Bistro or brasserie – and there is a difference – London’s offering of Gallic charm (and cuisine) is up there with Paris, writes Tom Parker Bowles. Here are his top picks for French restaurants in London
It’s a question that has baffled the finest minds for eons, an enigma so perplexing that even the greatest of Gallic philosophers are forced to shrug their shoulders and admit, ‘Non, je ne sais pas.’ But the conundrum relates not to matters metaphysical. As if. Rather the markedly more important ‘affairs de l’estomac’, and the difference between la brasserie and le bistro.
But surely, I hear you cry, they are one and the same, merely two different names for two great French institutions? Plat du jours, vins de table, a smattering of much loved classics – l’escargots, soupe a l’oignon et al – and the usual elderly, somewhat dyspeptic waiters. Mais non. They are, in fact, two entirely different beasts, united only by the clatter of pots and pans, and the warm hubbub of well-fed delight.
Because the brasserie is traditionally all about the beer. Literally. They started off as breweries (brasserie means brewery) in Germany before being brought to Paris, after the war of 1870, by refugees from Alsace Lorraine. Basic wooden chairs and tables were the norm. That is until rather more ornate and Belle Époque ostentation took over. One of the last remaining great brasserie alsacienne is Brasserie Lipp in Paris. Watch out for the waiters though. Their bite is definitely worse than their bark.
But the main point is that they serve a menu all day long, and often late into the night. The service is professional, the beer draught, the tables covered by cloths and the menu printed. Unlike the bistro, which is a bar or small restaurant, usually family-owned, with hand-written menus, simple, seasonal, hearty local dishes and wines. For me, nothing beats Chez Georges, off Place de Victoire, in the 7th, for the ultimate Parisian bistro. A place where grand dames and dustmen hunker down over perfect oeufs en gelle, steak au poivre and illes flotant. Magnifique.
Anyway, that small matter cleared up, let’s coupe to la chase and jet back to London. And South Kensington’s La Brasserie (labrasserielondon.com), with its marble, chequerboard floor, and white-aproned waiters (they were once splendidly grumpy, although some worrying smiles have seem to have crept in recently) and immaculate steak tartare, coq au vin, confit de canard and crepes. I’ve been going for years and it never changes, which is very much part of its appeal.
Moving up a few levels, in both cooking and price, is Mayfair’s immaculate Brasserie Chavot (brasseriechavot.com), which takes the classic brasserie, puts Eric Chavot, that brilliant chef at the helm, and clads it in couture Dior. Exceptional beouf en daube, home-made crepinette with oysters and a cassoulet that could make a grown man cry. Tres, tres bon.
Brasserie Zedel (brasseriezedel.com), a baguette’s hurl from Piccadilly Circus, is very much in the traditional mould. Fast service, beautiful Belle Epoque décor, cheap prices, fairly tightly packed tables, a vast menu with all the greatest hits, all cooked very well indeed. No wonder the place is constantly rammed. And although the menu at The Wolseley (thewolseley.com) is not strictly French (it veers more towards the mittel European), the restaurant still remains an iconic London brasserie.
As for bistros, no one (save the Galvin brothers) does it better than the great Bruno Loubet, at the eponymous Bistrot Bruno Loubet (bistrotbrunoloubet.com) in Clerkenwell. Crisp pigs’ trotters, rabbit and pork rilletes, mussels in cider and apple tarte Normande. Similarly beautiful is the ever-brilliant Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Baker Street (galvinrestaurants.com), a place where I’ve never had so much as a mediocre bite. Terrines, escargots and Romney Marsh lamb with couscous. Superbe.
For a city once ridiculed by the French for its lack of good tucker, London has brasseries and bistros every bit the match of La Ville Lumiere. But still, as much as I love all of the above, nothing really beats jumping onto that Eurostar in the early morning, and arriving in time for a long, long lunch in one of the greatest cities on earth. Vive La France, indeed.
Three things I did this month…
Sad news at the passing of Rowley Leigh’s Le Café Anglais and Henry Harris’ Racine. Two great French restaurants, unsullied by transient trends, owned by two great chefs. Many a happy lunch and dinner has been spent in these two fine institutions. Looking forward to seeing what Leigh and Harris get up to next.
Lunch at Le Caprice. Four words to sow joy into even the stoniest of hearts. It’s a London institution and, last Friday, it was as busy as ever, the service is flawless, and the food (from steak tartare to crisp duck salad) endlessly reliable. I‘ve been going for years and still love the place.
I’m hearing great things about Snaps & Rye, a Danish café, restaurant and takeaway on Golborne Road in Notting Hill. Meatballs, cured salmon and all manner of magnificent open sandwiches. Am going next week. Will report back.