Over the last few years, French restaurants have come to be seen as outmoded in London. In the face of competition from homegrown chefs, as well as from hip designer diners and their modern international menus, cuisine from across the Channel has not fared so well. But some big names and openings in recent months have started to win back lost ground, and a renewed appreciation for French cuisine is slowly getting under way.
In the forefront is Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex ("J.C. A.A." to his habitués), who likes to take an English staple like fish and chips with mushy peas and turn it into Dover sole with vegetable root chips, sauce Paloise and green-pea puree. The onetime personal chef to Christina Onassis, Ansanay-Alex gives British ingredients the Gallic once-over think beef stuffed with oysters and served with Guinness sauce at his South Kensington restaurant, Ambassade de L'Ile, www.ambassadedelile.com.
The restaurant's name has curious origins. Ambassade (Embassy) is an outpost of L'Auberge de L'Ile, Ansanay-Alex's two-Michelin-star place on L'Ile Barbe in Lyon. Trivia collectors will be delighted to know that L'Ile Barbe is one of those wacky microstates, where eccentric residents fired-up by some long-simmering grievance with the central government declare independence and start printing their own stamps and passports. In the case of L'Ile Barbe, the "break" from France happened in 1977, 14 years after the islet was declared, in a move hugely unpopular with locals, a district of Lyon. Ansanay-Alex's father was one of four secessionists who declared L'Ile Barbe independent and Jean-Christophe is today its Honorary Governor.
The other French arrival to have really piqued the curiosity of London's gourmands is former Alain Ducasse protégé Hélène Darroze, whose two-Michelin-star restaurant on Paris' Left Bank has a formidable following. Darroze has taken up the pivotal role of executive chef of the reborn Connaught, www.the-connaught.co.uk, coming up with a menu that offers elegant reworkings of rustic dishes from the Landes region of her upbringing. Don't miss her caviar in black jelly and oyster tartare with a velouté of haricot beans.
As you would expect, meals at Ambassade and the Connaught don't come cheap. But being on a budget doesn't disqualify you from participating in London's renewed enthusiasm for French food. The much lauded Wild Honey in Mayfair, www.wildhoneyrestaurant.co.uk, has raised the bar for informal French dining with its strictly seasonal menu and dash of haute-cuisine craftsmanship. Mains start at around $30. Bord'eaux, www.bord-eaux.com, a great new all-day bistro on Park Lane specializing in the cuisine of southwest France, is cheaper still, with main courses from around $25 up.