A proper French Bistro, well priced and with excellent cooking

I was among the first to bemoan the state of French cooking in France. I don’t mean the fancy tasting menu places, they are all barn door targets for lazy critics, but the bistros and the local restaurants where, if it’s not moules and oven chips, or steak and oven chips, it’s something from LeClerc heated up and served with a bag of supermarket salad.

And please don’t get me started on the French version of spaghetti carbonara which is found almost everywhere. It’s quite disgusting and a good reason for Italy to break off diplomatic relations with France, at least until Macron apologises.

People of a certain age, me for example, remember a time when you could pull off the road into any French village at lunchtime and be almost guaranteed a decent home-cooked three course meal at a very reasonable price, all washed down with a teeth-staining carafe of red wine.

Now you have to come to London for a decent French meal, which is quite a diversion from l’autoroute. You can splash out at L’Escargot if you want, but personally I’d go to Pierre Victoire ( Vic n Pete’s, to me and my chums) on any average day.

Now though I’ll be going to the new Bistro Bleu, because I think it’s up there with Henry Harris’s Bouchon Racine, but a great deal cheaper and in a nicer location. Like Racine it’s also over a pub, which is very handy post lunch.

The pub itself is very chic, set amidst covetable Georgian houses, and up the stairs is the restaurant which is boudoir beautiful with art deco, rich dark colours, cheerful wall art and with all its tables crisply laid and welcoming. It feels right right away. 

In France when at lunch one tends to go for the plat du jour, or set lunch menu, logically it should be the freshest and the best ingredients that chef can source. Here at Bistro Bleu it’s also great value at £29.95 for three courses, sans vin.

The set menu has three options for starters, each has me very excited. Provençal fish soup with rouille and croutons;  Burgundy snails with oyster mushrooms, garlic butter in a tartlet with a mushroom coulis and slice of Parma; and heirloom tomato with whipped goats cheese, pine nuts and a basil vinaigrette. I mean just what is not to like?

The pie is superb, glowing green with parsley, heavily garlicked and with its snails and mushrooms perfect. The mushroom coulis is packed with flavour. The tartlet case could have been a bit ‘shorter’, less water in the mix and more butter, but it was still very good. I would have called the Parma ham Jambon de Bayonne myself, thickly cut and slightly drier than its cousin Parma it was a welcome addition.

The fish soup is not just rich and thickly fishly, but comes with a lovely hunk of poisson sat like an island in its  centre while the rouille is as good as anything you’d get in Seté.

Impressed, we ploughed on with me taking on the fish next with chorizo crusted cod on ratatouille with a roasted red pepper vinaigrette. Again this was very smartly presented,  the ratatouille fresh and not acidic, as it all too often can be. Simple but pleasant, I should have ordered some frites though as it wasn’t quite enough to fill me.

Over the table M has guinea fowl breast,  glazed root vegetables in a  wild mushroom and tarragon sauce. I try a spoonful of the sauce and it is magnificent, a proper old skool sauce. Good to see a few turned carrots bobbing about with the spuds, not many restaurants would serve a carrot, I don’t know why not. I suppose they aren’t fancy enough.

The same can be said for chicken, guinea fowl is a far more refined option and this is cooked just right with a golden skin and moist meat; the breasts can dry out very quickly on this bird. It’s simple cooking but perfectly done.

A couple of classic desserts – Chocolate marquise, pistachio Crème anglaise, and a Caramelised lemon tart blackcurrant coulis with crème fraiche we share to get a balance of sharp and tart.

We both loved Bistro Bleu, comparing notes on the walk back to Soho, we agreed that Parisian born General Manager Reynald Tel and Head Chef Bernard Dumonteil from Lorraine in North Eastern France, have created a perfect  time capsule of when French gastronomy was at its best.

19 Great James Street