My friend Annette was in London for a few days; back from Italy where she now lives. It was great to meet up and she suggested visiting the Hayward Gallery, which has recently undergone a major makeover. Built in the 1960s, the Hayward is a fine example of Brutalist architecture, which was popular at the time. To be honest, I’ve always found its ‘brutalist’ style rather off-putting and uncomfortable and I hadn’t been for a while, but from what I could remember there seemed to now be a new lightness; the gallery was much more attractive, even though still very minimalist, with more natural light coming in. The first exhibition features the photos of renowned German photographer, Andreas Gursky, ‘a true innovator engaged in thinking about and picturing the times we live in’ (Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery Director). It was indeed an excellent exhibition and it sparked a great discussion between us.
When we emerged from the gallery around 6.45pm, it was much busier with people coming to the South Bank after work. Where should we eat? We looked at the BFI (British Film Institute) but their restaurant was closed for renovation. We headed towards the Royal Festival Hall, just a little further along where there are a large number of restaurants, though all chains; most OK but nothing very exciting. Long queues were forming and so we decided to go up to the next level, Festival Terrace, which runs along one side of the Festival Hall, as we knew there was a Pain Quotidien there. As we pondered whether to join their queue, Annette spotted a Côte a couple of doors further down. There was a queue here too but we were told the wait was only 10 minutes. I looked at my watch; it was 6.50. I knew their Early Evening Menu finished at 7pm. I asked the guy – who seemed to be the manager – whether we could still have the fixed price menu. Certainly, he assured us, and he’d also give us complimentary drinks to enjoy while we waited. Soon we had a glass of delicious French pink fizz in our hands and indeed a table did materialise in only 10 minutes.
We were shown to a nice table downstairs – a table for 4 but just for us. There was a good buzz from happy people around us but our table in a quieter corner was perfect.
This branch of Côte only opened a month ago. I’ve been a big fan of the Richmond branch for some time, although have had less happy experiences at a couple of other branches. That’s always the way with chains: there’s a certain reliability you can count on but an inevitable variation because of different staff in the kitchen and front of house. At this Côte on the South Bank, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful, right from the moment we walked in. Annette joked that maybe my ‘fame’ came before me and I was recognised as a food blogger; maybe it was their enthusiasm from opening a new branch. But actually I find the service at Côte is almost always excellent: friendly, wonderfully efficient and if there is any problem they deal with it perfectly. This is what makes you want to go back – and also for their great value early evening menu. At just £12.95 for 2 courses and £14.95 for 3 courses, it’s hard to beat.
Côte do manage to convey a sense of being in France too; the decor and ambience go a long way to temporarily transporting you to Paris, from the (mostly) French staff to the (now rare) linen napkins. The menu contains French classics and the wine list is made up totally of French wines.
The early evening menu offers a good choice with 7 starters and 7 mains. I opted for ‘Pear and Endive Salad’ – pear and endive salad with frisée, croutôns, goats’ cheese and toasted hazelnut and mustard dressing.
It was a good size portion, nicely presented, very fresh and tasted delicious. The dressing was perfect: the salad nicely coated but not drowned; a good balance between sweet and acidic.
Annette chose ‘Tuna Rillettes’ – flaked tuna ‘rillettes’ with fines herbes, lemon and toasted sourdough. She was very complimentary about it and so we both enjoyed our starters a lot.
We ordered 175ml glasses of Chablis (£7.50) to have with our meal, which was also very good. Côte always serve complimentary filtered water in a bottle, which I like; it’s a step up from tap water but makes buying bottled water unnecessary.
We chose the same main: ‘Sea Bream’ – grilled sea bream with courgette purée and shaved courgette, broad bean and rocket salad.
Again, this had a wonderful freshness to it. The sea bream was perfectly cooked – moist flesh with a crispy skin. The courgette and broad bean side was really good and a delightful accompaniment.
Neither of us wanted a dessert (though there was a good choice) and had just coffee. We’d sat there happily eating and talking for a couple of hours. Every so often, but not obtrusively, the waitress checked everything was OK. The bill for the two of us, including tip, was just under £52. It’s amazing value for central London: the service had been wonderful, the food very good and the ambience perfect. I can see this new Côte is going to become a regular haunt for without doubt it’s the best place for a reasonably priced meal along that part of the South Bank.