Restaurants & Bars

Who said French cooking was good?

Guts | Jul 25, 200203:14 PM     16

The following article was published in yesterday's Telegraph by Philip Delves Broughton, which questions the quality of everyday French bistro and brasserie cooking. Has Broughton got a point?

Who said French cooking was good?
(Filed: 23/07/2002)

Brasseries and bistros don't cut the mustard for Paris correspondent Philip Delves Broughton

The food in most French restaurants is terrible. There. Said it. Peter Mayle, and whoever else makes a living hymning the epicurean wonders of France, may howl. But it has taken me too many grisly steaks, stringy chickens and watery vegetables to reach this conclusion, and I'm not backing down.
Bon appetit: Philip Delves Broughton continues his quest for good French food

The average brasserie serves muck and the bistros are mediocre. The Michelin-starred Olympians, I am told, still produce astonishing food at astonishing prices. But the rest is just awful, stalled on the hard shoulder of international cuisine like a clapped-out Renault. The rest of the world has moved on, but French food is stuck in the Seventies.

Just look at the average menu. Egg mayonnaise as a starter? Baltic salad? Two ropy pieces of herring arranged on lettuce. And then those nasty little faux filets you find everywhere, grubby cuts of meat smothered in greasy sauce.

I was so looking forward to French food, having been weaned on the idea that you can like English food in a sentimental way, but that the real stuff is across the Channel. On the occasional visit to France, the food would be hit and miss, but that seemed down to luck. Now, after six months of living here, my optimism has turned sour as a cherry.

The turning point came about two months ago, when a contingent of English friends came to Paris for the weekend. I was asked, as usual, to book somewhere "really French", so called up Chez Georges, an old-fashioned brasserie near the Bourse, lauded in every Paris guide.

When we arrived, it seemed like the real thing: banquettes, moulded ceiling, mirrors, waitresses in black dresses with white aprons, even a rosy-cheeked chef standing by the kitchen door. The menus arrived, hand-written - our old friend egg mayonnaise sitting atop the list - and I was feeling pretty pleased with my choice.

Then came the food. The worst of the first courses were the champignons Grecques, which consisted of a large glass bowl, filled with what seemed to be tinned mushrooms in oil and vinegar. You were meant to spoon out as much as you wanted, then return the bowl to the waitress, who popped it back on a shelf for the next sucker.

For main courses, two of the men chose a supposed Georges speciality: grilled veal kidneys. They got platefuls of what tasted like chunks of tyre rubber. I had a pair of scrawny lamb chops. The scene around the table was one of desolation. Chewy steaks, limp frites, fish buttered to inedibility. If this was a ploy to make us drink more, it worked.

We ordered puddings, just to punish ourselves. The poker in the eye turned out to be the Baba au Rhum, a mountainous, yeasty cake steeped in cheap rum. It was like sucking on a mechanic's oil rag.

Before Georges, the worst food I had eaten was at Chez André, a faded but crowded brasserie near the Champs-Elysées. Wedged in between two tables of Scottish rugby fans one Sunday lunchtime, I had a tasteless blanquette de veau, flecked with what seemed to be blood, ladled over chewy rice.

The blood gave me flashbacks to the single most traumatic eating experience of my life. I was nine years old, at school. Pudding that lunchtime was egg custard. In my bowl was what appeared to be a partially fertilised egg. Sitting at the head of the table was an ancient Latin teacher, whom I suspected of having raped the Sabine women all by himself.

Several weeks earlier, we had had a stand-off over a rancid piece of ham, which he forced me to eat. This time, I couldn't. We sat there as everyone else left the dining hall. He lit his pipe and said we were going nowhere until I ate it. I took one mouthful and retched. My teacher caved in. Victory.

But back to France. I went down to Provence last month to visit friends whose parents had recently bought a house near Avignon. We had lunch on a Saturday in what was billed as the best restaurant in Pont St Esprit, a small market town near their house.

Ever since they moved to Provence, the parents have been looking for the classic French restaurant of the imagination: checked tablecloths, a hearty pot-au-feu, a pitcher of honest house red. Instead, they wail, they have found almost nothing between the incredibly poncey and the downright inedible.

There is a host of French restaurants, all bidding for Michelin recognition, that hire decorators who must have been exiled from Palm Beach for crimes against taste. They bring in swags of peach upholstery, ceramic swans, fluted columns and an atmosphere so bottom-clenchingly awful that ambrosia itself would taste like ashes.

Between these and the wretched cheap bistros, there is not much. In Pont St Esprit, the food was institutional: tasteless chicken, flaccid vegetables and so on.

François Fimon, the restaurant critic for Le Figaro, says brasseries are simply not where you get decent French food: "Tourists go there thinking they are going to get typical classic French food, but they are always disappointed. To eat well these days, you must go to the bistros gourmands which have been springing up recently. You go to a brasserie or a cafe to meet friends, to have a drink and have food that will do, nothing more."

He also had an explanation for the appeal of Chez Georges: "Parisians have a special place in their hearts for Chez Georges; they love the original atmosphere, the banquettes, the charming old waitresses and so on. They accept that the food is a little fatty, a little buttery, but you have restaurants like this in England which people like for reasons other than just the food."

Before sitting down to write this, I decided to give the French brasserie a final chance, by trying perhaps the most famous one of all, Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St Germain. François Mitterrand used to come to Lipp as president and sit in the middle on the ground floor. Older grandees still come and sit in the front, while tourists are banished to the back, or upstairs.

For an added twist, I wore a baseball cap emblazoned with the word Texas. If I was well treated in Lipp while pretending to be a Texan, all would be forgiven. My wife met me at the door at lunchtime and we asked for a table.

The maitre d' glanced up at the hat, smiled and led us off - back, back, back, all the way to Siberia, where we sat with a table of real Americans. "No salad as a meal," bossed the menu. So I ordered a brasserie classic, steak tartare and frites.

"It's raw, you know," said the waiter, presumably having received too many complaints of: "Hey, I ordered steak!" But it was not just raw. It was horrible. I've had steak tartare maybe five times in my life and this was easily the worst. Fatty, slimy, cheap. I couldn't stop smiling. The vindication was delicious.

Want to stay up to date with this post? Sign Up Now ›

More from Chowhound

The Top 12 Trader Joe's Employee Picks for Fall

The Top 12 Trader Joe's Employee Picks for Fall

by Marisa Olsen | Looking for the best Trader Joe's fall food? There's a lot to choose from; the amount of pumpkin products...

How to Cook with Fall Produce That Isn’t Pumpkin

How to Cook with Fall Produce That Isn’t Pumpkin

by Kelsey Butler | There are many well-known fall fruits and vegetables none of us can seem to get enough of—apples...

What Is Chuseok (aka, Korean Thanksgiving)?

What Is Chuseok (aka, Korean Thanksgiving)?

by Eileen Cho | As a Seoul born, Korean American raised on the west coast of the United States, I always felt like...

A Fall Chili Dish for Every Personality
Recipe Round-Ups

A Fall Chili Dish for Every Personality

by Danielle Valente | Looking for the best fall chili recipe? It's time to drive the coziness factor into full effect. Oversized...

Get fresh food news delivered to your inbox

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest tips, tricks, recipes and more, sent twice a week.