What Henry Harris did next. Note Battersea Power Station in the background above.
In 2002 brothers-in-law Ben Wright and Robin Hancock dropped in at Racine, the neighbourhood French restaurant which Henry Harris had recently opened on the Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, with a box of French oysters they were thinking of importing into the UK.
Harris left them until after service, and then in his own words, ‘I shucked and ate them as soon as lunch was over. They were better than any rock oysters currently available to me in London at that time. I called them straightaway to place my first order; I was their first customer. We are old friends and I have been buying their oysters and seafood ever since and I’m doing this for the love of great restaurants.’
This friendship has lasted and recently has borne significant fruit. The ‘doing this’ that Harris refers to above refers to a recent move by Harris to join the Wright Brothers restaurant group – now comprising, on top of their extensive wholesale business, big sites at each of Borough Market and Battersea Power Station and a slightly smaller one at South Kensington (which will re-open in June) – as chef and beverage director. This is a position that, if time and qualifications were the only considerations, Harris would be far too experienced for.
Born in 1963, Harris is the son of a man who gave up his career in computers for restaurants, running Le Grandgousier in Brighton for many years, before – one can only assume – not standing in the way of his son’s foray into the same world. It was while working as a waiter at Manley’s in Sussex that Henry Harris first watched Karl Loderer, the Austrian-born chef who became the first non-French chef to earn a Michelin star in the UK. Seeing Loderer at the stoves inspired Harris’s determination to become a chef too.
He then completed a six-month course at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, at which time his parents introduced him to their friend, the chef Simon Hopkinson. Harris then travelled to California, working briefly at Chez Panisse, before returning to London where he worked for Hopkinson at Hilaire before following him to Bibendum. For the next five years he cooked as sous chef, although he was credited as head chef by Hopkinson.
It was from Hopkinson that Harris was to develop his own style of cooking. Long before it became de rigueur he emphasised seasonality, freshness, and the appropriate pairing of the right style of protein with the most appropriate vegetable accompaniment. In less experienced hands this can appear simple cooking. In more experienced hands such as Harris’s it is a style of food that is both satisfying and compelling.
Back in 2009 I interviewed Harris about his intuition in putting these two halves of a dish together. I cited some griotte cherries that bridge the gap between the richness of the foie gras and the sweetness of the pain d’épices served alongside that fascinated me. So too did the three slices of chorizo served on top of a sautéed skate wing that, cooked right after the fish had been finished, added just the right amount of piquancy to the fish. We also had a brief discussion of Belgian endives, such a versatile vegetable that goes with everything from a veal chop to salmon via a cooking technique he learnt from chefs in Belgium: chop the ends off, roast them for up to an hour in butter and nutmeg and serve.
Since selling Racine in 2015 Harris has been effectively a culinary gun for hire, his recipes and skills sought after by the likes of the Soho House Group, the Groucho Club, the Dog & Badger in Medmenham, Buckinghamshire, and the Bower House, Shipston on Stour. Latterly, he was a consultant to a company whose ambition was to revive four classic London pubs, an arrangement that ended when COVID-19 struck.
I approached my lunch at Wright’s Battersea Power Station the correct way, walking south out of Sloane Square station across Chelsea Bridge and the Thames and then turning left. This restaurant is in the middle of a run of half a dozen others with a view of the river in the distance and of the many as-yet-unfinished apartments that will one day provide many more customers.
Although the sun was shining, there was a strong wind blowing, making it too cold for the top half of the menu which lists a plethora of different oysters, from Northumberland to the Channel Islands, plus four shellfish platters, from £45 to a deluxe version at £95 which we watched a table of six men demolish.
Instead, we chose a plate of fritto misto and a plate of clams sautéed in olive oil and garlic to start, both from the specials board. Both were excellent. The batter for the former was crisp and light while the sauce of the latter gave us both great pleasure as we mopped it up with slices of baguette after we had enjoyed picking at the plump clams.
Our main courses were fairly modest. I chose some wood-roasted Galician octopus with ajo blanco and jalapeño oil, a combination that was hot and tangy, while my guest enjoyed a whole brown crab with mayonnaise and chips. We were both about to look at the dessert menu when Harris appeared.
Or someone who looked very like Harris but who was wearing a face mask and who has lost a considerable amount of weight – the result of swapping his once-favoured motorcycle for a more strenuous bicycle. After we had swapped pleasantries I asked him about the dish described there as ‘Racine’s classic crème caramel’. ‘Was it’, I wondered, ‘as good as the original?’ We ordered one, and two spoons.
What appeared was not only a delightfully accurate rendition of this much-traduced dish but one of the perfect size and composition. It was rich and intense. It was not overly large. It looked perfect topped with a splash of single cream. When I asked Harris for the secret, his answer was enigmatic. ‘I discovered a French UHT milk and it makes all the difference.’
Harris also brings with him considerable wine knowledge. Since 2016 he has been a director of Harris Wines, the family business now run by his wife Denise, which imports principally French brandies, aperitifs and digestifs that have been under continuous family ownership for generations. He left with a swipe at the power of this website. ‘I was disappointed at not being able to buy any more of the Bourgogne Aligoté made by Michele Smith and David Chapel after Jancis made it a wine of the week in early March’, he grumbled. The wine list is good but I would guess it is likely to improve under Harris’s guidance. As with so many fish restaurants, there are several bargains among the reds, most particularly a couple of admittedly expensive Domaine de la Pousse d’Or red burgundies.
I paid my bill of £81.84 for two without wine or coffee. And I would like to leave an observation for Ben, Robin and Henry to address. The design of their menu is extremely bland – black ink on white paper for the main menu, the dessert menu and the wine list. With colour and more inspirational graphics it would be a lot more fun to read.
More details at www.thewrightbrothers.co.uk
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