Mon dieu! The bistro’s back… Clerkenwell’s The Coach is keeping French cooking alive in London
26-28 Ray St,
This week’s review was supposed to come from Nottingham, Restaurant Sat Bains to be precise. But a dose of industrial-strength flu put paid to any east Midlands expeditions. So Clerkenwell’s The Coach it is. This, though, is no run-of-the-mill, waxed-moustache and hillbilly braces East London gastro pub, rather the new project from Henry Harris, the fine chef behind the late and much-lamented Racine.
Racine, on the Brompton Road, was one of the capital’s great French restaurants, a classically unpretentious bistro deluxe. There you could tuck into steak tartare, brains with beurre noisette, rabbit avec moutarde and côte de boeuf with sauce béarnaise, in the sort of room designed for both long, languorous lunch and discreet, soft-lit dinner.
The Coach is no run-of-the-mill, waxed-moustache and hillbilly braces East London gastro pub, rather the new project from Henry Harris, the fine chef behind Racine
It sent out its last petit pot au chocolate just over three years ago. Losing Racine was bad enough. But last year La Brasserie, just around the corner from Racine, fermed its portes for the last time too. Now, the food was not up there with its Knightsbridge near-neighbour, but the eternally clattering room, with its authentically grumpy waiters and mouth-blistering hot French onion soup, was as gloriously Gallic as François Mitterrand scarfing three ortolans before slipping off for a spot of cinq à sept.
Then, just two weeks back, news broke that Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, on Baker Street, was finis. Another blow to the London restaurant scene, another sad au revoir to another French classic. Mon dieu indeed. Chris Galvin, who, along with his brother Jeff, is one of the restaurant world’s good guys, blamed the closure on a combination of Brexit and ever-rising rents and rates. There’s little doubt that more high-profile closures will follow, and this is a tough time to be in the trade of eating out. Sometimes, good food and service simply isn’t enough.
But classic French bistros, once two a centime, are now an increasingly rare thing. Which is why the opening of The Coach is such heartening news. OK, so it’s a bistro within a gastro pub, complete with proper bar out front, and parquet floor, painted in expensive shades of green, with good prints on the wall. But the menu is a joy: concise and straight to the point. We eat lusciously fatty rillettes, comme il faut. Spread thick upon good toast, with cornichons, dill pickles and strands of lightly pickled carrot. Then a plate of Bayonne ham (good, but never a Premier League ham, always a Championship), with a crunchy, mustard-heavy remoulade. And brains, burnished, lovely, delicately creamy brains in a typically dirty, caper-studded beurre noisette.
Calves’ brains, black butter and capers. Bourgeois French food at its best
There are andouillettes de Troyes, ‘5A’, too, but we give them a wide berth. There’s stinky and then there’s tropical open sewer. A dish for the scatologically inclined. But Harris sends out the accompanying mogettes. White beans, cooked with smoked salt pork, they’re a hefty course unto themselves. They don’t appear on the bill, despite our asking, and by then it’s too late.
I eat a vast leg of farmed rabbit (in Burgundy, from where the dish hails, farmed is more common than the smaller, more dark-hued wild), with a punchy mustard sauce, another Harris staple. The meat is soft and succulent, and accompanied by a few slices of crisp bacon. Bill has confit duck, the skin ‘expertly browned first’, the flesh stripped from the bone in loving strands. Those lentils are winter hefty, but contain the merest hint of summer, thanks to tomatoes stirred through. Both dishes are classics, executed by a seasoned, knowing hand.
There’s a classic green salad, gently anointed with sharp vinaigrette, and Savoy cabbage (a touch underdone, even for those who, like me, have a morbid fear of overboiled greens). We share a pudding of petit chocolate pot, rich and bitter and topped with a splodge of whipped cream. And a vast hunk of beautifully aged Comté, alongside a couple of chilled glasses of Poire William. Parfait.
Harris was shaking the pans today. So it’s no surprise that the lunch was up there with Racine. Bourgeois French food at its best. But Harris is a partner in this pub, and two others too – The Three Cranes Tavern in the City (already open), and the soon to be launched Truscott Arms in Maida Vale. A pub saved from being transformed into yet more luxury flats. Hurray!
We all know Harris can cook. The challenge is keeping the standard this high every day, as his talents are spread ever more thinly across town. Still, this is rare good news in a city where classic bistro cooking is becoming an endangered bête. Great French food in the most English of pubs. Vive l’entente cordiale.
About £30 per head
Fairly average lunch at Nobu Malibu. Meh food, fine view. Then late-night tacos at Pink Taco in West Hollywood.
A little worse for wear. But raw sea urchin, excellent oysters, white shrimp, fried clams and steamers at Connie and Ted’s. Too exhausted to eat dinner on BA on way home, thank God.
Back to London. Feeling a little rough. Bed early without food.
And up all night with flu. Not pretty. Not hungry. Manage water. Just.