Update: Racine closed in Spring 2015. Here’s something related, which I wrote for the Guardian.
Anyone else watch Ratatouille on Christmas day? I love that film. In fact it’s probably in my top ten – somewhere between Godfather II and American History X.
You might be thinking that a cartoon about a rat who hangs out in a kitchen is an odd choice for a 30 year old male’s top ten films of all time.
Well, actually, it’s not so different from the other two films I’ve named. For one thing they share numerous themes: dynastic struggles; deep-seated prejudice; greed; loneliness. It’s hard hitting lump in the throat stuff.
And more importantly for a nerdy food blogger, Ratatouille also tells us is that (a) everyone can cook (probably true); (b) French cuisine is pretty important (probably true); and (c) that it’s food from your roots that will make you the most happy (again, probably true). Restaurant bores should also know that the animators attended a bootcamp at the French Laundry and Thomas Keller had a hand in the design of the movie’s signature dish.
So there. Ratatouille is multi-layered and well researched. What a movie!
Seriously though, it was good to watch it again at Christmas. Doing so reminded me that, as much as I enjoy the pan Latino Asian BBQ modern-Brito-Skandi chicheti diners emerging in London’s ever growing multi-cultural restaurant scene, sometimes there’s nothing quite like a good, traditional French restaurant.
I’m not talking really high end fine dining. Nor cheapo faux brasserie either. A dilution of the Fleur de Lys’s influence at both of these ends would be welcome. I mean the middle ground. Classic and just about affordable places where food is king, but prices and atmosphere are not ignored. The kind of place our hero, Remy the rat, would be proud of. Café du Marche in Smithfields and Galvin Bistro Deluxe on Baker Street are both good examples. Racine, undoubtedly, is another.
Racine has been open for nearly ten years. The heroic, passionate and incredibly hard working rat-patron (in the nicest possible sense) is Henry Harris, who set out to create the kind of bourgeois ‘local’ restaurant that he would like to eat at. He must surely be satisfied that he has done so. The venue is on the Brompton Road just down from the V&A museum and is comfortable, well lit (i.e. not too bright), and seems to be the kind of place that effortlessly manages to foster conversation and a thirst for a good claret. It could easily be the focus of a Pixar movie, except it would be remiss to go there and order aubergine, courguette, pepper and tomato above many of the options on the well-written menu.
The soupe de poisson came recommended and did not disappoint. It had a wonderful smell and serious depth of flavour. Pâté de foie de volaille aux fines herbes was a textured chicken liver paté to you and me. Flawless and, like the fish soup, not one jot of disappointment. But I’m pretty sure I won the first round of ordering with soft, smoky, creamy herring roe on sorrel and a brioche (I think) toast. I don’t think I’ve eaten herring roe before. The only reason I wouldn’t eat them again is that I wonder whether they’ll match this dish; I loved it. We heard that the saffron mousse with mussels is a winner too, but there were none left by the time we came round to ordering.
The ‘mains’ section of the menu mostly wavers around the £18 mark. There are some lovely sounding fish dishes and you might be tempted by a number of classic French bistro dishes (confit de canard) or the mouthwatering steak options too (the côte de boeuf and filet au poivre cost a few more Francs, but they looked cracking). However, Racine is renowned for its game and, as was appropriate given the time of the year, the three of us chose our mains with this in mind.
Rabbit was smart but unfussy. I thought it looked a little dry, but then rabbit always does and is not my favourite meat. Partridge casserole managed to be impressive yet homely and comforting at the same time. But once again I was smugly pleased with my large portion of pheasant served on Savoy cabbage and bacon, which was accompanied by an Armagnac gravy and silky bread sauce. It was really excellent: caramelised skin, still juicy meat, concentrated flavours. Proper good, like.
We shared a small portion of pureed spinach and fois gras on the side of our mains and drank a couple of bottles of red, just to remind ourselves where we were, lest there be any doubt. It’s worth noting that there are a decent number of well priced wines to choose from and that the service was great throughout.
The food (mine at least) was rich, warming and very filling, but we shared a couple of desserts anyway. Lemon sorbet with a shot of cold vodka was light, crisp and sharp. By contrast, a slab of chocolate terrine was so decadent that pouring (pistachio infused) double cream on it made it feel healthier. So in many ways the two were quite different. Yet both were also uncomplicated, classic and excellent. Which pretty much sums up Racine.
Racine is not completely French – to say that would be a disservice to the provenance of much of the produce, the very English chef, and the friendly waiters. But you get the picture. I’ll definitely return as I feel there are loads of different occasions that it would suit. It’s quite grown up (there’ll be a few old boys with ties on) and the average age of punter is a decade higher than a many of the places in central London that I more regularly dine in. But at the same time the room is chatty and relaxed, the service is prompt but not stuffy, and it’s all thoroughly enjoyable.
Go for a run beforehand and then enjoy. Better still, watch Ratatouille first; it’ll put you in exactly the right mood.
Racine in 3 words
Classic. Rich. Comfortable.
Starters average about £8.00; mains £18 (except the sea bass, fillet steak and côte de boeuf); desserts about £6.50, I think. There are a good number of wines in the low £20s up to £30 (and plenty more beyond). There’s an incredibly well priced (£15.50 for 2 / £17.50 for 3) prix fixe until 19:30, which seems a steal.
racine-restaurant.com – 239 Brompton Road London SW3 2EP – 020 7584 4477