If you attempted, in these shrunken times, to discern the nation’s tastes by thumbing through takeaway food apps, you might conclude that we adore anything as long as it’s got a dough base, is tottering in a bun, or drenched in sriracha. I’m not complaining. I like all these things. I am often to be found up to my unshaven armpits in sriracha. But one thing is noticeable on these apps by its rarity: French food.
There may be something generational going on here; that the demographic using Deliveroo, Uber Eats and the rest simply doesn’t go hunting through the digital meadows for a good cassoulet when they’re hungry. Also, many French classics are far less portable than Korean chicken wings. Soupe à l’oignon, complete with a crouton and gruyère lid, in a plastic box, may well arrive looking like a Portaloo on the third day of Glastonbury.
But there’s something else. A takeaway Chinese is a domestic ritual the grammar of which we understand. We associate French food with a restaurant experience. For many of us – and yes, this may also be generational – what comes to mind first when we hear the word “restaurant” is the classic French bistro. There will be checked tablecloths. There will be wooden chairs, with more than a hint of art nouveau in the spindle curves of their backs. There will be wine and a plate of something that speaks not just to appetite but also to memory.
That vivid, diverse takeaway offering is exactly what we’d want to see in a vivid, diverse society like ours. What’s surprising is just how sturdily the French restaurant has endured in the midst of it. Recently, I scanned back through 20 years of reviews. The first column which brought me feedback was about three months into the job in 1999. It was of a bistro in Brighton called La Fourchette, where they served a nage de poissons full of mullet, crab and mussels in an intense liquor the colour of a leather-bound book. I received sheaths of handwritten letters cooing over that one.
The last restaurant I reviewed before the lockdown was the Flying Frenchman La Canteen, with its terrines, cassoulet and crème brûlée. Aided by the convenience of the digital, the response was even more clamorous. In between there has been a constant Gallic twang: a rabbit and langoustine terrine at Purslane in Cheltenham, an ox cheek bordelaise at the Honours in Edinburgh, plentiful duck confit at Comptoir Gascon in London’s Smithfield, and so very much more. I have measured out my life, very happily, in daubes and rum babas.
Many of my close friends, asked where they want to go first after lockdown, mention Brasserie Zedel in London’s Soho, a faithful homage to the Parisian brasseries, which opened in 2012, and which serves a cracking steak haché and choucroute garnie to a 350-seater dining room that was rarely empty. It’s not just the food. It’s, oh, the everything.
I could give you the history now. I could take you through the arrival of the Huguenots in the 16th century, and the impact of the French revolution on the cooking in England’s grand houses in the 18th. I should mention Auguste Escoffier at the Savoy. There must be a nod to L’Escargot, which once had a snail farm in the cellar, and of course, Mon Plaisir, one of London’s oldest French restaurants, marked by its flamboyantly large tricolour.
Instead, I want to cut straight to the important stuff. Obviously, that’s Robin’s Nest, the spinoff sitcom from Man About the House, starring Richard O’Sullivan as the languorous Robin Tripp. It ran for 48 episodes from 1977 to 1981. Robin’s Nest did indeed have checked tablecloths and curving-backed wooden chairs, plus a stuffed bear. Most importantly its chef patron was the uber-modern 70s male: at ease with himself and his tastes. Which meant he was great in the kitchen. Which meant, like a Len Deighton spy, he could cook French food.
“I think we all had the idea then, that the French knew what to do with food and we didn’t,” co-writer Brian Cooke told me when I asked why Tripp’s restaurant was a French bistro. “Plus, in Man About the House, Tripp had always said he wanted a little French restaurant, so we gave him what he wanted.” In the first episode Tripp convinces his girlfriend’s father, played by Tony Britton, to invest in the bistro by cooking him a roast leg of “d’agneau nouvelle saison et pommes sarladaises”.
Cooke and his co-writer, Johnnie Mortimer, had sniffed the air and understood which way British society was moving. Within a decade, the UK’s modern restaurant boom would kick off, with four key openings in 1987. One, the River Café at Thames Wharf, served Italian peasant food priced for plutocrats. Two more were avowedly French: Bibendum, in Chelsea, with Simon Hopkinson at the stove, was all the classics – escargot, steak au poivre, chocolate pithiviers for dessert – done as well as possible. Meanwhile, at Harveys in Wandsworth, Marco Pierre White was knocking out high-end French food with a box-shouldered 80s gloss. The fourth restaurant was Kensington Place, where Rowley Leigh was famed for his modern European menu. But even that included a jellied daube of beef and a chicken and goat’s cheese mousse, which couldn’t be more French if the writers of The Simpsons were in charge of the stereotypes.
Henry Harris has spent much of his career gifting us rugged French food. He was part of the original brigade at Bibendum, then had his own restaurant, Racine. He now oversees a London pub group where the menu can include rillettes and rabbit in mustard sauce. When I called him, he had just put the makings of a rillette in the oven at home. I asked him to describe the appeal of the French restaurant. “I always direct people to the French word ‘restauration’, meaning to restore, from which the word restaurant comes. Of course, a good bistro delivers great dishes, but it’s the other bits: a decent napkin, a white plate, a good glass for wine. It’s a hello from the manager. I’m here to look after you and make sure you leave happier than when you came in.”
These things are obviously not exclusive to the French restaurant. And in Paris the waiters can sometimes compete for an Olympic gold in rudeness. But the British French restaurant is something else. It’s a place designed, in our imagination, to convince us everything is going to be OK. Unsurprisingly, that’s what many of us crave right now. For the moment though I’ll just have to make do with old episodes of Robin’s Nest.
The group behind Brasserie Zedel is offering gift vouchers for their restaurants, with 50% of the proceeds going to support staff who have suffered under government wages support programmes. As Jeremy King of Corbin & King restaurants has explained, the Treasury scheme does not include earnings from the ‘tronc’ distribution of tips, so many furloughed staff are now struggling on extremely reduced wages. To support, visit corbinandking.com.
A group of over two dozen hospitality business leaders, led by Alan Lorrimer of the Piano Works live music bars, has written to the government calling for a relaxation of licensing and zoning laws to enable the creation of what they are calling a Grand Summer Outdoor Café in the UK’s cities. The proposal is based on an initiative in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, which has launched a vast outdoor seating plan, across pavements and squares, enabling customers to have physically distanced drinks and meals.
The Cartford Inn, at Little Eccleston in Lancashire, has launched TOTI – short for Taste Of The Inn – at home. They are offering a changing set of menus for the long weekend, with delivery, which is free if the address is within a short distance of the pub. Thursday is burger night and for Sunday lunches there’s a roast. The menu for Friday and Saturday includes the likes of corned beef fritters with brown sauce and crisp onions, and their much loved – by me – braised oxtail and beef suet pudding. Orders must be placed in advance. Visit thecartfordinn.co.uk
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/may/17/daydreaming-of-your-first-meal-out-after-lockdown-it-is-going-to-be-french