Two London gastropubs flying the flag for French bistro cuisine

Two chefs – one Anglais, one Sicilian – fly the flag for classic French bistro cooking at their historic London alehouses

Grilled rabbit leg with Alsace bacon and Dijon mustard sauce at The Crown
Grilled rabbit leg with Alsace bacon and Dijon mustard sauce at The Crown

Some of London’s most fervent practitioners of French cuisine bourgeoise have, traditionally, been British: Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum, Henry Harris at Racine, Rowley Leigh at Le Café Anglais and Chris and Jeff Galvin at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, to name but a few. That three of these establishments have closed, and the other – Bibendum, under Claude Bosi – taken a sharp turn in the haute direction, might lead you to suspect that French bistro cookery in the capital has one foot in la tombe.

Pas du tout. To the ranks of Francophile chefs we can now add the name of Neil Borthwick, who has turned the tiny kitchen and dining room at the famous old French House pub in Soho into a kind of Lyonnais bouchon. The short menu features such classic dishes as salt cod beignets with aioli, calves’ brains in brown butter with capers and parsley, and pig’s head terrine with pickles. This last dish, one hallmark of a good kitchen, was especially satisfying – squidgy and staunchly piggy, with a faint whisper of herbs.

Then, perhaps, a bowl of navarin – slow-cooked chunks of lamb in a rich, parsley-flecked broth – with aligot, a sinfully rich mix of mashed potato and cheese. Next more cheese, maybe a Paris-Brest pastry, a coffee and a Vieille Prune… by which time Edith Piaf will have started trilling La Vie En Rose in your head. This house hasn’t been so French since Gaston Berlemont, the old owner (I was one of hundreds at his leaving party on Bastille Day in 1989), was knocking back glasses of absinthe with Général de Gaulle.

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Henry Harris and James McCulloch’s burgeoning gastropub empire, meanwhile, now includes The Crown, a lovely old pub in Chiswick. The menu features the usual Gallic suspects – fish soup with rouille and Gruyère; grilled rabbit leg with Alsace bacon and Dijon mustard sauce – but also dishes from Sicily and Sardinia. Whipped cod roe with crisp wafers of carta da musica bread confirmed my suspicions: there is an Italian in the kitchen. Daniele Zaffora, who once cooked at Racine, has been given the chance to cook some of his native dishes, and jolly good they are too. Sardines are stuffed with pine nuts, herbs and breadcrumbs in Sicilian beccafico style; caponata – on toast, with mozzarella – has a gentle agrodolce flavour and plenty of celery; oxtail is braised in Barolo and served with polenta and wild mushrooms.

There is a culinary cordon sanitaire around the French dishes, but some Gallicisms have influenced the Italian half of the menu: each of a handful of crisp-coated arancini, for instance, concealed saffron rice, fontina and a plump escargot, while tiramisù is spiked with armagnac. The Crown already has a contented buzz, which – with its pretty inner courtyard – will surely reach a crescendo in summer: book now for le quatorze juillet.

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