Freedom approaches. Should we be humming ‘Va, Pensiero’ or ‘O Welche Lust’ — perhaps both. Thinking of Fidelio reminds me of a delicious comment made about Ted Heath by the late Sam Brittan in the FT, decades ago. On this occasion, Le Grand Epicier was being interviewed about music. He declared that Fidelio was one of his favourite operas and that every time he saw it, he was inspired anew by the ideals of freedom which it so powerfully expressed. Sam was unpersuaded. ‘Poor Mr Heath. He may be moved by Fidelio. Yet he does not realise that if the British public knew that noble work, they would immediately identify him not as Florestan, but as Pizarro.’
I suppose that we should not really compare ourselves with Babylonian captives or Pizarro’s prisoners. We do not have to weep by the waters of Babylon, nor do our lives depend on Leonore’s heroic cross-dressing. Even so, we can surely insist that liberation gastronomy is much preferable to liberation theology. Thoughts also turn to Eliot. ‘Midwinter spring is its own season.’ Damn right there, with the stress on midwinter. Gardening friends are delighted. Those of us compelled to shiver while dining al fresco, with the stress on fresco, are less persuaded. Although I have lost some weight during the austerities of lockdown, I am still too well insulated by medical standards. Even when blankets are provided, that has its uses in the improvised pavement restaurants. Back to a paraphrase of Eliot: ‘A cold dining we had of it./ Just the worst time of year for eating outside.’ But relief ought to be on its way. May is a warm and joyous word. With the possible exception of Rotherhithe, no longer a pretty place if indeed it ever was, Mayfair has the prettiest name of any London district. Surely the weather will relent, so that it can live up to that name.
In the meantime, just south of Mayfair and just next to Berry Bros, I have discovered Saint Jacques, a restaurant fully worth a pilgrimage, with a pleasant courtyard, an excellent kitchen and a useful wine list, plus a splendid maître d’hôtel. Although he is from Alsace, Richard Weiss is wholly French. He looks like a younger Gérard Depardieu, without the hell-raising character traits which render that fine actor… controversial: a blend of Richard Burton and Richard Harris. In the restaurant, Maître Richard plays only one role. He is the platonic ideal of a French restauranteur.
Other nations cook. I am missing Japanese cuisine, though there ‘cook’ is almost a misnomer. But the French are unique in the extent to which the kitchen suffuses their DNA. Saint Jacques vous propose classic French bourgeois cooking. I have never eaten a better steak tartare and the same applies to the rognons de veau and the crêpes Suzette. More visits will throw up more treasures. If you are missing France, that sweet enemy, and are trying to summon up favourite dishes in your tasting memory — if they are on the menu at Saint Jacques, you will imagine that you have already crossed the Channel. The French do order some things better, even when they are not in France.
Richard started his career as a wine consultant and the largely French wine list is well constructed. By London standards, the prices are reasonable. The house wines include a Cissac and a Pinot Blanc from Hurst. As one might expect, the Alsace section is strong. Apropos Alsace, the other day I tasted a glorious Riesling: a Grand Cru Schlossberg ’17 from Kirrenbourg. Saint Jacques has it on its list. It is not a bargain, nor would it deserve to be. Post-lockdown resolution: drink more Alsace, preferably during a revisit. Colmar would be a good HQ, and it also has Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. I cannot think of any painting which is a more formidable antidote to theological frivolity, though not to that essential doctrine: nunc est bibendum.