Bouchon Racine, London: ‘I am a huge, dribbling admirer’ – restaurant review

This classic bistro offers a masterclass in French cooking – and that’s a totally unbiased opinion

Bouchon Racine, 66 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BP (020 7253 3368). Starters £8.50-£16.50, mains £17.50-£48, desserts £6.50-£9, wines from £25.50

There are film critics who, presented with a Martin Scorsese movie, can be guaranteed to rave. There are theatre critics who will be bucket-full of puppyish love when writing about any musical by Stephen Sondheim. This is the restaurant review equivalent. The only argument for me not reviewing the newly opened Bouchon Racine is that I am a huge, dribbling admirer of all the people involved and all the food they serve. In other words, because I was stone cold certain in advance that the restaurant would be very good indeed and because I was proved absolutely right, I shouldn’t say so as I have already shown myself to be compromised, courtesy of my deep experience and overwhelming, impeccable good taste. Yeah, right.

So here it is: Bouchon Racine is everything. It is the joyful rebirth of chef Henry Harris’s restaurant Racine, a once greatly adored bistro on London’s Brompton Road, which opened in 2002. Harris, who was part of Simon Hopkinson’s first brigade at Bibendum, wanted, after a less happy journey around kitchens in thrall to fashion, to open a restaurant serving the kind of classic French dishes he loved. He wanted to do indecently good things with butter and cream and the inner bits of the animal from which too many people recoil. His menu there was an unashamed celebration of the bourgeois, marinated in the very best of Bordeaux, fair doused in Armagnac.

‘Impeccably cooked’: calves’ brains.
‘Impeccably cooked’: tête de veau. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Racine, which means root, was meant to be a neighbourhood restaurant, but by 2015 there was not much of a neighbourhood left. Too many people had treated property less as a home than an investment. Harris moved on. He brought a little of his Francophile magic to a bunch of pubs and, along the way, for the sake of full disclosure, cooked the last supper for the end of my book of that name, in a room above one of them. We ate very well that night.

Now he has teamed up with Dave Strauss, another industry veteran, with a gift for service and a beard that Zeus himself must envy. I have many reasons to adore Strauss, beyond the fact that he makes good service look effortless. He was general manager of the hilarious Beast in 2014 when I wrote an excoriating review. I argued that the steaks were so expensive, “they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat.” Strauss responded on Twitter: “Fellating cows already en route to restaurant.” He ran Goodman and Zelman Meats before a stint in the West Country with the chef Mitch Tonks.

‘Coarse cut and earthy the Jewish way’: chicken liver terrine.
‘Coarse cut and earthy the Jewish way’: chicken liver terrine. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Together, Harris and Strauss have now taken over the Three Compasses opposite London’s Farringdon station. Downstairs is the pub where they sell pints of Moretti. Upstairs is the dining room, with its glass-ceilinged conservatory area at the front. It used to be a Thai place. The red carpet has been replaced by dark varnished floorboards. The walls are the deepest shade of Jersey cream, and the menu is a scribbled blackboard of true loveliness, which changes depending on what’s available.

Start with oysters from Carlingford or silken slices of nutty jambon noir de Bigorre from the Hautes-Pyrénées, with fat the colour of antique crockery. Drape that across chunks of baguette smeared with the best funky salted butter. Hold a bit of the bread back to swish through the hot brown butter with salty-sour capers bathing two lobes of calves’ brains, impeccably cooked so that the outside is crisp and the inside pearly white. Too rich for your blood? Too cerebral? Have the chicken liver pâté, coarse cut and earthy and reminiscent of the Jewish way with chopped livers. Or have dense, tensed pieces of herring with potato salad dressed with slivers of carrot and ribbons of acidulated onion and the best peppery olive oil. Swoon a little. Take a sip of your well-priced Côtes du Rhône. Centre yourself for what is to come.

