In recent weeks I've reviewed a couple of French places – Brasserie Chavot and Otto's: the first forgettable, the second, not – and, as it happens, been to France for my stag do. Food-wise, it's been a French summer for me. And so you might wonder why I should choose to tell you about another French place. Two reasons. First, it's only just September, and I see no reason to break the habit of what I still consider summertime; second, I'm told great things about Bouchon Fourchette.
It's about a third of the way up Mare Street from the Bethnal Green rather than the Hackney end, in the area of east London that was meant to be transformed by the Olympics, though the improvements have been incremental rather than spectacular. The design is understated, with a barely visible slice of the kitchen, beige walls, lovely if autumnal terracotta lighting, and wooden chairs. On turning up, we're dispatched to the back of the establishment, an architectural armpit that is hot and sweaty.
And here, I'm afraid, the problems begin. Temperature, like music, lighting and upholstery, is critical to a lovely meal: you can't be comfortable if it's too hot or too cold. And this armpit isn't just too hot; it's way too hot, so that within minutes of arriving we're asking if a tall stand-alone fan might be moved in our direction. But it can't be: it's serving customers elsewhere. Now, I know that air-conditioning is very expensive to install, and you can't expect a young restaurant to have it. But investing in a couple of stand-alone fans – say, £50 each – would make a phenomenal difference. In their absence, we'll be having the sweats with our steak frites.
There's a brunch menu with cooked English breakfast, yoghurt, muesli and berry compote, or several French staples, such as croque-monsieur or madame. These also turn up on a lunch menu, which has several options at £7.99, all of which come with frites – so pretty decent value for money. But we're here for dinner – and dinner disappoints.
It all looks so enticing, and indeed starts well. From the starters, bone marrow on toast (£6) is delicious, butter-soaked gloopiness on excellent brown bread; snails in their shell (£6) have to be fetched out with a poker, but are worth the effort; and the rillettes (£4) are chunky and chewy in just the right proportion, with a good, strong flavour.
Then there are boards for two, which go to the heart of this restaurant's shortcoming. The charcuterie on toasted sourdough is passable but, at £12, in pitifully short supply; the baked camembert from Normandy (£9) is perfectly fine, but at just a few inches in diameter should barely be a starter for one, let alone two.
The sides are similarly guilty. The green salad (£3) comes with an excellent vinaigrette, but the spinach and garlic (£3) is a diabolically limited offering. It looks like a mere handful of wilted leaves, tossed into a pan and then into a ramekin suitable for five times the portion.
Of the mains, the cheese-and-bacon burger (£10) alone is a healthy portion, and comes – like plenty else here – with frites. But other mains are weak. The duck confit (£11) sits on a small collective of puy lentils that are bone-dry, almost chalk-like and totally devoid of flavour. The duck confit is painfully over-salted, so that despite a good, crisp skin, it is simply too much for one person. And this despite being served in a small bowl, which is the preferred method here.
Thus you might think the catch of the day with green beans and bacon looks potentially good value at £11, but then you might also struggle to notice when it arrives, so inconsequential are the servings. I counted all of 13 beans, disappearing in a mini sea of butter. The steak tartare is actually rather good at £11, but again there's just very, very little of it.
Desserts are bigger, better and strictly French. Best of the lot is a chocolat liégeois (chocolate ice-cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream, £7). The wines are affordable, with decent options from £17 a bottle, and the service is generous and attentive. But for all that, Bouchon Fourchette doesn't add much to the tradition it inhabits. You feel that – like Hackney – it could one day be spectacular, but it isn't there yet.
Bouchon Fourchette, 171 Mare Street, London E8, tel: 020 8986 2702. £100 for two, with drinks
Three more in regenerated areas of the capital
Angels & Gypsies
This fun hang-out in perenially up-and-coming Camberwell, serves up divine tapas.
29-33 Camberwell Church Street, London SE5, tel: 020 7703 5984
This charming, buzzy spot offers earthy small dishes, plus an extraordinary wine list.
49 Columbia Road, London E2, tel: 020 7729 5692
Situated on an island site near Tower Bridge, a first solo venture by a young chef who worked with Tom Aikens.
201 Tooley Street, London SE1, tel: 020 7183 2117
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013', www.hardens.comReuse content