Some dishes stay with you forever. Should I look for them again? | Rachel Cooke


At this time of year, it’s tempting to devote a space like this to the making and breaking of kitchen resolutions (I refuse to say the word diet). But I’m going to be awkward, and save all that for next month. January is bad enough without talk of waistlines. What about some happy news instead, like the fact that the beloved and supremely talented chef Henry Harris quietly opened his new restaurant, Bouchon Racine, shortly before Christmas?

Look, I can’t be the only person in the world who will forever carry with me the memory of at least half a dozen dishes all of which were so unimpeachably delicious at the time – a combination of circumstances as well as ingredients – they will surely remain unmatched for the rest of my days. Just as I will never eat a crab sandwich as good as the one I devoured at a pub in Seahouses in Northumberland after a long walk in filthy weather, no grilled chicken with rice and tomatoes will ever live up to those that were served to a dripping wet me (I’d been swimming) on an old boat in the middle of a lake in Turkey a whole lifetime ago. I eat knafeh, oozing sugar syrup and soft white cheese, whenever I see it. But I’ve never tasted any so delicious as the slice I hungrily forked up beneath the fluorescent strip lights of a Ramallah sweet shop in 2005, my reward for days of hard work.

But it is human nature to want to try and replicate perfection, though we know full well this will lead inevitably only to disappointment. When I heard that Harris had opened a dining room above a pub in Clerkenwell, all I could think about was the saffron and garlic mousse with mussels he used to serve at the original Racine in Knightsbridge. Would it be on the menu? And if it was, would it still be as fantastic? I went to Racine only rarely – 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, who loved it as much as I did. Racine closed its doors eight years ago, a victim of rising rents, but I’ve never forgotten the smoothness and subtlety of that mousse, the effortlessness involved in its rapid disappearance seemingly having no effect whatsoever on one’s ability to eat it any less quickly.

It was, then, with some trepidation that I booked a table at Bouchon Racine in the peaceful days between Christmas and new year, and perhaps I was secretly relieved when the blackboard on which the menu is written included no mention of this famous mousse. I ate an immaculate salad (escarole with tarragon and shavings of bright orange mimolette), followed by rabbit in mustard sauce and creme caramel, and all was right in the world. But still, I just couldn’t help myself. As our waiter generously splashed some lethal vieille prune into two glasses – I really shouldn’t have drunk it, but I did, so shoot me – I asked if a certain starter might be making a popular comeback in due course.

I’m not sure that I expected an answer; when he disappeared, I anticipated the bill and a muttered “maybe”. But as things turned out, I did get one – an answer, I mean – from Harris himself, who promptly appeared at our table. From what I can remember (I was slightly tipsy), he said he was still working out which of his old favourites he really had to put on the menu – the rabbit is a keeper, apparently – but that, yes, the mousse probably would reappear at some point. And then he made a self-deprecating joke about how his particular skill is to make dishes that are good for those with no teeth (possibly he knew I’d had the creme caramel).

For my part, I was a bit embarrassed. I didn’t want him to think that my dinner had been lacking in any way, because it was heavenly and completely un-improvable. But I also had a sudden and rising sense of hope, for all that I was so full I could hardly move. The holy grail! Wobbly and palest yellow, it was again in sight. When I got home, the first thing I did was to book another table.

#dishes #stay #Rachel #Cooke
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