There is a book doing the rounds in the arts pages at the moment called How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh. It's gone down very well: our own John Lichfield described it as "by turns illuminating, affectionate and exasperated". When it first crossed my desk, I remember thinking it was a silly title. Can a nation of millions be said to think in a particular manner?
Just as the Teutonic reputation for efficiency forgives countless thousands of lazy Germans, and the British reputation for fair play rather grates with, for example, three centuries of empire, so the French reputation for preferring theory to practice, and contradictions to clarity, reduces an ever-more diverse nation to so many automata.
Yet… while it may be a conservative habit, the practice of splitting the world into national stereotypes is irresistible, not least because it has some basis in reality. I do it myself. Australians love sport; Russians are transactional; Bajans won't be hurried.
Usually the best way of understanding a people is through their food. Not just recipes and ingredients, but the manner in which they are eaten. So, if you want to understand the French, but don't have the time to live there or read Hazareesingh's book, visit a brasserie.
Brasserie comes from the French for "brewery", and just means an informal, all-day diner with printed menus, hyper-attentive service and white linen table cloths. This is both literally and metaphorically how the French think. There are several outstanding ones in London right now; and the competition for title of best must be between Corbin and King's Zedel and this, 108 Brasserie. It does very British food in a very French setting, and it works.
It re-opened late last year after a splendid and thoughtful refurbishment. There are three areas: a posh, dark oak bar; a buzzy dining area; and, up a few stairs, a smaller pantry. Elegance drips off the red leather and burnt-orange mohair upholstery. The waiters speak in a variety of European accents (though none of them French). And the food, some of it from a Josper oven, is sensational.
Start with the (complimentary) bread. I usually don't: why fill your stomach with chunks of starch before the main attractions? But this is too good to miss. White sourdough and Irish soda are both excellent, but the Irish Guinness bread – thick, malty, almost offal-like in flavour – is divine with salted butter.
On to the starters, and a burrata (£15 for two) comes with sloppy, indulgent mozzarella, crisp crostini and lashings of balsamic over rocket. The Dorset crab on toast tastes sea-fresh rather than, as so often, over-salted, with crunchy watercress and zingy apple (£12). But the stand-out, worth a visit all on its own, is the crispy pig cheeks with light mustard crème fraîche and spicy apple and raisin chutney (£8).
I then opt for the lemon sole, cooked meunière – that is, whole, dredged in flour, fried in butter and served with parsley, capers and lemon. No two ways about it: the best bit of fish I've had all year – by turns succulent and crisp (though very dear at £25). There's also a barnstorming rib-eye steak (£27), which gives off such a heroic odour that my friend Brooke demands I smell it before we share it with excellent béarnaise and peppercorn sauces. And for his vegetarian wife, Ciara, there's a summer vegetable and pearl barley risotto (£14), which, served with Parmesan and garlic, is enough for two.
Marvellous sides of seasonal greens and purple sprouting broccoli (£4.50 each), served with tarragon and mustard hollandaise, are a mildly healthy diversion, before a warm chocolate fondant with peanut butter ice cream that is worth every penny of its £7.
As memorable as any of the food, however, are the drinks. We have various versions of a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and daiquiri between us, which, at £10 each, are not bad for central London, especially given they are strong and delicious. You can also get a decent glass of wine for £6, which is very welcome.
It might boast seasonal British produce, but being a brasserie, this place is deeply French: bent on elegance, with attention to detail and determined to take time over pleasure. I have a strong feeling that 108 Brasserie, profiting from a clever refurb, will become a storied London haunt soon enough.
108 Marylebone Lane, London W1, Tel: 020 7969 3900. £100 for two, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
Best thing about going on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 of a Sunday morning? This portion of the free breakfast afterward.
I'm not much of a tea man these days but a cup of this brew, with bergamot and orange-peel oil, is lovely.
Horribly unhealthy, but they were on discount at the Co-op. My top tip? Microwave them for 30 seconds to turn them chewy.
Why hadn't I thought of doing this myself? I had a version at a barbecue. So simple, and too good to be true.Reuse content