The French House in Soho’s Dean Street has never been the innocent pawn. Even as The York Minster it was known as “The French” because it was a covert HQ for the exiled free French in World War Two. It then became the fiefdom of Gaston, the Belgian owner’s son, born above the shop, who mounted his own resistance – this time to brewers, in defence of his customers’ predilection for pastis and vin ordinaire. To this day, long after his passing, beer is still only served in half pints, except on April Fool’s Day when Suggs from Madness will pull you a full pint for charity. The fear is that Gaston will descend the wooden stairs bellowing “Liberté, fraternité, mon derrière! Where’s the Côtes du Rhone?”
The French has impressive history. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and London’s art aristocracy gathered to gossip at the southern end of the bar – and Gaston, normally the epitome of moustachioed Gallic charm, would burn a steely gaze into the very soul of any wandering miscreants who foolishly tried to invade their space. The French became a vegetarian’s nightmare when Fergus Henderson dreamt up the earliest scratchings of his nose-to-tail cooking upstairs. I myself have been held captive there for hours on end, prevented from leaving against my will by the combined forces of Hugel Gewürztraminer – a strong character who comes across all sweet but who actually punches above her weight – and Réserve du Patron, a red devil not to be trusted.
So it seemed an appropriate choice of venue to meet The Man From North Korea.
We made vague plans about visiting but of course events have rather overtaken us, what with there being tanks parked on lawns, missiles lined up along borders, and the rhetoric of aggression reaching all the way up to 11
Not long before Kim Jong-un declared a state of war on all and sundry, the go-to guy for tourism in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (that’s North Korea to you and me, folks) was in town and wanted to talk to people about, oh, tourism.
I checked with various individuals who’d been to North Korea, not having been myself. All gave favourable, if slightly wacky, reports; one recent visitor in particular enthused unprompted and declared it the best place she’d ever been. Tourism people are a bit like that. Never mind the headlines, what’s the thread count? Is there a beach? A Vice film on labour camps helped balance things a little.
The French on a Monday lunchtime is a kind of straggly, knotted-scarf type of place. Half the clientele are on their way outside for a rollup, the other half muse over the Times crossword. It’s different at weekends, when the joint jumps, but rarely is it the haunt of tall, formally-dressed oriental businessmen carrying briefcases. Mr Kim smiled and chatted, clearly unaccustomed to such louche surroundings, and asked as many questions as he gave answers. I got the impression that The French was going to be the subject of colourful conversation back home in Pyongyang.
It was all very cheery, so we repaired for lunch. I suggested YMing, Soho’s oldest Chinese, on Romilly Street, but after a few steps we chanced upon the Korean restaurant Dong San which, under the circumstances, we’d have been foolish to pass. The staff were about to have a quiet afternoon (we had stretched Mr Kim’s singular half into the post-lunch period) but were smilingly hospitable to us, especially when Mr Kim began to order in Korean.
We established that foodwise there was little difference between North and South, and there was especially no difference when it came to rice wine. My colleague and I never actually saw the menu so what we were drinking (in moderation, of course) remains a bit of a mystery. It was definitely rice wine, but whether it was Yakju, Takju, Cheongju, or Soju, I’m not really very clear, but this was not the decadent lunch of debauched Westerners, a honey trap for visiting foreign dignitaries.
Had we gone to YMing, I expect we would have had their excellent spiced cauliflower, some dumplings and possibly Emperor’s Vegetables, prawns and scallops with a glass or two of house white. In Dong San, we had kimchi – there was a degree of laughter after I had explained that kimchi was now terribly fashionable in London but fortunately the natives had yet to discover the potent, fiery, six-month fermented stuff that even when nibbled at tentatively is the human equivalent of calling in Dyno-Rod. There were four different kinds of kimchi on offer; sizing me up, Mr Kim ordered the one marked “for very small, timid children only”.
This was followed by Dolsot Bibimbap, galbi and lettuce, some chige, bulgogi jungol, and, I think, some whelk muchim. With me so far? Along the way, we had a couple of fairly recognisable rice and noodle dishes, but for the most part it was a culinary mystery tour, hinting at the secrets a trip to North Korea might reveal. Mr Kim remarked that he found the food quite plain, but I’m convinced that was because he was ordering for two scaredy-cats across the table.
“Why don’t you allow people to wander around freely in North Korea?” I asked, since I knew that only organised groups gain entry. “You’re too nosy,” Mr Kim laughed back, explaining that people, especially journalists, always wanted to go to places they weren’t supposed to. I later discovered that a party of German hacks from Bild newspaper – the one that makes the Sun look like the Church Times – had done that very thing, and returned to Berlin to write about North Korea in a most unkind manner.
Mr Kim had to leave after an hour, just as we were warming up. We made vague plans about visiting – nothing concrete, all TBC – but of course events have rather overtaken us, what with there being tanks parked on lawns, missiles lined up along borders, and the rhetoric of aggression reaching all the way up to 11.
All of which could be sorted, if only young Kim Jong-un would make a visit to The French. Almost everything I know can be resolved in there over a glass or two. Unless he made the mistake of ordering a pint. That would be war.
Derek Guthrie is a TV producer, travel editor and writer