Neil Borthwick has been ensconced in Soho’s French House for eight months. The Dean Street pub, with an illustrious history too long to recount, has long been a watering hole for many of London’s most bohemian residents.
It’s a place made for long, indulgent and heavily lubricated meals, which is exactly what Borthwick says he enjoys serving up. He explains: “A lot of wankers go to a restaurant to go to a restaurant. I don’t think a restaurant is for that; I think you go to a restaurant to eat and enjoy good wine and good company. Food first and foremost is not about being cool or trendy, it’s about wholesomeness.”
Borthwick says the move from Merchants Tavern in Hackney, which is backed by his wife Angela Hartnett, has given him the opportunity to engage more with his customers. He explains: “I like a chat and the last place was quite big – not impersonal, but it was very hard to do that. Here there are two of us in the kitchen and the kitchen porter, and a smaller menu with everything pretty much fresh every day. It’s quite a nice position to be in and it’s one of London’s last institutions.”
The chef was introduced to the French House by a friend and was invited to head up the dining room by landlady Lesley Lewis, who this month celebrates 30 years at the helm and has given the chef free rein to “do what I love best”.
The menu at the French House is short and ever-changing, handwritten by Borthwick each day and influenced by the quality of produce. The chef has no time for trends, cooking the classically French-influenced dishes that he enjoys eating.
He explains: “People do like choice, but I think if what’s on the menu sounds appetising and tastes delicious, people are OK with it.
“The important thing is to check the quality of the produce. Half of the problem in London is distribution; you’re sent pictures that look fantastic and then I’ll send pictures back saying ‘it doesn’t look like that’. As soon as one thing is not done well, it’s not going to be as good as it should be. I know it’s boring and everybody goes on about it, but definitely for me, cooking is all about simplicity; you start with a good ingredient and you don’t really have to do much.”
It’s an approach that has seen the French House’s small, 24-cover, first-floor dining room become the toast of critics, with the Financial Times’ Tim Hayward praising Borthwick’s shortbread as “evidence of the existence of god”, while The Sunday Times’ Marina O’Loughlin summarised her joy with a simple “Yes, yes, yes”.
Some signature dishes have emerged, including a head of confit garlic served over goats’ curd on toast; calves’ brains with brown butter, capers and parsley; and a side of aligot; as well as Paris-Brest with chocolate sauce.
With the pub’s dining room having previously hosted Fergus and Margot Henderson, Borthwick could be confident in placing offal front and centre of his menu. He explains that he had never cooked brains before his arrival at the French House, but felt “it would likely be the kind of crowd that would like brains”.
He adds: “It’s a lot harder to make something delicious out of a low-cost ingredient than it is out of milk-fed lamb. It takes a bit more knowledge and a bit more experience.”
Borthwick’s own experience includes leading the brigade at Merchants Tavern and posts at Gordon Ramsay’s Amaryllis in Glasgow; Restaurant Tom Aikens; four years at Maison Pic in France; three years at Phil Howard’s the Square; and stints working for Hartnett at the Connaught.
His time in France has left him with a deep appreciation of the “beautiful country” and its “fantastic heritage”, as well as a respect for the classics; although this can reach a limit if French customers question the addition of chocolate sauce to his Paris-Brest.
Borthwick explains: “There’s nothing better than a classic done well. A lot of people say this is my take on this, but maybe you could just do a classic. The classics are timeless for a reason. I would have loved to be in my thirties in the 1980s. When you look back, a lot of it was just classic French dishes.”
Borthwick says the French House, which opens for lunch from Monday to Friday and dinner from Monday to Thursday, is the kind of place where “anything can happen”. Currently he can revel in this predominantly being people enjoying food, good wine and good company.
From the menu
• Confit garlic and goats’ curd on toast £8.50
• Calves’ brains with brown butter, capers and parsley £7.50
• Pigs’ head terrine and pickle £7.50
• Salt cod beignets with aïoli £7
• Ox tongue and sauce gribiche £10
• Barnsley chop, turnip tops and roasted shallots £19.60
• Spatchcock quail with green sauce £12
• Aligot £4
• Paris-Brest with chocolate sauce £9
• Madeleines four for £3, six for £5, dozen £9
The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG www.frenchhousesoho.com