I’ve wanted to eat at chef Henry Harris’s South Kensington restaurant, Racine for a couple of years now. Notwithstanding the fact that every food blogger and critic in town has eaten there, (and for the most part, rated it highly). Henry is a former apprentice and later sous chef of the legendary Simon Hopkinson. This influence has obviously rubbed off, and Henry is considered a bit of a cooking legend in his own right.
Just to torture me further, on my frequent visits back to London, my route into town often passes Racine, (blurrily viewed through fogged up coach windows). I always resolve that I ‘must’ visit. Well, finally, it is done.
But first a question… where does your comfort level for eating offal lie? I’ve tucked into a few choice bits and pieces over the years, and for the most part am always pleasantly surprised by how tasty these seemingly indigestible animal parts are. Trotters, tripe, sweetbreads, pig’s head in the form of brawn. They’re all good. But for me, the old grey matter, a bit of juicy brain… has always been just a step too far. I’m not sure why, it’s just another part of an animal, as valid to munch on as a rare steak. But it just seems so far removed; almost alien… other people eat them, but not me.
I’d heard that famously Racine served up the Gallic classic, fried calf’s brains with capers and black butter. I imagined what it’d be like to eat. No doubt, a tiny cauliflower like brain. Fried and crisp on the outside, white and creamy on the inside, like an overripe cheese. I imagined biting in, a pop and my mouth suddenly flooded with the creamy unctuous brain, finding the hard twig like brain stem in the middle, pulled from the mouth clean with a flourish, like an empty grape stalk.
Excuse me while I retch.
I just couldn’t imagine brain would be pleasant to eat. But I was intrigued. As is now traditional in matters such as this, I decided to throw the question into the rather lively forum that is Twitter. A couple of immediate ‘Eurgh’s’ and about dozen much more positive replies assuring me that calf’s brain is a real treat. It seems most of the food types I follow have had a nibble in the past, and all had apparently survived the experience relatively unscathed.
No one was more surprised than me when I found that I was slowly coming around to the idea of eating brain. I decided that I’d order it, and have a go. Just so I could say I’d been there, I’d done it and feasted on a bit of thinking matter.
Stepping into Racine feels very much like stepping into a high-end Parisian bistro. The banquette-seating running the length of the room, the immaculately laid tables with crisp white tablecloths, the waiter’s dressed in classic black and white uniform. Happily, the often snooty and distinctly aloof Parisian service ethic hasn’t been replicated and the front of house team was extremely welcoming, friendly and professional. I can think of a few restaurants that could take much needed lessons in front of house service from Racine *cough* Riding House Café *cough*
After ordering some wine and nibbling on bread and beautifully packaged French butter (I’m easily impressed by nice packaging)…my moment finally arrived.
Cometh the hour, cometh the brains. A starter of Calf’s brains, black butter and capers looked much more appetising than I expected. I plunged right in, and took an exploratory forkful. Crisp on the outside, giving way to a slightly soft and subtly flavoured interior, it wasn’t actually bad at all. The capers cut through it nicely giving a much-needed sharpness. I ate away happily…I was eating brains…errr…. yeah…I was eating calf’s brain… munching on flabby brain …chewing…. is it getting hot in here or is it just me?
I started to sweat, and I could feel the bile rising. I stopped and looked at the last forkful sadly. I’d been beaten. No more. Bizarrely perhaps, I could eat brain; even enjoy it, up until the point where I started to think about what I was actually eating, and then I felt nauseous. But the main thing is, despite discovering it’s not for me, I’d given it a go and I can see how other people rate it as a dish. I just can’t get over the whole brain thing. Maybe it’ll be easier next time.
Meanwhile, oblivious to this cerebral drama, ‘E’ was happily consuming a more conventional starter of soft-boiled egg with creamed smoked cod’s roe, from the rather bargainous Prix Fixe menu.
After my self-inflicted brain trauma, I’m happy to say that the rump of lamb was without a doubt the best piece of lamb I’ve ever eaten…. anywhere. It was ridiculously good. Beautifully cooked pink, soft, tender meat. With the accompanying pea puree, runner beans and mint, I could have eaten it all day…and I almost did, the portion size was surprisingly huge. Not that I’m complaining.
‘E’s fillet of mullet, fennel, radish and watercress salad was also a fantastic dish. A superb fennel puree cut through the oiliness of the fish beautifully and combined well with the freshness of the aniseed, peppery kick of the salad. It was so good in fact; we’re planning on having a go replicating it at home.
I’m afraid to say the classic French dessert, Mont Blanc, (chocolate sauce, meringue, cream all topped with chestnut puree), wasn’t a great choice. Incredibly sickly sweet from the off, the meringue was ridiculously tough and chewy; I had trouble breaking it up with a knife and fork, let alone a spoon. Despite it being the first time I've eaten it in a restaurant, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not supposed to be quite like that. Eventually I gave up for fear of my efforts sending a chocolate covered piece of rock hard meringue skittering off and spattering the white shirt I was wearing.
But, rising triumphant like a phoenix from the ashes of the Mont Blanc, the best crème caramel I’ve ever tasted. Absolute manna from heaven. Squat and firm but with a melting creamy spoonful filling the mouth, subtly coated with bitter sweet caramel. Absolutely beautiful. A classic simple dish, done incredibly well. Tres impressive as we say in Essex.
Racine is a great restaurant. There’s a legend cooking in the kitchen. The set menu is a complete bargain at £17.75 for 3 courses (although I have to point out, I ordered off the standard menu, and my portion of the bill came to £50) And despite not being to my taste, they’re serving up interesting dishes like calf’s brains. Admittedly the Mont Blanc was a bit of a disaster, but this can be easily forgiven when the mullet, lamb and the crème caramel were nothing short of bloody amazing. It obviously deserves its great reputation. I’d happily recommend Racine to anyone.
239 Brompton Road