France is the world’s fifth largest economy. At the turn of the last century Argentina was the world’s fifth largest economy. By the 1900’s Argentina was already living beyond its means, but it took several decades for it to become a basket case. France is sadly heading the same way. Their people refuse to work harder, adapt to change or recognise that socialism is daft.
Whenever Paris is sacked, either by revolutionaries or Germans, their best and brightest decamp to London. Such is the case now as waves of French entrepreneurs, financiers and anybody with ambition flood London. Paris is left with a bunch of Gauloises smoking libertines.
In the meantime, the French schools in London are massively oversubscribed and the more than 500,000 French in London are spilling out of the Gallic quarter in South Kensington. London real estate, already booming following the post Arab Spring exodus, is doing stratospherically well.
I like the French. What is there not to like about great food, fabulous wine and beautiful women? I am happy that many of my French friends will be living closer to me.
So where do the French eat and drink when they get to London? Martini Mandate decided to check out continental style food and drink in London. The African Queen and I chose three favourites, the Wolseley in St James’s, the Delaunay in the Aldwych and Les Deux Salons off the Strand. She is both african and titled, but like most of her people, the African Queen prefers to shop on the continent and is most at home in the cafes of Paris. We were at various points accompanied by a crazy mathematician and a warlord.
Wolseley Motors was the largest auto manufacturer in Britain through the 1920’s. Its legacy lives on today in the Isuzu Car Company of Japan (founded originally as a joint venture) and in the Wolseley Restaurant in London. The Wolseley restaurant is the site of what was once the Wolseley Motor Company’s London showroom. The large room with its high ceilings is airy and masculine with original black lacquer and natural marble. The restaurant probably makes more money than the car company ever did.
The Wolseley is like a club for people who don’t like to belong to clubs. You can get a reservation here (and they have tables for walk in guests), but regulars have priority. The artist Lucian Freud famously dined here at the same table every day. When he died they decorated his regular table with a black tablecloth and a single candle. It was a classy and understated statement from a restaurant that is all about classy understatement. The menu is large and mittel-european; schnitzels, cakes and coupes, chicken soup, chopped liver. The food is good. Not spectacular, but reliably good. This is a cafe and cafe’s are not known for cocktails. I like to drink Americanos at cafes on the basis that “in cafés you have to drink the least offensive of the musical comedy drinks that go with them.” (James Bond in Ian Fleming’s A View to a Kill). The cocktail menu is limited but the waiters are superb and the bartender will accommodate any reasonable request. Just make sure your request for an Americano (Campari, red vermouth and soda) doesn’t get you a weak black coffee.
Cashing in on its success, the Wolseley opened a sister restaurant called the Delaunay in the Aldwych, presumably named after the French artist. This is a handsome, masculine room – it doesn’t have the vaulted ceilings of the Wolseley, but it has critical mass and presence. Like the Wolseley, the Delaunay is an all-day operation but here the inspiration from the grand cafés of Vienna, Zurich and Budapest is more apparent in the dishes. There is a forceful mittel-European slant, with two of the menu sections entitled wieners (including a New York hot dog) and schnitzels. The African Queen tried a chicken schnizel. It was perfect, as was my bockwurst, but these dishes rarely challenge a kitchen. This is basic, reasonably priced cafe food. There is a good selection of wine by the glass, half litre carafe or bottle. My Old Fashioned was made the old fashioned way with the bar tender painstakingly crushing sugar cubes with water and bitters, creating a nicely muddled paste before adding bourbon. Its all very competent and reliable.
While the Wolseley is in undeniably posh St James’s, the Delaunay is in the Aldwych, which is a less distinctive territory sandwiched between the diamond dealers of Holborn and the tourists in Covent Garden and the theatre district. The clientele too is more diverse than at the Wolseley, consisting of people who couldn’t get reservations at the Wolseley and the inevitable gaggle of braying Sloanes . The latter are easily recognised by their excessing air kissing and the common greeting of “darling, where have you BEEN?” as if they were long separated freedom fighters, hardened by loss, stumbling into the same fox hole in Kandahar. Most likely they last met on a shopping spree in Milan.
Les Deux Salons is off the Strand, in what was one of London’s most infamous rookeries. These were the slums of Victorian London, mazes of narrow streets and alleyways, home to thieves and prostitutes; the dark heart of Dickensian London. The Wolseley and Delaunay have cafe menus, Les Deux Salons’ menu has more traditional restaurant dishes on it than brasserie ones. The decor is familiar; polished brass rails, mosaic marbled floors, dark wood, frosted glass mirrors, red booths, ball shaped lights – it’s brasserie cliche on a grand scale. It’s a darker space than the others, with a decidedly inter-war French glamour. We shared a charcuterie plate. I ordered a Negroni. The story goes that the Negroni was invented by a bar tender in Florence in 1919 when Count Camillo Negroni wanted something stronger than his normal Americano. The bar tender replaced the soda in the Americano with gin. The version at Les Deux Salon is decent, but there are others (for example the folks at Dabbous) who have turned this drink into an art form.
All three restaurants are confidently presented by successful restauranteurs. Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, the folks behind the Wolseley and the Delaunay, made Le Caprice and the Ivy into the brands they are today. Les Deux Salons is the brainchild of Will Smith and Anthony Demetre of Michelin starred Arbutus and Wild Honey. I will continue to frequent them all – as will my newly arrived French friends. These restaurants are not havens for cocktails, but what they make, they make competently. The overall experience will leave you feeling well fed and watered. Bon Appetite!
Blogger reviews of the Wolseley by The Date Guy and Gin & Crumpets. Reviews of the Delaunay by Twelve Point Five Percent and London Stuff. Reviews of Les Deux Salons by A Girl Has to Eat and Get Forked.