‘Old-stager’: grilled leg of rabbit.
‘Old-stager’: grilled leg of rabbit. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

There are few places in the country that serve tête de veau, probably because there are few people who like the sound of it. But then if you’re going to bang an animal on the head, you should be prepared to eat all of it, including that head, boned and rolled and poached, until it becomes a deliciously wobbly arrangement of meat and jelly in a lip-smacking, limpid broth with turned new potatoes and a sprightly sauce ravigote full of vinaigrette zip and fresh herbs. Not for you? OK, have a Harris old-stager like the grilled leg of rabbit in a mustard sauce full of the nose punch of Dijon, with a plank of crisped bacon balanced on top. Or just have the côte de boeuf with frothy béarnaise. Chips are hardly optional. What’s that you say? Non-meat eaters? Hang on. I’ll just check. Well, this evening there is a main course of orzo with wild mushrooms. But honestly, that’s not high on the agenda at Racine. Be livid, by all means. Send me furious emails or better still send the furious emails to your like-minded friends. You’ll enjoy that. And then perhaps, go somewhere else to eat.

Meanwhile, we’re into dessert: a beautiful piece of pastrywork in the shape of a tarte vaudoise à la crème, the crisp case filled with best sweetened dairy. There’s a magnificent crème caramel with an Armagnac-steeped Agen prune on the side for those who want them. Best of all, because I am biased and also right, there’s a Mont Blanc gâteau for two, the huge raft of crisp and chewy meringue layered with whipped cream and noodles of boozy chestnut purée. Start with a glass of white wine boosted by a blush of Campari, aka a Bicyclette; finish with a small measure of something potent from one of those fancy-looking bottles over there. In between, order a reasonably priced wine which comes from the same place that gifted Harris all the recipes.

‘A huge raft of crisp and chewy meringue layered with whipped cream and noodles of boozy chestnut purée’: Mont blanc gateau.
‘A huge raft of crisp and chewy meringue layered with whipped cream and noodles of boozy chestnut purée’: Mont blanc gateau. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

I love the raucous variety of restaurants available today. I still quiver with excitement at being introduced to a culinary tradition I do not know. But there is a part of me deeply betrothed to the older things, done as well as they can be done. Bouchon Racine is all of that. If you feel my prior knowledge of this restaurant invalidates my opinion, fair enough. There will be another review along next week. Meanwhile, I’ll be the happy man with the ludicrous Mont Blanc and the spoon.

News bites

The hospitality group D&D London, formerly Conran Restaurants, has announced a slew of closures. They include Klosterhaus in Bristol and East 59th in Leeds. London loses two of its most venerable names. The Blueprint Café first opened in 1994 and was presided over by chef Jeremy Lee for nearly 20 years before he moved to Quo Vadis in 2012. Avenue was opened on St James’s Street by restaurateur Chris Bodker in December 1995, as a sibling to Kensington Place.

If, despite that gloomy news, you still fancy getting into the restaurant business, look no further: Julie’s, a celebrated celeb magnet in London’s Holland Park these past 53 years, is up for sale, as the owners Timothy and Cathy Herring move in to retirement. The likes of Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and Paul McCartney all ate there over the years. Famously, the most prized table was set back in its own curtained alcove and, being numbered G3, was nicknamed the G-Spot. Well of course it was.

Glasgow is to get a new Italian restaurant headed up by three chef brothers who previously worked for Francesco Mazzei at London’s Sartoria. Antonio, Pasquale and Simone Cozzolino will open Banca di Roma inside the city’s Royal Exchange building in the next few months. Their menu will be inspired by their upbringing on their family’s tomato farm in Vesuvio, Naples. Desserts will include a gold bar in tribute to the banking history of the building. Follow their progress on Instagram @bancadiromauk.

• This article was amended on 16 January 2023 because an earlier version misnamed Julie’s restaurant as “Jules”.

Email Jay at or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1


Jay Rayner

The GuardianTramp

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