This Sunday, AA Gill turned his famously sharp pen to the latest opening from Chris Corbin and Jeremy King – Brasserie Zédel, a vast, basement restaurant, bar and cabaret located just by the traffic and tourist nightmare of Piccadilly Circus.
Zédel is perhaps better described not as a French restaurant, but as a French-themed restaurant. I love it; it is the best place I know for indulging in daydreams where I imagine myself a nouveau vague or even a Belle Époque heroine, a little down on her luck, but shabbily chic nonetheless, passing time in an elegant Parisian setting.
Some people have told me that this very staginess puts them off Zédel. It’s a reasonable enough opinion, though I don’t share it. But whatever you make of its style, there’s one thing you really can’t argue with. Zédel is cheap. It is cheap by London standards; it’s even cheap by UK standards. A three-course set menu can be had for less than £12. Bottles of wine begin at £16, and the onglet steak – delicious, and perfectly cooked – is a mere £10.95, and that includes the pommes frites.
The all-French menu (linguistically as well as stylistically) is redolent of the kind of classic, unchanging, unmodish cooking that dominates on the other side of the channel. Oeufs au mayonnaise, carottes râpées, salade aux lardons, choucroute… But, as Gill is at pains to point out and praise, it’s the remarkably accessible prices which reek of Gallic spirit just as much as the garlic in the kitchens, or the monochrome, slightly brusque waiting staff that criss-cross Zédel’s floor like a swarm of worker ants.
In France, eating well is a democratic act. Everyone considers themselves entitled to decent food, at a nicely-set table, on a regular basis. Whether it’s a case of cause or effect I can’t rightly say, but there are endless little restaurants where you sit down during your lunch hour for a quick two-course meal and a coffee (or glass of wine) for less than it would cost you to buy a sandwich, a fruit salad and an espresso in most of the UK’s identikit chain cafés.
Gill makes this point very well, via a fantastically romantic story about his own induction into the French way of doing things, during his days as an art student, when he apparently still had the cash to take impromptu overnight trips from London to the Gare du Nord to visit his brother in Paris, and where he made the most of the famous 9F set menus that were the average Parisian’s bread and butter. (In fact– a linguistic aside, here – in French, menu only means set menu: if you can navigate it of your own choosing, it’s a carte.)
I can’t help but feel that this story – charming as it is – rather undermines Gill’s point. It still presents the French attitude to food as something bohemian and exotic. Night trains to Paris are hardly prosaic stuff, after all.
I have my own late-night transport tale that I’ve always thought illustrated the same point. Mine, in contrast, is a night bus journey, all the romantic way from Islington to Tottenham Court Road.
On the top deck, slightly drunk, and very tired, we sat a few seats ahead of a young French couple, also in their mid-twenties. We slumbered; they chatted; I eavesdropped. They compared Paris with London. They found London’s transport and housing more expensive; they found getting jobs easier; they’d come to love the Tube, but it was so much less nice than the Métro at the end of the day, wasn’t it? And they missed the markets – not that they went that often in Paris, but they would at the weekends – after all, they were so cheap. He lived near a Waitrose, which he rather liked; she agreed that the choice on offer was impressive (“C’est dix fois mieux que ce Tesco, en tout cas“), but the steak – the steak still wasn’t up to scratch! No, he agreed. The steak did not cut it. Where could they get good steak in London, near to their respective homes? Neither of them knew. It was evidently a cause of some distress.
They got off at Angel and I tried to imagine a parallel conversation between a young, footloose British pair. The subjects of rent, travel and jobs would come up in much the same way – but the earnest and unpretentious discussion of food, farmers, sourcing, the exacting demands made on the quality of steak – no. Oh, of course I know lots of young people who do care about exactly those things, but they’re exceptions; they’re not the rule. For this pair, good produce was as high on the agenda as the cost of a pint would be for us.
Restaurants in France are accessible, because demanding good food is a way of life – not the middle-class hobby it is here. If you go to the market on Saturday morning it is because that’s where the cheapest and freshest produce is to be found, not as some kind of self-validating leisure activity. If you go the bakery every day, which you almost certainly do, it’s not because you’re consciously supporting local businesses, it’s because you wouldn’t want anything but fresh bread with your evening meal. And why would you? Why do we?
This is not to fall into the lazy trap of assuming that everyone in France eats impeccably-sourced, fresh, unprocessed, well-cooked food all the time. There are as many mediocre restaurants in Paris as there are in London, in my experience, and just as many brilliant ones in London as in the French capital. Actually, London’s restaurant scene is so innovative, so inventive, and so damn fun (with its supper clubs, its pop-up diners and bars on top of multi-story car parks and amazing noodle joints and awesome food trucks, and, and, and…) that I don’t think I’d like to be eating anywhere else but London right now. But I do miss being about eat cheaply not because I’m on a roof or in an abandoned warehouse or in the street, but when I’m in a proper, grown-up restaurant, with tablecloths and silverware and highly-trained waiting staff, that just also happens to be a very thrifty way to eat.
That’s why all those down-at-heel heroines I daydream of can still loiter in smoky brasseries and cafés. They might only have a few sous to rub together, but in the democratic world of French dining that’ll still buy you a very decent meal in the kind of surroundings you think you deserve. Thanks to Brasserie Zédel, the same can now be said for London.
Two thoughts, on which, more to come:
– The space which is now Zédel was once part of the Lyons empire, which included the Lyons Corner Houses – perhaps the closest things, in terms of their democratic spirit, that Britain has had to the great French brasseries.
– …and just what is a brasserie, exactly?