Sunday, 15 July 2012

Restaurant revolution

It's entirely appropriate that, if you wanted to mark Bastille Day, you should do so with a good dinner. Better yet, that you'd dine out.

Because the French Revolution that followed the storming of the Bastille led, in no small part, to the restaurant as we know it.

That might seem like a strange link to make, but it's surprisingly obvious. After the revolution had effectively closed down the aristocratic courts of France, a large number of cooks found themselves out of work.

Either they needed to develop new skills and then find new work – or they could find a new audience for the skills they already had, and had not simply in abundance but to a very high level too.

Opening eateries for a changing society was a route that many followed. And although the first restaurant – as we would think of it – had opened in pre-Revolutionary Paris in 1765, it was not until the Grande Taverne de Londres opened its doors in 1782 that what we recognise now was first really established.

The venture was an instant success for by Antoine Beauvilliers, a former cook at the court of Louis XVIII.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the lawyer and politician who is remembered as an epicure and gastronome, described his restaurant as: “the first to combine the four essentials of an elegant room, smart waiters, a choice cellar, and superior cooking.”

And the general situation that also helped by the abolition of the guilds that had, until the late 18th century, controlled not only who could be a cheesemaker, a baker or a butcher, but also how they did those jobs.

Fast forward a bit. In the last 40 years, French chefs been crucial in the improvement of the British food scene - the influence of the Roux brothers and Raymond Blanc in particular has been massive.

So we can make an argument for quite direct benefits from the French Revolution on this side of the Channel too.

Not that that was behind the decision to go to Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Friday evening for the first night of this year’s Bastille Day celebrations – or La Fête Nationale, as it is known formally (Le quatorze juillet, informally).

Last year, we were with my parents and niece for a special family celebration. This year, it was the chance to revel in the special menu all by ourselves.

Arriving early, we found that the area outside the restaurant had been transformed to include a place for playing boule, together a bar and a barbeque – and live accordion accompaniment.

Watching as people engaged in a boule competition, sipping a Parisian beer, it was a pleasant way to start the end of the week.

After sitting down and admiring our Opinel picnic knives (each diner received one), we ordered drinks: a Lillet with bitters and orange water for me.

Lillet is a form of vermouth - a blend of wines, liqueurs, fruits and herbs - and it comes from Bruno's home region of Bordeaux. It makes a really refreshing, zingy, grown-up drink.

There was, as always, bread that was so good that you feel as though you could dine on that alone.

But since one cannot live by bread alone, I started with an Aberdeen Angus steak tartare with summer truffles. The aroma from the truffles as it arrived was a big whack to the senses. The meat was lightly spiced, dark and rich but light at the same time.

It was served with a salad of (I think) something like American land cress, a perfectly boiled quali’s egg and plus a delectable crouton. And it was delicious.

For my second course, it was (as last year) the frogs' legs, with mousseline potato and a jus of parsley and garlic. That's creamed potato and a purée.

The legs had been lightly crumbed and delicately friend. It was utterly, utterly gorgeous.

People say that frogs' legs are like chicken. I understand what they mean - when tasting something new, you have to think of it terms of the familiar in order to classify and understand it for yourself - but I'd describe it more as a very slightly gamey chicken.

For my main, I went for the fish - remarkably it was the first time I've eaten fish at Bruno's.

Lovely stone bass, steamed to perfection, firm but moist and succulent, was served on a bed of 'summer cassoulet' - in other words, a medley of seasonal beans in a broth.

And for dessert, it was fresh strawberries with an apricot sorbet and a dash of champagne.

Since The Other Half was being a bit more meaty than me (qual and foie gras salad, followed by scallops and black pudding, then the lamb epigram – that’s a dish of three different cuts of the meat in question), we chose a rosé for our win.

It was a Caringole rosé from the Languedoc, Domaine la Croix Belle 2011 – apparently it should be consumed young. A blend of cinsault, syrah and Grenache, it was fruity and light and very nice indeed.

Bruno's never disappoints. And it dawned on me as we took our time, that part of the reason that it is just so good is that, while you're actually dining in one of the best restaurants in London, there is nothing whatsoever pretentious or intimidating about the atmosphere.

It feels local and relaxed; as though you've known it for years, and as though it's almost a secret that you share with just a few other people in the area.

Bruno and his team really have created the ambiance of a French bistrot in the heart of London - and that might well be a revolution in capital eating.

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