Public House, Paris: ‘A calamitous experience’ – restaurant review

<span>Tant pis: the dining room at Public House, Paris.</span><span>Photograph: Magali Delporte/The Observer</span>
Tant pis: the dining room at Public House, Paris.Photograph: Magali Delporte/The Observer

Public House, 21 rue Daunou, 75002 Paris, France (+33 1 77 37 87 93; Starters €8.50-€19.50; mains €19.50-€36.50; desserts €9-€15; wines from €28

It was a simple plan: hop on the Eurostar to Paris and go for dinner at Public House, a new and audacious restaurant in the 9th arrondissement by pie king Calum Franklin, formerly of the Holborn Dining Room. Its mission: to bring scotch eggs, sausage rolls and the best, most golden, flaky pastry creations to the French. I could then write a sweet observational piece about the bourgeoisie of the Louboutin-shod opera district swooning over steak and ale pies, and adjusting both their corsets and their gastronomic perspective. Behold, the gravy-slicked anglais showing us how to eat. “Donney-moi une autre pie” etc. Because if anybody could do it, if anybody could finally make the French understand the quality and depth of modern British restaurant food, it had to be Franklin. He’s a gifted chef. He’s a lovely man. He literally wrote the book on pies. Go Calum, go.

And then I ate there and, for God’s sake, why can’t life just keep to the bloody script? In the search for small mercies, I could point out that Public House is not a British restaurant. It is owned, run and staffed by French people and only employs a British chef. I could therefore frame this as a disaster solely made in Paris. But none of that nationalistic cobblers mitigates the singed and twisted girders of a calamitous experience. No Calum, no.

On paper, by which I mean on my iPhone screen, it looked like a banker. I have adored following the birth of this project, one shimmering Instagram post at a time: the installation of the candy-coloured tiling, the beautiful carpentry of the bar and flowing staircases, the polished brasswork and mirrored inlays and faux tartan upholstery. Close up, these details are gorgeous. But sitting in the first-floor dining room, squeezed in between a pillar and the looming back of a blonde giant seated at the head of the table three inches from us, taking in the Fanta-orange walls and the bright lighting and the frankly weird faux Scottish references, it all becomes a bit queasy. It’s called Public House but it is not a pub. At best there’s a hint of “pub trying to attract the family crowd”.

Still, here comes the bread basket, filled with thick wedges of sourdough. It is heritage sourdough, in the sense that it is somewhat old. Every piece is dry and stale, a sign that it was sliced up a good while ago. We ask for butter to soften the blow. Twenty minutes later we ask again. Eventually something the size of a 50p piece turns up. Our waiter is clearly less than thrilled at having to deliver it. Then again, the French have long been committed to the maintenance and nurture of their cultural traditions. If that includes offering restaurant service which is to hospitality and warmth what Finland in February is to beach holidays, then so be it.

We start with pig’s head croquettes. They are dense cubes of breadcrumbed and deep-fried braised meat which, like the sourdough, may well have been spectacular a while ago. Instead, they’re tepid and tense, like the last canapés at the party, batch-cooked in advance and set aside to keep up with orders. It’s a bigger problem with the scotch egg, the casing of which is made with boudin noir or black pudding. It, too, is served tepid and, while the egg has a jellied yolk, the outside is cool, raw and even liquid in places, beneath the fried breadcrumbs. We do not finish it.

While dish descriptions are in French, titles are in English so that’s how we order them. We ask for whitebait. We are brought white bean soup. The waiter, who didn’t use a notebook, mutters that he misheard. The whitebait finally arrive and, being cooked to order, are at least hot. We fall upon them hungrily, though in truth they lack crunch. The meagre portion of accompanying anchovy hollandaise quickly runs out.

Alongside fish and chips and sausage and mash there’s a menu section entitled The Pie Room. It’s what I’ve come for. I dream still of the hot pork pie Franklin served at the Holborn Dining Room; of that pastry crackling with animal fats and a deep, generous, gravy-drenched filling. Here, the menu includes a braised beef pie, a dauphinoise and aged cheddar pie and the obvious showstopper, a lobster pie for two at €69. We have to order that. An oval dish arrives, clad in a golden blanket of scored puff, undulating over whatever lies beneath. A lobster head peeks out shyly from one end, the tail from the other. Obviously, the rest of the lobster lies between them.

Or not. We cut in to find huge, almost raw quarters of fennel bulb, turned potatoes and a parsimonious amount of seafood. We push vegetables aside in desperate search of tail meat. It’s Finding Nemo, only without a redemption arc. Added to this, only the surface of the puff case is bronzed. Peel it back and it’s a heavy, beige, unlaundered duvet of raw pastry. It’s that most dismal of combinations: both badly conceived and badly executed. It transpires that, after weeks in Paris, Franklin is not in the kitchen tonight. Had he been, perhaps the pig’s heads croquettes would have been hot and the scotch egg cooked through. The bread might have been fresh. But even if the fennel and pastry hadn’t been raw, this lobster pie would still have been a savage disappointment. The waitress notes the uneaten debris and asks what we think. I say, “Not much lobster.” She nods. “That’s what I said to the chef. But we’re going to have a new menu in a month, hopefully.”

Like kids who have had a rotten day at school we take consolation in a do-it-yourself ice-cream sundae built from a cheery checklist, and a sturdy sticky toffee pudding. The wine list is 85% French, with a few bottles from other countries. None of those countries are the UK. It’s an odd call for a restaurant which has “British Brasserie” slapped across the front, given the quality of British wines. There are going to be many people in London’s restaurant and food world who will be dismayed and perhaps even angry that a Calum Franklin restaurant has received such a review. One of those people is me. But to stay silent after such a dreadful experience would have been its own kind of dishonesty. In a few months the British Olympic team arrives in Paris. I hope they fare better.

News bites

Thousands of bikers are coming together on 8 June for a ride in memory of Dave Myers, the Hairy Biker who died in February. The ride will be led by Dave’s lifelong friend and onscreen Hairy Biker partner Si King and will follow a route from London to Dave’s hometown of Barrow-in-Furness. There will be various stops along the way for any non-bikers who want to be a part of the festivities, including at the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull, which is promoting the ride. The day will end with a concert at the rugby club in Barrow-in-Furness with funds being raised for the NSPCC and the Institute for Cancer Research. Find out more here

The resurgence of restaurants serving French classics continues with the opening by chef Anthony Demetre of a more casual offering to go alongside the now Michelin-starred Wild Honey at the Sofitel Hotel in London’s St James’s. Bistrot at Wild Honey serves a menu of fish soup, pâté en croûte and steak frites with peppercorn sauce followed by a chocolate delice or Paris-Brest. Find the full menu here.

According to a report in the Times, a secondary market is developing in hard-to-get tables, an issue which has already arisen in New York and San Francisco and has now arrived in London. Much like gig ticket touts, scalpers are using online booking platforms to grab hot reservations, which are then offered for resale. According to the Times, a table this month at the Michelin two-star Indian restaurant Gymkhana was being offered for £256, while at the Michelin three-star Core by Clare Smyth it was £408. These costs are obviously before anything has been consumed.

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