Full disclosure: I’m a Francophile. That might skew my view of restaurants but when the cuisine is so fantastic and has influenced nearly all modern cookery as we know it, I make no apologies for that. I’ve spent a lot of time in France (heck, lived there twice), so forgive me if I recommend somewhere French whilst the UK seems to be doing its best to cut itself off from Europe.
London’s French restaurants can land anywhere on a broad spectrum: old stalwart L’Escargot recently re-entered my good books but it has been known to go off piste in the past; cheap and cheerful Le Mercury in Islington with its warm, flattering candlelit glow can do a serviceable steak frites but is hardly memorable; Le Gavroche remains sublime but requires a mortgage to pay the bill. Hitting that sweet spot in the middle of the authenticity v. value Venn diagram is difficult at the best of times – the only other restaurant I can think of that occupies that space is Brasserie Zédel. But there is now a very strong candidate, which is all the more impressive as it opened just after restrictions lifted on 4th July: mesdames, messieurs, I present Saint Jacques.
Technically speaking, the restaurant isn’t ‘new’ but has moved from its previous address a few doors up St James’s Street. Run by the convivial Alsace-born Richard Weiss (formerly of Brasserie Gustave in South Kensington), it’s a light space with white walls, foliage, a black and white tiled floor reminiscent of Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge, contrasting trout-coloured banquettes and staff uniformed in sky blue shirts. Richard was present on this visit, wearing a shirt the same hue of blue as the staff but his seniority indicated by daffodil-yellow braces. He vaguely reminds me of Otto Tepassé (of Otto’s) – a true host who is there to look after you even though most punters (and secretive anonymous critics) are perfect strangers. There were great, sensitive touches throughout, putting the customer’s comfort first: on arrival we were asked if we would prefer a table inside or in their secret terrace at the back (on a summer’s day I cannot recommend this enough); our wobbly table was rectified efficiently and without fuss; and Richard asked us if the music was too loud (I actually didn’t mind Etienne Daho and co in the background, but appreciated being asked).
If I had to find any fault (and it’s really a struggle) the wines by the glass are limited and most of the wine list proper is young – you will struggle to find a Bordeaux with any decent age, for example. I also noted a few watermarks and finger prints on the plates. But it’s what’s on the plates that really matter (other than any Covidian microbes of course, but that’s unlikely given the insistent use of sanitiser and tables spaced apart – at no point did we feel unsafe).
They had run out of the foie gras terrine but nil desperandum. A half-dozen snails drowned in garlic butter and smoked salmon prepared with traditional garnishes of capers and chopped shallots made for excellent starters, all washed down with a crisp and appropriately chilled bottle of Sancerre.
Two staple dishes are prepared tableside by Richard himself: the steak tartare and the crepes suzettes, each made with a flourish. At least one of these is necessary for the full Saint Jacques experience.
The tour of Gallic greatest hits continued with rump of lamb, cooked perfectly medium rare and rustically arranged as five herb-crusted slices within a hexagon of Provençale vegetables, whole chunks of garlic (why the hell not?) and a heavenly jus de viande – the kind of jus that is glossy, richly reduced and in France would warrant mopping up with your bread (perhaps less so in the more corseted surroundings of SW1).
The brilliant, classic French cookery reached its denouement with unfussy desserts. A faultless tarte au citron was accompanied by a quenelle of Chantilly cream lightly scented with vanilla. A timeless crème brûlée passed the all-important spoon test (the spoon should bounce off the hardened crater of burnt sugar when tapped, not submerge into limp custard).
None of the food will set the world alight but it’s comforting and executed with élan. It’s also reasonably priced for the post code: a set three course lunch comes in just under £30; a 300g sirloin steak with frites and béarnaise sauce as a stand-alone dish comes in at £32; three courses à la carte and a couple of glasses of wine probably around £80. Then there are little freebies such as madeleines with the coffee (and, if you’re lucky, a glass of port on the house too).
Its location means it is also perilously close to Dukes bar which is re-opening on 5th August. Bank balance permitting, I suspect I will find myself in both, alternating between Alessandro Palazzi’s Covid-defying, uber-dry Martinis and Richard’s tableside steak tartare as we try to escape the hideousness of life at the moment.
Sometimes, just sometimes, you come across a restaurant that propels itself to your list of top recommendations in the capital. This is even rarer in these bizarre times but somehow Saint Jacques has pulled off that feat. All I can say is I hope the high standards are maintained and it remains open for us all to enjoy.
5 St James's Street
by J A Smith