A chef’s life often means suitcases and foreign lands but restaurants remain a powerful expression of home. To take recent examples from these pages, the McDonalds exemplify American Southern charm at The Lockhart, while the Takagis exude Japanese precision at The Shiori. Both restaurants are in central London, thousands of miles from where their creators first learnt their craft.
I recently felt that I had spent 12 hours in France, even though I hadn’t put a foot out of London. This sojourn began because a French businessman, in town for the day, chose not to meet at a restaurant close to the Eurostar station at St Pancras but rather at Angelus, a bastion of Gallic hospitality housed in a former pub close to Lancaster Gate Tube station.
Thierry Tomasin, the face of Angelus for the past decade, is only too aware that whatever may be going on behind the scenes, he has to smile for his customers. Yet there was a flicker of regret on his face as he sat with us at a corner table in his otherwise empty restaurant.
“I am sad,” he confided, “because I had a lunch booking for 25 today and they’ve just cancelled because their meeting over-ran. I have their deposit for £1,000 but that doesn’t really compensate for not having a restaurant full of happy customers.”
Tomasin may not have had a busy dining room but he did have time to reflect on the changing nature of his profession. Greater scrutiny of expenses means fewer bills are being paid with company credit cards, he observed. Another trend is that Monday evenings are becoming more popular – and Friday and Saturday evenings less so, as fewer customers come into London for the weekend. He now opens all day to accommodate those who like a late lunch, a time when he also sells some of the best bottles from his wine list. And, he reported, his British customers seem to relish good food and wine far more than his countrymen. Tomasin then took our orders and vanished.
Our four courses combined French execution with British ingredients: a smoked Cornish haddock chowder; lobster ravioli with squid ink; and fillets of gurnard and brill, the former with broccoli and a crab beignet, the latter with a delicious combination of salsify, fennel and salted lemon compote. My host, whose family business controls a Paris restaurant and a Bordeaux château, made up for the fact that he was away from France for the day by ordering a bottle of Alain Graillot’s excellent Crozes-Hermitage 2011 (£72).
That night, as I looked up from our corner table at another Gallic outpost in London, Hibiscus, I witnessed a particularly French scene. Chef-proprietor Claude Bosi, who trained in Lyon but has lived in England for 17 years, had just walked from the kitchen into the restaurant in his whites, clutching a checked kitchen cloth. He went from table to table, exchanging friendly words with his customers.
I reviewed this restaurant six years ago after Bosi had closed his original Hibiscus in Ludlow, Shropshire, and moved to London. I remember being impressed by his culinary skills but regretting that his style seemed so forced. We decided to return, having heard that Bosi had made significant changes.
These were evident mainly in the layout of the menu which, as initiated by Eleven Madison Park in New York, simply lists a grid of the main ingredients. Designed to encourage interaction between the customer and the waiter, with the latter explaining the dishes, at Hibiscus this fails because the mainly young French team do not offer sufficient detail.
Our first courses, described simply as Isle of Skye scallops and Cardigan Bay prawns, both served raw, were the highlights; the former as a carpaccio with equally thin black radish and a reduction of black truffle, the latter with a smoked butter, although it would have been better served slightly cooler. Too many accessories – smoked eel and goat’s cheese with the duck; cauliflower, marrow and strong horseradish cream with the monkfish – overpowered our main courses. The disappointment with our desserts, described respectively as chocolate and Amalfi lemon, lay in their form: identical rounds topped with a scoop of ice-cream, visually different only in colour. Bosi needs to get out of his kitchen not to tour the tables but to view and eat his food as a customer.
There is a list of unusual wines by the glass of which the most impressive, a 2010 Clos Ouvert, is made from old vines in Maule, Chile – by three Frenchmen.
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4 Bathurst Street, London W2 2SD, 020 7402 0083; angelusrestaurant.co.uk
29 Maddox St, London W1S 2PA, 020 7629 2999; hibiscusrestaurant.co.uk