Ravel’s Bistro: restaurant review

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The Gospel Oak stalwart with the purple paint job has marked the gateway to Belsize Park and Hampstead for 20 years

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Ravel's Bistro has been on Fleet Road since the 1990s. Photo: SE
Ravel’s Bistro has been on Fleet Road since the 1990s. Photo: SE
Ravel’s windows have been adorned with celebrity endorsements (Russell Brand! Michael Palin! Coldplay!) for as long as we can remember, perhaps due to geography and convenience, rather than culinary excellence.

And I would know. Having lived within a ten-minute walk for thirteen years, I’ve probably been there more times than some other local restaurants, for just those reasons.

But the other Friday night, as my partner and I wandered past, it occurred to us that we hadn’t popped in for aeons – certainly not since it changed hands three years ago, when the new owners sensibly retained the longstanding Polish chef.

Fast forward to 2017 and a glance at the menu reveals it’s still serving French bistro food with the odd eastern European touch – as well as now hosting occasional Polish Supper Clubs, a relatively good value £30 for several courses.

We decided to test the set menu there and then, a steal at just £12.95 for two courses. There was, we concluded, minimal risk.

First surprise: the whole place was booked. Bumping! We managed to bag the last ill-positioned table by the door, close enough to dodge (and also gawp at) the stream of customers flooding in: smart couples on date night, well-heeled families eating early, and a matriarch with back-combed hair who proceeded to sit silently, drinklessly awaiting her guests. Hopefuls were turned away, unless they had reserved.

Fortunately it was only 6.58pm – or so – and the waiter allowed us to order from the set menu, available till just 7pm, a slightly complicated affair in that many dishes are followed by the letter (s), denoting a supplement of unnamed cost.

Being skinflints we played safe and stayed on the non-supplement path. After a generous basket of bread, our starters arrived smoothly; service is slick.

A potentially vapid goat’s cheese staple, with crispy Parma ham, beetroot and a superfluous hunk of toasted ciabatta (pictured above) was given Masterchef-style lift by a tart raspberry coulis; while the palest smoked salmon mousse – I know, I know – sat in a merry boat of avocado, perfumed with lemony dill, a 1970s dinner-winner. We scoffed both; licked the plate clean, in fact.

Mains were equally competent, although the presentation of the duck en croute pushed the appeal of retro to its furthest limits.

Still, a neat ball of red cabbage exuded the tang of orange, aided by Cointreau sauce, and the shredded, roasted meat in puff pastry, mixed with spinach and mushrooms, yielded unfathomable seasonal warmth. Personally I wouldn’t dot plain vegetables about the plate, graced not even with butter: no-one goes out to eat boiled carrots, however correctly they’re cooked.

Better was the coq au vin. Of course it was! The free-range, corn-fed breast and thigh was tender, falling-off-the-bone, its flavour intensified by the smoky hint of turkey lardons, earthy mushrooms and a velvety red wine sauce. A pile of mash didn’t weigh the plate down either, although it could have been creamier and lighter, while a sprinkling of ineffectual mange-tout could easily be retired. It needed more gravy to make it really sing, so it’s worth asking for an additional jug on the side – as we did.

We would prefer a little more work on the vegetables. Photo: Ravel's Bistro
We would prefer a little more imagination when it comes to the vegetables. Photo: Ravel’s Bistro
Overall, though? We were full and relatively content. Pleasantly sleepy, too, after the heady mix of carbs. Having settled for a bottle of house red (decent value at £16) to keep the bill down, we rolled out only £42 lighter between us, not excluding a cash tip. And our very busy waiter was friendly throughout, it should be noted.

As we stepped out onto the junction (it’s not the prettiest spot, is it?) the place was still humming, with a stream of customers still being turned away. Let’s hope the new owners at the nearby Gipsy Queen pub have the same problem on a Friday night.

Yes, there are times when you want ‘foodie’ food, or to experience the latest openings and trends in the capital; but there’s thankfully room for old-school neighbourhood brasseries, too. Ravel’s Bistro simply offers satisfying home cooking – and, with that well-priced set menu, there’s nothing inconvenient about that.

This is box title
The set menu is £12.95 for two courses and £15.95 for three and runs till 7pm at Ravel’s Bistro, open daily at 4 Fleet Rd NW3 2QS

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