Nine kilometres separate the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in London SW7 from the much newer Collège Français Bilingue de Londres in London NW5. But in their very distinctive fashion, each of these French-run schools has had a profound impact on how Londoners enjoy restaurants.
For a century the Lycée has drawn French families into the nexus of SW3 and SW7, so much so that this corner of London, often referred to as ‘Frog Valley’, was the first London home of the kind of gastronomic pleasures once considered the prerogative of the French.
There were small, independent restaurants such as Ma Cuisine and Le Suquet; La Vigneronne, a superior wine shop, now owned by Handford Wines; an exceptional bakery run by the late Justin de Blank; and ripe French cheeses from Jeroboams, which still prospers.
One part of London devoid of such quintessentially French attractions has been the neighbourhood of Tufnell Park and Dartmouth Park just north west of Camden and where the Collège Français Bilingue opened its doors in September 2011.
This part of London is home to streets of tall late-Victorian buildings, many occupied by the same families for decades. It is a catchment area for those in the literary world, the media and politics, predominantly those of a socialist leaning, who have preferred in the past to eat around the kitchen table rather than to go out, particularly as the local choice of restaurants has been fairly limited.
That all began to change with the transformation seven years ago by Freddy Fleming, Oliver Pudney and Joe Swiers of the Bull & Last pub, overlooking the south-east corner of Hampstead Heath, into the kind of place customers battle to get into (regrettably, if sensibly, they do not take reservations).
Shortly afterwards came Nick Jones, of Soho House fame, who opened a branch of Pizza East further along Highgate Road, complete with an outpost of Dirty Burger and Chicken Shop. So popular has Pizza East become that it would be no exaggeration to say that Jones, if he wanted, could probably make more money charging for stroller parking spaces than he does selling pizzas.
Many of these strollers belong to the French families who have been moving into this area and whose growing presence has been increasingly obvious to anyone walking on Hampstead Heath. There are now 300,000 French living in London and their language is now the second most widely overheard on the Heath with Russian closely behind. And the impact of this French invasion on the area around Tufnell Park tube station is now obvious to anyone who enjoys good food.
Facing each other across Fortess Road are now a first-class fishmonger and butcher/delicatessen. Jonathan Norris, originally based in Pimlico and now in Victoria Park too, opened his fish shop here six months ago, one that occupies an ideal corner site so that lots of natural light illuminates an excellent display of sashimi-grade tuna, wild sea bass, Cornish John Dory and Scottish halibut. At the back of the shop on my last visit was a young French couple, blonde daughter carrying a blonde doll.
There was a similar set up at the back of MeatNW5, where a young French woman was conducting a wine tasting for two French couples (and, yes, the wines were French, too). In the centre of the shop are three butchers’ blocks where men in white jackets professionally prepare the meat. A second outpost of the excellent Spence Bakery is due to open shortly.
While these openings have presumably contributed to the quality of local dinner parties, three new café/restaurants have begun to tempt the locals to leave their homes. Fortess Road may not yet be Rue Lepic in Paris, in the shadow of Montmartre where that charming film Amélie was shot, but it is quickly catching up.
Bear + Wolf is a café that ostensibly looks like any other, with bearded baristas, great aromas, and a window full of pastries. But beyond the counter, the room widens out to reveal a stroller park, invariably full, and beyond that a playroom full of toys, mothers and babies. Its popularity is obvious and not just with its customers, according to Tracey Merrony, who runs The Shoe Shop restaurant across the road. She is delighted to be able to send those with buggies into the arms of Bear + Wolf.
Enthusiastic followers of this column may remember Tracey, and her husband Paul who never leaves the kitchen, from the days when they ran the gem-like Giaconda Dining Room in Soho. Over-expansion led to closure and the Merronys are now happily ensconced at The Shoe Shop in NW5.
The major changes are that Merrony is now cooking breakfast and that here the layout is even more compact, but that certainly has not affected quality. Merrony has only one standard, whether cooking a croque Monsieur, a complex fish dish, or an apple and quince crumble for two.
In early December a long-standing Indian restaurant on Chetwynd Road gave way to the colourful Lure Fish Kitchen run by talented chef Philip Kendall (pictured here by Charlie Bibby). Kendall’s emphasis to date has been on adding excellent flavours to sustainably sourced fish, from gilt head bream with lemon grass and coriander to blackened Irish salmon with a side dish of grilled heritage carrots, and haddock, somewhat more simply, cooked in batter of locally brewed Camden lager. He intends to develop his repertoire via the specials boards. A photo of Kendall with Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party, a local resident and one of his first customers, will do him no harm in this neighbourhood.