A Corner of France in Farringdon
There’s a regular at Bouchon Racine who appears to have worked out the perfect way to have lunch. He lives in South Kensington and, on most weeks, will take the boat to London Bridge, before making the short walk to his favourite restaurant. He always sits at the patron’s table, which is slightly tucked away from the other handful of tables in a room that feels a bit like a secret. He arrives at 12PM and has a long three course lunch with a bottle of claret.
“That’s a very nice way to have lunch, isn’t it?” says Henry Harris.
Above the Three Compasses pub, Henry Harris is operating the sort of restaurant that makes you want to get on a boat to visit. The man behind West London’s much-loved Racine, which he ran from 2002 to 2015, Bouchon Racine draws some inspiration from that earlier neighbourhood favourite - how could it not - but is its own, unique and wonderful thing; elevated French cooking without fuss in a beautiful room. A few tables and a chalkboard menu that changes as and when Henry sees fit. The tasteful clutter of the room’s artwork arrived from friend’s, family and French antique shops. The wood for the bar came from an old railway sleeper, and the cutlery was picked up along the way.
“We wanted it to look like it had been here forever,” says Henry, who’s wearing his own Drake’s Games suit in heavy navy cotton, along with a chambray shirt. He has closely-cropped hair, round glasses and the sort of soothing voice that would do well on Radio 4 if he ever fancied a career change. Light pours in from sloped windows, while commuters power towards meetings and offices below. “If you go to to France and ask who did the interior, they’d look at you in horror. It’s just a history of things we put together; bits and pieces. It’s a comfortable setting and a nice place to eat. If you can create that in a capital city, then people will come from far and wide."
Tables are often booked three months in advance, although Henry always tries to keep a few off to the side for locals, and people who like to get on a boat from South Kensington. It’s 9AM and already the phone ringing is a consistent soundtrack, tables of two, and eight, and four. In a glowing review for The Guardian, a valuable thing in the fickle world of restaurants, Jay Rayner wrote that he was a “huge dribbling admirer” of Henry's cooking. Giles Coren of The Times said that Bouchon Racine makes the best crème caramel in England.
“I just like cooking what’s around me and what interests me. Every Friday or Saturday I’ve started to get these chickens from the Basque Country, 8-10 of them and I do it as a sharing dish,” says Henry, who also owns the pub downstairs along with the food industry veteran Dave Strauss. “I’ll add some wild mushrooms or fresh white beans, and it’s become a bit of a show dish. We’ve started to have people come in saying, ‘Have you got that chicken?’ The world is different now. People discover you online and have high expectations.”
Another favourite is the tête de veau, an old school French delicacy which, for the uninitiated, is calf’s brain. “We had it on the menu every night for 13 years at Racine, and I’ve carried it over to here. I still have people coming in who remember it from back then. I try to appreciate the whole animal and use what’s in season and what’s around me. We have this wonderful mix of regulars, and people who are looking to try something new. I just want to give people something good to eat.”
After the closure of Racine, Henry spent a long time working for other people. “I was like Job in the wilderness,” he says with a smile. “I spent eight years working out what I wanted to do.” One night a friend of a friend said something that set him on a path to this perfect room, three months of bookings and the best steak au poivre in London.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t have a restaurant?’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand either.’ I went home and woke up Denise at 1.30AM, and told her, ‘I’m going to open my own place again, and she said, ‘It’s about bloody time!’ and went straight back to sleep.”
“I wasn’t going to be happy, satisfied, fulfilled, whatever you want to call it, unless I was doing it my way.”