I have an episode in my head that someone once told me over lunch - It is a December afternoon in the 1920's. Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill utter forth from a restaurant in St James full of bonhomie. Strikes threaten to cleave the country. Mesopotamia is restive. Ireland, Ireland, Ireland. Yet there has been good food and wine and conversation. There has been high wit and low wit and sideways wit. The three gents in fustian suits have approximated a kind of transubstantiation. Alchemy has occurred, and the world, for an hour at least, has been well and truly put to rights. They go their way, with the sobering pinch of a sharp wind on their noses.
I know that Boulestin was not open back then on St James. Yet in the eternal dining room of my imagination the restaurant is the ideal location in which to situate these three jolly coves.
Our visit came on a London winter day, much hoped for - grey and glowering and as bleak as a crow's carol. A day that Belloc would have deemed perfect for three Christian men to drink deep and be hearty. Toby, Oliver and I had a swift pint at the Red Lion in Crown Passage. We left the pub to its Adnams Best and scotch eggs, and ambled around to Boulestin, in the great certainty that when we rose from lunch the midwinter darkness would have already have crept into all the crannies of the city.
We said goodbye to the last of the daylight and entered a room of pure Gallic deco. Swooping lines, a chess board chequered floor and dull green upholstery. It is the kind of restaurant where you expect diffident waiters with very long white aprons, brilliantined hair and outrageous French accents. The personal linen was indeed long and immaculate. The hair was slicked. The manners were grave and urbane. However, the accents were somewhat east of Lyon. About a thousand miles east of Lyon. Such is the way of things in London.
We settled down to glasses bubbles and the affairs of the day. The lighting is clean and chic in Boulestin. It is a confident contrivance, reminding you that the restaurant itself is a version, a facsimile, an artifice. The place has a lineage going back to 1927 and the semi mythical ur chef Xavier Marcel Boulestin (I imagine him as a fussy, haughty and driven plumper of a little man). Since they opened here in 2013 they have plundered M. Boulestin's recipe book to reincarnate the classic pre-war dishes.
The menu is an act of reminiscence, old dishes from the French canon. Oliver and I chose the Galette de Pomme de Terre, Saumon Fume. Toby chose the Soupe de Poisons Provencale. Boulestin's website speaks of passion. I didn't get this. Instead the opening dishes spoke of cool and exact execution. In this way the reminiscence spoke true to expectation. We don't expect passion in the consummation of French cookery. Passion belongs to cheap and sassy trattorias in Naples - waitress in a tight red dress, a sweat-sheened bosom and dark curls.
Potatoes and lightly smoked fish speak of the north. Potatoes as part of a starter could spell doom to the palate and to the stomach an unnecessary ballast. This plate was an exercise in restraint, a faintly piquant dressing, fanned, sonorous salmon melting on a few thin discs of potatoes. It faded on the tongue, like a lost girl's song in a beech forest.
Toby's umber soupe drew us back to the south. It was the liquor of the Mediterranean. I know, for I tasted it, purely in the interests of research. I tasted it again. And again. We wondered how many gurnard and crabs had gone into this deep distillation. We pronounced that it was good.
A white wine of grassy notes accompanied our entry into the menu. Boulestin boasts a grand cellar. You need one on St James, where there are still trenchermen (God Bless them) equal to the long journey of a grand lunch.
The plates were cleared and we leaned back. It was the time of looking round again. The period stage set of Bouestin is such that you expect to catch a glimpse of napkin-bibbed Clemenceau and ramrod Petain on the next table, wiping crumbs from their moustaches.
Oliver and I had chosen the Contre-Filet. This came as a burley rectangle of beef. It was crusted with Szechuan pepper. I have no idea if M. Boulestin's original recipe suggests such an exotic spice. The result was like eating a Chinese riddle told by a Frenchmen. This was punchy, well aged, big cow. The sommelier suggested a red to go with it. It was rose on the tongue like a velvet dress on the thigh of an apache dancer. The frites whispered and rustled appropriately.
Toby's bass fillet was silver and white, and clean as whistle. Salt-tang samphire accompanied his dashing wolf of the waves.
We sipped the last red. I chose a pear tart and almond tart. The others a crème brulee and a chocolate mousse. The chef held us in the eye of his art to the end. All three sustained the panache.
As we three rose and dropped our napkins to the table there was a feeling of true balance restored, just for a while. It is grand that such careful, exact and courtly dining pertains at Boulestin. We sauntered out into the brisk wind and around the corner to the Travellers Club.
Written by Steven O'Brien
Editor of The London Magazine