From Lyon’s Brasserie Georges to our very own Zédel in London, French brasseries have always had their comforting place in society. In fact, Zédel was the first restaurant I went back to when restrictions lifted on 4 July. It seems that half of London thought the same. I had never seen it so busy. Understandable really; the end of a four month lockdown precipitated a collective de-clenching, and I can’t think of anywhere better to enjoy liberation than a long session chez Zédel with missed friends for company. But do we need another French palace of all-day dining? Hell yes.
Unlike Zédel, Francois O’Neill’s Maison Francois in St James’s is perhaps a notch or two above in its gastronomic ambitions (and certainly in its prices, which are commensurate with the postcode). Move aside pithiviers and ile flottantes and make way for ravioles du Dauphiné, oeuf en gelée and a well-oiled dessert trolley of dreams.
The ground floor dining area has a seemingly simple, perhaps even bland look and feel; the predominant colours are salmon, beige and Robocop metal with a backdrop of tunes by The Cure, David Bowie and Chris Isaak (if my internal Shazam didn’t deceive me). It is mercifully free of any faux French decorative clichés.
Looming above the ground floor restaurant is a vast silver clock. Clocks on restaurant walls have their purposes I suppose, though they do make me uneasy. Perhaps it’s their sense of impending doom. I’ll never forget being at The Delaunay on 31 January, watching their clock approach midnight (Brussels time), enjoying the last few minutes we had left of EU membership (sigh). At Maison Francois it was a slightly different experience at 9.57pm; those final few seconds to the curfew were strangely calm. (For some reason I feel this deserves a ridiculous soundtrack – perhaps the Countdown theme?). The staff were all lovely and professional about this new chucking out time, ushering customers out as best as they could, but witnessing the madness of people piling into the streets and getting Ubers at surge prices just shows how ludicrous the policy is.
And there are a lot of staff at Maison Francois. Were we not in such extraordinary times I might be a bit pickier about the commotion and confusion amongst some of the servers earlier in the evening (no fewer than five asked us if we would like an aperitif) but I’m just glad to see so many employed. Long may that last. And the Negroni was good, when it arrived.
Matthew Ryle, the Masterchef Professionals contestant who was a gnat’s wing away from winning in 2018, is in charge of the cooking. He impressed in that TV series and impressed here as well, surveying the ground floor from the pass (in a mask, of course). None of the dishes set the world alight for me but they were all faultless in execution.
Any civilised meal should start with gougères. At Maison Francois these lovely little choux buns are fully loaded with melting Comté and decorated in even more grated cheese for good measure.
Jambon persillé – essentially a ham hock terrine hailing from Burgundy – was moist and unctuous. Celeriac remoulade was crunchy with the right amount mustard running through it. Leek vinaigrette and bottarga was a masterclass in less-is-more.
Perhaps the entrecote as the main event was a little bit of a let-down. The fat rendering was all correct, as was the cuisson, and the pepper sauce absolutely delicious, but the meat itself was slightly on the tough side. A pity for £36.
The dessert trolley, lauded all over Instagram, is indeed a divine touch. Its drawers boast madeleines, canelés and macarons, chocolate eclairs, florentines, and perhaps one of the most legendary desserts of them all, gateau marjolaine. There is almost too much choice. But, I suppose, the true test of French pastry work is their tarts. The tarte tatin I had was fine but a very strange thing happened in its delivery. The served asked if I wanted it warmed up. I said yes. He then disappeared and came back 5 minutes later with a stone cold tarte tatin. Clearly we have very different understandings of what warming up means, but apart from that I had no real issues.
My complaints are minor in the grand scheme. It’s a fun, buzzing haven of deliciousness we all need right now. You could easily spend all day here, perhaps starting with a business meeting over a cheeky drink at Frank’s bar in the basement. As long as you leave by 10pm of course. The all-seeing clock will be there to remind you.
34 Duke Street
by J A Smith