French Comfort Food At Brasserie Blanc, Southbank
24 Jun 2016
Raymond Blanc is the French chef most famous for setting up Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford, a very fancy hotel and restaurant with two Michelin stars since 1985. Blanc saw a gap in the market for simple French food in a modern environment (sorry Cafe Rouge) and has since opened a chain of brasseries across London called Brasserie Blanc, to bring his expertise of French cuisine to the masses. I wondered how a Michelin-starred chef could market upscale French cuisine to become broadly attractive as a chain restaurant. Would there be tablets of slate scrawled with illegible writing and food portions so small I’d leave hungry?
Homey and rustic Scandinavian images line the walls—asparagus on tablet of grey slate—whilst dark woods with polished metal, and ship equipment transport you far from London. No chalkboards in sight.
Friendly three-word descriptions accompanied each wine, so we chose the Picpoul (‘lime, fresh, mineral’) to go with crusty French bread which we smeared with Trempettes (£3.60) of olive tapenade, olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, and the unforgettable saffron garlic mayonnaise.
The small Steak Tartare (£9.90) topped with a raw egg is delicious when cut with mustard. The Mediterranean Fish Soup (£7.90) has a brilliant mustard yellow with mini-pots of creamy garlic and saffron rouille, croutons and grated cheese to swirl with the delicious-on-its-own soup.
All our choices so far sampled ‘les Classiques’—all French dishes— but our main course came as a big English surprise. The tender Beouf Bourguignon (£18.50), marinated in red wine and perched atop silky mash, salty lardons, onions and mushrooms, is huge and filling. The Roast Barbary Duck with Citrus Sauce (£19.90) would have fed two people but this isn’t haute cuisine, as Blanc himself says. This succulent duck breast and leg must’ve been slow-cooked for days.
We feel our waists expanding but somehow one always makes room for dessert. Unfortunately, we chose the Gooseberry Crumble, heavy with oats and tart gooseberries, and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. We couldn’t resist the sensibly sized Chocolate and Almond Torte (£5.50) of rich chocolate, vanilla ice cream and sliced almonds.
Service is prompt, knowledgeable and friendly. At no point were heads craning to get the servers’ attention. Our waitress has most likely seen every kind of customer: the rude, the rich and the shy, with her talent for invisibility throughout our meal, and her absolute presence while we ordered.
Raymond Blanc should be applauded for his success in creating Brasserie Blanc. He could have easily remained a chef for the elite in his Oxford restaurant, serving expensive food to rich people, but he thinks more people should enjoy French dishes. Blanc once said that he is ‘afraid of being mediocre’ and his brasserie is anything but that; it’s memorable: large portions of excellent French cuisine served in nautical (and understandably chain-y) decor. This isn’t a French import or dumbed down Michelin-starred cuisine, but simple French food for hungry people. No one will leave with an empty stomach.
For other Southbank favourites, check out our dedicated feature right here.