I have been travelling so much recently I’ve failed to take in the recent gaps in businesses that are appearing in Farnham and what, with luck, they may mean for Surrey’s restaurant scene. I can tell you about the hippest places to eat in Istanbul and Cappadocia, and incredible Michelin-starred food in Morocco and Mallorca. But when it comes to my own doorstep there’s not much I could tell you. Not until now.
Farnham is a pretty and historic market town, its elegant Georgian architecture saved from 1950s destruction by businessman and early conservationist Charles Borelli. But a gastronomic haven it is not. Aside from the usual litany of voucher-driven chains and a handful of Indian restaurants of varying quality (The Mahaan being the most stylish and consistent), it has little to offer. If you dare to eat after 9pm the choices reduce exponentially as the clock approaches 10. Café Rouge has been known to turn customers away before 9pm (and if you do dine ‘late’, expect Piaf to be accompanied by enthusiastic chair stacking, cutlery clattering, and much squirting of disinfectant). ‘French restaurant’? Non. It’s a pity. Such a great location warrants so much more.
Somehow the veteran Vienna Restaurant & Wine Bar continues to trade. Theory therefore dictates it must be doing something right, but quite what that is eludes me. The last time I dined (admittedly some time ago) I found it overpriced and under par, the crab cakes easily ranking among the most tasteless I’ve eaten and the meal as a whole far short of its smart starched linen table settings. I will not mention The Colony. Unless you have a weakness for greasy, lack-lustre food, are starving and/or inebriated, or have no respect for Chinese cuisine do not set foot inside the door. If you do, you will also pay an utterly inappropriate service charge to staff more interested in feeding themselves than you. Seriously. They have a quaint tradition of sharing evening meals together in-house, but if you’re unlucky may break off to show you to a table.
Conversely, I’m unable to pass by The Bishop’s Table Hotel, which until earlier this year housed Gavin Young’s Bistro 27, without pangs of longing for his superbly fresh and exquisitely cooked Cornish bouillabaisse. Sadly, the restaurant lasted little more than 12 months. Locals I suspect preferred Côte’s more Conservative formula, and despite the Bistro’s newly refurbished restaurant space, the hotel’s visible ecclesiastical association (please, retire the bishop to the garden) and more peripheral location didn’t do it any favours. Farnham’s loss is surely Reading’s gain since Gavin returned to Forburys.
What Farnham desperately needs is a proper, grownup, stylish but relaxed restaurant for people who don’t go to bed at 9pm. No Michelin stars required. Just good food, done well, accompanied by intelligent, friendly service from staff who actually understand hospitality. If that food happens to be French, so much the better. If the man behind the food is Raymond Blanc, it can only be a good thing. So yesterday, while making a dash across Castle Street on the way to the hairdressers, I jumped for joy at the planning application notice in the window of No 5.
The three-storey redbrick will soon be home to Brasserie Blanc Farnham, due to open early next year. 2012 has been a year of incredible expansion for the Brasserie Blanc group, seeing no fewer than four new openings to date, with two more due to open shortly in London’s Charlotte Street and St Albans, in all bringing the total number of restaurants to 20.
Brasserie Blanc’s dishes are created by Raymond with many inspired by his mother, the legendary Maman Blanc, with Clive Fretwell, the group’s executive chef and former head chef at the iconic Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons overseesing the kitchens. The aim is to provide accessible, unpretentious French food using sustainable, high-quality ingredients at a reasonable price. A champion of organic and sustainable food in the UK for the best part of three decades, last week Raymond became the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s first President.
So if you haven’t yet dined chez Brasserie Blanc, would should you expect? In Raymond’s words:
‘I am often asked what a Brasserie Blanc is. Well if the Manoir is a delicate waltz then the Brasseries are the Can Can. For sure, this is not a place for refined haute cuisine and three course meals. Rather, Brasserie Blanc is a place for relaxed enjoyment where I can offer you simple, high quality food that comes as close as possible to the meals that my mother prepared for me at home in Besançon and at a price that encourages you to visit us regularly. The real origins of French brasseries are lost in time and probably in several litres of beer but nowadays in France they are the bastions of good eating and drinking, locally and informally. I want my Brasserie Blancs to be a central part of the local community where you can have fun and enjoy particularly good food. So sit back and relax’
Brasserie Blanc, 5 Castle Street, Farnham GU9 7HR (coming to Farnham soon)