aThis time of year, it’s tempting to dedicate a space like this to making and breaking kitchen resolutions (I refuse to say the word diet). But I’d be embarrassed, and save all of that for next month. January is bad enough without talking about waistline. How about some happy news instead, like the fact that beloved and immensely talented chef Henry Harris has quietly opened his new restaurant, Bouchon Racine, just before Christmas?
See, I can’t be the only person in the world who will forever carry with me the memory of at least six dishes that were all so delicious at the time that – a combination of circumstances as well as ingredients – they will surely be unparalleled for the rest of my days. Just as I will never have a lobster sandwich like the one I ate in a pub at the Seahouses in Northumberland after a long walk in squalid weather, no roast chicken with rice and tomato will live up to the one served to a drip wet me (I was swimming) on an old boat in the middle of Lake in Turkey long ago. I am eating knafeh, flicking sugar syrup and brie, whenever I see it. But I’ve never tasted anything so delicious as the slice I hungrily sliced under the fluorescent strip lights in Ramallah’s pastry shop in 2005, my reward for days of hard work.
But it is human nature to try to replicate perfection, although we know full well that this will inevitably lead only to disappointment. When I heard Harris had opened a dining room above a pub in Clerkenwell, all I could think of was the saffron and garlic mousse with mussels he used to serve at the original Racine in Knightsbridge. Will it be on the list? And if so, will it still be great? I rarely went to Racine—it was the wrong side of town for me, in more ways than one—but on every occasion it was this mousse that I ate, urged on by the kind friend who used to take me, and who loved it as much as I did. Racine closed its doors eight years ago, a victim of high rents, but I have never forgotten the softness and delicacy of that mousse, and the ease implied by its rapid disappearance seems in no way to affect one’s ability to eat it less quickly.
It was then, with some trepidation, that I booked a table at Bouchon Racine on the quiet days between Christmas and New Years, perhaps secretly relieved when the blackboard on which the menu was written contained no mention of this famous mousse. I ate a puree salad (escarole with tarragon and bright orange mimolette shavings), followed by rabbit in mustard and creme caramel sauce, and all was well in the world. But still, I couldn’t help myself. The waiter also generously sprinkled some of the killer old plum In two glasses – I really shouldn’t have drank it, but I did, so shoot me – I asked if one of the starters would be popular back in time.
I’m not sure I expected an answer; When he disappeared, I expected the bill and mumbled “maybe”. But as things turned out, I got an answer—and I mean an answer—from Harris himself, who appeared at our table promptly. From what I remember (I was a little fat), he said he was still working out which of his old favorites he really should have put on the list–rabbit is a ranger, apparently–but that, yeah, moose will probably reappear at some point. what. Then he made a self-deprecating joke about how especially skilled he is at making good dishes for the toothless (he probably knew I had the creme caramel).
For my part, I was a little embarrassed. I didn’t want him to think my dinner was lacking in any way, because it was heavenly and completely unimprovable. But I also had a sudden, rising sense of hope, because I was so full I couldn’t move. Holy Grail! Flickering and pale yellow, it was visible again. When I got home the first thing I did was book another table.