Boulestin: the revival of London's famous French restaurant

Date:24-01-2014 08:58:42 read:4

Boulestin: the revival of London's famous French restaurant

London’s rich and famous loved Boulestin – and the restaurateur behind it – after it opened in the 1920s. Now it's been resurrected

'Kissin’s Boulestin may lack some of the eccentric, rather camp charm of the original, but it’s a pretty good place to be on a filthy day in January' Photo: James Bedford

Those of a certain age who frequented its underground rooms, or perhaps found themselves on one of its red leather banquettes on murky assignations with inappropriate men, will have seized with delight on the news that the classic French restaurant Boulestin has been revived. The original Boulestin was launched in 1927 by Xavier Marcel Boulestin, an irrepressible Frenchman, the first television cook, who had dabbled in novel writing and interior design before opening the restaurant. It became famous, not only for its circus-themed murals but also for being the most expensive place to eat in England. Cecil Beaton called it ‘the prettiest restaurant in London’. Boulestin died in 1943, but his eponymous restaurant lived on until the 1990s, still delivering something of a culinary frisson missing from most British restaurants of the time.

London is now a very different place, and Boulestin in its old incarnation would have some stiff competition. As a newcomer, however, it has a head start: the name, of course, and the fact that everyone yearns for a nice old-fashioned French restaurant of the kind one searches for on trips to Paris but hardly ever finds to pop up on their doorstep. That has happened to the denizens of St James’s, the rather awkward – if you happen to be a restaurant owner – location of the new Boulestin.

The man responsible for the revival is Joel Kissin, a one-time partner of Sir Terence Conran, who recently returned from a stint in New York as a property developer. Kissin, who was born in New Zealand, had, like his new restaurant, an old-fashioned start in the food world. He began not on MasterChef or at a catering college, but as a plongeur for a chef who was so taken with his talents as a pot washer that he refused to let Kissin out of the scullery into the kitchen to learn how to cook. ‘I looked about 12,’ Kissin says. ‘I could climb inside some of the giant pots to clean them.’

Eventually Kissin wised up and got himself to London, where he started working at Hilaire with Simon Hopkinson. Conran took them to Bibendum, and Kissin began collaborating on Conran projects such as Butler’s Wharf, Quaglino’s and Mezzo. It was a partnership that transformed the world of food in London and only ended after Kissin went to New York to launch Conran’s Guastavino’s, leaving that project to begin a second career in property.

Thirteen years later he is back in London with an ‘eight-year-old daughter I wanted to bring up here,’ and a small French restaurant in a classy part of town. ‘I wanted a small project,’ he explains, ‘and thought of the defunct Boulestin. Could I register the name?’ He discovered that he could, then embarked on a search for the right location. ‘I’ve always done it the other way round – found the site first – and this way is a lot harder,’ he says. Eventually he settled on the building that once housed L’Oranger and Overton’s in St James’s Street, the august thoroughfare between St James’s Palace and Piccadilly, home to the wine dealers Berry Bros & Rudd, the bootmaker John Lobb, and the hatter Lock & Co. It took him two years to find it and ‘it would have been easier if it had been in Mayfair. It’s slightly off pitch, but we’re only two minutes’ walk from the Wolseley.’

'Everyone yearns for an old-fashioned French restaurant of the 'kind one searches for in Paris' (JAMES BEFORD)

Having acquired the site, he embarked on the pleasurable task of turning it into an old-fashioned French neighbourhood restaurant – ‘Not a pastiche,’ he says firmly, ‘but a nod in the direction of a French brasserie.’ He has started a collection of Boulestin’s books and commissioned pen and ink drawings based on illustrations by the artist Jean-Emile Laboureur, who was involved in the original restaurant. The menu, devised by the chef Andrew Woodford, ex-Scotts and Rules, is classic French – cassoulet, daube of beef, oeufs en gelée, boudin noir and wonderful Sauternes custard with Agen prunes in Armagnac – all inspired by the original Boulestin menu and cookbooks. As well as a dining room, the restaurant includes a cafe that is open for breakfast, tea and so on, and a private room downstairs.

‘I loved reading Boulestin’s books,’ Kissin says. ‘He was a huge influence on the evolution of cooking in this country, introducing simple classic dishes such as cassoulet to diners. He wrote leaflets for the Cream Council, and I’ve found a recording of him on an old 78 record on which you can hear this clipped voice telling you how to make an omelette.’

Kissin’s new Boulestin may lack some of the eccentric, rather camp charm of the original, but it’s still a pretty good place to be on a filthy day in January, light and elegant on the eye in terms of the decor, fragrant with classic French cooking, and stuffed with the well-heeled inhabitants of SW1, who can now incorporate a decent lunch into a morning spent shopping at Lobb’s or Berry Bros. And it will be even better in the summer, when the courtyard at the back, shared with Berry Bros, comes into operation, meaning peaceful, traffic-free alfresco dining, something in short supply in London.

It should be a massive success, and Kissin is relatively sanguine. This is his only project on the go at present, and he has put his own money into it. ‘I got impatient at the idea of finding backers so I did it on my own. Hopefully I won’t regret it, but those words in The Producers – ‘never put your own money in the show’ – keep coming back to haunt me…’ But one good thing about having been out of the business for a while, he thinks, ‘is that I’ve been a customer in other people’s establishments for a long time. I’m good at spotting annoying tics in restaurants, for example, pouring wine too often. So far we’ve had terrific loyalty from the customers who say they feel as though this restaurant has been here for ever. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.’

French recipes from Boulestin

French recipes: jambon persille recipe

French recipes: cassoulet recipe

French recipes: tarte légère

Boulestin is open from 7am to 11pm (11.30pm, Thurs-Sat) for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. 5 St James’s Street, London SW1 (020-7930 2030;

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