British chefs are beating the French at brasseries

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O’Neill’s Maison François is another example of a gorgeous contemporary riff on the French brasserie, with arched terracotta walls and double-height ceilings. The menu offers oeuf en gelée and roast chicken but also, in a radical departure from the French tradition, a wide range of alluring vegetable dishes. Most enticingly, there is a dessert trolley that bears a rotating cast of delights: macarons, Paris-Brest, tarte tatin. It’s a love letter to French brasseries of old but brings the format into the 21st century.

O’Neill has been immersed in the world of brasseries since his childhood when father, Hugh O’Neill, a businessman and hereditary peer, became a restaurateur. His establishment on the Brompton Road, St Quentin, helped reintroduce Londoners to the brasserie format in the 1980s. 

‘Growing up in London around my father’s restaurants was special,’ says O’Neill. ‘In many people’s eyes, they were London’s first French brasseries. The Grill St Quentin and Brasserie St Quentin, in Brompton Road, were forever buzzing… Marco Pierre White was there every Sunday night at the bar having his steak, frites and salad, Princess Margaret, Lucian Freud, Bianca Jagger, Rod Stewart and Francis Bacon were also loyal regulars.

‘The brasserie chains that have appeared in the last 20 years or so have their place in the market, but it is hard to replicate the personal touch and theatre of an owner-run brasserie. And that, I think, is what we are seeing a return to at the moment in London – the sense of familiarity and rapport that independent restaurants offer.’

Back in Paris, Oliver Woodhead is also experimenting with the brasserie format. He has gone one step further, as his L’Entente, near Les Halles in the centre of Paris, is a ‘British brasserie’, flipping the tradition on its head.

An English twist 

With smart banquettes and blue-panelled walls, L’Entente looks the part, but there is a key difference: rather than the French brasserie standards, Woodhead sells typical English dishes: bangers and mash, fish and chips, and even the Full L’Entente breakfast, rather than choucroute and boeuf bourguignon. There is cheese, of course, but it comes from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.

‘I always wanted to do British food, because that’s what I grew up with,’ he explains. ‘You fall back on what you know. But I knew that if I didn’t do it spectacularly well, the public would eat me alive and I’d become another glorified pub.’ The result has been successful enough that Woodhead is planning to open a British tapas bar on the same street corner, which he will call Petit L’Entente. It will include a standalone sandwich shop, with a ‘resolutely British’ menu of ham and piccalilli, egg and cress, cheese and tomato. ‘The rolls and baps are going to be the tricky part,’ he says, ‘as it’s all baguettes here.’

As well as the novelty factor, Woodhead puts L’Entente’s success down to the fact that the basics of the northern French culinary tradition from which the brasserie emerged are not so different from what we had in Britain. Just as Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly Circus is a pastiche of a grand brasserie that is better than many of its originals, Woodhead says his brasserie is a ‘pastiche of a British restaurant’.

‘Southern France is different, because you have the oils and the Mediterranean influence, but southern England and northern France have similar climates,’ he says. ‘They’re both wet, so the grass grows well and we get good livestock and good milk. There are lots of stews, pastry, potatoes. The French have boeuf en croute, we have beef wellington. They’re used to lamb parmentier and croque monsieur; we have shepherd’s pie and Welsh rarebit.’

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