Under the rheumy eyes of this bohemian pantheon, we ordered and consumed the following: fine de claire oysters (I’m still here, so great), the terrine (a little chewy and salty for me), a Barnsley chop (impeccable – sous-vided, we guessed, for an even ruby colour, and supremely tender); some simple buttery greens; roast quail with “hazelnut pesto” and a mess of braised Jerusalem artichokes (the latter unappealingly grey in hue but rich and fragrant, perfect with the crunch and sweetness of the nuts and the ferric, rosy flesh of the bird).
By now it was about three and the room was still full – an older crowd if by no means an unglamorous one (our neighbour was swathed in an intensely artistic scarf), lured in, no doubt, by the French’s historical pedigree, its no-phone, no-TV, no-muzak regime, its trend-proof and relatively plain food, all dug in and, frankly, making a bit of an afternoon of it.
The kids don’t really like this stuff any more – or they like it if they’re out for the evening somewhere near home, but not so much in the heart of town, a few doors along from Berenjak and The Palomar and Tonkotsu and BaoziInn. But for a long lunch, the French felt just about perfect to us.
We dawdled over pudding (baby-pink new rhubarb) and cheese (good, not too cold) as our fellow lunchlings started to arise and go, and a last flurry (a solo diner – oysters, half a bottle of chablis – and a rowdy sextet who’d been kept on the boil in the bar, waiting for a table) took their place.
By the time we tottered downstairs, the sun was low in the western sky, rinsing the bar with light, an effect well captured by Willy Ronis in a photograph of the French from 1955. We’d been fed and watered well (the wine list is French-led and keenly priced); and we’d taken a deep draught of social and gastronomic history into the bargain.
Neil Borthwick’s tenure at the French isn’t likely to frighten any horses, or trigger a stampede of thrill-seeking diners. But the room is terrific; the food on offer there nods to tradition but is robustly self-assured; and the front of house staff don’t have that slight die-cast quality young servers increasingly have.
Is that enough? It felt so at the time. In retrospect, I find myself wondering whether Borthwick might not do well to ramp the whole hearty-pubby thing up a notch or two: to sneak a peek at someone like Richard Corrigan, say, who cut his teeth around the corner in Romilly Street, and whose food isn’t just comforting and grounded, but possessed of the capacity to surprise.