A return to Dulwich on Friday for a meal at Le Chardon. This is a traditional French perennial sympathetically shoehorned into an old Victorian butcher's shop. The bistro style furniture and obligatory bijouterie work really well against a canvas of vintage white tiles. The staff are properly French, probably a family, led by a matronly proprietress who doesn't look like she'd put up with much nonsense. In all, exactly what you'd expect from a French bistro relocated to South East London.
On a Friday night in May, albeit one blighted by filthy weather, a restaurant like this on Lordship Lane ought to have been packed. Alas, although Evie and I had booked, there was no need. We had a choice of tables and, having settled in with a glass of well-priced bubbly, a glance at the menu suggested why.
I first came to Le Chardon two or three years ago, shortly after I moved to the area. I remember having a pleasant enough evening, although nothing stands out about what we ate. It's pretty clear, though, that the menu hasn't changed since then; indeed I'd be surprised if it's changed at all in however long the place has been open, give or take the slightly bemusing addition of a kangaroo steak here and there. I can't put it better than Evie: "Staff were very nice but the menu was caught in a time warp. Like something you would get in Betws-Y-Coed on a December evening passing through in a rainstorm. French food resting on smug laurels of a bygone era." (Evie, incidentally, is a theatre critic, so presumably you can look forward to billboards outside the restaurant proclaiming: "A storm!")
This is French bistro cooking as it was when I first started going to restaurants 20-odd years ago. Rich, saucy classic meat dishes and over-complicated fish creations predominate. We both struggled to find the kind of simple, confidently bold dishes you'd find at a 21st-century equivalent. In desperation, I peered up through the twilight towards the blackboard, hoping for specials. One of the waitresses, a gendarme in the making, perhaps, quickly explained there was nothing to see up there. In the end Evie went for moules to start followed by an unchallenging ravioli while I felt almost compelled to have soupe de poisson and steak tartare ("you realise it's raw, sir?").
And, with the exception of some shockingly bad "fresh" bread whose journey from freezer to table had clearly not gone smoothly, everything was fine. It's hard to criticise anything we actually ate, because it was all delivered exactly as it should be, not that any of the dishes was particularly taxing to prepare. What really let Le Chardon down was what we didn't eat, because it simply wasn't on the menu. Where was the flair, the imagination and the creativity? Where were the dishes that showed what a (presumably) French chef could do with some seasonal English ingredients?
This place has so much going for it, not least the location and the impressive dining area. And maybe I'm being a little unfair - there surely is a market for this kind of vieux école cooking - but in a street that boasts Franklins and at least one impressive gastropub, I'm not sure how long a restaurant can afford to stand still.
Le Chardon, 65 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich SE22 8EP 020 8299 1921