It’s a tad intimidating walking into North Audley Cantine (NAC) for the first time, if you mistakenly expected it to be just another quaint French bistro. Quite often packed to the rafters, the crowd is impossibly good-looking, trendy and very European.
The edgy vibes practically reverberate off the white-washed exposed brick walls to the beat of the French rap playing in the background. The decor is just as chic as the diners, with beige leather sofas and grey marble tops that provide an elegant touch.
NAC is the brainchild of three Frenchmen, old childhood friends, only in their mid-twenties still. Their contemporary approach carries through to the menu, which is centred on small, light plates meant for sharing. While decidedly French at the core, diverse cultural influences abound given the varied backgrounds of the founders. So you can expect to see dishes like truffled Mac & Cheese and salmon flamed with miso, sake, peanut and kale.
I have to admit that as a pure vegetarian, much of my previous experience with French cuisine can be summarised as a bowl of bland, boiled veggies, and not out of choice. At NAC, I quite voluntarily opted for the salads, heroically resisting the truffle burger in a last-ditch effort at a Thursday night detox ahead the usual weekend retox. It turned out to be a fantastic decision, and one that more than satisfied.
Presented on beautifully patterned chinaware, the dishes were fresh and positively bursting with flavours and textures. Highlights included the wholesome Farro salad served with crushed avocado, parmesan, chilli and mint; and the refreshing quinoa salad garnished with pomegranates, a choice apt for the coming summer months. Even simple vegetables were transformed into stand-out dishes, that deserve mention. Roasted and torched, cauliflower never tasted as good as it does at NAC.
A light eater also riding the health-conscious wave, my friend went for the salmon a la plancha, served with shimeji mushrooms.
There was no way we were skipping out on dessert though. The milk chocolate cookies were just dreamy, served in a rather American fashion with peanut butter ice cream. We also plumped for the profiteroles, expecting nothing less than perfection of a head chef trained at Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon. Light as air and delicately filled with salted caramel… we were not disappointed.
We had arrived for dinner fashionably late at around 10pm, and ended up staying on past midnight, with friends joining in for drinks. Although vibrant and buzzing (even at the late hour), we found the ambience cosy and laid-back at the same time, making it all to easy for the hours to slip by as one bottle of wine turned into another.
The Asian-inspired cocktail den in the basement below is just as fun, although based on experience, I would recommend it for a pre- rather then post-dinner pit-stop. If a speakeasy inspired by a chow chow sounds intriguing, you can click through to read my review of Chez Chow.
North Audley Cantine, 41 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZP