England and France may have had a tempestuous past, but when it comes to food, you can’t help but feel the love, writes Tom Parker Bowles
I spent a good part of my teenage years pounding the mean streets of South Kensington. Mon dieu, it was tough back then. You could hardly swagger down the Old Brompton Road without being bashed by some box-shouldered, Channel-clad Grande Dame. Or strut past the Lycee, and expect to escape without at least one stare of disdain, from the impossibly soignée, exquisitely aloof Gallic temptresses who sat smoking outside its gates. The area was, and still is, Parisian to its core.
Take La Brasserie. It couldn’t be more stereotypically French if someone dressed it in a striped shirt, garlanded it with onions and plonked a beret on its head. Waiters, dressed in black and white, are gloriously irascible. But the onion soup is hot enough to melt Cartier diamond brooches, while the steak tartare is a raw meat work of art. A mere baguette’s throw over the road is Bibendum – downstairs for a classic plateau de fruit de mer – crab, lobster, oysters, fat langoustines and a handful of sweet crevettes gris – served up on the requisitely battered tin tray. Magnifique! Upstairs is rather more serious, filled with Matthew Harris’ sublime modern French dishes. A fine dining room and incredible wine list make Bibendum an eternal French classic.
A brisk promenade up towards Knightsbridge takes you to Racine, another of London’s great French restaurants. The chef and owner is one Henry Harris, frère to Matthew. I’ve eaten here dozens of times and never had so much as a dull bite. Proper, old school French tucker. Rather like Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Baker Street. Again, service is slick, the room rather lovely and the menu packed with the likes of red onion tarte tatin and terrine of brawn and foie gras sublime.
Of course, one could fill a book on London’s proper French places. But space is short, so I can only pick my favourites. Brasserie Chavot, deep in Mayfair, pays tribute to the endless skills of its chef/proprietor Eric Chavot. Snails Bourguignon and choucroute garnie never cease to thrill. His great, and equally gifted friend Bruno Loubet is still serving up his mix of old school and resolutely modern at Bistrot Bruno Loubet. Don’t miss the veal kidney and snails and meatball Mauricette.
Another much loved belter is Terroirs, just off Trafalgar Square, with their mainly natural wine list and brilliant charcuterie. It has three excellent siblings too: Brawn in Bethnal Green, Soif in Battersea, and Green Man and French Horn in Covent Garden. Pascal Aussignac’s Club Gascon is now a Smithfield institution, a goose fat soaked taste of South West France. While Bar Bouloud in Knightsbridge not only has a world class burger, but peerless charcuterie. Proper service too.
La Trompette in Chiswick and Trinity in Clapham both show two chefs (Rob Weston and Adam Byatt) at the very peak of their game. Prices are ridiculously reasonable for this level of cooking. Pierre Koffman remains one of the great Gallic masters, and Koffman’s at The Berkeley Hotel is proof of his mighty talent. His stuffed pig’s trotter has passed into culinary legend. Over at the Connaught, Helene Darroze shows why she’s earned two Michelin Stars. Always stunning. Just like at Le Gavroche, a place that still thrills after all these years. Just thinking about their soufflé Suissoise brings a greedy tear to my eye.
As ever, I’ve missed out dozens more, and you’ll all have your favourites too. But for those with a penchant for French food (ie most of us), London’s not just pas mal, but de bon gout as well. So santé, vive La France, and all that. We might disagree on most things, but when it comes to the Capital’s Gallic gastronomy, everything’s always tres bon.