A room full of bold flavors and sparkling magic

Egalitarian spirit: dining room upstairs from the refurbished Three Compasss Pub (Matt Writtle)

Egalitarian spirit: dining room upstairs from the refurbished Three Compasss Pub (Matt Writtle)

Midway through college, my friend and I spent a good part of the summer in the remote wilderness of south-west France. Seemingly there as living temporary tinkerers in a huge cobweb-wrapped former school building, we painted shutters in the raging heat, took a trip to Perpignan, and generally experienced what felt like an extremely peaceful studio film.

They were the Chuckle Brothers, directed by François Ozon; one of those half-forgotten youthful escapades where it’s hard to trace the exact logic and reasoning that got you there. Still, if there’s one lasting thing that gave me summer, it was the defining interaction with rustic French cooking. Polished, overpowering cassoulets; socky funk meats; a tiny country bistro with no menu, where opening hours were as mysterious as animal parts bouncing around in the daily stew. From the bubble of my life as a takeaway loving suburban black kid, this was my first real experience of the Gallic tendency to bring laziness, stark elegance and ceremony to every meal. It was a decisive introduction – though I don’t know if I fully appreciated or understood it.

But then, about two decades later, I went to Bouchon Racine in Farringdon – Chef Henry Harris’s version of his venerable French establishment – and so much of what I had seen during that hot summer finally made sense. Launched very late last year and already garnering raucous praise that other venues would die for, this is a quietly remarkable opening; a room full of bold, unapologetic flavors and subtle, shimmering magic that manages to extract something fresh and urgent from perhaps the most obvious and sometimes overrated gastronomic recipes.

This is, by all accounts, the real deal. It is also true that he has been in the post for some time. Originally in Knightsbridge between 2002 and 2015, Racine is one of those places that sends a certain vintage’s lunch enthusiasts into a misty-eyed delight. Harris – in addition to starting a partnership with the now-defunct Harcourt Inns group of pubs – has spent most of the last seven years searching for the right moment and place for a full rebirth. That time is here and now, in collaboration with co-conspirator Dave Strauss, seated on a semi-glazed floor of the gleamingly reconfigured Three Compasss Pub and consciously targeting (as its new name testifies) texture, posture and chest – overcoming the offal lust of darkened bouchons Lyon.

Green leaf mass: escarole wrapped in a delicate tarragon dressing and sprinkled with mimolette (Matt Writtle)

Green leaf mass: escarole wrapped in a delicate tarragon dressing and sprinkled with mimolette (Matt Writtle)

This strong, egalitarian spirit emerges from clever subtleties and occasional provocations. Escarole brought a great green mass of bitter leaves, wrapped in a delicate tarragon sauce and dotted with creamy bits of orange mimolette cheese. Harengs pomme a l’huile was a portion of greasy marinated fish, swelling and shifting on the palate like an extended orchestral crescendo. The veal chop with roquefort butter had succulent meat and a ripe, soul tickling pleasure. Meanwhile, a dish of tripe in jelly (heure de tripes) looked completely cursed; like something in the site at Wellcome. And yet, thanks to the healthy movements of a rough-hewn, expertly balanced gribiche, I found that I couldn’t stop hunting for something in its dark, savory depths.

It’s a reasonably priced passion project that encourages us to live in the moment

By the time I succumbed to the shoulder-kneading help of the outrageous, rich caramel cream, the space already felt like a spinning hospitality club. Harris and Strauss paced the room as off-duty chefs and restaurateurs enjoyed Bayonne ham and aperitifs amid drifting clouds of snail butter. Apparently Nigella Lawson was the day after me. I suppose skeptics could rightly attribute this early buzz to both Harris’s popularity and a particular cache of French country cuisine among the more influential figures in the food world.

But I think there’s more to it. In an age of brazen restaurant cynicism and fearful glimpses into the future, Bouchon Racine is a reasonably priced passion project that encourages us to gloriously live the present moment. Every corner of it is full of soul, character and intention. And that, in any language, is worth its weight in gold.

66 Cowcross Street, EC1M 6BP. Meal for two plus drinks around £150. Open from Tuesday to Saturday at noon-15:00, 17:00-22:00; bouchonracine.com

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