Having recently read Jonathan Fenby’s really excellent biography of Charles De Gaulle, the Prick is now thoroughly convinced that the memory of Le Général not only stands at the heart of the French national character forms the foundation of our Anglo-Saxon stereotypes of the French as well.
De Gaulle’s vision of French national greatness, and his perhaps out-sized view of the nation’s geopolitical role as a counterbalance to American power, lives on long after his death: Remember the French refusal to allow Reagan to fly jets over metropolitan France to smack Qaddafi around in 1986, or the stand-off over the invasion of Iraq which led to that low-water mark in gastro-diplomatic history, “Freedom Fries”? These are all echoes of the legacy of a man who was in exile so difficult and temperamental that more than once Churchill and Roosevelt tried to engineer his ouster as leader of the Free French. Such was De Gaulle’s character, which was borne out by an incredible self-mastery and confidence in his own authority: capable of tenderness in private, his public face was one of a haughty aloofness. In other words, the classic French stereotype.
None of this means that De Gaulle was not a great man: he was. But his outsized presence in history means that of all the shorthands we use for various nationalities – which, if we’re honest about it, usually have a grain of truth to them – images of the French can most profoundly miss the mark. In the Prick’s 38 years, both in France and out, French people have proven to be friendly, warm, and thrilled to indulge this Australiomerican’s crummy but enthusiastic high school-level efforts to communicate in their native tonguee.
Thus it was Friday night when Mrs Prick and I joined the Vodka Mogul (or VM for short – we’ll be hearing more about her in future posts) for dinner at Claire’s Kitchen at Le Salon which opened up at the start of 2012 down at the business end of Hyde Park. Claire, or Claire de Lune, is the soubriquet for nightclub impresario turned chef Marc Kuzma, and the whole joint reflects a very French (and, it must be said, rather camp) sensibility. Downstairs sees more black and white contrasts than a bag full of brain-stimulating baby toys; upstairs is more of a comfy antiques-stuffed lounge with some very French twists.
Our trio turned up at 7 on a Friday night, which for that part of town is like turning up for the early bird special in Florida. It didn’t matter, we were welcomed with all the enthusiasm and twice the genuineness of one of those sushi bars where the entire staff screams irraishaimase! every time someone walks in the door. The vibe was a bit like visiting relatives, particularly that rare trifecta that occurs with relatives who have money whom you are glad to see and who are glad to see you.
First up: Cocktails, and these guys are clever ducks. Literally. No way could the Prick go past a canardiere, which involves a martini glass filled with cold duck-infused whiskey mixed up with Dubonnet, Grand Marnier, and Peychaud’s Bitters. I mean, we’ve all seen bacon-infused whiskey, but using duck is a stroke of genius.
To start, the three of us attacked a cheese soufflé. Light but with a bit of béchamel on top (this is not health food, but it is oh so good), the dish was not overpowering, but just right. Mrs Prick, who’s dubious about strong cheese flavours, pronounced it a winner, and that’s saying a lot. An asked-for Hugel Pinot Blanc (rare in these parts) was unavailable so we went with a William Fèvre Premier Cru Chablis to wash things down – a consistently nice drop with a lot of complexity ranging from banana on the mid-palate to a slight and lovely tobacco funk.
Moving right along to “second starters” – the Vodka Mogul was happy to indulge the Pricks’ habit of building mini-degustations off a la carte menus – it was salmon terrines for the ladies and, pour moi, a steak tartare, done right and done big. In these days when health and healthiness is the new state religion, ordering a big hunk of raw mince with an even more raw egg yolk plonked on top feels like a minor act of freethinking rebellion. This did not disappoint, coming as it did with all the trimmings: mustard, capers, gherkins, onions.
The Vodka Mogul moved on to a John Dory with grilled veg offset by a tangy citrus salad: the Pricks didn’t get a bite, but it was pronounced good. Instead, the Pricks shared a Chateaubriand pour deux washed down with a nice Medoc (we were tempted by a very pricey off-menu Chateau Neuf-du-Pape but have, for better or worse, reached the age where the phrase “Ah, hell, it’s Christmas!” is a warning against, rather than an injunction to, spend too much money). Here we had one slight criticism: Why not bring such a beautiful piece of meat – and beautiful it was – to the table whole, rather than carving it off stage? It would have looked far more impressive that way. Nevermind: Chef Claire dropped by for a visit and a chat about food and wine, and it was smiles and tres biens, chef! all around.
Not knowing whether to round out the meal with dessert or les fromages, we did both: Cheese platters for the Vodka Mogul and myself, a rhubarb crème brûlée for Mrs Prick. The cheeses could have been a bit more adventurous, but we didn’t care (the chevre was a winner). The brûlée was a winner, all creamy middle and crackling crust. The muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise didn’t hurt either.
Don’t be put off by the neighbourhood or decor, which might suggest something much more of the moment. Chef Claire is turning out classic French food, pitched a bit more haute than plain old cuisine bourgeoise but without all the fussiness of modern Michelin-starred cooking. This is a good thing. Classics – terrines, Coquilles St Jacques, and the like – are classics for a reason, and don’t need to be messed with so much as they need to be preserved and Claire’s Kitchen is doing the work of the angels here.