The recession has done its bit, but the old sleaze is far from safe. Short of slapping preservation orders on the clubs, arguably the most sensitive thing a new business can do is to stay in tune with the shambling old-timers. The French House, the area's newest restaurant, does just that. A new management moved in on Tuesday with little more than fresh linen smocks and a good supply of white paper tablecloths.
Otherwise a small, narrow dining room atop an appealing pub looks and feels every inch like old Soho, even down to the dark red walls, papered in the colour of dried blood. Trendy folk will not need to sport sunglasses indoors. This place is as dim as a womb, ideal for nursing a hangover.
It makes sense, too, as the new perch for two promising chefs, Margot Clayton and Fergus Henderson. Both have had a string of short-lived jobs about town. Ms Clayton was behind the exciting but uneven cooking when the First Floor restaurant opened in Notting Hill some two years ago. She then did turns at 192 and the Quality Chop House, and finally distinguished the pub food of The Eagle in Farringdon Road.
Mr Henderson comes from the reliable Covent Garden kitchen of Smiths; then, with the gloriously eccentric Charles Campbell, he ran a dingy restaurant in a Notting Hill drinking club, The Globe. I last spotted Mr Henderson several months ago, shifting sea urchins to a smoke-filled room full of drunks, then days later heard he was leaving, off to write a treatise on architecture and food.
The book will have to wait. The deal to take over cooking at The French House came up. This is a seductive old pub. To run it, tending front of house is a third partner, Jon Spiteri. By way of staff they managed to coax Moira Gavey, who for three years ran 192, back to the business. This charming Celt is the sort of delightful, competent manager restaurateurs kill for.
The menu is short, snack-friendly and riddled with mis-spellings ('truffel' and 'mackeral' etc). There was nothing at all nouvelle about the one I saw. Nor was it slavishly rustic. Rather it seems to have picked up agreeable influences willy-nilly.
You might have a cheesy Welsh rarebit with Worcestershire sauce. Buckwheat pancakes came with cubed beetroot spiced with mint and served with a cooling pool of creme fraiche, and were refreshing and wholesome.
This liberalism mostly pays off, but there are mistakes: herrings, served in a portion to outface a Norwegian, were over-pickled, mushy in a fiery vinegar marinade. They were served with a pile of finely diced red onion and a new potato salad. The salad's home-made dill mayonnaise was good, yet the new potatoes were almost inedible from undercooking.
Roast guinea fowl, listed on the menu as coming with peas, showed skill and lapses on one plate. These were not any peas, certainly not fresh ones, but tinned petit pois, studded with lardons and swimming in the juice of the roast bird. I must admit a fondness for these peas, but far more seasonal and appropriate would have been cabbage, or good creamy mash and spinach. However, the fowl itself was quite perfect, its flesh tender and moist, the skin highly seasoned with pepper and thyme and papery-crisp.
Boiled orange cake is a deliciously moist confection with a zesty kick made, I would guess, from the entire fruit, skin and segments. Figs and shortbread will be just that: ripe sectioned figs with chalky, perfect shortcake. The wine list is democratically priced with a highly respectable young claret, 1988 Chateau L'Eperon, at pounds 10.95. Coffee is good.
The French House Dining Room, 49 Dean Street, London W1 (071-437 2477). Approx pounds 10-pounds 25. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Snacks done for bar below. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri. Major credit cards.
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