It’s significant to be writing this on April 1, the British “April Fool’s Day”, the morning (it cuts off at 12 noon) various pranks and stunts are pulled on unsuspecting victims. This year, they included the 23,000 Instagram followers of Times restaurant critic Giles Coren. He used his stories account to announce he’d be masturbating live, on camera, at 11am. (He didn’t).
More importantly, should you have wandered into Soho’s French House on 1st April, you’ll have been served a pint. For the other 364 days of the year it’s half pints only, along with wine, champagne, pastis, and Breton Cidre. It’s a tradition that has set its clientele apart from the area’s other boozers (artists such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon congregated back in the day). Bacon liked a glass, or two, of champagne. I’ve been wandering in there on and off since I was 16.
As New British Cuisine was being framed in the early nineties, Upstairs was the domain of Fergus Henderson
Coincidentally, Giles is just about the only London restaurant critic (there are 11 “proper” critics in total) not to have been in the French of late. “Upstairs at The French” has reopened and the praise has been universal. This normally indicates a mean PR machine oiling the wheels, doling out plates of free food. Here, cuisine française and a little entente cordiale were apparently all that was required.
It started simply enough. The sassy blonde landlady, Lesley Lewis, announced to the bar clientele “We’re reopening upstairs” which ignited a small fire on Twitter, Facebook and even – heavens! – actual word of mouth. Grande fromage was to be Neil Borthwick, head chef at Merchants Tavern in Shoreditch, following a career path through Glasgow, London and France, most notably three years with the celebrated Michael Bras in Laguiole.
Exciting news indeed, bolstered by a sneak peek of the menu on Instagram: short, sharp, a la mode.
But knocking up high quality French cuisine in a place called The French wasn’t all. As New British Cuisine was being framed in the early nineties, Upstairs was the domain of Fergus Henderson and, for a longer time, his wife Margot. London’s King of Nose to Tail Eating left after 18 months to open St John, Margot stayed on for a further five years with Melanie Arnold, wife of their legendary front of house supremo John Spiteri, (the two now run Rochelle Canteen).
With hindsight, I regret not eating upstairs every single day but I was there often enough. Long, languid lunches till 4pm or 5pm, planning meetings, pitches, reunions, impromptu gatherings. The food was modern, unfussy, outstanding – bavette steak with bearnaise sauce and chips, Toulouse sausages, cheese coupled with the odd glass of wine. If nothing else, it’s the predominance of dark Rhone reds in winter and floral Alsace whites in summer that keep French House regulars happy all year round. That, and champagne.
I missed the opening by two weeks, by which time Fay Maschler, the queen of restaurant critique, had showered stars and praise from her throne at the Evening Standard, making it impossible for me, or anyone else, to get a table. The poor girl looking after the bookings suddenly made a whole host of new best friends (myself included) but restaurant space can be finite. Particularly small ones. We had to wait.
When I eventually did get in for lunch with old friends, we hoovered up two plates of Carlingford Lough oysters, among the best in the British Isles in my view, followed by goats curd and whole bulbs of confit garlic, the pulp reduced to a pungent, sticky, buttery consistency which I breathed over everyone I met for the rest of the day. As someone once commented at an afternoon meeting, “Did you have anything with your garlic at lunchtime?
There followed in quick succession two further marathon lunches – after one I got home in time to watch Newsnight (10.30pm) – where mains from different days, calves brains, pigs head terrine, navarin of lamb, all melded into one long French degustation. I hadn’t travelled back in time, just across the Channel and down past the Massif Central.
Whole Roast Norfolk Quail is a nod to the Hendersons, Fergus famously told Margot to serve the birds bone-in as it was too much of a faff to debone the little things. Ripping them apart today by hand, with juices dribbling, before dredging through a hazelnut remoulade, is a little savage but satisfyingly efficient.
At one point Neil appeared tableside with a copper pot of aligot, an elastic French mash I had hitherto dismissed as cheesy wallpaper paste. This was no idle slight. I had spent time in Rodez, close to the L’Aubrac region (where Neil had worked with Bras), trying to like it, watching market traders mix it up at 6am, beating the hell out boiled potatoes, butter, cream, garlic and pans of melted, nutty Tome fraîche. I couldn’t get my brain, or my taste buds, around the gluey, gummy consistency, even when chefs proffered their own personal recipe. Neil’s aligot hits the spot. I’ve had it every visit since and he insists his is authentic.
There’s a shimmer in the wallpaper that speaks of a more familiar, outré Soho, than secret wartime plotting
Soon enough, the reviews had formed a tidal wave: the Sunday Times, The Guardian, the Mail, the Telegraph, the FT, Time Out and more. In the bar downstairs a small alcove was commandeered as overspill, which means that instead of walking all the way to the top of the wonky narrow wooden stairs to eat, I simply have to shuffle a few feet along the bar and sit down.
Upstairs, the Gallic bonhomie partly stems from history, famously the tale that the Free French met here during the second world war, plotting the downfall of Hitler. But Soho has enough colour of its own. There’s a shimmer in the wallpaper that speaks of a more familiar, outré Soho, than secret wartime plotting. The late George Melly smiles down benignly plus there’s a picture of the boss, from her days as an exotic dancer.
The French has always been a convivial boozer, in the festive season, given its diminutive size, it’s like drinking in a rush hour tube train, but now, over a cheeseboard that’s left for you to pick at, a dozen Madeleines, or even a salaciously decadent Paris Brest, it’s very easy to see why this is again the place to spend an afternoon. Relaxing like it’s 1992. C
Upstairs at the French, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG
+44 207437 2477; frenchhousesoho.com