It was while I was scarfing down the blistered flat bread, laid with lardons, snails and shiny jewels of bone marrow at Maison François, that the thought came to me. It was while I was forking away their mustardy celeriac remoulade, with huge, crunchy caper berries on the side, that the thought hardened. It felt subversive and dangerous; the sort of thing that can get you bawled out by electronic baying mobs if you give it voice. And yet I held the thought to be demonstrably true. Baying mobs be damned. It should be said. So here goes: it’s easier to find terrific French food in London than it is in Paris.
Maison François in St James’s, which does a fabulous line in leeks vinaigrette and has a killer dessert trolley complete with a perfect paris-brest, is only part of the story. There’s the glorious Brasserie Zédel with its steak haché and choucroute. There’s the achingly indulgent Otto’s with its old-school lobster soufflé, steak tartare and canard à la presse. There’s Pique Nique and L’Escargot and Mon Plaisir. The list goes on.
Of course, there are good French restaurants in Paris. But locating them can be off-puttingly tricky, and when you’ve done so, there’s still the chilly hauteur of front of house to be navigated. Are they pleased to see us? No, not always. Plus, hidebound by the depths of their food culture, they all seem to have exactly the same menus: bonjour soupe de poisson; allo, confit de canard. I love bistros like Chez Georges and Allard and that grand dame of brasseries, Bofinger. But if you were to place a loaded gun to my head, as many might enjoy doing, I’d confess that I would be happier and better fed right here at Maison François.
You could argue with me by citing your own Parisian favourites. But there’s something else you can do in London that you really can’t do in Paris. You can also find better Italian restaurants here than you can in Rome. I did my research when I visited the Italian capital. I paraded around a bunch of highly regarded trattoria. All with the same menu. Ooh, look: cacio e pepe. Again. It was executed with a shrug. I found myself thinking of the food back in London: the rugged sausages and the deep-fried sage leaves with anchovy at Bocca di Lupo, the seafood fregola at Sartoria, the pasta dishes at Locanda Locatelli, Padella and Theo Randall. The same happened in Barcelona: lots of serviceable tapas; nothing as good as those at Barrafina, Sabor or José Pizarro. Unless I wanted to join the queue for Cal Pep. Which I didn’t.
Partly this is down to what’s regarded as a negative: the weakness of the UK’s native food culture compared to France, Italy or Spain. Happily, it means practitioners do not have to fret about what others are doing. They can interrogate original recipes. They can do it their way. Should I mention that this brilliantly cosmopolitan restaurant sector was encouraged and fostered by a club of European countries to which we used to belong, allowing for free movement across the continent? No, perhaps not.
But it’s certainly worth acknowledging that right now Covid-19 restrictions have made travelling a hassle. It’s just too much admin, and neither paperwork nor a swab up your nose are an aid to digestion. Which makes the fact that in London you can eat better French food than in Paris, better Italian than in Rome and better Spanish than in Barcelona not just intriguing. It makes it an absolute godsend. You still want to travel? Take my advice. Just go out for dinner.