Wednesday, 20 August 2014
Racine Kitchen, Knightsbridge
The way things normally work on this blog, more through neccessity than anthing else, is that I visit a restaurant once, then write it up. I'd love to be able to exhaustively work through a menu before making up my mind, or visit at different times of the week to assess the different service shifts, but as you can hopefully appreciate, I have neither the time nor the money to report on anything other than a single, initial visit. If you want expert analysis, try the New York Times.
Now you may think that's unfair, but I can honestly count on one hand the times, in over 8 years and 500 blog posts, that I've really wanted to drastically revise a score after a second visit. Tayyabs would get more than the 8/10 I settled on after somehow failing to order the tinda masala way back in 2007, and perhaps I was a bit easy on Ping Pong given the much better, and much cheaper, dim sum restaurants I've been lucky enough to eat at since. But generally it's surprising how little a repeat visit changes much.
So you'll just have to take my word that although I've stopped by at Racine semi-regularly over the last few years, and have had ample time to question and revise any snap judgments I may have made on the first visit, my opinion of the place has hardly altered since I first set through the door one cold winter's day back in (I think) 2009. Namely, it's a lovely little restaurant serving very nice food and I like it very much.
And here's why. Firstly, there's a menu of regional French dishes with phrases like "Deep fried snails & bacon" (above), "Calf's brain with capers", and "Pâté de foie de volaille" used with appealing confidence, it's enough to make you want to drape a string of onions round your neck, wear a beret and scoff the lot.
There's also that soft, dark room, white tablecloths and cozy bench seating in the traditional Parisian bistro style, and immaculately-appointed staff that glide about with surprising ease considering how closely packed some of the seating is.
But most of all, there is the grouse. Every year, as soon as the season starts, restaurants in London fall over themselves to be the first, the cheapest or make the most innovative use of this wonderful game bird. Gymkhana tandoori spice it, the Lockhart deep-fry it, the Ledbury hay-smoke it, more than one Modern British restaurant sous-vide and daintily joint it into geometric shapes and drizzle jus around it. And good luck to them all. But there's only one way to enjoy grouse as far as I'm concerned, and that's roasted, sat on toast spread with paté, and accompanied by chips, game and bread sauces. And there's nowhere does that better than Racine.
I feel the same way about people who don't like grouse as I do those who say they don't like pongy cheese or caviar. I'm not contemptuous, I do sympathise; I can completely understand where they're coming from - these are strong flavours, deep, funky, grown-up flavours that sail perilously close to tasting of things that you'd normally cross the street to avoid, never mind eat. But if you can get past that, there's something deeply rewarding about eating something that tastes of where it came from; of wet moorland, heather, summer berries and yes, of dead animal. This is not a sanitised, abstract lump of protein bred in a cage and carefully carved free of personality. Roast grouse forces you confront the realities of your dinner - it lived, it flew, it was shot, it died, and here we are.
Of course, there are always other reasons to eat at Racine, such as the aforementioned deep-fried snails and bacon, accompanied by poached duck egg and leeks. I also tried a bit of someone's light prawn and crab cocktail (very good) and even a fairly humdrum-sounding goat's cheese and tomato salad (above) was made more interesting by some very good tomatoes and sprigs of fresh basil. I have also, in the past, enjoyed some wonderful steaks (the current offering is a côte de boeuf for two with Béarnaise sauce for £52, which I happen to think is pretty good value) and I have a lot of time for their signature garlic and saffron mousse with mussels, something which sounds pretty odd on paper but always impresses.
I'll forgive them the 14.5% service charge which seems a bit cheeky in a city more used to 12.5%, and for their perhaps slightly underwhelming dessert offerings (somewhere this French should be doing tarte tatin, surely?) because they also do a £17.50 lunch special (hangar steak, Béarnaise, chips and a glass of wine - bargain) and said 14.5% service is admittedly excellent. But mainly, I'll keep going back to Racine for the grouse. Some things you just don't mess with.