"It's not much but it's ours"

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


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.

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Anonymous PhilD said...

Re: the oysters. The old adage that they should only be eaten if there is an "R" in the month often holds true.

It is not a perfect guide given how oysters are imported from lots of different places and spawing seasons will be different. It does seem strange for a restaurant to serve a variety that is in this state.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 7:05:00 am  
Blogger Gregory said...

Racine has been on my radar for a while and I am glad to see you rated the food, but I simply won't reward them with my custom due to the 14.5 % service.

A fundamental part of a restaurant's "product" the service; so I find it offensive that they charge extra for it and it's even more offensive at this inflated rate.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 8:49:00 am  
Blogger Hermano 1 said...

Happy to report that ALL the service charge does indeed go to the staff as it should - they were very good.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 9:56:00 am  
Anonymous Tim said...

14.5% seems a very strange choice, especially as where restaurants do deviate from the once ubiquitous 12.5% service charge, there seems to be trend towards 10% judging by a few places I have been to recently.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 11:42:00 am  
Anonymous Paul O. said...

I am happy to pay this level of service charge for very good service. At a recent dinner at L in Kensington, the waiter asked to whom he should give the wine list(rather than giving it to me, the bloke) and then when he brought the wine, he asked who would like to do the tasting(rather than assuming it would me the bloke).My wife was thus included in the process by his careful attention, unlike what HS mentioned happened to his good lady in NY in a post a while ago (I think).
So 14.5% is not that high...15% is usually the norm-at least in Paris and the USA etc.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 4:21:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delighted you had a good time.

Simon's blindspot on this one has always baffled me. I long ago concluded there was only one explanation: he was wrong.

Jay R.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 7:49:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 1 said...

Paul O,

Just used to 10-12.5% I suppose. Didn't some of the Conran joints used to charge 15% ?


Thursday, June 04, 2009 11:06:00 pm  
Anonymous Nezbrun said...

Racine is one of my locals, and it had also been one of my all round favourites for several years until a complete change of front of house in summer 2008.

Service I now find to be rather standoffish, having completely lost its warm friendly welcome. Despite several subsequent visits, I have yet to see it return. The 14.5% has been in situ ever since they opened five or so years ago: at the time I remember worrying if it was the start of a worrying trend, luckily it is not.

The food, though, is the real reason to return, and I'm glad to say that downstairs in the kitchen the same crew operate.

One positive aspect of the FOH change of guard is that they have opened up the wine list fairly dramatically to include (sacrebleu) New World.

I just wish FOH was rather more friendly.

Cheers, Howard

Friday, June 05, 2009 1:27:00 pm  
Blogger Douglas Blyde said...

A very even-handed review.

I have been reading the 'tweets' from Racine Kitchen whilst simultaneously salavating.

I must admit that that form of online PR exercise also put me off.

Probably because of Galvin at Windows and now Tom Aikens. Venues and personalities that appear too wedded to the medium, on occasions broadcasting at what I can only assume by the timings, is during service.

Regardless, I'm quite a fan of the 'sexy' spawning oysters, although shocked that Racine didn't bother severing them from the shells. Lazy.

Other than that, I remain salavating...

Friday, June 05, 2009 10:10:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 1 said...

The food I had at Racine really pushes all my foodie buttons. It's odd that the Oysters let them down though to their credit they have offered to make things right.

I have to say I would be happy to to find spawning Oysters again in this lifetime - the creaminess just kills the brininess which, for me, is what an oyster is all about.

The creaminess of the brains, now that is something to savour...


Friday, June 05, 2009 11:30:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 1 said...

Hi Jay,

Although I believe cooking is a craft and about the reproducible it's possible that HS was unlucky on his visits (or I was lucky on mine). Something I can only really test by eating lots of meals there.


Friday, June 05, 2009 11:41:00 pm  

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