Published 1 September 2019
We work in an industry in thrall to the new, so sometimes old-school restaurants get neglected. Loyd Grossman celebrates a London stalwart – the elegant, quintessentially French La Poule au Pot
Before Macron, Gilets Jaunes and Eurostar, there was a beau ideal of France among the residents of our cloudy island. Emerging from the austerity of the post-war years and starved of joie de vivre, Britons looked towards France as a sort of demi paradise where amour, fromage and gitanes reigned supreme.
When trips to France were a luxury for most and no more than an occasional treat for the well off, France planted its cultural flags in London. How exciting it was to see a late-night Truffaut at the Paris Pullman Cinema or make an even more hardcore visit to the Cine Lumiere at the Institut Francais.
There were gastonomic embassies too. Apart from the plutocratic dens of haute cuisine – Le Gavroche set up shop in 1967- there were the epic croissants of Maison Bertaux and the original Patisserie Valerie in Soho and a profusion of bistros which peddled a certain image de vie alongside the soupe a l’oignon, coq au vin and brie de meaux. Le Chef and Chez Victor along with many others are long gone, Mon Plaisir remains and so, triumphantly, does La Poule au Pot, occupant of its corner site on Pimlico Green since the early sixties.
I first visited in 1974 and little has changed saved for the lamented absence of the one-time manager Marc, whose black eyebrows could give a Gallic shrug worthy of Charles De Gaulle’s shoulders. The decor is a candlelit symphony of browns – ceiling, walls and paper tablecloths – and a riot of La France profonde paraphernalia – dried flowers, straw baskets and chicken figurines.
The manager still commands the restaurant from a pulpit-like desk, reminiscent of the station occupied by the ferocious bureaulistes who used to oversee Parisian tabacs. The menu is an encylopaedic tribute to what French food was like before it was traduced by foams, gels and dabbling with Japanese ingredients.
You may begin with hot or cold ratatouille or snails or onion quiche or fish soup and then progress to sole meuniere, gigot aux flageolets, rabbit with mustard sauce or boeuf bourguignon. A recent dinner began with excellent salmon mousse – more like rilletes – and then moved on to poule au pot for me and guinea fowl with apples and calvados for my guest.
Flavours are assertive, helpings are large and everything is dished up on mismatched china deserving shelf space in the BBC costume drama prop department. The cheese board is excellent and I am told the chocolate mousse still is, although it has been a very long time since I’ve been able to find room for it. Prices are London average: main courses in the mid 20s. It has often been proclaimed ‘the most romantic restaurant in London” and, if you’re with the right person, it is.
This issue was first published in Issue 20 of the CODE Quarterly magazine. To subscribe, please click here