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Bonjour, London

Young French chefs are crossing the English Channel in search of stardom.

It used to be that to eat well in London, you went to an Italian restaurant or maybe an Indian restaurant, and you steered clear of places where the dishes were spelled or, often, misspelled in French. It was known that at Buckingham Palace the Queen ate à la française, but, except for the cooks at several three-star restaurants, the English distrusted French chefs who dared cross the Channel--until now.

Spurred on by Britain's strong economy, a new generation of French chefs is finding success in London. They started their careers expecting a slow rise through the hierarchical French apprentice system. But when they saw opportunity, they headed for England, where, freed from the bureaucracy of French kitchens, they made quicker progress. Now they are opening their own restaurants and creating a cuisine that is not easy to find in France itself. The English call it fusion, since much of it has an Asian touch. Americans might see a resemblance to California cuisine in the emphasis on fresh local ingredients; indeed, this style of cooking reminds me more of the food in San Francisco, where I live half the year, than it does of the food in Paris, where I spend the rest of my time. Yet in its somewhat baroque inventiveness, it's unique in its own right.

Many of the French chefs in London run spare, big, modern, crowded and wonderfully smart restaurants. Telegenic Jean-Christophe Novelli, 37, who has been cooking in England for 15 years, is so well known that fans stop him in the street. After growing up poor in the French town of Arras, he apprenticed with a baker, then began working at restaurants. Something of a male Cinderella, he was mixing salads at a hotel in Paris when he attracted the notice of a Rothschild and became the family's private chef. When they left town, he headed across the Channel. After working at restaurants in southern England (and earning a Michelin star along the way) he finally made it to London, where he became a celebrity at the Four Seasons Hotel. When he opened Maison Novelli in 1996, the restaurant didn't have a sign--he couldn't afford one. But within three months it had a Michelin star. Novelli now has six restaurants, including Novelli EC1, Novelli W8 and Les Saveurs de Jean-Christophe Novelli (W1).

I decided to visit Maison Novelli (29 Clerkenwell Green; 0171-251-6606), in an up-and-coming area of East London. In one direction you can see a charming village, in the other the giant new Merrill Lynch building. The food combines British ingredients, which can be superb, in ways that might not go over in tradition-minded France: how about mackerel escabèche on arugula with saffron, coriander seed oil and beet juice? A terrine of pork knuckle with cured foie gras and artichokes is sober and delicious. Ditto an artful presentation of roasted quail with poached eggs, potatoes, lentils and morels.

The Michelin-starred Chavot (257-259 Fulham Rd.; 0171-351-7823), co-owned by the 31-year-old chef Eric Chavot, is more Parisian in ambiance: it's intimate, sophisticated and understated. The food is refined, based on the techniques that Chavot learned at London's venerable La Tante Claire. But Chavot has a light touch and a more international orientation. I started one meal with a foie gras and endive tart, another with a mushroom risotto. Main courses include a terrific rump of lamb with braised root vegetables. The prix-fixe lunch at Chavot, I should add, is a bargain at $30 for three courses, with modestly priced wines to match.

For the 44-year-old chef Christian Delteil, Bank (1 Kingsway; 0171-379-9797) has been a meteoric success. The restaurant, in a remodeled bank building at the edge of the opera district, is painted in bright primary colors, with glittery glass panes suspended rather scarily from the ceiling. Delteil presents familiar ingredients in cross-cultural combinations: there's Baltic herring with Swedish mustard and new potatoes, fried chicken with shrimp spring rolls, terrine of foie gras with fig jam. The kitchen staff is mostly French, and you can watch them dash about in the open kitchen. Many of the waiters, too, are French. "The English don't seem to like this job," one waiter remarked. "I don't know why--it's a good job." In addition to stockbrokers and theatergoers, Bank attracts a literary crowd; on my first visit I saw the writers Margaret Drabble and Alison Lurie.

Coast (26B Albemarle St.; 0171-495-5999) has its own star in Bruno Loubet, the executive chef who oversees its menu. (Adam Gray, an Englishman, runs the kitchen.) The 36-year-old Loubet had already made his name at the Four Seasons Hotel and the more casual Bistrot Bruno. Today he's the culinary force behind Mash and the Atlantic Bar & Grill, but Coast is his biggest triumph so far: in a poll taken by London's influential Time Out magazine, it edged out Bank as Best Large Restaurant of 1998. Celadon walls transform a converted car showroom in Mayfair. The food is exquisite, with such dishes as pigeon and beet bouillon--a very complex cold jellied borscht--with crème fraîche and caviar. Even dishes that sound odd are delicious, like a saffron-scented lamb pot roast, which comes with a goat-cheese-risotto cake topped by an olive and red pepper sauce. In America we've been seeing this kind of manic inventiveness for a while; for the English it's thrilling, and they show their appreciation by dining at these new restaurants in droves.

DIANE JOHNSON is the author of  Le Divorce (Penguin Putnam), which was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction last year.

Published October 1998
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