I started reviewing restaurants for this newspaper back in 2011, a relative blink of an eye but enough time to see some pretty seismic changes in the London food scene. Back then the shadow of the Great Recession still loomed large over London and only the brave or foolish dared to open new restaurants. It was a time when we still wanted our burgers clean, and Meat Liquor was a club-night in Vauxhall.
Noma was officially the world’s best restaurant (by 2012 it had won the accolade three years on the trot) and restaurateurs were in a Danish frenzy, setting fire to their table-cloths and copying everything from Noma’s foraged menus to its earthy furniture.
Pop-ups had their moment some time around 2013, becoming so popular that even long-standing restaurants started to pretend they’d just materialised overnight. Plates were replaced by whatever was to hand – slates, shovels, planks of wood – until we used social media to publicly shame venues into reverting back to traditional crockery.
But perhaps the most notable shift is a geographical one: in 2011 I rarely reviewed anything east of Mayfair. These days, I don’t have to stray beyond E1. Whether you want modern-British (Craft London), Peruvian (Andina) or Moroccan (Berber & Q); a posh rotisserie chicken (Chicken Shop) or an extravagant seven-course dégustation menu (Typing Room), East London is doing it, and doing it better.
This week’s review, Knightsbridge bistro Les Gourmets des Ternes, was like stepping back into the heady post-recession days. It’s the second UK venture (after Warwick Avenue’s Les Petits Gourmets) by Maximilien Marie, the 24-year-old grandson of Francis Marie, who opened the original – and now iconic – Les Gourmets des Ternes in the 8th arrondissement of Paris in 1962.
The restaurant features virtually no concessions to the fripperies of the modern food scene. First of all, it’s French, a cuisine so far out of fashion it may now be emerging from the other side. And when I say French, I mean very, very French – far Frencher than, say, France itself. The kitchen staff and the waiters are French. The clientele are all French. There’s a French barman with a French beard serving French cocktails.
The dining room has red velvet drapes hanging around the door, etchings of Victorian gentlemen on the walls, and paper sheets covering the tables, decorated with the autographs of famous people who have eaten at the Paris restaurant. The upstairs “speakeasy” has a terrace that you can only get to by climbing through a window.
It reminds me of Chabrot Bistrot des Halles, the Smithfield restaurant I reviewed a couple of years ago, and it turns out its sister venue Chabrot Bistro D’Amis used to occupy this very site (both have since closed – that’s another thing you notice when you’ve been doing this for a few years: just how fleeting the lifespan of a restaurant can be).
We started with a beetroot salad, half a dozen incredibly garlicky snails and a plate of smoked salmon, all of which came with a total of zero frills. Perfectly nice though, just like grandma might have made it if she’d been French (she wasn’t; she was actually very nice). I had sole for my main: fish, butter, seasoning – voila. El Pye had a very nice sirloin steak, while our fabulous Italian friend Fortunato had scallops Provençal, which was rich and buttery and delicious, the fresh tomatoes giving it a bit of zip.
Les Gourmets des Ternes is apparently known for its crème caramel; it was fine but by no means legendary. The Paris brest was delicate and nicely put together, if a little cloying. The chocolate mousse, served in a plain glass ramekin with a couple of wafers chucked on top, tasted far better than it looked.
There’s not much more to say; the food is good. It won’t win any awards for presentation. It’s relatively well priced for somewhere in this neck of the woods.
Les Gourmets des Ternes is the antithesis of a statement restaurant – it’s the kind of place you’d come to eat every day if you were a rich Frenchman who lives in Knightsbridge and, thanks to François Hollande, there’s no shortage of them. I imagine this place is going to do just fine – it might even be here in four years time.
First published in City A.M.