Fowl is Fair
William Sitwell plays away from home, lands half a dozen tasty Irish birds, and in the process discovers one of the secrets behind the success of the Brompton Bar & Grill
IT’S A FROSTY morning in Ballymena, County Antrim, an hour north-east of Belfast, and I’ve come here to get under the skin of the menu of a fashionable Knightsbridge restaurant.
We’re about to go shooting on the Cleggan estate and so — booted, gloved, ammo stuffed in cartridge bag and shotgun under arm — we listen to the keeper’s instructions. He goes through the usual rigmarole — no ground game, that type of thing — and then he adds an element I’ve not heard before.
‘Halfway through the drive I’ll blow my horn,’ he explains. ‘On that signal please raise your shotguns to indicate that you’ve heard me. Up until that point you can shoot birds into the hill. But after that only shoot where you can clearly see the sky.’
This is a reasonable request, as the beaters could come into view at this point and, as my brother once discovered, it’s very embarrassing to get blamed for peppering with shot those putting up the birds.
Having taken the spiel on board, we head into a van before trundling off through the woods and making our way to the first drive. The Cleggan shoot is famous for its partridges and is on land owned by one Lord Rathcavan. Back in 1980 Rathcavan, with his cousin Quentin Crewe — the celebrated traveller and writer — opened a restaurant on Brompton Road, the Brasserie St Quentin. The establishment is now owned and run by Rathcavan’s 26-year-old son Francois O’Neill under a different name — the Brompton Bar and Grill. And it was Francois who thought it a good idea for me to see where he procures the partridges that go on his menu.
Frequently during the shooting season, Francois will arrive at the restaurant on a Monday morning with a suitcase full of game — be it partridge, pheasant or woodcock — which the chef, Gary Durrant, eagerly puts on the menu.
‘I like the idea of the restaurant feeding off the shoot,’ says Francois as we climb out of the van, head through the trees, over a stile and out into a small valley. The guns in place, soon partridge are whistling over our heads. With some height and a good wind, the birds are hard to nail. The day continues with tougher and tougher drives. The wind picks up and downing partridges needs a considerable swing of the gun and a seriously long lead.
After plenty of missing, aided and abetted by large swigs of sloe gin, the party returns at dusk to the house. The seven guns have shot 93 partridge, 30 pheasant and one woodcock, all of which can happily go on the menu back in the restaurant in London.
There Gary likes to roast the birds and serve them with a celeriac and apple purée and salsify chips. It’s a popular dish and, when it’s in season, the loyal locals happily tuck into game from the family estate.
Back at Cleggan Lodge, Francois talks about his culinary career. ‘Restaurants are in my blood,’ he says, ‘so when I left school I decided against going to university and became a chef.’
Illustration by Rebecca Buckland
HIS FAMILY CONNECTIONS got him work — albeit peeling potatoes — at Mark’s Club in Mayfair. That job saw him working under the man he would later hire as his head chef when he finally owned the Knightsbridge joint. But this wasn’t just a business handed down by Daddy. In 1994, Brasserie St Quentin was sold to the Savoy hotel group before later being sold again to the Chez Gérard chain.
‘It became a tired restaurant,’ reflects Francois, saddened that a place established by his father had lost its old magic. ‘The place was a disaster. The locals deserted it.’
In 2008, having spent a few years learning the cheffing game, Francois put together a small group of investors and bought the lease. ‘For my share I mortgaged a cottage I owned on the estate in Ireland and took a hefty bank loan,’ he says. He came up with a new name and re-opened the place as a modern bistro with a good value menu and a reasonable wine list.
‘Although I have partners, they leave me to run the operation and it has given me the freedom to develop my own concepts and ideas,’ he says. So you’ll spot Francois most days moving around the floor in his dapper dark blue suit, if he hasn’t nipped down to the kitchen to lend a hand. ‘I still cook a bit, and often run the grill section,’ he says. ‘It’s good way to interact with the chefs.’
He’s also pondering the idea of ‘developing the brand’ while actively pursuing another concept with a Spanish chef with the idea of opening a new place in the West End. He’s looking at potential sites, but until that happens Francois will continue to be a familiar face on the Brompton Road. Two doors away is the acclaimed French bistro Racine, and the staff joke that they watch him walk by each morning.
‘He always stops to study our menu,’ one chef there told me. ‘We’re thinking of writing “Good morning Francois” on it.’
Meanwhile, the next time you visit the BB&G to try a veal Holstein, rump of lamb, grilled Dover sole or the sticky toffee pudding, keep your eye on the bar. If there’s a distinguished-looking gentleman sipping his drink and looking proudly over the premises, it’s probably Francois’s old man.
William Sitwell is a contributing editor at Spear’s