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Chez Kristoff - Robust French Country Cooking

Dine Online's Autumn 2004 survey of French Restaurants in the South East

As young singer, I'd just come back from my first recital tour of France, all agog about pâtés, terrines, daubes de boeuf and courgettes farcies, and there being no obviously affordable French restaurants in London at that time, I went out and bought Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, and then later, an autographed copy of her 1950s French Country Cooking, price three shillings and sixpence. What they lacked in colour photos (there were none), they made up for one hundredfold in marvellous descriptive writing. Her caveats about eating out in France are still as valid now as they were in 1960, and her warnings about the importance of  terroir and seasonality should still be heeded, although the supply chain is undoubtedly better than in her day, at least where serious restaurateurs are concerned, who don't try to source their ingredients from supermarkets. My recent visit to Chez Kristoff suddenly brought those memories flooding back, and I went straight to the bookshelf and dusted the books down, smiling at their tomato and wine stained pages.

Chez Kristoff is the third restaurant to have been opened by Jan Woroniecki, whose first restaurant Wodka is a great favourite with my American culinary arts students, for whom it is a neighbourhood restaurant. He went on to open the highly successful Baltic, on the South Bank, and now Chez Kristoff has opened in the relative restaurant desert of Hammersmith Grove. 

Chez K occupies what was Maquis, the offshoot of Moro, which mysteriously caught fire. The new layout is basically similar, with the usual clear cut minimalist lines and long banquette seating down a plain white wall. I can tell you straight away - it's packed, especially at the weekend. But don't let that put you off. The waiting staff under the guidance of the very experienced Walter LeCocq work their socks off, and OK, there are sometimes longish pauses, but the atmosphere and the cooking (and the prices) more than make up for the odd hold up. Oh, and the waiting staff are very easy on the eyes! 

We were so eager to get stuck straight into the starters that we forgot to order any of the three hors d'oeuvres to pick at and share: a flammenkuche (a thin Belgian pastry with bacon, onions and creme fraiche) or the two variants on anchovy dip: anchoïade (cold, like tapenade) or bagna cauda (warm and served with crudités). I shall pick up on these next time I come.

My fish soup came with all the correct accoutrements, grated gruyère cheese and a very good, mustard kicked rouille. The soup itself was OK, but lacked fishy intensity - I like bits of fish floating about, unashamedly vulgar, probably. In contrast, the salad of smoked eel with bacon and potatoes was both traditional and tasty. The stuffed squid were those little baby ones that don't have a huge amount of flavour, but the vegetable stuffing and the sauce were both well done. Some juicy prawns came in the pan they'd been fried in, with a sharp sauce vierge enhanced with anise pastis. There were so many other good things that we had to miss out on, like boudin noir with apples, or sautéed sweetbreads. 

The pan the prawns came in were but a presage of what was to come. All four of the dishes we chose were ones that come to the table in a black marmite, or casserole pot, which is of course the traditional batterie de cuisine for making pot au feu. The latter is on the menu, but somehow I missed it  (it was fairly dark in our corner). Next time I will have the pot au feu. What I did have was the partridge, which had been lightly grilled to give it some caramelisation then put into the pot and braised very gently with Savoy cabbage and tiny onions. It was fabulous, still miraculously tender, but not falling apart like overcooked chicken. The braised lamb shank was, according to my guest, very good, but that is to be expected these days, and the rabbit with prunes was, like the partridge, soft and perfectly cooked, though both could perhaps have been a little gamier. This is, however, correctly French, particularly in the early autumn when the weather there is still quite warm and the hanging of game has to be done with caution. Of all the dishes, I think the very best was my lady guest's Daube of Ox Cheek. This had been extensively prepared, with up to 48 hours marinating, followed by four hours gentle stewing which had rendered the meat to an almost jelly like consistency.

The menu is refreshingly terse -  none of those tedious recipe type descriptions - though some indication as to whether additional vegetables are required would be useful. The ox cheek comes with a bowl of mash, but our extra side order of Pommes Dauphinoise was creamy and comforting. It's nice to see celeriac remoulade on a menu: the mayonnaise dressing was laced with just the right amount of mustard. We drank a couple of bottles of an excellent and aromatic Pic-St-Loup from an interesting and reasonably priced wine list.

There wasn't much room for pudding, so we shared a delicious fig tart and some sorbets with bugnes, a rather dry version of the lighter beignets. The ices were proper water ice, refreshingly flavoured and rahter better than those that have cream added.

Here is a really buzzy neighbourhood bistro where you can enjoy Chef Nicholas Pound's good cuisine grandmère at grandmotherly prices - our bill for four people came to £150, fully inclusive. So forgive the odd lapse in service - the smiles are gorgeous and they're trying hard to please a demanding and expectant crowd.

Clifford Mould, October 2004

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