Two Mondays in a row now, I have visited Racine for lunch. “What’s the rush?”, you might ask… “You’ve never been before and now twice in the space of 8 days? What’s the big deal?”
Well, I’ll tell you. The first visit came on the back of the recent food debate, yes, yes, the one I won with my impassioned plea for cheese! One of the judges for that epic event was Henry Harris, chef and owner of Racine. We bonded over a mutual adoration for cheese, Epoisses in particular!
Another of the judges was fellow food blogger and writer, Gastrogeek (one of my favourite blogs, do check it out if you’re not already a follower) and she had also never been so we made a date to visit. To our good fortune, a third friend and food blogger, Ginger Gourmand, (yes, I recommend you check her blog out too) was also able to join us!
I failed to take any photos of the restaurant, so excited was I to meet my friends and learn of Ginger Gourmand‘s exciting news (congratulations!). It’s simple but classy dark brown furniture balanced by white linen and pale walls. It feels at the same time comfortable, relaxed and yet a bit of a treat.
Service is warm, well-trained, helpful, efficient. Even on my second visit, staff recognised and greeted me warmly and I could see them doing the same for many other diners. It’s amazing how these tiny touches in the welcome can add so much to one’s experience.
Fantastically fresh baguette and butter are brought to the table (and the bread unobtrusively replenished as required).
We ordered from both the a la carte and the prix fixe menu. The prix fixe is an absolute bargain at just £15 for 2 courses and £17.50 for three.
I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten one of the starters (selected from the prix fixe menu) – I think it may have been herring. Whatever it was, it was deemed tasty.
Two of us went for the soupe à l’oignon gratinée – a classic dish yet one that’s so often disappointing. This one was good. This one was very good. Infact, I’d say this was one of the very best French onion soups I’ve ever eaten. Onions cooked long and slow to impart flavour but not taken so far along the road of caramelisation that they make the soup too sweet. Beef stock that is so intensely full of flavour that, combined with those onions, it delights with every sip. And cheese that has just the right chewy texture and taste, once it’s been melted by the heat of the soup. And best of all, enough cheese toast not to run out after two or three bites. Enough to have regular cheesey mouthfuls right down to the bottom of the bowl!
Again, I failed to note down much about the mains, both chosen from the set menu. The fish was beautifully cooked, with a more-ish crispy skin and succulent flesh. My braised steak dish was fabulous – the meat was full of flavour, with it’s rich sauce, and tender too. The mash was creamy and buttery goodness.
Before we had time to think about the next course, Henry came out to see us carrying a thing of such beauty. He wanted me to have a prize, he said, for my worthy win in the food debate, and knowing my love for Epoisses, presented us with a whole one for our pleasure. How kind and generous and absolutely perfect! The cheese was, as you’d expect, in perfect condition, oozing and pugent and delicious. I eschewed the offer of bread or crackers and simply ate slices of it on it’s own, with the occasional candied walnut, provided alongside! Heaven!
Ginger Gourmand went for the little chocolate pot, which I believe she enjoyed too.
A lovely meal, very reasonably priced, especially if one sticks to the fixed price menu.
Now, the thing is, my husband Pete really does love a good French onion soup. And given that he and I have been traipsing down into central London weekly (during our 3 month sabbatical from work) for delicious (and bargainous) lunches, it seemed to me that I absolutely had to bring him to Racine to try Henry’s rendition of the soup for himself.
This we did, just 7 days after my first visit, above. La deuxième visite, alors!
Pete decided on a half bottle of 2005 St Emilion at £19. I can’t claim to know much about wine, but it smelled gorgeous and had such a beautiful ruby red colour. Pete felt it worked well with all three of his chosen courses, so a good choice.
Of course, given the praises I’d been singing, Pete ordered the soupe à l’oignon gratinée – and he thought it superb too. Good and rich, not too sweet, the right cheese for the job – his only quibble was the sogginess of the toast.
I adore fresh foie gras. It’s one of my very favourite things in the world, so I couldn’t even contemplate ordering anything but the hot foie gras, quince and a brioche beignet for my starter. The fatty lobes of liver were beautifully cooked – rich brown caramelised exterior giving way to meltingly soft, almost liquid interior. The eggy brioche beignet gave a nice crisp texture as well as very gentle taste. And the quince gave the requisite sweet and fruity contrast. Quintessentially French, quintessentially perfect.
Pete chose a main dish from the prix fixe menu – the rare roast sirloin, potato and garlic purée, mustard butter. Top quality beef served just as it should be, Pete loved the grain mustard butter and the creamed potato and garlic.
The only quibble here would be size of portion, especially when you compare it to my lamb, below, from the a la carte menu. To me, a fixed price menu should cater to customers looking for a budget option by way of using less expensive ingredients rather than smaller portions. Of course, there’s certainly an argument to be made that my dish was too generous rather than the steak one too small!
My persillade of lamb, braised Tarbais beans was a triumphant dish. Moist, sweet, tender lamb with soft white fat and crispy skin served on a hearty tomato and bean stew and garnished with slow-roasted garlic cloves and the persillade itself. The meat itself was top notch, as I had expected given Henry’s commitment to careful sourcing. The beans had not been allowed to turn to mush, nor were they undercooked, so gave the perfect solidity to the dish. The soft, puréed garlic that slipped easily out of the skins gave a wonderful sweet burst, utterly mellow as long-roasted garlic should be. Henry’s persillade, which included breadcrumbs, I think, as well as parsley, garlic and oil, gave a harsher jolt of garlic against it’s sweeter roasted cousin. Perfect!
With the last of his red wine, and then a rich glass of port, Pete enjoyed the Tomme de Savoie, a mild, semi-firm, pale yellow cow’s milk cheese with a thick brownish-grey rind made in Savoie in the French Alps. This was chosen from the set menu.
I could not resist a clafoutis with griottines choosing to have it with crème anglaise rather than flambeed with, I think, eau de vie. The kirsch-soaked little morello cherries (pitted, rather than stone-in) were lovely, but I felt there could definitely have been more of them given the amount of batter. I also felt the dish just a touch shallow to really provide the batter much depth to show off. And for me, the crème anglais was a touch too sweet. All that said, I still enjoyed the dish.
I mentioned above that service is good. One way to assess this is not just how the staff deal with the normal aspects of advising on the menu, taking orders, serving dishes and drinks and clearing away but also how they deal with anything that does go wrong (and nowhere never gets anything wrong). Whilst we were waiting, quite happily for our desserts, the floor manager popped over to apologise for the delay (we hadn’t noticed it being uncomfortably long as we appreciated time for our mains to go down!). He explained that a minor error in oven temperature had spoiled the first clafoutis and that the kitchen were quickly making another. In the meantime, he brought over a complimentary port and dessert wine for us to enjoy with the cheese and dessert, when they arrived. Unexpected, unnecessary, but much appreciated.
Racine aims to be a high quality neighbourhood French restaurant. Henry’s mission is to serve carefully sourced, well cooked seasonal dishes alongside a short but great wine list. And he believes in the importance of warm attentive service. Does he succeed? I think so, and very well indeed.
My only gripe is that Racine isn’t in my neighbourhood, though perhaps it’s just as well for both my bank outgoings and my calorific ingoings!