The new wave of French brasseries and bistros may be a sign of maturity and confidence in the UK's restaurant scene, says Hilary Armstrong
"French food is dead!" screamed the headlines. Long live Spanish, modern British, molecular, and all the other cuisines we have been drawing into our newly foodie embrace over the past decade.
But, judging by the resurgence of proudly traditional French cooking in the UK, it seems reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.
Wonderful, glorious, traditional French food was probably always going to claw its ways back into our affections at some point - fashion goes in circles, after all - but could there be more to it than that? Jason Atherton, a French-trained chef (albeit one better known for his BLT in a glass than his daube de boeuf) returned his gaze to France with the opening of trendy Mayfair brasserie Little Social in March. He says the current brasserie revival is "a sign of the times".
"We went through a stage in Britain of having to prove we could cook creative, crazy food up there with Spain and the â¨El Bullis of this world. Now chefs are more comfortable in their own skin."
For Atherton, it's a return to where he started out. "When I worked for Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann, Marc Haeberlin, Marco Pierre White, you had basic cooking technique drilled into you," he says. "If you made a lobster bisque, you made it properly; even a mixed salad, you made it properly. You learned how to make something so simple so good. I'd always wanted to open a restaurant where I could put that into practice."
Ed Wilson, co-owner of Terroirs, Brawn, Soif and the Green Man and French Horn, argues that it's not only in London that we're going to back to basics; in Paris, too, they're falling back in love with their heritage. "These days, you can ring up Alain Passard and get a table for lunch," he says. "It's the bistros that are packed out now. That's where people are choosing to spend their money - in a more relaxed environment. French food suits that context."
But Wilson stresses that these thriving bistros are not dreamy Les Routiers-style village cafés doing 10 euro menus ("They don't exist any more"). They are modern places, serving â¨"relevant" food while remaining proud neighbourhood restaurants and an important part of the French cultural landscape.It's impossible not to wonder how much the economy has to do with it. Restaurateurs adore classic brasseries and bistros for their drama, pace, charm, and - let's face it - their customers.
Restaurateurs love regulars," says Joel Kissin, the former Conran Restaurants director set to open luxury bistro Boulestin (named after Marcel Boulestin, founder of the original Boulestin in Covent Garden, established in 1927) in St James's in September.
Simpler dishes "I've been thinking about opening a French bistro for years. It's not a recent thing for me, and nothing to do with the economy. I suppose there is a bit of a reaction to that MasterChef-style food. People want simpler dishes with not too much on the plate, which I personally prefer. A bistro should be a restaurant you want to go to regularly, not once a month."
Will Smith, co-owner with Anthony Demetre of Covent Garden brasserie Les Deux Salons, puts it bluntly: "In a brasserie, you don't really know who the head chef is and you don't really care. You could say that restaurateurs should open brasseries - not chefs.
"People eat out much more frequently these days. They don't want experimental food four times a week. They want somewhere to take friends, family and business clients. They don't want you to modernise. The more classic we are, the more people love it."
Most agree there's little scope for innovation with the classic brasserie formula. "If the menu is 70% traditional with 30% variations, I think it works," says Rex Restaurant Associates' Jeremy King (Brasserie Zédel, Colbert). "Traditional dishes are reassuring; they underpin the menu. They're dishes people know they can order if they're under pressure."
Certain dishes spring to mind when you think of French bistros and brasseries. Coq au vin, pot-au-feu, terrine de campagne and old-fashioned comfort food at the former; steak frites, escargots, grand platters of fruits de mer and heaped plates of choucroute at the latter. But the really authentic humble stuff shouldn't be forgotten. At Brasserie Zédel, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King's grand Piccadilly brasserie, cheap-as-frites entrées such as céleri rémoulade, carottes rapées and mÁ¢che and beetroot salad have been reintroduced.
"Chris and I always wanted to do a Chartier-type brasserie, somewhere the working man or woman can enjoy good food cheaply and quickly," says King. "We have a lot of young people and a lot of old people who are counting their pennies, and many people aren't having starters at all. Others are ordering three or four. Some of these dishes were in terrible disrepute; they were clichés. But people in their fifties love coming in and finding egg mayonnaise because they haven't seen it in ages."
For some, French food is comfort food, pure and simple. Nostalgia is often cited as a reason for the enduring appeal of French food, but that doesn't entirely account for the number of twenty- and thirtysomething diners in the hot new French hangouts who can't all have been brought up on blanquette de veau in the 1980s and 1990s (can they?). For the younger generation, retro French nosh is more about fantasy than nostalgia. It's as exotic as it gets.
"The twentysomethings we see are internet savvy," says Smith. "They look at the menus, Google what they don't know and come here knowing exactly what to expect. When I went out in my twenties, I'd have had to ask or get out my Larousse Gastronomique."
Flexibility is key The menu's structure is just as important as the specific dishes on it. Flexibility, particularly in brasseries, is key. The menu - always an all-day menu in brasseries - has to be big enough for repeat custom, but must be within the kitchen's reach every day. A menu would not typically be printed daily - or, indeed, more than once or twice a year, if that. Specials can be treated separately, if they're even offered. Prix fixe and "formule" menus fill the gaps otherwise filled by pre-theatre or lunch deals.
