If ever they come for me in the middle of the night – figures round the bed, door in splinters, torchlights red on sweaty face – I know what I’ll fight them for. I know what’ll get me wriggling and writhing, the thought that’ll fling me out the door, unshod, to curses and flurry. (Admittedly, as this blog continues, the only part of me capable of producing any movement is my bowel, but that’s beside the point.) What is it?
Richer, tastier, bistro best. The elemental warmth of lobster bisque, the saucy soul of coq au vin. Pork baked in milk, clafoutis pocked with cherries, a benchmark moules - I’d fight them on the beaches for it.
But that’s the French for you. Whatever barnacle-nosed colonels harrumph into their port, the French are better than the English at everything. Their cities are more beautiful, they’ve got beaches and ski slopes and space, they’ve got Zidane and we’ve got Rooney, they’ve got a national cinema and we’ve got Richard Curtis. They’re better looking, they work less, and they live longer. And we all know they eat better. Britons survive on curly fries, Frijj and unsweetened apology: the French eat brioche. Don’t talk to me about service, either. For every supercilious garçon I’ve done battle with, I’ve faced two nose-ringed trollops dropping the plates and flobbing in the minestrone.
Now London has some decent British restaurants, most of which suckled at the teat of St. John. (Which is not a phrase you’ll read in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.) For the most part, though, our cooking is a stay-at-home girl, shredding her suet by the whisper of the Aga and the fart of the Labrador. Like everything in Britain, the best and most interesting food remains aspiced in class, primly reserved for metropolitan sorts who’ll eat a Mrs King pork pie or pay seven quid for bone marrow and parsley salad. In France, it’s different. There’s self-assured pride – often mistaken for arrogance – in a national granary of dishes, which everybody knows and which you can eat throughout the country. Food remains the bottom-up, bottoms-up bedrock of their culture, and they’re richer for it.
Le Vacherin – for all that its chef is British – is proof enough of French superiority. It’s an outstanding restaurant serving considered bistro fare with panache, confidence and honesty – clubbable, composed and as unpretentious as a skip. I took my friend Cargy for a long lunch, unaware that on Sundays, it’s prix fixe only. (A bizarre policy – I’m invariably coaxed in by set lunches but veer onto the à la carte within moments of arriving.) It’s in Chiswick, which sounds like it might as well be Vladivostock, but is only an anvil’s throw from Hammersmith.
£19.50 gets you three courses. I start with a junipery morteau sausage with lentils, the pig given life by the pulse (droll, that one). It’s rustic in a polished sort of way. Cargy has a stellar pork rillette, the lightest I’ve ever tasted. There’s a lid of set fat which she detaches to limit her lard intake – though I finish it – and some cornichons to bring vital acidity. Rabbit in mustard sauce is faultless – toothsome clumps of bunny falling from spindly bones. A green salad crunches with endive, bitter as Al Gore, and there’s a firm, pearly piece of sea bream, cloyed by a slightly over-rich lobster sauce. For puddings, a haughty île flottante, the whites not dissimilar to candyfloss, in a custard haunted with vanilla. Last, an exquisite apple tatin to share, the pastry flaked with jammy gooeyness, the prim fruit carrying just a little, welcome bite.
Now it’s true that I’ve only been once, for the lunch deal. And if I’d come for a midweek dinner, and spent £18 on lamb navarin with boulangères, I’d have judged the place by different standards. But I ate what I ate here, and I paid what I paid – and on that basis, this was my best London meal so far this year.
We took our wine outside, as people bronzed on Turnham Green and the sun stood poised in the evening sky. It’s wrong, two-and-two-is-five-wrong, to dismiss or patronise Le Vacherin as a neighbourhood restaurant. If it were in Chelsea, it would be more famous and the tables would be harder to get. But it isn’t, which is why you can get three delicious courses for 20 quid. And that’s the reason you should go there this Sunday.
Le Vacherin, 76-77 South Parade London, London W4
Tel. +44 (0)20 8742 2121
Sunday lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £39