‘On va manger anglais ce soir?’ — ‘Shall we eat English tonight?’ — is not the sort of thing you’d expect to hear a Frenchman say, especially a chef. But my friend was quite clear on the phone. ‘Le restaurant, c’est anglais, comme toi.’ My initial disbelief gave way to suspicion. I remembered that he once led us to a Franco-Italian-Japanese hole-in-the-wall whose signature dish was spaghetti with sea urchins and fermented soya, on the grounds that it was ‘different’. It was.
‘I’m not in the mood for fish and chips,’ I told my pal. ‘How about Chinese?’ He sighed. ‘It’s not that kind of English restaurant — it’s good. It’s got a great review in Le Figaro.’ And he was right. The paper had not only praised this particular place but devoted a full page to praising the new battery of British chefs in Paris. Don’t count on them for lamb with mint sauce or an English pudding, it cautioned, and don’t imagine that all they do is imitate French cooking. Their approach, it said, is ‘creative and personal’.
A few hours and a Métro ride later, we were sitting in a bright, airy restaurant near the Gare du Nord, rather provocatively named Albion. The people seated around us were mostly French, and clearly impressed by the work of chef Matthew Ong, whom we observed through a large window at the back of the restaurant looking through to the kitchen.
‘Le chef est anglais,’ I overheard one man telling the two women he was dining — not in surprise, but as if to impress them. Murmurs of appreciation came from both of them as they tucked into their joue de boeuf braisée.
Albion has even earned the distinction of a glowing review from the most exacting foodie in town, François Simon, who’s said to have been the model for Anton Ego, the exceedingly snooty critic in the Pixar film Ratatouille. Simon even had a kind word for the charming accents of the British staff.
‘I had no idea that there were Brits doing this kind of thing in Paris,’ I remarked to my friend. ‘Bof,’ he shrugged. ‘You need to get out more.’
Perhaps he was right. As I’ve now discovered, there are at least seven or eight British chefs dazzling gourmets in the city of light, and they’re all the rage. Matthew Ong says he’s turned down offers to appear on French television, which isn’t surprising because Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares is a huge hit here too — and Jamie Oliver is a national darling. The French call his style ‘la cuisine rock’n’roll’.
It’s almost galling for a Brit to have to admit it, but the disdain we imagine the French have for our food has disappeared. There’s been a culinary revolution in London over the past decade and it hasn’t escaped their notice. The country’s most famous chef, Alain Ducasse, has proclaimed that London is the restaurant capital of the world, with more diverse influences than Paris, where standards have fallen over the past 20 years, he says.
Even Frenchies’ restaurant in Paris is celebrating its British connection. Yes, as the name suggests, it has a French chef, but it makes a virtue out of the fact that he trained in London. The menu often includes bread-and-butter pudding and it’s so fashionable that you have to book weeks or even months ahead.
‘So eating English wasn’t such a bad idea, was it?’ my friend said triumphantly as we polished off our starters of ham hock terrine with piccalilli. The veal with white asparagus and a sauce subtly flavoured with red berries was sheer bliss. We ordered a second bottle of Saint-Chinian with our cheese, filled our glasses and drank to ‘la cuisine anglaise’.