Emily Priest defies negative views this week on her most recent stop of the Southsea Food Tour. Gorging herself on French cuisine, she proves that sometimes you have to make your mind up yourself.
I hadn’t heard good things about Lou Lou’s before I went. A few people had told me things like: ‘The service isn’t good’, ‘They forgot my table booking and were really pretentious’, ‘The food is so expensive!’
As a result, I never saw a reason to go, though that didn’t stop me from staring at the menu every time I walked past.
Brasserie Lou Lou’s serve authentic French cuisine and on paper, it seems brilliant. Snails and frog legs are certainly things you don’t come across every day. But, because of what I’d heard by word of mouth, I turned away.
However, as I did so again one lunchtime, a man appeared from inside, wearing a pristine shirt and offered me a business card. After that, I had to book. 7.30pm. Friday night.
As I arrived, music welcomed me from within the dark, French-themed interior. By the front window, a man on a stool was playing an acoustic guitar. There was a small crowd swooning around him, drinks in hand. For those interested, it was none other than Portsmouth’s own Ben Brookes playing. I had seen his name around a lot but I had never heard him play. It was definitely my style and set the evening off to a good start.
The waitress, smiling and cheerful, greeted me and took me through the candle-lit restaurant, past hanging copper pots and pans, and to my seat. On the left-hand side, crushed red velvet seats lined the wall with wooden tables and chairs dotted here and there. I sat down and she gave me the food menu, drinks menu and a jug of tap water. I didn’t need to ask!
I glanced through the drinks menu and ordered myself a small glass of rosé. The range of drinks was impressive. They were all presented in a small book (yes, I mean a book) with pages filled with gins and wines. The prices were not the cheapest I’ve encountered on the Tour so far, yet there were many exotic names I had not seen before. The wine that came was cool and crisp, a dry wine with a hint of sweetness, which went down a treat. One problem that I did notice was that not all drinks came in small, medium or large. Two of the roses were only served in £30 – £50 bottles.
Moving onto the food menu, I noticed a range of French fancies from seafood to vegetarian. The waitress quickly made me aware that they were all small plates with two being the right amount for one person. If you were in a large group you could pick a few to share among yourselves. The prices were slightly above average at £7 a plate or, if you had two as suggested, £14 a head.
I noticed the graduation menu on the wall with 3 courses and a glass of prosecco for £25 and asked the waitress for more information. She said that I had to pre-book but on the menu, there was no indication that was the case. I inspected it a little more and noticed the meals on the special menu were the same as on the main menu.
“Why do I have to pre-book if they are on here?” I asked, feeling quite rude.
“Ah well, the chef adds more ingredients to the graduation special to make it, well, special. It’s the little touches.”
I gave her an understanding smile and ordered my food.
I had the olives to start and they came almost seconds later on a large slate tray with salad, butter and a white baguette. The olives were served in a small pot and were large and plump. I chewed on one and winked at the waitress when she asked me if everything was alright. They were very, very good olives. They were soaked in rosemary and oil and you could tell they were fresh. The bread was okay, just a standard squishy baguette, which I dunked into the small pot on the side. As I took a generous bite, I instantly regretted my actions. The butter was not garlic butter, as I thought, but rather I had swallowed a huge mouthful of normal, salted butter. Pale faced, I swallowed. Next time, I should read the menu properly.
As the rest of the food came out, the waitress and I played table Tetris as we desperately tried to make all the plates fit. We managed in the end, so I ordered another glass of wine and cracked on.
First was the Cuisses de Grenouille. I was highly impressed with Lou Lou’s for having these on the menu. I can rarely find frog legs in France let alone in Portsmouth of all places. They came on a large plate, lined up on a bed of salad (see main image). They looked like chicken wings with tiny toes on the end which was a little off putting. I pulled the flesh off one and tried it. Although they were on my bucket list, they were nothing special. Imagine the texture and taste of chicken with the slimy-ness of prawn. Yeah… I had a few but wasn’t won over. I have no idea what the hype was for but at least I can scratch that off the list.
The Bavette Steak (image above) was served on a slate board but I have no idea why. The gravy that covered the medium rare chunks had slid off the surface and onto me. The waitress was apologetic but as I lapped it off my hands I really did not mind. The flavour was phenomenal. I can still taste it now. The meat was tender and the sauce was rich with mushroom. Like a magic trick, it was here one minute and gone the next.
The King Prawns were huge and the portion was quite generous with about five circled on a plate. They came with a gorgeous garlic dressing and a dipping bowl, which I thought was a nice touch.
On another plate was a small pot, full of chunks of sausage, dripping with a deep red sauce. These Toulouse Sausages burst with sweetness and a slight tang. These were lovely, but there were better things to order instead – like a second steak.
Finally was a vegetarian option, the Mushroom Gratin (see image, below left). I tucked into the hot, creamy insides which oozed steam and boasted hefty chunks of mushroom. Coming in second to the steak, this was heavenly. It melted on my tongue with a hint of mustard and garlic and although it was a bit sickly near the end, the flavours were spot on.
The waitress came in to check the damage and stared at me, groaning on my chair, rubbing my belly. “Would you like desserts?” She said hesitantly. I grinned. Her eyes widened slightly as she went to get the menu.
Before you judge, no I didn’t have dessert. There were only three options, including crepes and a Mille Feuille, but nothing special to wake me from my food coma. Maybe it was for the best.
I paid my bill and made my way to the front of the restaurant where I finished my wine and listened to the end of Ben’s atmospheric, acoustic set.
The reviews I’d heard about Lou Lou’s were wrong. I had nothing but superb service and fantastic food. It was authentic, sublime and it shocked me to find a place in Portsmouth that almost does French cooking better than the French. The desserts were lacking, the food wasn’t the cheapest (but was worth it) and the graduation menu was a little odd but, overall, it was one of the best places I have visited in a long time.
Très bon Lou Lou’s. Magnifique!
Photography by Emily Priest