I was always intrigued by what lies beneath Le Chardon’s darkened windows, but I’ve generally been too busy marching past to other restaurants on Lordship Lane. Closer inspection reveals the bones of the building are a throwback to its heritage as a late 18th-century grocer, complete with latter-day fairy lights. Money can’t buy such a charming shell, with saloon doors and lacquered tiles that have been artfully, elegantly worn with age. Every inch oozes Gallic ambience and feels a bit like a secret, stolen corner of Manet’s Filies-Bergère.
Based on these strengths, it should technically be my favourite restaurant in Dulwich. It’s not though, and here’s why: there’s a compelling argument for visiting only when you’re in the lustiest, most rapturous stages of romance. That is, booking while you’re basking in that golden honeymoon glow, and too busy making eyes to notice a bit of culinary mediocrity.
Granted all that sultry candlelight and brooding shadow is geared to making an occasion of dinner, from the moment you arrive. But nobody’s going to swan over wearing a natty bow tie and deliver suave silver service, in keeping with the ambience. In fact, it was a bit of a mish mash: at times rather slow and ditsy but sweet-natured; at others, point-sharp and a little on the cool side. Initially we were subject to a slightly intense countdown when needing longer with the menu. The waiter was good to his word and returned after three minutes, then precisely three more, then a further and final two minutes to complete the order; all the while we felt eyed from the wings as our level of readiness was ascertained. His eagerness wasn’t wholly conducive to relaxation, but was by no means worthy of a proper grumble.
Most of the menu was familiar and retro – nowt wrong with that, particularly when there were no barmy attempts to jazz up classics. (The odd mystifying incongruity pops up though… Ostrich? What are you doing here)? But what came out of the kitchen simply wasn’t good enough to inspire real, nostalgic affection for an outmoded cuisine, nor was it sufficient to warrant the steep prices.
My starter was great: a warm, crumbed chevre emitting wafts of the farmyard, served with a sweet-sharp dressing. Next, my coq au vin arrived in a lidded copper casserole that was always going to win me over. Regrettably, it tasted alright and no more, lacking either cheffy finesse or the authenticity of something whipped up in a bistro kitchen. Perhaps I’m asking for the moon on a stick, but I expected more given that we were stung for sides on top of paying £15 a pop for mains. Those eating fish or seafood were racking up £25+ on a course, so it was disappointing that nobody was wowed with what they were eating. Puds were standard French fayre, including a tarte tatin that was sweetly sound. All in all, perfectly pleasant but unremarkable.
Considering the fact we were armed with a Groupon (not to mention the jostling foodie competition within eyeshot), the meal didn’t represent great value. And given the gift that is the magnificent décor, Le Chardon seems to have missed a trick. Why not haul food and service standards up in line with the surroundings, justifying a sizeable bill that locals might happily rise to? At risk of being cynical, nearby Franklins routinely has punters beating the door down despite hefty prices because it’s successfully capitalised upon the farm to fork thing. I can’t spot many contenders specifically angling for the French monopoly in this neighbourhood, so it’s regrettable this place doesn’t live up to its aesthetic grandeur and trounce the competition.
This bistro is the kind of place that’s smart enough to warrant a frock or your best shoes, but without the need to leave estuary accents at the door. I might give brunch here a whirl in future, and I’d also return if my other half suggested a meal here to get him out of the doghouse; it’s the kind of place that has resonance as a gesture, if not the most memorable meal. For now though, I’m not in a hurry to return; not until it transforms into a bar where I can while away the hours, sipping pernod cocktails or something equally de rigeur.