Bon Appetit: The greatest classic French restaurants in London

Rob Crossan

23 December 2021

Whether you’re more champagne and oysters or escargot and pomme frites, here’s where to find authentic French cuisine without hopping on the Eurostar

23 December 2021 | Rob Crossan

F

ood truism number 476: unless absolutely forced to by geographical remoteness, French cuisine doesn’t really do ‘fusion’ and is usually a tad on the coy side when it comes to ‘modern’ too. What France really still excels at is making us remember why it hit its culinary high watermark in about 1910 – and has no desire to relinquish that epoch anytime soon.

So here are the best traditional French restaurants in London. Expect organic wine, plant-based, keto and paleo-free havens that are more Gallic than Serge Gainsbourg seducing Simone de Beauvoir in a pool of bouillabaisse while wearing a kepi hat and whistling the Marseillaise.

Le Comptoir Robuchon, Mayfair

When good chefs die, generally they take their dishes with them. The chances of eating a decent replica of the late Gary Rhodes' legendary braised oxtail or, going further back, an almond and honey croquantes that would please Marie Antoine Careme are the culinary equivalent of going on a dodo shooting expedition. Yet Joel Robuchon's most treasured dish, his pomme purees live on in Mayfair, despite the garlanded chef having passed away four years ago.

So much has been written already about Robuchon's potatoes that it seems extraneous to add yet more superlatives. But we're going to do it anyway. Silky, lustrous and sybaritic, a bowl of Robuchon potatoes elevates the humble spuds, plus cream, milk and salt, into ingredients worthy of continual genuflection for eternity. 

Le Comptoir Robuchon opened in 2019 aiming to uphold Robuchon's reputation as ‘the chef of the century', whose restaurants, at their peak, had more than 30 Michelin stars between them. The space is, wonderfully, less a solemn museum to a dead chef but more a love letter to the modish Parisian brasserie. A long, thin room; awash with marble, velvet and gold, where unusual, rubber-ring-shaped chandeliers look down on the comfiest bar stools in London – and a heck of a lot of mirrors. The curved curtain separating the entrance from the main room is an authentically Gallic touch; I almost expected Bridget Bardot and Roger Vadim to burst through the door, smelling of pastis and awash in satin, leather and gold brocade.

The menu is a short and beautiful novella of Robuchon's 'eternal' dishes including caviar with crab meat and lobster hiding underneath the turbot and storm cloud coloured eggs, still in their bijou tin. Langoustines, foie gras and all the other landed gentry members of a French menu are treated with decorum here; used (and this is incredibly rare) simply and effectively. This is the only restaurant in London that will serve a dish of langoustine ravioli with truffle and foie gras sauce where you won't think the chef is simply showing off. Such is Robuchon's legacy. Long may it reign in this most seductive of Mayfair eateries.

Visit robuchonlondon.co.uk

Brasserie Zedel, Soho

Five-star dining at youth hostel prices is what Brasserie Zedel excels at. You simply will not find a better way to spend £12 in the whole of London than on its two-course prix fixe meal which, at the time of writing, will give you chopped steak with peppercorn sauce and French fries followed by a Manjari chocolate tart. You could spend more money in Nando’s without blinking and you wouldn’t even get the joy of dining in Zedel’s vast subterranean Art Deco homage that genuinely succeeds at bringing that elusive bohemian fin de siècle vibe of atavistic Paris to the West End.

Visit brasseriezedel.com

Casse Croûte, Bermondsey

Just as the finest French novels by Camus and Gide are notably brief, so the menu at this rustic slice of provincial France is one of admirable brevity. Scrawled on a blackboard (in French only) each day, the adjoining red and white checked table clothes, curved rattan chairs and vintage liqueur signs at Casse Croûte may sound cliché but here, somehow, it works. Rich and glorious coq au vin, frothy glasses of cremant and a charcuterie slicer that isn’t just there for show all make for a winningly Gallic haven buried deep on Bermondsey Street.

Visit cassecroute.co.uk

Pique-Nique, Bermondsey

Pique-Nique is Casse Croûte’s glammed-up older sister restaurant; they’re located just the skilled throw of a croissant from each other. The menu fair heaves with unrestrained Gallic culinary bloodlust; pâté en croute, sweetbreads, côte de boeuf and, on occasion, a whole lamb shoulder for two with aubergine caviar, runner beans and jus. There are ceramic roosters on top of the wide marble top bar for a truly unrestrained touch of defiant French-ness and, somehow, despite the building being a mock Tudor oddity next to a depressing-looking playground, the atmosphere is permanently one of a sun-drenched afternoon in Toulouse. Magnifique.

Visit pique-nique.co.uk

Le Gavroche, Mayfair

You don’t go to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and really expect old McSweary himself to be sweating it out in the kitchen do you? Yet Michel Roux Jr., arguably Ramsay’s superior in almost every way, is regularly to be seen working a shift in Le Gavroche; the absolute last word in double-Michelin-starred traditional French fine dining this side of the Channel. Founded by Michel’s father Albert Roux back in 1967, the velvet-lined, basement cocoon of a dining room feels like you’re in the captain’s quarters of a White Star Line ship of yore. The only destination, however, is the calorie-laden, wistful heart of the France of your dreams. Prepare for a four-hour-plus cavalcade of the finest soufflés, tartares and pavés you will ever experience short of getting in a time machine to eat at Auguste Escoffier’s house. The only sadness is that the outstanding value set lunch menu is no more – the restaurant is now, post-Covid, only open in the evenings.

Visit le-gavroche.co.uk

Otto’s, Clerkenwell

Does it matter that one of the finest classic French dining experiences in London is the creation of a Bavarian? As far as Otto’s is concerned, we’re inclined to say, not really.

For what Otto Tepasse has done is take one of the most decadent and excessive culinary inventions ever created – the duck press – and revive it without turning the experience into a fusty piece of recherché dining historicism. The full experience takes one duck and turns it into three courses for two people with virtually nothing wasted (the same can be done with lobster for a seriously decadent meal), while the full menu features classics including salmon fumé, tournedos Rossini and poulet de Bresse.

Visit ottos-restaurant.com

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