Last week, impulsively and recklessly and almost certainly against medical advice, I had two quite different (and not insubstantial) French meals in the space of a single day. The evening dinner was at Club Gascon in Smithfield market, and I'm afraid was not my kind of thing at all - a fussy and emotionless series of provincial Michelin-baiting French dishes, authentic insofar as the last time I ate in a Michelin-starred provincial French restaurant it was every bit as fussy and emotionless and this, but still not an experience I enjoyed. I won't go into too many details, but briefly though the house bread and a couple of the seafood courses were fine, a pile of weak tomato mush balanced on a complely impractically-designed silver spoon does not make for a particularly inspiring start to a meal, and dessert of apricots and almond ice cream came scattered with garden peas. No, I don't know why either. Pictures are here if you want to see for yourself.
But while Club Gascon shows the influence of Michelin at its most invidious, perhaps there is still a place in our fair city for high-end French gastronomy that has ambition for Red Guide accolades without losing sight of what tastes good. Step forward Frenchie, the London outpost of a wildly popular Parisian bistro run (this is getting complicated now) by someone who used to work with Jamie Oliver at his Fifteen restaurant. Could they pull off the treble of being French, Fine Dining and fun?
Well, by and large, yes they can. The menu, at lunchtime at least, is accessible and unpretentious, not exactly bargain basement but with the option of having two courses for £24.50 instead of three for £28, and with a tempting list of Modern European dishes that make obvious use of top UK ingredients such as Clarence Court eggs and Cornish pollock. Service was enthusiastic and friendly, and the room unexpectedly beautiful (I've seen pictures of the Paris place, it looks like a branch of Pret), with a grand marble-topped bar backdropped with glittering rows of interesting spirits.
And, as you might hope if not always expect in this part of town, the food pretty much lived up to the promise of the room. Perhaps a warm bacon scone is a bit of a strange thing to start a meal with but it came highly recommended and was very nice indeed, moist inside and with a lovely tacky glaze, paired with some Cornish clotted cream.
Starter proper was a burrata of sorts, generous in size and flavour, with a fantastically powerful pea pesto and soft summer herbs. I nearly broke my back teeth on some brick-strong toasted bread of some kind, but even despite that I could enjoy it so it must have been good.
My main was only slightly less impressive; a good big fillet of pollock with a good, dry, crisp skin made up for vaguely lacklustre chunks of vegetables and succulent greenery. A frothy foam tied it all together (there's that Michelin star in the bag, then) and a few leaves of lemon verbena added a nice citrus note. Obviously pollock is never going to be the most interesting fish in the world but it's sustainable and looks the part and it was at least cooked well.
This being lunchtime, and mindful of the eight or so courses I had looming in the evening, I skipped dessert. And perhaps £31 is quite a chunk to pay for two and a bit courses and no booze but I was still quite impressed by Frenchie - they're doing far, far more things right than they're doing wrong, and I'll probably go back, if only to remind myself that French food isn't all about star-chasing and stuffiness.
Speaking of which, later that day a friend texted me a link to a tweet by a certain Twitter account tied to our tyre-making friends:
Just had lunch sitting across from a fairly well-known food blogger. His primary aim seemed to be making sure everyone knew who he was— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) May 27, 2016
At first, my reaction - like your own I'm sure - was "how embarrassing, what an idiot". But after a few moments I remembered a man dining alone near me at the bar at Frenchie, smartly dressed in a suit and staring disapprovingly as I took a couple of photos on my compact camera. This being Covent Garden I was hardly the only person taking photos of my lunch but there was something about the way I was being noticed that made me even more keen to pay up and get out.
Now, perhaps I'm being hugely paranoid and the Michelin account was talking about a completely different "fairly well-known food blogger" out for lunch in central London that day. But even so, it surely says far more about the extra-large portion of triple-cooked chips on Michelin's shoulder that they should see fit to project such behaviour and sneer disapprovingly about it while staying suspiciously silent on location and detail. In short, it seems to be a bit, well, made up, doesn't it?
Anyway, next time I book lunch (anonymously in this case, at least until my credit card came out) I'll be sure to try not to offend any Michelin inspectors picking their way glumly through yet another free meal and leave the the matter with Gary Usher, owner of Sticky Truffle bistro in Chester, who articulates my thoughts far better than I ever could:
@MichelinGuideUK you arrogant fucks. You just go up to the pass & slide your MICHLIN card over instead.— Sticky icky icky (@StickyWalnut) May 27, 2016
"I take it you've heard of us"
@MichelinGuideUK like you did at sticky. Then told me my 9 quid cod fillet at lunch needed potatoes.— Sticky icky icky (@StickyWalnut) May 27, 2016
@MichelinGuideUK maybe it's because some bloggers actually know more than you do.— Sticky icky icky (@StickyWalnut) May 27, 2016