When one of The Gannet’s favourite chefs stops cooking, I feel a distinct pang: not of hunger – that is easily remedied – but a more profound sense of loss. Should an artist stop painting, or a musician stop playing, at least there are canvases and recordings by way of consolation; with chefs, there are just fleeting memories of lunches long ago.
Sometimes, happily, the prodigals return. Take Henry Harris, who closed the doors of Racine, his classic French bistro in Knightsbridge, three years ago. He can now be found at The Coach in Clerkenwell: while the menu is briefer than Racine’s, it is still uncompromisingly French, and his food is as intelligent, precise and downright joyful as ever.
The Coach is a handsome gastropub with a conservatory dining room, and its menu recaptures the spirit of Racine with an almost Proustian rush. There are calves’ brains, voluptuously creamy, lacquered with beurre noisette and scattered with capers; properly piggy rillettes, softening delightfully when slathered on hot toast; and confit duck leg, crisped immaculately and richly silky. The star of my second visit was duck too: a plump double magret of it, with a rich prune sauce and sautéed chanterelles. Welcome back, Mr Harris: my stomach has missed you.
And bienvenido again to Nieves Barragán Mohacho, once at the helm of the Barrafina empire. She has finally opened her own much-awaited restaurant, Sabor, just off Regent Street (in partnership with José Etura, Barrafina’s ex-general manager), and it is a triumph. I have been there twice too: first, to the ground-floor tapas bar, where I feasted on handcarved Cinco Jotas pata negra ham; ox-tongue carpaccio, gently smoky, perked up with dill and capers; camarones fritos (tiny fried shrimps with a fried egg on top: it shouldn’t work, but it does); and a riotous tumble of baby artichokes, black tomatoes and txistorra (a chorizo-like Basque sausage) – a combination that exuded the most eminently moppable juices you might wish to find on your plate.
My second visit was upstairs, to the asador (grill), where the open kitchen is dominated by two huge copper pans imported from Galicia for cooking octopus, and a woodfired oven from neighbouring Castilla y León in which to roast suckling pig. Both are superb: the former, tender but firm slices of tentacle from a mighty creature, dressed – in classical Galician fashion – with olive oil and smoky pimentón; the latter emerging from the furnace with wafery, burnished skin and luscious flesh, its deeply savoury cooking juices lapping the plate’s edges.
The only problem at both restaurants is that – healthy though my appetite is – I cannot order everything on the menu. Both chefs pay close regard to the seasons too, so some dishes I missed might not even be available on a future visit. But it is better to have lunched and lost than never to have lunched at all.