RACINE: NO TRAGEDY
I took another sip from my insipid pint and scanned the menu again for something, anything that would convince me to stay and have a meal. The usual suspects were all present and correct: the half pint of prawns, the ham hock terrine, the fishcakes, the steak, the burger, the handcut chips. But where was the originality ? Where was the spark, the sign of intelligent life in the kitchen ?
The mise-en-scène wasn’t wonderful either. No FOH, no welcome – just a barman and one waitress polishing cutlery. My table set right in the middle of the drinking tables. Talk about spreading a concept thinly. Let’s hope The Cadogan Arms isn’t one gastropub (the eighth) too far for the Martin Brothers.
I walked back into town looking for somewhere to eat. Given the number if times I dine out I should have a ready list of potential eateries but nothing came to mind.
Passing through Knightsbridge, though, Racine provided the perfect scenario: full and buzzing except for one table, my table. The hard day at work, the travails of using London’s public transport system were soon washed away as I reclined with a glass of Champagne.
HS has already visited Racine a couple of times in the past and I think it’s fair to say, has not been too impressed. Whether I was just lucky on this particular night or that this sort of food just presses more of my buttons, I can’t say, but I had a good meal at Racine. Not flawless and there was a sting in the tail that might give me pause before visiting again.
It wasn’t a great start. Six Speciales de Claire should have been very good but were a bit flabby and lacking in taste. One or two of the Oysters were spawning – the first time I’ve seen this – which was not totally unpleasant just very odd. I should have sent them back but I was curious to see what they were like. Creamy, very creamy. It would have also been nice to have had them removed from their shell or a knife provided so I could do the job myself, but hey, I managed.
From so-so Oysters to one of my dishes of the year. Calf’s Brain with beurre noir is one of those classic French bourgeois dishes that show what can be done with a few relatively straightforward ingredients in the hands of a skilled kitchen. The Brains had been cooked in butter until they had a golden and slightly crisp exterior. The interior was soft and creamy, similar to sweetbreads, but much lighter. The browned butter was cut with a little wine vinegar or lemon juice and a sprinkling of capers. Foam and frippery free, I was making some very odd noises as I ate this. And there was plenty of scope for moppage.
Petit Salé with Choucroute was another excellent dish featuring a good hunk of Pork. The serving was a little parsimonious but made perfect sense given the amount of food that I’d already eaten and was yet to eat. There was some Saucisses and the Choucroute itself, napped in a tart sauce. All very satisfying but made with a sure and light hand. Chips were ace.
Good homemade Vanilla Ice Cream came with a little jug of hot Chocolate Sauce and I also got a little wafer. Which was nice. A double Espresso made with Illy coffee tasted fine although they need to make it a bit shorter.
The service had been spot on during the evening so I was all ready to supersize the service charge, until I received the bill, that is. A service charge of 14.5% OTT in my opinion and not common. And although I never checked, I hope it’s all going to the staff and not being used to top up the waiters’ wages to minimum levels. By making this exorbitant charge they actually lost out and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a regular occurence.
I’ve developed a thing for small French Bistros. The simple, accurate cooking I’ve encountered is a real antidote to some of the excesses of ‘high-end’ cuisine and some of the travesties endured at the gastropub end of the market. Racine had those aforementioned quality in spades. It’s not cheap, but given its location – a few doors down from Harrods – I wouldn’t expect it to be. However, if I’m still obsessing over that service charge twenty-four hours after the meal then something’s wrong, and I can tell you it’s not me.