In the course of my 25-year career as a journalist, many people have told me no one ever erected a monument to a critic. But that isn't strictly true. The Brasserie St Quentin – a French bistro that opened in London in 1980 – was named after the late journalist Quentin Crewe. A travel writer and bon vivant, Crewe's lasting claim to fame is that he invented the modern restaurant column.
According to legend, it happened when he was working as an associate editor at Queen magazine in the 1960s. In those days, a typical restaurant review would be full of elegant descriptions of sauces and garnishes, but never made any mention of the other diners on the grounds that to do so would be unspeakably vulgar, given how many plutocrats were entertaining their mistresses at adjoining tables.
One fateful morning, Queen's regular critic failed to materialise and Crewe, who was off to have lunch at Wiltons, volunteered to fill in. On his return to the office, he wrote a scabrous, 1,000-word review in which he described how doddering old aristocrats were served nursery food by buxom waitresses dressed as nannies. The prices, he said, were so exorbitant they resembled death duties.
It caused a sensation. Nothing like it had ever been written before and the modern restaurant column was born.
The Brasserie St Quentin closed in 2008 and a new restaurant has sprung up on the same site: the Brompton Bar & Grill. The owner is François O'Neill, the 24-year-old son of St Quentin's proprietor (Lord Rathcavan), and in many respects he has kept faith with the original. He's stripped out the brass rails and leather banquettes so it no longer resembles a Café Rouge and he's changed the menu from classic French bistro to modern European/British, but it still has a raffish, aristocratic air; modern without being trendy. Judging from the average age of customers, many are the same people who came to the opening night of Brasserie St Quentin 30 years ago. For a restaurant to change hands yet keep hold of its regulars is quite an achievement.
My wife is a vegetarian and had resigned herself to wild-mushroom risotto – usually the only option for non-meat eaters in restaurants such as this – but is pleasantly surprised to see macaroni cheese and green salad on the menu. "That's fantastic," she says, stabbing the menu in approval. "Exactly the kind of good old-fashioned comfort food that vegetarians can never get at restaurants."
Having said that, she doesn't order it, opting instead for two side dishes – leek gratin and lentil and baby gem salad. That may be because she's ordered Jerusalem artichokes, green beans, girolles and poached egg for her first course and wants to leave room for dessert.
I cannot resist starting with the pan-fried foie gras with sweetcorn pancake because I have such fond memories of Rowley Leigh's same dish when he was the head chef of Kensington Place. To follow, I order one of the day's specials: roast pheasant with creamed sprouts and cabbage.
Caroline is pleased with her starter, which actually takes up more room on a dinner plate than my main course, but I'm slightly unsatisfied by mine, mainly because the chef has chosen to add a green pepper sauce. To my mind, the rich, gooey interior of the pan-fried foie gras is sauce enough, and it doesn't need a rival.
Caroline's main is a bit dull and she complains of finding several grains of sand in her leeks, but mine is good. I particularly like the creamed sprouts which, on paper, threatened to be rather disgusting. Instead of completely pulverising the sprouts, the kitchen has left large chunks untouched and the result is a nice combination of textures.
For pudding, we mutually agree on the chocolate and blood-orange mousse, but can't decide between the honeycomb ice-cream or the lemon sorbet, so end up ordering both. The mousse is OK, but there's no discernible orange flavour – just a segment sitting on top and a bit of syrup at the bottom – and the ice-cream doesn't have nearly enough bits of Crunchie in it. Best of the bunch is the lemon sorbet.
The Brompton Bar & Grill has a nice feel to it and the front-of-house manager, Eric Demange, is a 24-carat charmer. But head chef Gary Durrant needs to up the ante if it's to last as long as its predecessor. n
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Brompton Bar & Grill 243 Brompton Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7589 8005
Lunch and dinner daily. About £95 for two, including wine (£24 for a bog-standard bottle of Pinot Noir) and service
Second helpings: More modern brasseries
5 Fenchurch Place, London EC3, tel: 020 7702 9965
Neighbouring Fenchurch Street station, this bright new Turkish/Mediterranean brasserie is handy for travellers and makes a good place for an informal City lunch too
Brasserie Black Door
Biscuit Factory, Stoddard Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, tel: 0191 260 5411
Interesting location – especially if you want to wander around the adjacent art gallery between courses – and the cuisine is delicious too
Gascoyne House, Upper Borough Walls, Bath, tel: 01225 480 042
A lively and well-organised brasserie, ideal for pre-theatre in the centre of Bath; it's an intimate sort of place, commended by all who comment on it to Harden'sReuse content