EATING OUT / A Bohemian meal with the General

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE FRENCH HOUSE DINING ROOM

First Floor, 49 Dean Street, London W1 5HL. Tel: 071-437 2477.

Open Monday to Saturday, lunch and dinner average pounds 20- pounds 25 a head. The menu changes twice daily and there is always a vegetarian option. All major cards accepted.

GO IN through the swing door of 49 Dean Street, next to the shop window full of chefs' outfits and waiters' costumes on the corner of Old Compton Street, and you might think you were in an ordinary pub. My wife and I arrived at the same moment and, not really being a Pub Person, she seemed appalled.

Everyone else in Soho, of course, knows that this is the famous French Pub, the former York Minster, subject of a recent book by Sandy Fawkes called simply The French, where generations of Soho Bohemians have boozed away the best years of their lives. But I could understand my wife's misgivings; a few rather self-conscious young Soho Bohemians were perched at the bar, there was the usual English pub smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke, and a more acrid whiff mingled with Harpic floating up the steep, worn yellow steps, patterned with little black and white squares, from the Gents in the basement.

I urged her not to despair. We climbed two narrow flights of stairs, pushed open a door - and found ourselves in Paris.

I am putting it, perhaps, more colourfully than I should. But the contrast with the pub downstairs is remarkable, and if you ran a French soundtrack over the dim murmur of English conversation you could think you were in France. This is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the place; General de Gaulle ate here during the war, and it is here he is said to have drafted his great speech to the French people.

There are, in all, only nine tables, with paper tablecloths. The walls and ceiling are a mottled reddish-brown, and there is a huge mirror on the wall facing the door that, if anything, makes the room feel even smaller.

I was puzzled at first as to who comes here. At two of the tables three girls were having dinner together; all were young, attractive and in charge of their lives. At others, a couple of slightly knockabout seductions were in progress, the more Parisian of the two being an older lady with plucked eyebrows, vivid black hair and a dab too much rouge who seemed bent on having her way with a podgy businessman in earlier middle age with curly hair and spectacles.

Then, at two different tables, there were two almost identical men whom my wife identified as 'Fifties figures from the Colony Room'. Both had grizzled and wiry hair, bright red faces and wore bright blue shirts. One was with a blonde corker some years his junior, the other with two elegant lady contemporaries, one of whom paid the bill.

All of them, given the added soundtrack, could have been French, but what really clinched it were the two waiters in long white aprons. One of them in particular, aquiline and bright-eyed, bending attentively to take orders in large horn-rimmed spectacles and long close-chopped sideburns, while never betraying a hint of a French accent, could almost have been accused of overdoing it.

The menu, on the other hand, is in plain English. I can still just remember being taken as a very small boy to the Etoile in Charlotte Street during the war when they were very short of real French waiters. We were served by a very lugubrious old geezer whom my father insisted on addressing in French by way of showing off, and asking: 'Qu'est-ce que vous avez pour nous ce soir?'

This stumped the old geezer for a bit, and then he said in a very English accent: 'Nous evv-ons day soss-aaarges.'

It is, perhaps, a tribute to the miraculous improvement in English cooking since then, and particularly in the last 20 years, that you can eat food described in English and still think you're in Paris.

The menu at the French House Dining Room changes regularly and is limited to five starters, five main courses and four puddings. Having eaten scallops everywhere I have been as your correspondent so far, I resisted them grilled with a rocket salad, though they looked very nice, and started with a blewits (mushroom) and lentil soup. My wife started with duck's livers with beetroot. Both were very good, and comforting on a cold night.

After that, we could have had French sausage and mash with onions - though I have to admit, at the risk of spoiling the story, that they're on the menu as andouillettes - or deep-fried vegetables and spicy tomato salad, but my wife chose the roast partridge, very juicy with lots of meat on it, cooked with savoy cabbage and bacon, and I had a really delicious grilled lamb with braised red cabbage. There were also very good fresh vegetables, notably brussels sprouts cooked with parsley and lemon juice. The wine list is also short, but the bottle of red Graves we had was excellent at pounds 14.50.

For pudding my wife had a very light pear and quince crumble with vanilla ice cream, and I had brown bread ice-cream which was very smooth, creamy and award-winning.

As we weren't driving we risked half a bottle of Sauternes, after which I thought the French House Dining Room one of the best restaurants in London. The bill, I am sorry to say, came to pounds 86 for two, but you could eat there for half that.

If I have any quibble it is to do with cigarette smoke. There's a printed sign as you go in asking customers to turn off their mobile phones while they're in the restaurant and I wonder if this request shouldn't be extended to smoking. In a room so small, Silk Cut trickling over your food from the next table doesn't really do a lot for the atmosphere. Perhaps as the atmosphere is so French they should limit smoking to French cigarettes, like the one being smoked by General de Gaulle, photographed with his back to the wall - or actually the mirror - in the dark days of the war. Funny to think that if he'd come to the Etoile that night and had the soss-aaarges I might have seen him.

Comments