My gut reaction (quite literally) to chain restaurants is normally that they are a complete waste of precious time and calories, given the choice of independent restaurants available. However, sometimes in the interests of time, saving money or not being the tool in a large group moaning about going to somewhere average, I am prepared to frequent them.
Despite all of that, you will see in my restaurant reviews I will occasionally refer to the Pizza Express Test (PET). Now, Pizza Express is the example of the perfect chain: you know exactly what you're going to get, it's going to hit the spot, and its not going to break the bank. And that's a standard that every restaurant should adhere to. So, the PET is simple: a restaurant fails if you feel that for value for money and general satisfaction, you'd have been better off hitting Pizza Express.
Anyway, I digress. We weren't intending to go to Pizza Express, we were intending to go to a delightful little pizza joint in Ealing called Santa Maria http://www.santamariapizzeria.com/
Unfortunately, they had run out of dough. I am not likely to be passing through Ealing again (not that we were on this occasion), any time soon, which seems a shame since it looks jolly good and has won plenty of awards.
Some in our party were prepared to drive to Chiswick to Franco Manca; for some, when they get a pizza-on, it just needs to be satisfied. However, they were overruled by the masses and we ended up in the nearby Côte.
It was a Sunday night and it was pretty empty. We were met by a grumpy waiter whose demeanour and down-the-nose expression made it clear he was the genuine French article. Our request to sit by the window was met with a sigh and remonstration that he would need to check whether this particular table (which had not been laid) had been booked. He returned to confirm that surprisingly, despite the vast crowd of about 4 other diners, it had not.
After this inauspicious start, things turned better. We were allocated a smiley, non-french, not-unattractive waitress who seemed positively excited to be serving a large group at 9.00pm on a Sunday night. In fact, so enthusiastic in the face some bad 'group diners' behaviour of rowdiness and general inertia that I did wonder what she was on. Turns out it was probably something in the 'complimentary filtered water' she provided to us in ceramic bottles with while we refused to decide what to eat. Still, she was unfailing cheerful, even responding to one of the party's query as to whether the ceramic bottle was also complimentary with the quip "I guess...if you take it when I'm not looking".
Service ran smoothly through some decent reblochon and thyme pissaladières and the main courses. Most of the table plumped for the Breton Chicken, which was nicely browned and coated in garlic butter. The seafood pasta was decent, though I've had better, and the steak hache cheval (with an egg, not an actual horse) was wolfed down in about 3 seconds flat so I can only assume it was tasty.
However, this was all a prelude to the real reason I am actually bothering to post a review: a divine special dessert of torte au chocolat. This was in fact a square block of chocolate, unadulterated by things such as pastry, topped with creme fraiche. The texture was like butter, and the flavour took itself to the edge of being too rich, but just fell divinely short. In fact, I dread to think about how much butter and cream was in this. It was seriously the best dessert I have had in a restaurant for a long time.
The bill was a very reasonable £20 a head, partly due to the weekend special price on the chicken, which inexplicably seemed to be the same price as it normally is. I think Côte just about passed the PET, mainly because of the dessert, but also because it was a cut above Cafe Rouge, and better value for money than Brasserie Gerard. And did I mention the dessert?