Fine Dining comes to London
. . . not a French tragedy!
When Henry Harris decided in 2002 to open a traditional French restaurant in London, I got a phone call from him asking what I thought of the name Club des Cent. This was a prestigious Paris dining club whose exclusivity was determined by corporeal as well as social weight – members had to tip the scales at a hundred kilos!
I had just read a report that the Club des Cent had recently deserted Maxim’s because of its falling standards, which indicated that it was in fact still meeting. I suggested that it would be a good idea to check out whether they would object to their name being adopted. He reported in due course,
I was able to track down the current president of the Club des Cent, aged 75. He is very chuffed that we want to use his club’s name but has asked us very politely not to use it!
And so after further consideration Henry and his front-of-house partner Eric Garnier settled on the classic French tragedian Racine as their patron saint.
IN the couple of years since Racine opened, Mary and I hadn’t got around to visiting it. Not because the reports were unfavorable – quite the contrary – but because there’s small reason to seek out a French restaurant in London. As I have observed so often, it’s usually cheaper and more reliable to cross the Channel for good bourgeois cooking, including the cost of transportation. But for my birthday dinner this year there just wasn’t time to go where my palate would lead me, and so Racine came to mind and we made a 7 o’clock reservation.
We like to eat early and have the restaurant to ourselves, but on a Wednesday evening it was already filling up. The menu offered a possible explanation – the set luncheon was also available in the evening if ordered before 7:30. It happened to include the dishes on the menu that most interested Mary, and so she prudently chose from it, while I determined to pig out from the a la carte – after all, it was my birthday! (Never mind that just a few hours before we had polished off a venison suet pudding at Saint John Bread and Wine.)
Racine’s discreet colour scheme is composed of the various shades of brown wood and leather that one encounters in French brasseries of a certain age and class, such as Paris’s venerable Balzar. There was no background music save the quiet early evening murmur of the clientele, as decorous as the décor. There were no brash young stockbrokers shouting at the waiters – they were no doubt incarcerated in some glass-and-steel prison, polishing off their first bottle of Petrus.
In short, this was a restaurant where we could talk without raising our voices. It was also possible to eavesdrop with discretion; in the course of the evening a middle aged couple at an adjoining table discussed their grandson’s first year at Eton, while a young pianist on the other side of us was explaining to his companions the challenge he faced in performing the Moszkowski Concerto in E with the CBSO.
Our first courses arrived. Feeling devout, I had ordered Jesus de Lyon, a soft fatty sausage whose large overlapping slices were complemented by a dish of vinegary cornichons. They set each other off nicely. Mary’s cream of celeriac soup was more a celeriac of cream soup, with an ineffable richness whose calorie count, if stated on the menu, would have run over onto the back of the page.
For my main course, I pushed the boat out with a favorite, tête de veau à la sauce ravigote. (Like the other traditional items on the menu, it was unpretentiously identified in English.) Having eaten it twice within the year at Paris bistros, I was tempting fate; but when the dish arrived it was immediately apparent from the generous slice of brain and the pervasive mustard/caper aroma that it would be in a class with its French rivals.
Brain with tête de veau is no longer to be taken for granted, even in Paris. Last year it was lacking even from the outstanding version at the venerable Cave Petrissan. At the bar I made a jesting reference to its absence in the wake of mad cow disease. Madame did not smile, but replied evenly that her mother, who had eaten traditional tête de veau all her life. had died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. As I turned several shades of puce, she added magnanimously, “But you had no way of knowing.”
Mary’s simple roast lamb with vegetables proved to be a generous overlapping circle of thick slices concealing richly dark-roasted vegetables into which the meat juices were slowly seeping. Simple fare, but in Mary’s opinion the best roast lamb she had ever eaten. After sharing a generous forkful I could readily empathize.
