What: A contemporary yet decidedly luxurious brasserie in London St James’s within the space that was once home to Green’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Behind Fortnum and Mason on Duke Street, the prominent and impressive site has been empty since 2016 when owners Simon Parker Bowles and Marlon Abela were turfed out by The Crown Estate ahead of a major redevelopment of the area.
Who: François O’Neill has lent his name to the project. He’s well qualified to open a high-profile new London brasserie having taken over Knightbridge’s Brasserie St Quentin from his father Hugh in 2008, rebranding it as Brompton Bar & Grill. Ed Wyand, formerly of Hackney wine bar Verden, is overseeing the first rate wine offer, while the kitchen is headed by Matthew Ryle, former head chef at Isabel in Mayfair and a finalist in the 2018 series of MasterChef: The Professionals.
The vibe: The prospect of an upmarket brasserie in SW3 didn’t get us particularly excited, but Maison François turns out to be a lot more fun than its rather stuffy post code might suggest. The place is more Soho than St James’s with a relaxed yet professionally-run feel and even the odd sleeve tatoo. One wonders what older members of the red trouser brigade will make of the playlist at the restaurant's subterranean bar Frank’s, which on our visit included several tracks from Dr Dre’s 1992 hip hop classic The Chronic. Designed by celebrated British designer John Whelan - who has lovingly restored and in some cases updated some of France’s greatest brasseries including Bouillon Julien and Floderer (both in Paris) - the space is stunning with an open kitchen, a huge clock inspired by 1970s wristwatches, muted pink walls, oatmeal linens, a concrete effect ceiling and a clever staircase that sees staff and customers pass each other but never meet (Whelan’s muse was a postmodern cement factory in Barcelona). The restaurant was supposed to open in April but the build and opening was delayed by the Coronavirus crisis. As luck would have it the design turned out to be well-suited to the current situation - the banquettes were already divided by wooden screens - and only a few changes were needed to comply with Government guidelines.
The food: Ryle - it turns out - is a dab hand when it comes to unfussy Parisian brasserie classics. The menu is on the small side for a brasserie but fans of gutsy French cooking certainly won’t be disappointed. Plates from the first few sections of the menu include ox tongue brochette with sauce gribiche; pâté en croûte; fennel à la grecque with crème fraîche, dijon, dill and pistachio; and oeuf en gelée. Gussied up with cubes of ox tongue, the latter has become an unlikely Instagram hit. The small selection of more substantial dishes that make an appearance further down the menu include grilled pork chop with mustard sauce; roast chicken with fine herbs; and john dory with onion soup and pig’s trotter. To round things off is a desserts trolley packed with classic French sweets including, including macarons, canelé, Paris-brest, and various tarts.
To drink: Clearly the people behind Maison François didn’t get the memo on shorter wine lists. The beautify-illustrated A5 document runs to 55 pages, has around 250 references and strikes a good balance between the big expensive names and appellations and less obvious choices. As one would expect it majors on France but there are detours, mainly to European wine regions that are close by (there are a fair few from Piedmont, for example) but not always. Based on a map of France, the list is not without its quirks. For example, Chablis and Burgundy are part of the Eastern France section while Beaujolais (which is directly south of Burgundy) is listed as being in Central France and the sections start off as geographical before veering off into wine styles and formats (some might prefer to navigate via the index of wines by the bottle found at the end of the list, which is arranged by price). Given the impressive depth of the main list, there is a surprisingly limited selection of wines by the glass with just five whites and five reds on offer (plus three champagnes and a single rose).
And another thing: We hear the Maison François team were considering a wine list that was nearly exclusively low intervention but ditched the idea thinking it may have been a step to far for St James’s street regulars. This was almost certainly the right call.
Gutsy Parisian brasserie classics: a spread at Maison François