In the middle of college, a friend and I spent most of our summer in the remote wilderness of southwestern France. Ostensibly there, as boarding, temporary fixers in a huge, cobweb-covered old schoolhouse, we painted shutters in the scorching heat, took a trip to Perpignan, and experienced what often felt like a particularly uneventful art film.
it was Chuckle Brothers, directed by François Ozon; one of those half-forgotten teenage adventures where it’s hard to trace the exact logic and logic that got you there. However, if there was one thing that lasted me that summer, it was a decisive interaction with rustic French cuisine. Polished, incapacitating cassoulets; stocking fun of smoked meats; a small village bistro with no menu, where opening hours are as mysterious as the dangling animal pieces in a daily hot pot. From the bubble of my life as a takeaway-loving, black suburban kid, this was my first real experience of the Gallic tendency to bring looseness, rugged elegance, and ceremony to every dining experience. It was a descriptive introduction—although I didn’t know if I fully appreciated or understood it at the time.
But then, nearly two decades later, I went to Bouchon Racine in Farringdon – a reimagined version of chef Henry Harris’ venerable French establishment – and a lot of the things I caught in a flash during that sweltering summer finally made sense. Released very late last year and already garnering rave reviews elsewhere, this is a quietly outstanding opening; A room of bold, unrepentant flavors and subtle, shimmering magic that manages to extract something fresh and immediate from perhaps the most obvious and sometimes overrated gastronomic formulas.
This is the real deal, in every notable way. It’s also true that it has been posting for a while. Originally located in Knightsbridge between 2002 and 2015, Racine is one of those places that sends one-of-a-kind lunch enthusiasts to steamy-eyed enthusiasm. Harris – as well as starting a partnership with the now-defunct pub group Harcourt Inns – has spent most of the last seven years searching for the right moment and place to start a full revival. The then-here and now, in partnership with collaborator Dave Strauss, occupies the partially glazed upper floor of the brilliantly repurposed Three Comasses pub, and deliberately (as its new name suggests) texture, demeanor, and bosom – Lyon’s blackened bouquets. overcoming the lust of offal.
This meaty, egalitarian spirit comes through with clever sophistication and occasional provocation. Escarole brought a large, lush pile of bitter leaves topped with a delicate tarragon sauce and dotted with chunks of creamy orange mimolette cheese. Harengs pomme a l’huile was a rush of pickled oily fish that swelled and changed shape on the palate like a long orchestral crescendo. The Roquefort Buttered Veal Chops had succulent meat and a ripe, soul-tickling indulgence. Meanwhile, a plate of jellied tripes (heure de tripes) looked utterly cursed; It’s like something in the window display at Wellcome. Still, with the healthy beats of the roughly sculpted, expertly weighted gribiche, I found myself searching for something in its dark, appetizing depths.
This is a reasonably priced passion project that encourages us to live in the moment.
By the time I surrendered myself to the shoulder-kneading aid of an ugly rich crème caramel, the space already had the feel of a swirling hospitality industry clubhouse. Harris and Strauss roamed the ground while off-duty chefs and restaurateurs drank Bayonne ham and appetizers amidst drifting clouds of snail oil. Looks like Nigella Lawson was there the day after me. Skeptics can rightly attribute this early exaggerated advertisement to both Harris’ popularity and the special comfort blanket cache of French country cuisine among the more influential figures of the food world.
But I think there’s more to it than that. In an era of faceless restaurant cynicism and fearful visions of the future, Bouchon Racine is an affordable passion project that encourages us to live in the moment in a great way. Every corner is buzzing with spirit, character and intent. And that’s worth its weight in gold in any language.
66 Cowcross Street, EC1M 6BP. Meal for two plus drinks around £150. Open Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 15:00, 17:00 to 22:00; bouchonracine.com