Jancis Robinson, That hotel restaurant may have very little to do with the hotel...
I never normally rush to a just-opened restaurant. I have seen the consequences of any possible combination of builders' delays, as-yet-untrained waiting staff and undermanned kitchens and it is not a pretty sight.
But with 60 per cent of my family out of London [he means his wife working hard at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, supported by his 17-year-old son, the eldest still at university], the arrival of a press release announcing the opening on Wednesday 12 June of Racine at 239 Brompton Road, London SW3 (tel 020 7584 4477) was timely, particularly as it is the first solo restaurant for two highly experienced practitioners of the trade, chef Henry Harris and restaurant manager Eric Garnier. I booked for dinner on the fourteenth.
Initially sous chef to Simon Hopkinson, Harris made his name at Bibendum before opening the Vth Floor at Harvey Nichols and then Hush in Mayfair. Garnier has been in London for the past 18 years during which time he has opened probably more restaurants than anyone else: Quaglino's, Bank on Aldwych and then a string of Fish restaurants around the country. Over the past six years, Garnier reckons, he has opened 24 new restaurants.
But in all this time Harris and Garnier worked for others. This is their big chance and when I spoke to a hot and sweaty Harris in the kitchen after our excellent meal he described this transition as very emotional. 'I went up into the diningroom about 8.15pm and there were 20 people there and I realised that for the first time ever they had come for my cooking and Eric's charm. No other reason.'
Racine is a highly personal expression of two individuals committed to the restaurant business, an adventure reflected in its name. This is no reference to the famous French playwright but rather to the French word racine, or root. 'Henry and I are coming back to our restaurant roots,' Garnier explained. 'He is cooking the type of French provincial food that first excited him and I want to give our customers a correct, friendly but not pretentious service.' They do seem to have hit the ground running.
The restaurant (formerly a Café Balans) which seats 75 evokes comfort in a classic French style. Dark brown leather banquettes run down both sides of the wall; the tables are compact with crisp linen; all the service requirements are pushed into the far right-hand corner of the room and there is an attractive glass cabinet on the back wall with extra glasses and decanters. The tables boast small wrapped containers of the best Echire butter, the sliced baguette comes in small baskets and there is no segregation between smoking and non-smoking. Its feel and looks transport you to Paris.
As does Harris's menu which is appropriately short, sweet and sensibly priced. Nine starters include a cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup with herb purée; tomatoes baked with basil and and crème fraîche; salade Lyonnaise and, from the numbers the kitchen was serving, what looked like a popular and generous dish of Bayonne ham with celeriac remoulade. My first course was a dish I have not seen on a menu for a long, long time: a mousse of garlic laced with strands of saffron and surrounded by diced wild mushrooms whose crunchiness added an essential texture.
Main courses continue in the same vein and display the same professionalism from the kitchen. A wing of skate came deliciously crisp on both sides with a broad bean and caper relish; a hefty, grilled ribeye appeared with hand-cut chips and bearnaise sauce; a poulet noir with creamed spinach, lentils and herb butter. For the more adventurous there is marmite Dieppoise, a fish stew which is served in a clear glass bowl; grilled rabbit with a mustard sauce; and a first-class rendition of that great brasserie classic, tête de veau, sauce ravigote.
Prices are keen. Starters range from £4.50 to £7.00, main courses from £9 to £13, and the hard-to-resist desserts from £4.50 to £6. We tested the dessert section's vanilla icecream with hot Valrhona chocolate sauce, petit pot au chocolat and fresh liquorice icecream and all were first class. The intense chocolate pot came intelligently topped with a thin layer of crème fraîche for vital acidity and the liquorice flavour of the icecream came through without leaving a nasty after taste as some commercial brands can.
The wine list is pretty extensive, abandons its French roots and goes global with 125 bins all fairly priced, supplemented by five red and white wines by the glass each under £5. With three glasses of wine, two bottles of Badoit and three courses for three, our dinner bill came to £83.76 which included friendly and attentive service.
Whilst Harris and Garnier have been extremely prescient in their choice of site, style, menu and wine list, what may guarantee this restaurant's long-term success is not just Garnier's expertise in opening restaurants on time and to budget (Racine was converted in 10 weeks and without designers or architects) but in the novel approach they have taken to financing.
Racine has been opened for £130,000: a staggeringly small sum by today's standards. But nothing has been missed. Instead, Garnier persuaded James Lee of Hansen Kitchens, a professional kitchen supply company, to persuade French kitchen manaufacturers Charvet to supply a new state-of-the-art kitchen in return for an eight per cent equity stake in the new business.
Everybody seems to have benefited. Harris and his brigade have a brand new set of kitchen toys on which to display their skills in what is still, however, a very sticky kitchen; Harris and Garnier have their own restaurant and, most importantly, those who appreciate brasserie food and like to eat out well at keen prices have another great place to add to their address book.
Racine, 239 Brompton Road, London, SW3 2EP (tel 020 7584 4477)
Open 7 days.