The French – outside France


This article was also published in the Financial Times.

Restaurants are, in my opinion, the most expressive examples of one particular human trait: that while so many live and work outside their native countries, their inherent and very distinctive national characteristics never leave them. To take examples from my recent reviews on these pages, the McDonalds have exemplified American Southern charm at The Lockhart, while the Takagis have exuded Japanese precision at Shiori, despite their restaurants' being in central London, thousands of miles from where they first learnt these skills.

I recently felt that I had spent 12 hours in France, although in fact I remained in the West End of London. And this all began because a French businessman, in London just for the day, chose not to meet at any of the restaurants close to the Eurostar station at St Pancras but rather at Angelus, a bastion of French hospitality housed in a former pub close to Lancaster Gate tube station.

Thierry Tomasin has been the face of Angelus for the past decade and is a restaurateur who is only too aware that, whatever may be going on behind the scenes, he has to smile for his customers. There was a flicker of regret on his face as he sat us at a corner table in his otherwise empty restaurant, however.

'I am sad', he explained, 'because I had a booking for 25 for lunch today and they've just cancelled because their meeting overran. I have their deposit for £1,000, so financially it is not too bad, but that doesn't really compensate for having a restaurant full of happy customers who keep my staff busy. But at least now I have some time to discuss a boules competition we are organising in early June.'

Tomasin was more than happy to continue talking about the changing nature of his profession. He is seeing fewer bills settled by company credit cards as expenses everywhere are scrutinised. To his surprise, Monday evenings are finally becoming more popular, with Friday and Saturday evenings slightly less so as fewer customers are travelling into London for the weekend. And with customers starting work earlier, he now opens all day to accommodate those who come in for a late lunch at 3 pm or 4 pm, a time of day when he is selling some of the best bottles from his excellent wine list. He also related, with particular pleasure, that his British customers seem to relish good food and wine far more than his countrymen.

Tomasin switched from raconteur to order-taker and then, sensitively, vanished. Our four courses combined French execution with British ingredients: a smoked Cornish haddock chowder; lobster ravioli with squid ink; and fillets of gurnard and brill, the former with broccoli and crab beignet, the latter with a really delicious combination of salsify, fennel and salted lemon compote. My host, whose family business controls a leading Paris restaurant and a Bordeaux château, made up for the fact that he was away from France for the day by ordering a bottle of Alain Graillot's excellent Crozes-Hermitage 2011 (£72).

That night, as I looked up from our corner table at Hibiscus at 8.30 pm I witnessed a particularly French sight. Claude Bosi, its chef/proprietor who trained in Lyons but has lived in England for 17 years, had just walked from the kitchen into the restaurant in his whites clutching a green and white kitchen cloth. He walked from table to table, having a few words with his customers, a smile on his face. This smile vanished only at the table next to ours when one of the two young men sitting there asked to take a picture of him with his fellow diner, enquiring of Bosi, 'Are you the sous chef?'

I reviewed this restaurant six years ago after Bosi had closed his original Hibiscus in Ludlow, Shropshire, and moved to the capital. I remember then being impressed by his culinary skills but regretting that his style seemed so forced. We returned, having heard that there had been a significant change but this, it was to emerge, is more in format than substance.

The change comes in the layout of the menu that, in a style initiated by Eleven Madison Park in New York, lists nothing more descriptive than a grid of the main ingredients. But whereas this design was adopted to encourage interaction between the customer and the waiter, with the latter explaining the dishes, here it fails to bridge this gap because the predominantly young French team, knowledgeable if a bit cocksure, do not go into any detail about the dishes.

Our first courses, described simply as Isle of Skye scallops and Cardigan Bay prawns and both served raw, were the highlights, the former as a carpaccio with equally thin black radish and a reduction of black truffle, the latter with a smoked butter, although it would have been better served slightly cooler. Too many accessories – smoked eel and goats' cheese with the duck; cauliflower, marrow and strong horseradish cream with the monkfish – overpowered our main courses while the disappointment with our desserts, described simply and respectively as chocolate and Amalfi lemon, lay in their form: identical rounds topped with a scoop of ice cream, visually different only in colour. Bosi needs to get out of his kitchen not to tour the tables but to view and eat his food as a customer.

There is an intriguing list of unusual wines by the glass, of which the most impressive, a 2010 Clos Ouvert, is made from old vines in Maule, Chile – by three Frenchmen!

Angelus  4 Bathurst Street, London W2 2SD; tel +44 (0)20 7402 0083

Hibiscus  29 Maddox Street, London W1S 2PA
; tel +44 (0)20 7629 2999