and ½ a bottle of wine each (1 bottle of white – ‘Sauvignon blanc, Jean de la Roche, 2013′ (£18.50) and 1 bottle of red – ‘Merlot, Jean de la Roche, 2012′) (£18.50), PLUS all the awesome freebies. The actual ingredients used in the dishes that we ordered for our starter and main courses were also not cheap and I thought the dishes were well priced in terms of value for money; it is just a slight shame that we did not enjoy some of the food more.
I would genuinely recommend spending an evening at Chez Elles; we found the food to be a bit hit and miss but at the end of the day it’s not expensive and the experience that they provide is truly exceptional, which is much more than can be said for most restaurants in London nowadays! I know that they also serve brunch and lunch too, and their freshly baked cakes looked pretty inviting, should you find yourself wandering around Brick Lane during the day. If you happen to try the beef tartare please let me know what you think – I can’t believe that the 3 of us are all crazy (…but I guess it’s a possibility!).