Such a meal called for a return visit. A month later we were back and ready to challenge Henry to equal the best of our Paris memories. Mary’s inevitable first choice was soupe de poissons, a dish we make regularly at home. A glance at its deep brown color and a whiff of its aroma told us that we had been outclassed. The texture was thick enough to coat a spoon, the rouille was generously laced with garlic and cayenne, the croutons were crisp but not jawbreaking, and the gruyere was the sort that satisfactorily dribbles down the chin. These accoutrements can no longer be taken for granted, even in France. There were no garlic cloves to rub on the croutons, but one could “make the boat” as I had been taught by a lovely waitress in Nice – spread a crouton generously with rouille, pile it with gruyere, float it on a sea of soup and sail away to Paradise!
For me, an enormous helping of “little gray cells” – a plate of calf’s brain with black butter and capers. A squidgy mass of ecstasy! The Victorian directors of the Regents Park Zoo decimated the creatures under their care in order to up their smarts by dining off the brains of as many living species as possible. For me, as for them, the dietary myth of verisimilitude was roundly disproven.
For a main course we shared a double entrecote of veal and creamed spinach with foie gras and wild mushrooms. Was it traditional white veal or animal-friendly pink veal? The young French waiter who took our order didn’t seem to understand the question. But we needn’t have worried – the generous hunks of meat were reassuringly pink. A New Age California restaurant would devote a whole paragraph to outlining the calf’s ancestry and daily diet; Henry merely identifies the major ingredients, assuming that you will credit him with quality sourcing.
What fresh springy mushrooms! What rich sauce! What ambrosial spinach! And best of all, what flavorful and tenderly resilient meat! And all washed down with a velevety-smooth and versatile Côte du Rhône which, chameleon-like, subtly altered its savor with each varied mouthful. If I seem carried away, you may credit the fact that Mary rarely gets through as much as a glass of wine, and so I am forced, regretfully, to drink for two.
We had had such luck with old familiar classics that Mary decided to finish with a crème caramel. The consistency was firm but yielding in the mouth, the caramel sauce surrounding it rich and creamy.
My own final course proved to be the only disappointment. The cheeses from Patricia Michelson’s La Fromagerie were in good condition, but consisted of four narrow strips, each about three inches long. At £6.50 per serving, the mark-up must rival the wine list of a greedy hotel.
But how does a restaurant manage its cheeses if it doesn’t serve enough to turn them over smartly? The EU food laws now strangling the artisanal cheese industry require that they be kept refrigerated at a temperature which masks their flavor. For an evening’s service they may be brought up to a warmer temperature, but an individual cheese may only be thus warmed up twice. If it is not consumed by the end of the second exposure, it must be thrown away, even if it is reaching perfection (or so I was told by a catering manager). A butcher once gave me a whole wheel of Grinzola that had arrived unrefrigerated a day late. Sectioned and wrapped, it fed me magnificently from the freezer for a year.
My guess is that Racine serves so few cheese orders that they are kept refrigerated at the highest legal temperature and cut for serving into strips narrow enough to warm sufficiently by the time they reach the table. A disappointing end to a very satisfying meal – but today even in France one rarely sees a groaning cheese board whose aroma announces its trundling approach from halfway across the room. If the stern admonitions of the cheese police were justified, there wouldn’t be a dedicated cheddarast left alive!
We would have liked to congratulate Henry on the meal, but on both occasions he was out of town. If this had been the venue of a celebrity chef, priced like centre court seats at Wimbledon, I would have felt cheated, but I was content to learn that the kitchen performed reliably in his absence. With its careful balance of quality, authenticity and economy, Racine appears to be getting it about right. The dining room is full, many if not most of the patrons seem to be regulars, and there’s a buzz which reassures strangers that they’ve come to the right place. Even the dreaded Michael Winner has his regular table. Eric Garnier assured us that he was a reasonable and well-behaved diner who ordered with precision and was usually out the door within an hour. Temper tantrums? Apparently just part of the act.
Racine, 239 Brompton Road, London SW3, Tel 020 7584 4477. Set lunch, early dinner 3 courses £19.95; a la carte c£30. (plus coffee, wine, 12½% service)
2008 Everything has gone up; Time Out says the prices now read as if they should be in euros, not pounds. And service charge is up to 14½%. They're putting all their begs in one askit.
©2004 John Whiting
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