Thursday 25 August 2011

Racine - London

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


Fiona Beckett said...

I'd vouch for it too. One of the best French restaurants in London, albeit run by a brit. Great review - try the steak tartare next time you go.

Luke Mackay said...

Had IDENTICAL experience with brains recently at The Fish House in Chichester. Immaculately cooked and actually delicious, but got the cold sweats and had to leave half... Am usually able to demolish anything. Weird. But I hear you brother.

Dan said...

Fiona - Thanks. You're the second person to recommend the steak tartare to me. I think I'll certainly go for that next time and not the...err... brains.

Luke - How bizzare that you had the exact same brain eating experience. Spooky.

Graphic Foodie said...

I can get my head around eating most things, nibble on a crunchy pigs ear no problem and even tried some throat sweetbreads but brain? And a whole plate of brain, nope, I couldn't do it.

Think in some ways fine dining has become a bit of a game of dare where you feel you should order something that's naturally a bit repulsive or be made to feel like a foodie wuss. We have a local cheese that is full of little live jumping worms in Italy, apparently delicious but I'd even take a plate of brains over that one. Saying that, by stepping out you comfort zone you could find something you really like. Mmmmmm, wormy cheese!

Rest of the meal looks rather lovely though. I'm a sucker for a bit of nice packaging too and would have definitely spent a few moments marvelling at the butter!

Dan said...

Graphic Foodie - I think you're right Fran, it is almost a dare to try this stuff. But then, as I've got older there's been so much ordinary stuff that I grew up actively disliking and that I now love, I feel that I have to give everything a go at least once. Calf brain has probably been the most extreme thing I've tried to eat though. I think I'd rather eat that than the wormy cheese!

Bread and Wine said...

Nice review, Dan. I have twice eaten the same dish of brains at Racine and a similar - and even better - dish at the Walnut Tree, cooked by the even more legendary Shaun Hill. I have to confess that I virtually licked the plate clean on each occasion and never felt in the slightest bit squeamish - quite an achievement for somebody who was vegetarian for a few years as a teenager! Texturally, I don't see a huge difference between brains and sweetbreads, don't you agree? Much as like the steak tartare at Racine, I would go for the brains every time. You could say it's a no-brainer!

Dan said...

Bread and Wine - Thanks Mark. Never eaten Shaun Hill's food, but I'd love to. An ex veggie licking the plate clean? that is an achievement!...I really don't know what it is with me and brains. I'm not squeamish about other offal, and agreed texturally yes, sweetbreads aren't a million miles away. But it's not the texture, for me it's the very thought of what it is that turns me off. A grey lump of thinkbox. Maybe I'll try it again one day.

That steak tartare at Racine mentioned again! I'm going to have to return and try it.

Greedy Diva said...

Awesome restaurant, great value, and definitely a perfect stop to get one through the gaps in between trips to Paris!

PDH said...

BRAINS! Not for me... I've held a brain, it felt wrong and there was no way I was going to cook it and EAT IT! Bleugh

Will have to add Racine to the list, we could walk here from our gaff in Pimlico I reckon and that rump looks pretty special.

Kavey said...

I've not had brains, are they anything like sweetbreads in texture?

I like Racine very much but don't get there much, just not great location for me and I'm a bit broke at mo. BUT it remains a place I look forward to revisiting.

I'd have said something about the tough meringue, myself...


Dan said...

Greedy Diva - Indeed, in fact you could transplant Racine to Paris and it wouldn't seem out of place at all.

Pavel - Brains...never held one, I reckon that would have put me off from even trying it. It's well worth the walk from Pimlico.

Kavey - Yep, similar to sweetbreads in texture. It's not a great location for me either, I'm not often South Kensington way when I'm back in London. The tough meringue, I was going to say something, but we'd had such a nice lunch and the staff had been so attentive and friendly, I just didn't feel like it. Interestingly I tried to work out why the meringue could have been so tough. It was an incredibly humid day and apparently moisture in the air makes sugar toughen and become chewy, so guess that could be the reason.

Food Urchin said...

I tried brains in St Johns a while ago and from memory I think I rather liked them (got a bit squiffy in there) but haven't tried since. I SUPPOSE I'll have to go to Racine now ; )

Great review mate.

Hollow Legs said...

I didn't like brains much, and I suspect it has to do with over-thinking it. Ive never been to racine!