Despite David Cameron’s porte ouverte policy for wealthy French citizens disenchanted by their new leader’s thoughts on income tax, I suspect there may be another reason for the growing numbers of Parisians moving to London: they miss French food. It certainly seems easier to find a classic French bistro or brasserie in London than in Paris these days.
I thought I’d test this theory by visiting two restaurants: La Coupole, the old warhorse on Boulevard Montparnasse, and Brasserie Zédel, the new London venture from Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, owners of The Wolseley.
There is much fun to be had at La Coupole (first picture); not particularly from the menu, a rather pricey list of standard brasserie dishes, but from the sheer sense of theatre in its glorious art-deco rooms. It is especially amusing to observe the pecking order and choreography of the dozens of bow-tied waiters, as if watching a documentary about penguins. The oldest of the group could probably tell you stories about Sartre composing existentialist epigrams on his napkin, as Josephine Baker played footsie with her lover at the bar.
I started with oysters, plump and sweet, and snails, gleaming with emerald butter. Both were fine, although a twice-requested glass of Riesling failed to appear.
Charolais rib-eye steak, ordered saignant (medium-rare) but delivered bien cuit (well-done) and hastily exchanged, was a little loose-textured and flabby, although much improved by a punchy sauce béarnaise and a bottle of pomerol, a wine recommended by the night’s most obliging penguin and not featured on the woefully short list.
Occasionally, the penguins dimmed the lights and formed a gâteau-led procession towards a birthday celebrant, warbling Bon Anniversaire as they did so. Despite a dressed-down clientèle and distinctly ordinary food, La Coupole retains the allure of a huge, glamorous party. I have no idea how.
It is an ambience that Messrs King and Corbin, in the cavernous former Atlantic Bar & Grill by Piccadilly Circus, have tried to emulate (second picture). The menu is almost satirically French, the lighting is cleverly just-so, and the bar is a lovely length of zinc, perfect for a pre-prandial pastis. Prices are low – about half those of La Coupole – and the food is pretty much comme il faut, although the pissaladière would be better with a dough crust, not pastry, and the frogs’ legs were distinctly anaemic.
I did, however, enjoy a robust pâté de campagne, a perfect celeriac rémoulade and an equally successful tomato salad, and the snails were as good as in Paris. There are half a dozen wines under £25, and the penguins – while still at the fledgling stage – at least smile more than their French cousins. Go on your birthday and see if you get a cake.