"A brasserie acts as a catalyst for people to do what they want with it," says King. "It should have broad menus, a wide range of prices and an entry point that's not expensive. Restaurants often try to dictate the terms to the customer. I like restaurants where you make of it what you want. What excites us most is to see a row of people, one having a big plateau of fruits de mer, another steak frites, another a full afternoon tea, and another a cup of coffee. That's when restaurants are exciting.
"In Paris, brasseries have gone downhill. They have had to become "two-session" restaurants because of working hours. One of the greatest compliments we ever had about the Wolseley was somebody saying 'this is exactly what we need in Paris'."
At Boulestin - a bistro deluxe as opposed to a brasserie - the menu is under wraps for now, but Kissin says it will be fairly true to French tradition. "If you look in Escoffier, there are close to 300 recipes for eggs alone," he says. "There's such an enormously wide repertoire that it's fairly easy to remain faithful to it."
But he won't get "tied up in knots about it", he says. Pasta, risotto and certainly caviar - not exactly a bistro staple - will probably sneak on.
There is room for change, however. Wilson, for one, would like to see more regionality on menus. "I'd use the Green Man and its focus on the River Loire as an example here," he says. "It's exciting and challenging to limit yourself. It makes you explore more."
Wilson also calls for wine lists that reflect diners' growing wine literacy. "Wine culture has changed since we started Terroirs five years ago, but we're still stuck with tedious, tiring wine lists," he says.
You might say that many of the chefs who have recently turned to traditional concepts have already sated their creative urges with other projects, and are now ready to reposition themselves as more "complete" restaurateurs. So while the return to French concepts is â¨arguably conservative, it's also a mark of a â¨food scene growing in maturity and confidence.
"I couldn't give a monkey's about Japanese guests taking pictures of the food at Little Social," says Atherton. "I don't want people to have a tasting menu there. I want them to pop in for a burger or a steak. I just want a fantastic local business."
Little Social's â¨steak tartare
For the tartare dressing
93g tomato ketchup
13g Dijon mustard
40g Worcestershire sauce
1.5g Tabasco sauce (red)
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black peppercorns, to taste
26g finely chopped cornichons
26g finely chopped lilliput capers
4g finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 quails' egg yolks to finish
Combine the ingredients and mix well. For the steak tartare, take 240g of sirloin with all the fat and sinew removed. Finely dice the meat. Then add the dressing and mix well. Taste and add more salt or pepper if necessary.
Toast two slices of baguette per person and dress with olive oil and salt. Arrange the steak tartare pattie on a plate, place a quail egg with the top cut off and containing the yolk on top of the meat, garnish with the toast and serve with a side salad.
Terroirs' crÁªpes with salted butter caramel
Serves six (makes about 12)
For the pancake batter
6oz (175g) white flour, preferably unbleached
A good pinch of salt
2tsp caster sugar
2 large eggs and 1 or 2 egg yolks, preferably â¨free range
450ml milk or, for very crisp, light, delicate pancakes, milk and water mixed
6-8tsp melted butter
For the salted butter caramel
500g caster sugar
250ml double cream
125g unsalted whole butter (diced)
10g fleur de sel from Brittany â¨(literally flower of the salt, the very mineral and not-too-salty top layer)
Put the caster sugar into a large pan over a medium heat and stir continuously until it turns into a rich caramel. This needs to be done by eye, but aim for a slightly dark mahogany colour. If it is too light, the butter and cream will dilute any caramel flavour and it will lack that slightly burnt sugar taste that makes this sauce so good.
When happy with the caramel, very carefully add the cream to stop the cooking. Be really careful to not to do it too quickly because the caramel tends to spit. When the cream has been whisked in, add the butter bit by bit until it is all incorporated and there is a smooth, rich caramel.
Allow to cool to blood temperature and then add the fleur de sel and mix to get an even distribution. Be sure to allow the caramel to cool before doing this so the salt crystals do not dissolve and you then get that lovely crunch.
Sieve the flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl, make a well in the centre and drop in the â¨lightly beaten eggs. With a whisk or wooden spoon, starting in the centre, mix the egg â¨and gradually bring in the flour. Add the liquid slowly and beat until the batter is covered â¨with bubbles.
Let the batter stand in a cold place for an hour or so - longer will do no harm. Just before cooking the pancakes, stir in 3-4 dessertspoons of melted butter. This will make all the difference to the flavour and texture of the pancakes and will make it possible to cook them without greasing the pan each time.
To serve, make the pancakes in the usual way. Heat the pan to very hot; pour in just enough batter to cover the base of the pan thinly. A small ladle can be very useful for this. Loosen the pancake around the edge, flip over with a spatula or thin egg slice, cook for a second or two on the other side, and slide off the pan on to a plate. The pancakes may be stacked on top of each other and peeled apart later.
Spread a little salted caramel evenly over the warm crÁªpe. Roll up or fold into a fan shape. Serve two per person on warm plates. Pour extra caramel over the top and tuck in.