It's one of life's enduring mysteries; how is it that, on the fringes of Soho, there are thriving branches of the (let's call it) Generic Scottish Steak House? How can all those punters have walked past dim sum restaurants, tapas bars, noodle houses, Italian trattorias, and decided that what they really, really fancied was a bog-standard steak and frozen chips?
Still, finding a decent mid-priced meal in Soho can be elusive, even for the most cosmopolitan local. Which is why there's been a generally warm reception for Café Boheme, the Old Compton Street brasserie that relaunched a few weeks ago with a new menu, a new look, and a new chef. A restaurant must be doing something right to survive for more than 10 years in this part of town, and Café Boheme has hung on in; a handy place for morning coffee, late-night drinks, and everything in between.
What it hasn't been, until now, is somewhere people go to especially for the food. Which is odd, given that Café Boheme is the founding link in the Soho House group of private members' clubs, hotels and restaurants, whose gifted owner Nick Jones is notorious for his perfectionism in all things food-related.
It was from this first humble corner site that Jones expanded upwards, creating the first Soho House in the rooms above Café Boheme, and eventually founding sister ventures across London. With plans for global outposts, Jones has turned his restless attentions back to the place it all began, and made good food the heart of Café Boheme's offer. The Soho House group's new chef-director, Henry Harris, ex of Racine, has reworked the menu of classic brasserie dishes, offering an artful mix of Gallic crowd-pleasers, like moules marinières and confit de canard, snackier dishes, and diffusion line versions of the sort of food he served in Racine, such as lapin à la moutarde.
The refurbished interior is dominated by a magnificent zinc-fronted bar, but this is the only sybaritic touch in an environment of crisp efficiency, reinforced by the bustlingly professional waiting staff, who produced a bowl of fresh sliced baguette and chilled unsalted butter within seconds of us sitting down. With media types flicking through Broadcast magazine while sipping mineral water, it's all a long way from the bohemia promised by the name; though the Soho House crowd have generally got their kicks by meeting in bars and networking, rather than falling off bar stools and not working.
My guest, who has conducted a love affair with this strip of Old Compton Street for more than 20 years, was puzzled as to why we were sitting in a slightly gloomy room looking at a bare wall, when we could have been sitting on one of the pavement tables, taking in the passing show.
It seemed kinder not to point out that had we been on public display, my friend's struggles to excavate a stubborn escargot from its shell might not have presented the coolest look to the passing jeunesse dorée. They were pretty good, the snails, toothsome and meaty and not over-reliant on garlic butter for their flavour. Also above average was a salad of beetroot, soft mâche leaves, creamy goats' cheese and lentils, lifted by a snappy dressing and a smattering of tarragon and capers.
The chap at the next table to us was tackling a whole gurnard Grenobloise, which bore an unsettling resemblance to Norman Lamont, but our main courses were less challenging; coq au vin for me, and steak frites for my friend. I know I was just banging on about duffers who come to cosmopolitan Soho for steak and chips, but this promised to be proper, French steak and chips, with a little ramekin of Béarnaise sauce, and a rugged, grill-hatched look, and even a bit of bone sticking out. But the flavour of the meat didn't really justify the £17 price tag, and the skinny frites were disappointingly flabby. And by the way, why weren't we sitting outside?
My coq au vin consisted of, I swear, at least half a chicken, or perhaps cockerel; leg, breast, wing – as I rummaged downwards in the bowl I was convinced I'd eventually hit beak and claws. But the balance of flavours was good; the liquid winey without being acidic, with a pleasingly creamy mash to mop it up.
Eventually I bowed to pressure and we took our coffees to a pavement table. But it turned out to be the wrong bit of pavement, off "the strip", and so close to the entrance of Soho House that we were getting commiserating looks from the members waiting to be buzzed in. We didn't feel too regretful. Café Boheme has already acquired some of the showbiz sizzle of the rest of the group – Kate Moss fell out of it in the early hours of last week. And knowing Nick Jones, he'll work away at the food until it's spot-on. He, more than most people in the trade, knows that you can't sell the sizzle without the steak.
Café Boheme, 13-17 Old Compton St, London W1 (020-7734 0623)Food
Around £45 a head for three courses with wineReuse content