“Everything I know about food and dinner parties was taught to me by my beautiful Grandmother, known to all as, Antoinette” said co-owner Aurelia. “Our menus showcase her love for authentic French cuisine, every dish is prepared with the same love and joy that my Grand-Mère imbibed into our family dinners.”
“As a child, she used to prepare delicious tartines in her kitchen just for me. After living in London for five years, I became homesick and those memories came fluttering back. After a while, it became clear to me that I had to put all my effort and hard work into my dream of recreating my childhood. So, in 2014 I did it. I brought my Grandmother’s table to Covent Garden, serving delicious authentic French food. Having personally acquired every piece of antique furniture and crockery from all over the country it now sits in Chez Antoinette Covent Garden, providing the atmosphere of my childhood”.
Five years later, joined by her husband, Chez Antoinette Victoria was born.
As soon as you round the corner onto Palmer St you feel very much as if you’ve left the hurly-burly of the metropolis and entered into a somewhat gentler world (as long as you keep your back to the Greggs next door!). The ultra-modern development of the Victoria area in recent times is all towering glass edifices which I, for one, find rather oppressive – this little enclave is a welcome oasis from all the vitreous bombast. You first see the Parisian style round tables outside, before being drawn in by the soft lighting emanating from the interior of this charming, small French restaurant, which feels immediately like a family business. And so it is: the black and white photos that adorn the walls aren’t just some job-lot of generic French pics, but genuine portraits of the proprietor’s family – a joy in their own right.
As you enter, you see a patisserie counter to your immediate right; left is the main body of the restaurant with an open-plan kitchen at the rear; in front of you is a staircase that leads to a narrow balcony, eight tables in two rows to your left and one large table (ten covers) and two small to your right. We choose the right side, overlooking the pastry counter, where the desserts are stored and finished.
Front of house are French, charming and well-informed, traditionally dressed in white aprons over black trousers. Early on a Monday evening, the place is packed and bustling. First impressions? Excellent.
With great glass monoliths come hungry workers. Our host assures us that weekday lunches are packed every day, with tables turning at least twice during the peak. It’s open all day, covering breakfast, lunch and tea, and you’re welcome to pop in for a cake and coffee (or something stronger) whenever you fancy it.
It’s popular with French guests too – it’s clearly a home from home to the couple seated at the table next to ours, who the waitress greets as long lost friends, chatting away in the vernacular.
The menu is real classic French, much to my delight. For starters, I go for the Eggs Meurette and Lucy for the French Onion Soup. Eggs Meurette is a heavenly combination of two poached eggs on toast, served with a bourguignon sauce. As I enjoy this, savouring every mouthful, I find myself imagining its origins: surely the creation of a thrifty Burgundian housewife on a Sunday morning wondering what to do with the leftover sauce of the classic beef stew of the region that she had served to her guests the night before. And perhaps this is not just a flight of fancy: After all, eggs, mushrooms, smoky bacon – a classic combination. Add in a rich red wine and beef stock sauce – well, what’s not to love. Breakfast from Heaven!
Lu’s soup is also utterly delectable and perfect for a winter’s evening. It arrives piping – and I mean piping! – hot. A wonderfully sweet broth, slow-cooked just as it should be.
For mains, I go for the Pot au Feu (what could be more classic French?) and Lu for the Bavette Steak. We probably overdid the potatoes here, as both dishes came with their own, but we had to have a side order of Dauphinoise, served in a ramekin topped with cheese. The Bavette was a little chewy for Lu, but that the nature of the cut, so no criticism. Anyway, noblesse oblige, we swapped halfway. The boiled beef of the Pot was perfectly tender; she – and I – were delighted.
For dessert, I opt for the Crème Brulee (always a benchmark of any French eatery) and Lu for the Paris Brest. I check with our dessert waiter: has the brulee been “messed about with” in any way? I’ve had unpleasant experiences of people adding in fruit or some kind of biscuit – no! I’m a purist where this is concerned. He assures me it hasn’t and he’s right: a perfect, classic crème brulee. Lu’s Brest is a “doughnut” of choux pastry, cut in half through the middle and filled with a hazelnut crème patissiere. She seems to enjoy it thoroughly.
The wine list is well-chosen, from various regions of France, and attractively written. We share a bottle of La Lisse Soie d’Ivoire Chenin Blanc, Pays de la Haute Vallée de l’Aude 2018 (£24) – ‘La Lisse Soie d’Ivoire translates as soft ivory silk which invokes the attractive texture of this sensual Chenin Blanc’ (which describes it as well as I could) to start, followed by a glass each of Les Volets Malbec 2018, Languedoc (£6.75) with our beef – ‘Rich and robust with flavours of ripe black cherry, liquorice and baking spices.’
We leave feeling well fed and happy – so happy, in fact, that I returned for dinner that very same week. My experience the second time around? Just as good.
There is a special Valentine’s Day menu serving romantic French classics (£45, including a glass of French sparkling wine Piquepoul, l’Ormarine 2017 extra brut), such as pomme d’amour, seared scallops and chocolate fondant, which sounds extremely appealing (see full menu here) and would be almost like taking your other half to Paris! Book now to avoid disappointment.
22 Palmer Street (The Caxton), London, SW1H 0PH; +44 20 3990 5377; email@example.com; https://chezantoinette.co.uk/stjames-victoria/