Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Maison François, St James

I've lost count of the number of times I've moaned on this blog about not being offered tap water in restaurants, but last week in St James, weirdly and uniquely, we had the opposite problem. For whatever reason, and I'm sure they have theirs, Maison François only offer sparkling mineral water, not still. Ordinarily I'd applaud a restaurant that refused to profiteer on bottled water but for once to specifically ask for it and be denied felt like a bit of a snub. I don't know, maybe I'm getting old.

Anyway, turns out there was more than the unavailability of bottled water to grind my gears at Maison François, despite things starting sprightly enough with a charming welcome and a nice table in the plush, gently-lit dining room. The menu is archly French Bistro, and of course there's nothing wrong with that, albeit with a slightly bizarre habit of translating every other word so you end up with things like "Truite de rivère, watercress velouté, broad beans" or "Seasonal greens - beurre asiatique, amandes or lemon, olive oil". I'm being snippy, of course, but it's the kind of stuff that, done well, you'd quite happily lose a few hours to, working your way through the different patés and salades and legumes. I had high hopes. Until the food arrived.

It's not that the sweetbreads were inedible so much as just spectacularly unimpressive, bland underseasoned protein swabbed with a sickly sweet dressing. I generally order sweetbreads - in fact any offal really - if I see it on a menu so have been lucky enough to be served some really great examples recently (take a bow, Parillan Borough Market with your lovely chargrilled versions spritzed with lemon juice) but this was just not good, a mediocre raw ingredient not treated very well.

Better was a paté en croute, which had a good mix of different meats amongst nice chunks of soft fat, and a very decent layer of dark, rich jelly on top. True, the version at the Rosewood is slightly better, but then most things they do at the Rosewood are at least slightly better than anyone else's (apart from their burger, but that's a story for another time). It was still a very nice paté en croute.

Bigorre ham was just a case of arranging a product on a plate then dumping some celeriac in the middle of it, but it went down pretty well, given you can't really muck up the serving of ham very much. £19 for a few slices of bog-standard prosciutto (yes, I hear your outrage, France, but you have to come to terms with the fact that Bigorre will never be Iberico) is way too much of course, but then this is St James.

Mains continued the theme of being not quite good enough. Pork chop was timed well, to just very slightly pink inside, but the sauce ("moutarde") was too thin and sharp, and didn't really help.

Quarter of a roast chicken was on the menu as coming with "fines herbes" but I swear it was exactly the same sauce that came with the pork. Had it had been a nice sauce that wouldn't be a problem of course, other than being a bit lazy, but the same thin wine-y astringency worked equally badly with the chicken.

Halibut was overcooked, but even if it hadn't been this tiny portion for £38 accompanied by a charred lemon and a dollop of bland blitzed herbs was hardly likely to ever set pulses racing. Mashed potato needed more butter and more salt, again for a supreme example see the Rosewood.

There was little chance the famed Maison François dessert trolley would save the evening given how disappointing everything had been up to that point, but quite how ordinary the pastries were still came as a miserable surprise. Tarte Bourdaloue was the best of them, having a nice flavour despite being a bit soggy, but the Paris Brest was genuinely wrong, chewy and stale where it should be crisp and light, although the hazelnut filling was OK. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the version at the Rosewood is much, much better. Also, while the idea of a dessert trolley is a good one, in practice there really isn't enough room to wheel it round the tables, and there was generally a queue of people waiting around it to either visit the bathroom or return to their table, having to watch solemnly as someone self-consciously selected their pudding.

The bill came to £330 for three people, which is too much. And yes, this is St James and we had a couple of cocktails but the fact is there are lots of places in town doing this kind of thing much better - even Zedel is more accomplished and you'd struggle to push the bill there to over £50pp, and then in the same price range as Maison are places like the Wolseley or Bellanger, each in prime locations of course and offering a much more enticing experience for the money.

It just seems that Maison François really doesn't have much going for it, when you consider how much further your money will go elsewhere. I'd have liked nothing better than to praise yet another top-drawer bistro in London - you can certainly not have too many of them - but by failing to deliver on even its own modest ambitions for traditional gallic cuisine and compared to all those other places doing the same thing and more - I've even had better food at a branch of Côte - then it really doesn't add up to a place worth bothering with. So I suggest you don't.


Exterior photo courtesy of Guild of Saint Luke architects

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