Eating Out

A chest full of medals

A clever take on a classic brasserie in the heart of Bridgerton London.

Ruritanian” is one of those words I’ve been using for years without ever quite properly knowing what it means. Fake, unfoundedly pompous, something to do with the specious bestowal of military rank … close enough to the proper derivation from the fictional country of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda: quaint, minor, backward, embodying the pastiche of nationalist narratives.

Presently, Ruritania appears to be located in SW1. There the endless Union Jacks, there the lumbering herds of tourists charging towards the Mall for selfies with the buzbied Guards. Belgravia and Bond Street look like sets for Bridgerton, all garlands of bright artificial flowers and faux-Georgian concierges.

The strains of the regimental bands can just be heard from the doorway of Fortnum’s, where there is honey still for tea (£14.95 for the Miniature Selection Pack). Because it’s fine, isn’t it? Everything is absolutely fine.

As fans of the novel will know, the plot of Zenda is set around a staged coronation which must proceed even though the genuine monarch is too stoned to participate. Dissent from the prevailing narrative is deadly. If everyone just says nothing and goes through the motions, all will ultimately be well, which is exactly how London feels right now, a place where representation has been privileged so much over reality that it has no worth or identity beyond its self-commodification as a vast Ye Olde Teashoppe.

Still, if you’re on a trip to the sunlit uplands of St James’s, there are worse places to swerve reality than Maison François. The restaurant has splendid form when it comes to carrying on regardless, as it opened on the former site of Green’s in the autumn of 2020 and has been defiantly and deservedly flourishing ever since.

We pretended we could afford three dishes from the excellent vegetable and salad menu

It’s a big, airy, glossy space, the décor reminiscent of a pared-back La Coupole, which was somewhere you used to be able to get the train to for lunch without frantically counting the stamps on your passport.

The founder, François O’Neill, is something of a restaurant royal — his father started Brasserie St Quentin, which O’Neill then operated as the Brompton Bar and Grill before teaming up with Juan Santa Cruz to launch Casa Cruz and Isabel.

O’Neill has managed to retain the gilded crowd which flocked to the latter whilst dispensing with the staggeringly awful food; Maison Francois’s head chef, Matthew Ryle is pitch-perfect on innovative classics such as beef tartare with bone marrow and bloody oyster or moules mariniere flatbread.

I thought an outing might perk up Deirdre, who says she’s too poor to go anywhere anymore. Recently being charged £24.80 for a single glass of mediocre rosé in Sloane Square had sent her back into lockdown.

Coaxingly, I mentioned that Maison François has a “Provence Happy Hour” where you can sit on a dinky outdoor banquette and have a glass of Minuty with smoked almonds and saucisson sec for £15 but, just in case, she arrived with a handful of the first fresh peas from her garden.

I wasn’t sure of the etiquette of bringing one’s own produce, but she told me not to be middle class and we podded them over the best pain de campagne I have ever eaten, a buttery, parchment coloured lattice of dough in a stiff sour crust, whilst the waiters looked on understandingly. The Minuty did the trick, Deirdre suggested we went for a table inside.
“But we haven’t got any money.”

“Fuck Boris,” said Deirdre, dusting off her credit card, “Fuck them all. We’ll just pretend.”

We pretended we could afford three dishes from the excellent vegetable and salad menu, which come flexibly as starters, sides or mains. Leeks with hazelnut and tarragon were flavourful, full of crunch and contrast but a little monotonous after the first few bites.

Cauliflower with sauce tonnato, capers, lemon and parsley and cabbage with anchoiade, breadcrumbs and chili were both exceptional, and indeed very reasonable at £12.

I could have stopped there, but Deirdre was on a roll now. We ordered the chateaubriand with bearnaise, not a radical choice but always the best one, silky and sanguine, which arrived with two jolly little baskets of properly hot chips and a duff salad which felt like an afterthought from a supermarket bag, which it probably was because … “Don’t!” snapped Deirdre. “Look, there’s a pudding trolley!”

Retro, knowing and so, so charming, the trolley glided towards us, the years falling away at its approach. By the time it drew up at the table we were both about nine years old. Macarons and strawberry charlotte, chocolate mousse and Paris-Brest, pistachio madeleines and cremes caramel, all nestled into cunning little compartments.

We’d forgotten we were pretending: the trolley might as well have been loaded with velvet hairbands and blue satin sashes. Deirdre didn’t so much as glance at the bill.

Snooping at the other diners as I walked Deirdre to her bicycle, they all looked as though they’d had a similarly marvellous time. What if it’s that easy? Instead of all the angsting and and minding, simply make the mental move to Ruritania, where the snails with lardons taste as good as denial.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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