There is something very London about the perfect Parisian restaurant, and it isn't just that the British capital is swarming with French expatriates. It seems to me that the ease and frequency with which Brits have always traveled to France creates well-informed demand -- and there are the restaurateurs to fill it. Two very recent openings provide good examples -- and good dining too.
Just off Piccadilly Circus, two stories underground, is Brasserie Zédel, operated by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King and named after a defunct car marque, just like their other London restaurants The Wolseley and The Delaunay. Also like those places, Brasserie Zédel evokes another time and place with a clever sort of nostalgic authenticity that has been manipulated (by David Collins Studio) to make it fresh, inviting and comfortable. It really does look like the Paris grande brasserie of one's dreams, but without the tobacco stains. It is simultaneously of the early twentieth century and of just yesterday. It's vast, gorgeous and just short of over the top. Eventually, there'll be nightly cabaret in an adjoining room; for now there are performances a few times a week.
The menu follows the same path. It is like a gastronomic Greatest Hits list. There's almost no point in describing it: If you've eaten something (or have longed to eat it) in a big traditional not-fancy French restaurant, it's probably there, often cheaper and sometimes better. Jackie's first course of pissaladière (£3.75/$6, a southern French tart topped with cooked onions, olives and anchovies) arrived as a thin, splinteringly crisp puff pastry base with generous, and generously flavored, toppings. It was one of the best of its kind I've eaten in a restaurant. My pressed terrine of ham and parsley (£5.25/$8.50, jambon persillé) had been tweaked in a nice way: The usual dish has parsley running all through it, held together with aspic, but here the minced herb was a discrete layer on top, which somehow enhanced the parsley flavor. It came with cornichons (pickled gherkins) and a nicely dressed little salad.
I had the Wednesday special: Calf's head with ravigote sauce (£12.75/$20.50). The head had been poached in chicken broth and the tender meat and skin formed into a loaf before slicing and re-heating for service. This dish can be creepily bland, but the Zédel version was more what I'd call mild -- which is what the sparkling caper and pickle sauce was there to remedy. Excellent, tender poached leeks and carrots were the accompaniment. Other rotating daily specials (at the same price) include chicken fricassée with tarragon sauce, blood sausage (boudin noir) with apples, fish stew for Friday and roast beef for Sunday -- see how they've used tradition?
Jackie had boeuf bourgignon with mashed potatoes (£9.75/$15.75). Someone had told us that the meat in theirs had been dry and rather tough. Jackie's was tender and beefy, and the dish was pretty much textbook.
The single dessert we ordered, floating island (£2.75/$4.50, île flottante), was an excellent rendition of one of the great brasserie/bistro sweets. The soft meringue "island" was exceptionally cloudlike, and the subtly flavored custard sauce on which it floated was generously garnished with excellent candied nuts.
Bread and wine (from a brief list) were good too. Bottled (filtered) water is offered at a flat price of £1.50 (about $2.50) for all you can drink, still or sparkling. That's quite a good policy, especially if you like fizz in your water.
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The Green Man and French Horn (on the site of a defunct pub of that name), the latest venture by Ed Wilson and Oli Barker (of Terroirs, Brawn and Soif) is a very different sort of "perfect French restaurant." It is as much a wine bar as anything, and one with a focus on lesser known wines of the entire Loire Valley -- which constitute a treasure trove. There's a short list of wines sold by the glass, the half liter and the bottle and a far longer one of bottles. Happily, the man who took our order was able to describe and to recommend, as was Mr. Barker himself, a hospitable presence in the deep, narrow brick-walled restaurant that, I was told, could get a bit noisy at peak hours but which was humming pleasantly when we arrived for after-theater supper.
There's a Loire perspective on the food as well: We started with rillons -- akin to pork confit -- suffused with garlic yet not excessively garlicky and served with brightly dressed Belgian endive (£8/$13). Lots of flavor, but the crust on one of the two pieces was leathery (the other was perfect). Even better was an assembly of sweet, tender leeks with a light vinaigrette, topped unexpectedly with hard boiled eggs and tiny shrimp (also £8). This was a real treat, as were sautéed chanterelles and artichoke bottoms topped with a warmed but liquid egg yolk that created a lip-smacking sauce when stirred into the mushrooms (£9/$14.50).
I got a thrill seeing the freshwater fish zander with beurre blanc on the menu (£24/$39 and a bargain at the price): I don't think I've ever encountered zander in London, and this is a quintessentially Loire treatment for such fish. It was just as it should be: perfect, moist poached fish in a lake of butter emulsion that (glory be!) had not had its shallots strained out of it. Jackie slipped away from the riverbank and had a roasted partridge with cèpe (porcini) mushrooms, creamy celery root and a fine hit of acidity provided by pickled walnuts (£19/$30.50).
Desserts (£6.50 to £7/$10.50 to $11.50) were a little disappointing: neither the mirabelle plums served with excellent fresh cheese nor the poached pear that came with a good caramel sauce had much flavor. A thin tart filled with a sweetened wine reduction was better, but still a trifle bland. Next time (and there will be a next time, for sure) I think we'll finish our meal with cheese (£4/$6.50 per cheese).
Note that both of these restaurants are open without a break between lunch and dinner (The Green Man offers only a limited snack menu during off hours, but who wouldn't be happy with a plate of cheese or charcuterie -- or fried whitebait -- and a glass of great wine?)
Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED, +44 (0) 207 734-4888, http://www.brasseriezedel.com/brasserie-zedel (on line reservations available), open noon to midnight. Our dinner for two, with half a liter of wine, cost £62 / $100 including tax and service.
The Green Man and French Horn, 54 Saint Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4EA, +44 (0) 207 836-2645, http://www.greenmanfrenchhorn.co, open noon to 11 p.m. Our dinner for two, with wine, cost £125 / $200 including tax and service.