At the Table: The French House
“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words, but rather short, easy words, like ‘what about lunch?’” A. A. Milne
Like the Red Arrows, the restaurant industry moves mostly in formation. Some are a little ahead, some a little behind, but fundamentally, most are doing similar things, at similar times to their similar contemporaries, with different coloured smoke coming out of their behinds.
The influence of Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal's game-changing, technique and equipment-heavy explorations of molecular gastronomy in the late 90s/early 2000s, ruined (and to some extent, still ruins) lunches all over Britain and doubtless elsewhere. A parallel might be drawn with how Marcel Duchamp’s brilliant and revolutionary ways of seeing, interpreting, and representing the world, emboldened the creators of much of the meritless, awful art unleashed on the world in the late 20th century.
The jazz-hands elements of molecular gastronomy had real effect on chefs and the food they cooked but began to wane at the swankier end in the late 2000s, when they were usurped by the ingredient/provenance led, palate-over-technique practices of New Nordic Cuisine and it’s highfalutin’ (if arguably admirable) manifesto. What came after that? Cooking over fire? You tell me.
Of course, it never went away generally, but since the mid-2010s a broader theme has been visible at the shinier end of the restaurant world - and that is a return to deliciousness.
Here or there, inside or outside, deliciousness doesn’t care. It isn’t about PR spend and critics visits, it isn’t about location, food fads, interior design, influencers or many of the things that traditionally or currently, have determined how or why we ended up in a restaurant. By concentrating on deliciousness, you are by default spending less time trying to be clever, and focussing on things that add actual, perceivable value. Deliciousness is utilitarian, for the many, not the few and it can be found as easily in a greasy spoon, as in a restaurant in Leytonstone, a long-standing high street chain, a small town in Dorset or a lovely, smart dining room, down one end of Dean Street.
‘I’ve already got a booking there you see,’ Michael said on the phone, asking if I had ever been. I confessed that I had, and that I rather liked it. So, dead cert duly backed, we agreed to meet for a quick sharpener, outside The French House at 12:50pm.
I arrived fifteen minutes early because it’s always fun there, and for my sins, I like a drink on my own. Standing out front, somewhat appropriately, I was midway through a large Pastis (Ricard) and a full-strength cigarette, when Michael and our lunch companion Noah May (Christie’s Head of Wine and Spirits EMEA), bounded Tiggerish across the road with springs in their steps. They joined me in a pastis, turned down a cigarette and we raised a glass to lunch, or France or whatever it was, before heading upstairs to see what the wind would bring us.
As soon as we sat down, I was offered ‘a glass of Champagne or [the drink of the day] a Silver Bullet.’ Having no idea what a Silver Bullet was, and a desire to conceal that, I pretentiously said ‘Champagne please, all great lunches start with a glass of Champagne.’
Apparently, we had come on a Thursday, which here at The French House, is Steak Day. The menu was more limited than expected and I was momentarily put out. The Champagne smoothed that over though and we ordered all the starters to celebrate, followed by a piece of fish for one member of the party, and two huge steaks for the rest of us. The starters, oysters, cooked and raw, a whole head of confit garlic with a piece of curd-covered-toast to smear it on and some delicious nuggets of deep-fried pig’s head, were all outstanding. Then the main courses came. Steak and chips, greens, a salad dressed as well as Michael and horseradish AND peppercorn sauce – things that dreams are made of.
There was excellent wine throughout, warm madeleines and a consummate Paris-Brest with hot chocolate sauce for pudding and about twenty-five Poire Williams afterwards. The whole caboodle was a beacon for the truth in those ‘simple things’ clichés and a meal whose few, but perfectly executed parts, added up to something that couldn’t be bettered.
Looking about the place, I thought to myself ‘it takes a lot of effort to look this relaxed’. And it wasn’t just the food and wine that made our lunch so good, it was the service too. At some point, the photographer stood up to take a photo and his camera flashed brightly, one time too many. Leo Besant, ever-dapper founder of the Howl & Loer distillery and the man running the room, bee-lined over and told him to stop with that. He didn’t come for the sake of it, or to assert his authority, he came because the light was detrimental to other people’s enjoyment of their meals. As a customer in a restaurant, what more could you ask?
Steeped in history and Mount Olympus to much of Soho’s mythology, I could bang on and on about The French, Francis Bacon this and Dylan Thomas that, but really, who cares when there’s a man upstairs cooking that well, choosing chips over more aspirational potatoes and giving out life lessons in the importance of achievable goals and how to have a great lunch.
Neil came and sat with us for a send-off beverage once service was over. I’ve met him a few times over the years and he’s never chatted much crap, or seemed to hold much truck with those that do and consequently we have always been friendly, but never become friends. Three sheets to the wind, I gushed to him about how brilliant everything had been, how perfect it all was and so on and so on, and possibly so on. He looked at me plainly, shrugged his shoulders, took a swig of his drink and said, ‘well, you know, it’s just a nice bit of lunch isn’t it.’ Amen.