YOU Magazine’s brilliant restaurant critic Tom Parker Bowles and wine expert Olly Smith on great French food and the light white wines to try.
For a reliably refined flavour of France, Tom heads to a favourite haunt
Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. In fact, when it comes to my favourite restaurants, the opposite is invariably true. Sometimes, I know exactly what I want to eat, and exactly where to eat it. Where consistency trumps novelty, and the experience is all.
A few years back, when those cravings had a Gallic accent, it was always Racine or La Brasserie. Both, sadly, have gone the way of all flesh. But Le Colombier, which seems to have been a Chelsea staple since Granny Takes a Trip (although it really only opened in 1998), effortlessly plugs that gap.
On a hot, late August afternoon, the outdoor tables are booked. They always are, for those linen and Tod’s-clad regulars, old Chelsea to their core, treat this place like their local canteen. But inside, a cool breeze flutters through the open windows, into a room daubed in Provençal blue. Service is mainly young, slick and very French, but with rather more charm than disdain. There’s chilled house rosé, and good bread, and a half dozen crevettes sitting on ice, bracingly fresh and dunked into homemade mayonnaise.
More expertly sourced fish with the ‘vintage’ sardines, La Quiberonnaise, served in their bright yellow tin with a fistful of chopped shallot and a good squeeze of lemon. They were canned last year and allowed to age slightly, giving the expertly deboned and beheaded beauties an exquisitely subtle depth.
Fish soup has a suitably rusty hue, and with its hint, rather than blast, of piscine bosk, it’s not so much swaggering, salty old sea dog as elegant boulevardier with a deep, dark past. Snails arrive out of the shell, the sauce delivering a creamy jolt of garlic and Pernod-laced delight.
Roast grouse ‘à l’Anglaise’ may not strike one as part of the French culinary canon. But it’s every bit the equal of its brethren at Wilton’s or Rules. Cooked rare, the sweet flesh is served with clear gravy and bread sauce. Sometimes, even the French concede that British can be best.
In fact, the only bum note of the entire lunch is a tomato salad, served as cold as the mortuary slab. A tiny quibble. Because Le Colombier not only cooks up peerlessly consistent French brasserie food. But does so with the broadest of smiles.
Le Colombier, about £40 a head, 145 Dovehouse Street, Chelsea Square, London SW3; 020 7351 1155
Drinks: Olly’s favourite light whites
With the last few summery rays lifting our spirits, light white wines are divinely elegant with deft levels of alcohol allowing for longer sessions of splendour. Some wines with alcohol manipulated downward can be so brutally bitter or sickly sweet that you’re better off making a spritzer.
Thankfully there are lots of decent options coming in below 12.5% alcohol that deliver gorgeous character without monstrous manufacturing.
PONTE DE LIMA LOUREIRO VINHO VERDE 2019 (11.5%), £7.50, The Wine Society. Light and spritzy, this piercing Portuguese wine is spot on with oily fish or for a zesty aperitif.
GAILLAC PARLE EVOCATION 2019 (12%), £8.99, Majestic. Fresh, easy and breezy, light whites like this don’t come much finer and at such a friendly price.
FAMOSO RUBICONE 2019 (12%), £8, Marks & Spencer. A tangerine dream of a wine! Fragrant, light, exotic and vivid with flavour as well as finesse.
THE DOCTORS’ SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019 (9.5%), £8.99, Waitrose. Clever stuff from New Zealand, naturally lower in alcohol without losing out on flavour. A proper zinger.
FRITZ WILLI RIESLING 2018 (11%), £10.95, ndjohn.co.uk. My wine of the week, this is a peach dipped in sherbet. So fruity and fabulous – a bottled holiday disco of a wine.