French cuisine is glamorous. Not essentially so, but symbolically such. One may argue that this is because of the prettiness of their dishes, the alchemical compositions of sauces and hors-d’oeuvres, but I find it to do with the accent, the French accent, the frills, the tongue rolls, their sonorous expulsions of air that infer sophistication and luxuriance on the food being described.
Can you taste a word? Not literally, of course, but in a figurative sense perhaps. When you read the words on a menu, some bring up images in your head that remind you of dishes and ingredients you have previously encountered. The images enliven your imagination, and you can almost taste the ingredients as if they were in your mouth, on your palate. But what if you enter a restaurant and you have no idea how their menu reads, and only know how things sound because of your waiter?
If you are ambivalent to pea soup for example, and are offered it at a restaurant, would you be more likely to ask for it if it were sold as ‘pea soup’ or ‘soupe de petits pois’?
‘Sorry, I do not speak French. What is “petit pois”?’
‘Peas, sir. Pea soup served à la menthe: with mint.’
It is almost as if they are two completely different dishes. Even if the menu had said ‘French pea soup’ there is still a chance the dish may yet be overlooked. But ‘soupe de petit pois’, the sumptuous alliteration, the vigour of French plosives, confers the poetic and elevates the option onto a pedestal of good taste. It seems a class thing: peas for the commoner and petit pois for the middle class, an inference whose depth is a little beyond the scope of this piece.
We feel alright suggesting a Chinese, an Italian, an Indian or Sri Lankan because this is food for regular people, food that can be served affordably, and is accessible to all. Even if you went to an upmarket Indian there is still a sense of casual familiarity, a comfort in the domestic nature of the cuisine that allows you slouch on your banquette. But if someone proposes a French gastronomic expedition, you immediately notice that backs straighten, lips tighten and a certain uncomfortable ritual begins.
Brasserie Zedel gleefully parodies all of this. The well-loved London establishment in Piccadilly’s pith is renowned for its rousing cabarets and inexpensive French cooking. The place disturbs the conventional elitist beliefs that surround French food: it has got all the glitz and glisten of a decadent Parisian brasserie, most notably inspired by the famous Chartier in Paris, but serves up cuisine for prices cheaper than most foodie hotspots in London.
I do not profess to visit high-end French restaurants often, but I do endeavour to think that the same soupe de petits pois à la menthe served at Zedel for a meagre £2.95, would cost significantly more anywhere else. Restaurant critics who have eaten much more French food than me, have written as much – although not all with jubilant praise and happy exhortation. For some, Zedel is sacrilegious, it besmirches a sacred gastronomy only for the worthy. But to most, those not up their own arses, it is a marvellous and cherished innovation.
Walking through the main entrance of Zedel, a café like space, down some stairs, past walls festooned with colourful movie posters, advertising and pop art, you eventually reach a basement floor illuminated by a gargantuan chandelier, in a space that looks like a dazzling 50s era monochromatic film cinema. Velvet curtains, suited ushers et al, a grand reception. But grander still is the brasserie that lies at the other end of the hall, an expansive bright and shiny, high ceilinged room that excites a childish sense of awe.
Tall, imposing marble pillars, ornate brass surfaces, a large clock, pink tablecloths, bright lights, immaculate floors and pretty rose-coloured lamp shades inspire an aura of fantasy and opulence that you may have only ever seen, but never quite experienced before. Older crowds sit in their seats around small tables with raised wine glasses, suited and booted, easily forty years each and up, making you feel a little out of place if you’re in your twenties in a tee, jacket and chinos.
But the service is kind and accommodating, not a sign of condescension, and you are quickly seated in one of the 200+ seats available in the ginormous venue. The imposter syndrome fades and the Zedel makes you feel good about yourself, more important, as if you were meant to be there and eat their food.
Despite all my talk of pea soup I decided, in the end, to go for some carottes rapees (grated carrots), rillettes de saumon (salmon rillettes) and escargot au beurre persilé (snails in parsley butter). I flirted with the idea of a rich egg mayonnaise or a celery remoulade, even the goujonette to recreate a Hemingway-esque fantasy, but decided on the above because they were the first to come to mind when the waitress came around.
The carrots were lemony and sweet with a bright cool crunch, formed into a quenelle in the middle of a large plate. The rillettes, similarly shaped but this time with a morbid looking slice of toast and a tiny pile of sweet pickled cucumber was fresh tasting and texturally pleasing, an amalgam of yielding and buoyant salmon meat compact and rich.
I sighed with blissful abandon as I chewed on a piece of glorious escargot, bathed in ambrosial garlic butter and redolent parsley. When the waitress came to take my plate, I stopped her abruptly and as politely as I could manage, because I wasn’t done mopping it all up with the extra baguette I called for. She smiled knowingly and sauntered off.
My main, a magret de canard et legumes de saison, a plate of marvellously rendered duck breast, fondant potato and steamed veggies, was a picturesque, delightful assembly that crowned the wonderful meal I’d had thus far. For all those that profess to detest duck, this particular Zedel dish would indubitably prove evangelical. Smooth jus with a squeeze of orange takes the pink succulent duck to another dimension.
I was quite full by the end but managed to squeeze in dessert. I love chocolate tarts and delices, so if they are on a menu I usually order them if I can stomach it. The inviting slice of rich dark chocolate ganache on a wafer crisp base, sweet, dense and indulgent in the mouth, came well-portioned though quite unadorned. It could have done even better with a tart coulis, something with colour and brightness to lift it up a little, but I was nevertheless happy with the way it was.
Standing outside the brasserie, I felt like a new man. It was almost as if I had lived another life, been another person, for a mere moment of fantastical transport. And I still had money for a trip home! The whole meal set me back about fifty quid, and if I was eating not to review, but simply for myself, it would probably be half that.
Brasserie Zedel is the quintessential budget French brasserie that gives you the kind of unforgettable experience that most people only dream about. You can dine in a suit and play the posh part, or in your regular gear for a weekend lunch and it’ll all be just the same. They do evening shows and performances if you would like to make an event of it all, but simply going there is very much its own thing. Visiting Brasserie Zedel should be up there with all the places people say you must visit before leaving London, an iconic establishment to be sure.
Location: 20 Sherwood St, Soho, London W1F 7ED