A new favourite in London's St James's.
Perhaps I should have written about Maison François when I first ate there over 18 months ago: even then each of the food, the wine and the service was equally impressive.
But then, like so many other restaurants, it has spent much of the intervening period closed and when it did reopen, it lacked many of those who work in the offices that surround it in Duke Street, St James’s in London, as the pandemic forced them to work from home. But then gradually they began to return, a stream which turned into a torrent from September, accentuated by those visiting the recent Frieze Art Fair. I was fortunate to get a table on two separate occasions recently.
The restaurant comes with significant pedigree. It was for many years Green’s, famous for oysters, seafood and cold champagne. It takes its name from François O’Neill, the son of Hugh O’Neill, who opened Brasserie St Quentin (named in turn after his great friend and food writer the late Quentin Crewe). Despite his energy, enthusiasm and hard work, François has appreciated that he cannot do it all himself. So he has been sensible enough to hire Ed Wyand, ex Scott’s, as his director of operations, and the tall and seemingly unflappable Matthew Ryle as head chef.
The transformation of the interior has been radical, helped by the very high ceilings, which in turn definitely help the acoustics. Everything is clearly visible from the moment you walk in – you are made to walk around all the tables en route to your own – and every table affords an excellent view of the open kitchen. Downstairs is a bar known as Frank’s and a small, private dining room in the wine-storage area.
Most significantly, above the open kitchen is a large clock that is impossible to ignore. Opinions differ as to whether a restaurant should provide such a thing, that the time one spends in a restaurant is effectively ‘time suspended’ and it is outside the restaurant’s raison d’être to provide such a service. Others disagree. (‘Time was away’, a quote from a Louis MacNeice poem, was the phrase inscribed on my La Cornue cooker.) Here, as at the River Café, the clock is in your face and is of sufficient scale and charm that it could almost be construed as a work of art.
The clock sits above the open kitchen, which is, quite rightly, the centre of attention. Here Ryle stands and cooks, with the pastry chef in front of a large oven to his left and to his right and behind him the chefs who prepare the cold starters and the hot fish and meat dishes. It is in front of them that O’Neill stands – distinguished as The Boss by the fact that he alone is allowed to wear jeans under his apron. All the rest of the staff are far more smartly attired: the management in suits and colourful knitted ties, the rest in beige, double-breasted linen jackets with the initials M F conspicuous. Juniors wear T-shirts with Maison François on the back. The name, and the initials, have here been cleverly put to good use.
This really does feel like François’ house, to which we are all made welcome for breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. And although this follows in the long tradition of the French brasserie, not least in the accent on the menu, there is more on offer here than in most places across the Channel.
The menu, naturally and fashionably all in lower-case letters with capitals reserved for proper names, is in French with a couple of items under the heading of ‘Le pain’, their own pain de campagne and three dishes that include flatbread with mussels, cep mushrooms and truffles, and snails and bone marrow. These come before the ‘Hors d’oeuvre et charcuterie’ selection, from which we enjoyed an excellent, mustardy celeriac remoulade (£6.50 and pictured below); a comforting combination of ricotta, anchovies, thyme and grilled bread (£12); and a really delicious dish of crab interspersed with thick slices of fennel and surrounded by samphire topped with croutons (£19).
There then follows the largest section of all, headed ‘Les salades et les legumes’ of eight different dishes which promptly gives the lie that Maison François is in fact a French brasserie or in fact serves French food. Because these are just the dishes that the French have ignored for the past 50 years, dishes that made their brasseries no-go areas for visiting vegetarians, vegans or anyone who fancies a night out but without the obvious entrecôte et frites.
Jancis, on something of a chilli kick, chose two dishes from this section: a round of cabbage stuffed with anchoiade and topped with chilli, as well as slices of fried pumpkin with sage and capers, a beurre noisette and more chilli. Other dishes include a clever combination of beetroot, fresh herbs and fromage frais, and romanesco with a hazelnut vinaigrette. While watching numerous plates of côtes de veau, entrecôte and roast chicken being served to many other tables I was introduced to ‘ravioles du Dauphiné’ (£17), a speciality of the Drôme and Isère in which the pasta is stuffed with Comté cheese and then smothered in a rich, cheesy sauce. They were delicious.
At my second meal at Maison François I fell on their option of a glass of Manzanilla Deliciosa (£6) from Valdespino, which I thoroughly enjoyed as being fresh and invigorating. My third meal provided more of a quandary as HRH had to choose a red wine that would stand up to the two servings of chilli. Was it to be the 2018 Coudoulet de Beaucastel (£85) or Clonakilla’s 2019 Hilltops Shiraz for £80? In the end, she was encouraged to choose the former by their enterprising Hungarian female sommelier.
There then followed perhaps the distinguishing mark of Maison François: their dessert trolley. This custom-made vehicle brings with it certain commercial advantages, most notably that when faced with it, customers need a will of iron to decline. It is an option that makes selling desserts – the hardest sell in any restaurant today – remarkably easy. On my second occasion I enjoyed a creamy Mont Blanc chestnut concoction (£7.50); on the third, a very accurate rendition of a crème caramel while HRH indulged in a peanut truffle (£1.50) and a caramel macaroon (£3.50). I paid a bill of £184.02.
As we left, I had the opportunity to find an answer to something that had been bugging Jancis. ‘Why’, she wanted to know, ‘if the person I kept pointing out to her as François really was the boss, was he working so hard?’ He seemed to be everywhere.
Walking towards the door, I managed to shake his hand and put this question to him. His answer was immediate. ‘Because it sets a good example and also because I enjoy it.’ Spoken, I thought, like a true restaurateur.
Maison François 34 Duke Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6DF; tel: +44 (0)203 988 5777. Closed Sunday.