St Germain comes to St John’s Wood with this bistro from The Wolseley Hospitality Group, some of the most well-respected restaurateurs in London. The team here have been providing stage sets for fashionable Londoners since reviving Theatreland classics The Ivy and J Sheekey in the 1990s. In the 2000s, their restaurants have split into the Mitteleuropa-themed grand cafés of The Wolseley, The Delaunay and Fishers and the fin-de-siècle French fancies of Colbert and Brasserie Zédel.
Soutine, named after the expressionist artist with a fondness for painting chefs and waiters, is very much in the French-speaking camp and should fill the hole left in north London by the closure of Corbin and King’s Bellanger in Islington.
Soutine replaces a branch of Carluccio’s, but you’d never know it from the swirls of lavish art nouveau styling. The large site has been recreated as the sort of left-bank bistro that Degas’ absinthe drinker might pop in for a pick-me-up, if only she could get a seat.
Try and get a table in the front room which, with its wraparound windows and horseshoe banquettes, is a far more appealing prospect than the skylit dining room behind. Wherever you sit, though, expect to be on first-name terms with your neighbours by the end of your meal – this is not somewhere to come for privacy.
The kitchen sends out well-executed versions of classic French bistro fare interspersed with British comfort food. Fine de Claire oysters are pepped up with shallot vinegar, garlicky escargots come by the half or full dozen, with good bread to soak up the herb butter, firm-fleshed coq au Riesling is served in a cast-iron pot with creamy sauce while haddock goujons are fried in crisp golden breadcrumbs and presented in a cone of greaseproof paper.
To finish, there’s banana split with a jug of chocolate sauce for pouring and an individual Black Forest gateau, boozed up on kirsch and topped with a splodge of cherry jam encircled with eight peaks of stiff cream. To drink, around half the French wine list is available by the glass, while elegant cocktails are sent out from behind the the polished wood bar.
Breakfast is more British – sausage sandwich, Arbroath smokies – though a croissant au beurre with a café au lait or pain au raisin with a chocolat chaud would be très on theme.
There’s nothing ground-breaking on offer at Soutine, just an idealised version of a French bistro serving the sort of well-priced food that most people love eating served by staff who know what they’re doing. It is, though, already the best place to eat on St John’s Wood High Street – and a no-brainer if you’re going to the cricket at Lord’s. Just remember to book.