At Chez Elles Bistroquet
Three centuries after the Huguenots arrived, there is a second wave of French immigration to the East End – coming in such large numbers that London is now the sixth biggest French city. The most visible evidence of their presence in Spitalfields is the newly-opened Chez Elles Bistroquet in Brick Lane, so gardening and food writer Patricia Cleveland-Peck went along to pay a visit accompanied by Contributing Photographer Jeremy Freedman and this is their report.
Nadia Brahim and Lili L’Hôte, Chez Elles
It comes as an unexpected joy to find this magical little French restaurant nestling among the curry houses of Brick Lane, but maybe it should not be a surprise because the French – in the shape of the Huguenots – were the earliest wave of immigrants to come to Spitalfields three hundred years ago. Now, in the shape of a pair of glamorous young women, the Gallic presence brings with it something bang up-to-date and very traditional at the same time – a little bistro or bistroquet with an authentic French flavour.
Chez Elles is the creation of Nadia Brahim and Lili L’Hôte, two old friends who came to England eight years ago, working together on the Eurostar train. Drawn to each other, as Nadia confessed to me, “Because we are both food addicts,” they spent time travelling the world together. It was Lili who discovered Spitalfields first and rented the flat on Brick Lane above a curry house that would become their bistroquet. Shortly afterwards Nadia moved in, and – when the curry house closed and the premises became vacant – they decided to seize the opportunity and pursue their dream of opening a restaurant.
“We both worked in the industry,” explained Nadia, dressed with impeccable Gallic chic in a little navy and white spotted frock, her long dark hair tied back with a scarlet scarf, “But of course we had a lot to learn – not only about the business but how to do things the English way.” She handles the administration – the catering and employment regulations, planning permissions etc. No mean feat in a second language, although both girls speak excellent English.
Lili appeared at this point, also prettily dressed in a little white and black dress. She is the one responsible for the charmingly idiosyncratic décor, having studied design at Central St Martin’s School of Art. Attention to detail is apparent everywhere – in the art nouveau floral tiles behind the bar, the old French advertising signs and posters, the lampshades in the form of cages of stuffed birds, the pink plush banquette and the wine map of France chalked onto the big black board – contributing to the joyful and charming ambiance of this sweet little place. There is even a flower-covered wrought iron arbour over one table, creating a perfect discreet bower for amorous liasons.
So what of the food? The menu – as French as a 2CV – comes in a shorter version for lunch and a more copious one for dinner. On offer at lunchtime, we found croques monsieur, omelettes, savory tarts, salads and a plat du jour. I chose soupe à l’oignon gratinée which came with a plenty of cheese in a little pot. It was scrumptious and took me back to those halcyon days when, as a student in Paris, a bowlful was the dawn finale of a good night out. My husband Dennis chose moules marinière which came with delicious crispy thrice-fried frites, a number of which I stole to eat with my smoked herring salad. For pudding, neither of us could resist the crème brulée vanille-pistache – sublime!
Throughout the meal we enjoyed some very-acceptable Sauvignon Blanc, as well as the pleasant feeling of being in a place where people were so obviously enjoying themselves. There were couples, family groups and lone diners. Some were lunching, others enjoying a glass of wine at the bar or simply a cup of coffee. French was being spoken all around us and Nadia revealed that approximately thirty per cent of their clientele is French.
We shall definitely return for the dinner menu which includes some of our all time favourites like beef tartare, lemon sole and confit de canard with, amongst the starters, braised snails, smoked mackerel terrine and a tempting-sounding Planche Campagnard comprising rillettes de canard, terrine de porc, jambonne de Bayonne, rosette and cornichons.
“Where ever possible, food is locally sourced” Nadia assured me. “We try to avoid too many food miles. We want everything as fresh as possible, although” she added earnestly, “certain products just have to come from France.”
Establishing a restaurant is by no means easy these days and, even if these girls make it appear effortless, it is obvious that an enormous amount of efficient organisation and hard work have gone into the creation – and are required for the day to day running – of Chez Elles. In this respect, Nadia and Lili are living up to the reputation of those former skilled and industrious residents of the neighbourhood, the Huguenots.
“We were also surprised to learn that the French are now returning to Spitalfields, because it used to be South Kensington,” admitted Nadia, “but, in recent years, French people have rediscovered this district.”
At Chez Elles, the French can feel at home along with the rest of us, enjoying authentic French cuisine with all the added benefits that Spitalfields has to offer.
(A meal will cost around £30.00 plus drinks and service.)
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Chez Elles Bistroquet, 45 Brick Lane, E1 6PU.
You may like to read about Patricia Cleveland-Peck’s horticultural endeavours
and this article by Patricia Cleveland-Peck