Flying Frenchman La Canteen, 11 Albion Road, London N16 9PS (020 7923 9828). Starters £6; mains £9-£14; desserts £6; and wines from £26
It is a few days before the end of things: before the Prime Minister will tell us not to visit restaurants without telling the restaurants to close; before he bows to the inevitable and orders them to do just that. Here at the Flying Frenchman La Canteen in north London the end seems already to have begun. This dining room overflows with appetite and greedy enthusiasm, but is less full of people. I don’t yet know I am one of the last to eat here; that within a few days the chef-owner Guillaume Desmurs will be looking to repurpose his business.
What you need to know at a time like this is what underpins such a venture. It’s summed up by a conversation I have with Desmurs after my meal. One of his desserts involved a pear, poached to that point where the spoon glides gently through it without meeting resistance, on a thick chocolate chip cookie, glazed with a chocolate sauce and surrounded by whorls of whipped cream. Was it, I asked, his take on the Escoffier classic poire belle Hélène? “I dunno, mate,” Desmurs said cheerfully, in a French accent mangled sweetly by 15 years in New Zealand and now London, that last word landing like a comedy mallet thud. “I’m not a chef. I’m a cook. I don’t really look at the recipes. I use my own.”
Indeed he does, but it’s all underpinned by the fundamentals. He is cooking from a recipe book that just happens to be in his head. Every plate is a statement of who he is and where he comes from. He makes his own rugged sausages and terrines from scratch, and serves them up in magnificent portions at magnificent prices. He has a bright red tuk-tuk van which has worked the London street food circuit for a while now.
Five months ago he opened this small restaurant on a corner site. It’s the curving ground floor of a new build, softened by lots of raw wood, bare brick and the occasional scaffolding pole. It’s all a little wonky. Many of the tables appear to be knocked up from planks. It’s dinner in Wallace and Gromit’s shed.
Desmurs’s website carries Le Manifesto, in which he wears his non-genetically modified, free-range heart on his artisanally woven sleeve. He stands, apparently, for “quality, sustainability, good practice and honesty”. Given that the opposite – shoddiness, non-sustainable methods, bad practice and criminality – could put you off your dinner, this is something we can all get behind. The menu, which comes scribbled on a sizeable blackboard propped up next to each table in turn, tells us the antibiotic-free meat comes from Mount Grace Farm in Yorkshire and so on. Usually this sort of blather sets my teeth on edge. All kitchens should be using quality ingredients. But the Flying Frenchman does it with such a louche, easy charm, my jaw relaxes.
There are half a dozen choices for starters and mains. The coarse pork terrine for £6 comes studded with the brilliant green of pistachios in a slab the thickness of a Jackie Collins novel. It’s surrounded by rings of pickled red onions and splodges of what they call a “cornichon pesto”, to cut through the soft, melting nuggets of pork fat. The basket of toasted sourdough is up to the job.
That terrine is a masterclass in the charcutier’s art and the most straight-up of the dishes we are served. Traditionally, for example, French onion soup comes topped by a huge raft of a croûton, under a ballast of melted cheese. It’s something you have to get through before you’re allowed at the liquor below, if you have any appetite left with which to push on. Here, it’s broken up across the surface in a bunch of small, crisped croutons, topped with aged, grated and toasted Emmental. Usually, I think of the latter as a dull, rubbery thing; as appetising as one of Michael Gove’s blushed cheeks. Here it has heft, as does the soup, which is ripe with soft, gently caramelised onions and a profound, nurtured stock.
Desmurs’s version of cassoulet is an assembly, rather than a set of ingredients that have lounged around in each other’s company for the best part of a day, but they’re still very good friends. There are white beans, with more bite than is usual for a long-cooked stew, a soft slab of fat-striated pork belly, duck confit slipping casually from the bone and a mighty Toulouse sausage full of garlic, pepper and bravado. All of this sits in a winningly insistent broth. It’s both comforting and a significant amount of food for £13.
We share this, alongside the bold, culinary mashup (literally) that is the merguez shepherd’s pie: pieces of his honking merguez, punchy with cumin, lie under a blanket of soft, whipped mash into which melted cheese appears to have gene-spliced itself. It’s the edible equivalent of a pair of Uggs: not a looker, but definitely built for comfort. (And yes, a shepherd’s pie can be made with beef; just ask the food historian Dr Annie Gray.)
Alongside the poached pear, there’s a crème brûlée, because not to have one at a restaurant like this would be an arrestable offence. The grilling is a little uneven, so that the custard has slackened at the edges, but it is still a crisp sugared surface over a set cream and if that doesn’t make you nod approvingly, you have no business reading this column. There is also a cheerily tart fontainebleau with a sweetened set yogurt under a raspberry coulis. The single waiter and occasionally Desmurs himself, playing rush goalie from the semi-open kitchen, deliver all these dishes with a charming casualness. In truth, he could have called the place the Laidback Frenchman, but I can see that doesn’t quite have the same ring about it.
A few days after my dinner, with the restaurant world moving from despair to survival mode, I get an email from Desmurs. He will, like so many others, move to a delivery model: roast honey duck leg with confit red cabbage; Toulouse sausages with butter beans; ratatouille pie. Think £8 for a dish, plus a small delivery charge. “I don’t really believe this could cover the operating costs, because we are not known enough yet,” he wrote. “But by nature I fight back, I never give up.” Please order his food if you live nearby. Indeed, support as many of your locals as you can. From next week this will be a rather different sort of restaurant column.
More serious French action: the marvellous Otto’s on London’s Gray’s Inn Road, famed for its canard à la presse among many other things, has repurposed itself to cook meals for delivery to NHS staff at St Thomas’s Hospital. But to make this happen they need financial support. To donate, visit ottos-restaurant.com
There are obviously a lot of people in the restaurant business in need of work right now. Harri, the recruitment website that works across the hospitality sector, has launched a not-for-profit web portal to help those people find jobs across retail, delivery and the care sector. Jobs are currently being offered nationwide at a variety of employers including Morrisons, Waitrose and Just Eat. Visit harri.com/hospitalityunite
Many businesses have set up delivery models at great speed. The issue has been finding a clear list of what is happening, where. Londoners now have access to Dishpatch, a detailed and growing list of restaurants, one-time restaurant suppliers now looking for a new outlet, and retailers all offering to deliver within the capital. Included on the site so far are the likes of Pale Green Dot, fresh produce supplier to the catering business, butchers Turner and George, and Spanish produce group Brindisa (dishpatch.co.uk).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/apr/05/flying-frenchman-la-canteen-london-order-his-food-if-you-live-nearby-restaurant-review