Dating back to 1891, The French House has seen various changes over the years (indeed, it has only been known under its current name since 1984), but in all of that time this legendary two-floor boozer has remained constant as a Bohemian hangout. The photographs of former habitués on the red-painted walls have borne witness to all manner of plots formed, lines learned, gossip shared and illicit affairs maintained. The chronically-heaving ground floor bar has always been the most boisterous hotbed of such activity whilst the dining room upstairs is slightly more sedate: a salon for the art world’s luminaries to linger alongside media executives, all putting the world to rights over ‘just one more’ bottle of splishy-splashy. A place where lunch means lunch.
The dining room has had many iterations – it once housed Polpetto and was briefly run by Margot and Fergus Henderson before Fergus set up St John. Enter stage left chef Neil Borthwick, Angela Hartnett’s other half and former head chef at their Shoreditch gastropub Merchants Tavern. (Incidentally, Angela was at The French House on this visit as a ‘civilian’, having lunch in one corner – she may not have specific involvement in this restaurant but I wouldn’t be surprised if she consults and guides).
A place where lunch means lunch
Since Neil took over the kitchen in autumn 2018 and having garnered near-universal acclaim from broadsheet critics to influencers, it seems everyone in London is clamouring for one of the prized few tables in the tiny dining room – tables that are dressed in tablecloths by night, naked by day. There may be a bit of a wait but perseverance with the antiquated booking system (read: no online bookings) pays off.
And it was worth the wait. Within minutes of sitting down I had a French House Negroni on the way (reasonably priced at £8). The cocktail selection may be haiku-esque in its brevity but I’m fairly sure they will make any of the classics if you ask nicely (ask for a Woo Woo though and you may get dragged out to Dean Street to be summarily executed). The Negroni was standard-issue but there’s huge comfort in that. Why mess with the already-perfect triptych of Campari, gin and vermouth? Perhaps I could stipulate a specific gin and vermouth (and in ‘high end’ hotel bars I am so fastidious), but I had a handwritten menu to decipher.
There’s just something about a handwritten menu. Whether written on paper that day (à la Andrew Edmunds) or chalked up to a board (à la St John, Primeur, etc), someone (whether the chef or an amanuensis thereof) has physically written it rather than relying on something word-processed – or even worse, something plastic and permanent. Obviously it doesn’t change the food one iota, but it shows a certain respect for one’s craft; the occasional spelling mistake (e.g. “bérnaise”) also revealing a human fallibility; and clearly, by making it up on the spot that morning, Neil is just cooking the kind of classic French-inspired fare he wants to make.
Norfolk asparagus seemed an obvious and predictable choice, being in season, and I admired a fellow diner’s hollandaise sauce from afar. I think I ‘won’ though with the salt cod beignets: gently deep-fried to reveal luscious cod inside, these were served with aioli that had just enough of a garlicky hit to complement the fish without giving you breath that could cut through Fort Knox. All washed down with a glass of Dom Chatelain (not too Chablis at £6.50), I was already in heaven.
Next up, a whole roast quail, perfectly and sensitively matched with calcot onions and a tarragon sauce. Again, Neil and his team showed great skill here in balancing the heady flavours of the sauce, though I wish I could say the same about the bird which was just ever so slightly tough. Vegetables on the side came dripping in butter – literally dripping.
To finish, the one and only dessert (excluding a cheese plate for £10) was a crème caramel with blood orange. This was another simple yet divine dish. Neil’s philosophy is clear: serve delicious, simple food ordinary folk want to eat. Oh, and all overseen by a couple of friendly staff who manage the dining room between them.
I struggled to find fault but, if I’m being picky, the coffee seemed to come from a Nespresso machine (all very well in an office or your home but not a restaurant, please). And the vegetarian or vegan diner may have difficulty. Thursdays are Steak Frites Thursdays at this iteration of The French House, which is of course wonderful if you devour steak as much as I do, but alienating to those who don’t.
But really one shouldn’t moan too much, if at all – especially with the price point. The overall bill sent me home with a smile, coming in just shy of £50 for 3 courses, a cocktail, wine, service, sides – the whole kit and caboodle.
I would eat at The French House every day if I could.
49 Dean Street
by J A Smith