We had a good lunch recently at L'Escargot in Greek Street. Those assembled comprised my two pals both called Oliver, Anna and Robert the Suave. Also Mohammad Zahoor, the plucky owner of the Kyiv Post. It was a quiet Monday and we sat at the back, discussing the tribulations in Ukraine, the seamless staff of L'Escargot did their quiet, noble work.
At the moment it can sometimes feel as if Soho is the centre of the hipsters' unquenchable passion for new exoticisms. The slur and stutter of dishes available in a few tight streets - gyoza, feijoada, bun cha and gado-gado promise to confuse and dazzle the palate. Against this classic French cuisine can seem uncool - old fashioned, without even being retro. Yet when you taste decent French food the all these arrivistes immediately blush and wither away.
L'Escargot has been going since 1927 and rejoices in the kind of bourgeois cuisine an Englishman expects when stepping into a French restaurant. The old bistro standards are all on the menu - rillettes, asparagus hollandaise, sole pasty with champagne and cassoulet. I have eaten there before, so I was anticipating precision and well-seasoned sauces. To start I had crab salad with pickled cucumber. Others had ham hock terrine, asparagus soup, dandelion salad. All the starters were good. There was nothing that would scandalise a Parisian senator. They were, all in all, flirtations - glimpses of the chef's ankle, as it were.
Robert the Suave and I both ordered the pork chop. He insists that a pork chop is a chef's trial piece, by which the skill can be gauged. Ours were moist and savoury. The chef knows how to use the demi-glace. It was the best pork chop I have eaten for a while. Robert the Suave agreed. Anna and Mohammad Zahoor each chose a lobster. They seemed pleased enough with them. The two Olivers had steak. The nonpareil dishes were three side orders of broad beans and some Jersey Royal potatoes. Baby broad beans are such a louche pleasure. Just think - they all have to be de-husked by hand. To go with the food we had good champagne and decent sauvignon and a deep baritone burgundy.
At L'Escargot you don't get bungee jump flavour sensations that send the blood pressure racing, half in fear, half in delight. Instead, dining there pitches you straight into the old bourgeois game of reckoning each subsequent visit against the last. Everything has to be of the same mellow, refined, exact consistency. It was.
We discussed Ukraine a lot. Mohammad Zahoor lamented the fact that David Cameron is the only significant European leader not to have visited Kiev since the conflict began. We agreed that much of British foreign policy seems to be drifting. Robert the Suave, explained the complexity of the Euromaidan situation to the Olivers. He drew a picture of fervent hope, desperate bravery and confusion. Ultimately we reached that blank wall of despair at the lack of any sense of coherent policy in the West. The best we could offer were those inept British murmurs of condolence.
Mohammad Zahoor lightened the mood by telling us that L'Escargot's original claim to fame was its very own snail farm in the basement. I do not know if they are still there, but the thought of glistening molluscs just below our feet caused a kind of general shivering laughter - as if Frenchmen were plotting some mischief down there.
L'Escargot is situated half way down Greek Street in a fine old Georgian town house. They have a private members club upstairs. The interior is plush with memories of its past - pictures and caricatures of illustrious patrons. The Gay Hussar is just down on the other side of street. Both establishments are ideal for intimate conspiring. You need food that has tradition and assurance for such conversations.
Anna, who speaks of Ukraine with authority, explained how Mohammad Zahoor has become known for championing free speech. She told us that the Kyiv Post maintains a non-partisan, and how this has become a great mark of his integrity in the troubled region. Each time I meet Mohammad my estimation of his courageous stance increases.
However, he is ever a modest and witty man, so it came as no surprise when he decided to change the subject again by asking for crème brûlée. The waiter told us that there was none to be had until dinner. The illustrious publisher of the Kyiv Post must have looked crestfallen for the waiter hurried off to the kitchen and came back with the good news that chef would make us some brûlées. It was by now about 15.30 and I suppose he was getting things ready for the evening.
We ordered brûlées all round and when they came the glazed custard was all it should be. Mohammad smiled. Such are the small pleasantries of life that lift us away from everyday troubles, even when they involve the sundering of a country.
For this at least, L'Escargot is the best French restaurant in town.
Written by Steven O'Brien
Editor of The London Magazine