If the love of money is the root of all evil, then Knightsbridge must be the most evil place on Earth. Everywhere you go in SW1, conspicuous wealth and consumption abound; gaudily customised supercars line the pavements outside the ever-heaving Harrods, all the £30-million plus penthouses have sold out at the new One Hyde Park development, and three-star chefs are falling over themselves to open restaurants in five-star hotels. As if enclosed in a protective, recession-proof bubble, the occupants of Knightsbridge appear oblivious to austerity, be they resident in one of the area's exclusive red brick terraces or visiting for the summer from one or another emirate.
It's only in an area like Knightsbridge that a place like Racine could have 'firmly established itself as a favourite neighbourhood French restaurant' as the website proudly states. Almost anywhere else, chef-proprietor Henry Harris's slick, classic bistro would be considered pricy and posh, to be saved for special occasions, but in relation to most nearby competitors Racine is comparatively inexpensive (though cheap it ain't), and markedly less formal. It's also, deservedly I'd say based on my recent visit, doing a roaring trade.
My lifelong best friend Andrew and I were having dinner to celebrate his recent success in being appointed to a senior sales position at Emporio Armani just up the road (as an alumnus of the label I know first hand just how damn hard it is to even get a foot in the door) and chose Racine on the basis of our having both heard good things about it. In fact, Racine has been on my radar ever since it opened; I was an early adopter of Henry Harris's honest, luxurious cooking when he was at Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols just round the corner and was immediately interested when he left to set up Racine - I just didn't get round to actually eating there until last week.
Like the area, the food at Racine is very, very rich. Harris appears to hold no truck with modern healthy eating fads; the menu is a delightful list of patés, mousses and remoulades, of roasts and grills and chops. Everything is garnished, sauced or buttered, and served in abundant portions; naturally, I bloody loved it even though I waddled out at the end of our meal and may drop dead of a heart attack before the week's out.
To start with, Andrew had a warm garlic and saffron mousse with mussels and I chose hot foie gras with wilted endive, piment d'Espelette and spiced bread. Andrew's mousse was almost soufflé-light but still very creamy in texture, tasted subtle without being bland and paired nicely with the flavour of the handful of plump, poached mussels surrounding it. My liver was just gorgeous; warm, quivering, unctuous and indulgent, it went beautifully with the nutmeg spiciness of the toast and the slight bitterness of the endive. My palate isn't refined enough to have detected any particular flavour of Espelette pepper, but as the sum of its parts this dish worked very well.
Main courses were equally as good if also rather heavy. As a lover of both offal and blue cheese I was never going to choose anything but the grilled veal kidneys with Roquefort butter, which came served additionally with some velouté-smooth mashed potato. The two fat, silky kidneys were full of flavour, cooked just through to a pale rose and bathed in a good couple of ounces of salty, tangy butter. It was a a terrific combination which given the choice I would probably have preferred without the potato; it was undeniably beautiful mash but just tipped the dish as a whole over into over-richness. Andrew's breast of duck with new season's grelots (baby onions), lovage and a gateau campagnard - a sort of apple-y rosti - was more balanced, the duck almost quackingly pink and the vegetables complementing rather than competing with it.
Determinedly we ploughed on to desserts figuring that we might as well be hanged for un mouton as un agneau. My pot of vanilla cream with Agen prunes was essentially unburnt crème brulée served over fruit in an upright dish, simple but enjoyable and evidently made from only the very creamiest cream, the kind of stuff that looks at extra thick double cream with pity in its eyes. Andrew's pud of choice was even simpler but also even better, vanilla ice cream of exceptional quality - home-made or not we weren't told - with a little jug of preposterously perfect hot Valrhona chocolate sauce.
Fancying a light-ish red wine we drank a very agreeable 2007 Chateau de Tersac, Corbieres which coped well with the succulent textures and flavours of the food and was fairly priced at £21. The wine list is long but undaunting, sub-divided helpfully into 'from Europe' (though by and large this means France) and 'from around the World' and then into by the glass, half bottles and bottles. There's something for every palate and price range although a black mark is awarded for the incessant pouring of it - three waiters in as many minutes had to be told Non, merci until it sank in that we could and wished to do it ourselves. Service was otherwise charming, polite, and well-paced.
Our bill, on which we received a 25% discount thanks to a Toptable offer, came to a very fair £80 and even if we had paid the full whack of £96 I'd have felt we'd got good value for money. My only objection, as much out of principle as confusion, was that Racine charges a lofty 14.5% service, an inexplicable whisker less than the 15% only really charged in the hautest of places but a hefty 2% over the more usual twelve point five. Knightsbridge being Knightsbridge I expect Racine's regular clientele don't bat an eyelid at such piddling sums; to the rest of us however it's an unwelcome extra expense and that's, well, just a bit rich.
Racine, 239 Brompton Road, London SW3 2EP Tel: 020 7584 4477 http://www.racine-restaurant.com/