I used to live near Hoxton, many years ago, before it was gentrified. I remember when just mentioning its name elicited a giddy thrill of horror amongst polite people; one friend of mine, unironically, told me that I was ‘very brave’ for going there, unchaperoned, after dark. How times change. Now, it’s no longer the epicentre for all things trendy and sophisticated, but it’s also crawling with top-notch bars and restaurants. And they don’t get a lot better than Petit Pois, a take on a traditional French bistro that serves up food as good as you’ll find anywhere round here.
A step back. The origins of Petit Pois lie in Happiness Forgets, a much-lauded bar from top bartender Alastair Burgess that occupies a cellar space beneath the restaurant. The cocktails here are nothing short of legendary, whether you’re trying their take on a martini (dangerously smooth, horribly easy to drink and liable to make you forget who you are if you have too many) or the brilliant penicillin, a whisky-based little darling that will take on its own very special medicinal qualities if a decent number are imbibed. And so Burgess made a very good name for himself, before deciding that it was time to open a restaurant. Working with ‘hot young chef’ (who is indeed hot, and young, and a chef – but the clichés are odious) Chris Smith, the result is both a celebration and deconstruction of French cuisine, working with a short, well-formed menu to come up with some sensational cooking.
Smith has both worked at Michelin-starred restaurants (most notably The Square) and at upmarket burger bars, and so this can be seen as a happy synthesis of the two styles and approaches. The short menu throws up surprises and comforting familiarity cheek by jowl. Starters of blue cheese soufflé and crab croquettes are addictive, even as you begin to hope secretly that they are in fact good for you. (They are not). I’ve never been the biggest fan of pissaladiere, but this is a sensationally good one, served with style and panache. And everything is priced keenly. Burgess makes it a point of honour that anyone can have three courses sans booze in here for no more than £30 a head; a steal for cooking of this calibre.
Main courses represent Smith showing off what he can do on dishes that can so often be wearily generic. Steak frites is just that; the steak is delicious and just tender enough, the chips perfectly crisp and the béarnaise sauce that accompanies it all so unctuous that I’d be tempted to marry it if I could get a wedding licence. It’s that good. My charming dining companion Helena’s sole meuniere was just as nice, although it wasn’t a great chunk of meat and so disqualified from serious consideration. Wine comes by the glass at 125ml measures, and a decent Marsanne was followed by an equally decent Cabernet Franc, with some vigour. Reader, I must confess that I did take more than a glass of each one.
However, all of this is but preamble to the main event. None other than Jay Rayner had emerged, evangelical, in print to shout about the chocolate mousse here, thus attracting a great deal of attention and interest. (The to-capacity dining room on the wet Thursday I visit speaks for itself.) I have now tried the chocolate mousse, and can pronounce it the best I’ve ever eaten. And I have eaten a great deal of chocolate mousse in my time. It is simplicity itself, and delicious beyond belief. If I could return to Petit Pois every day and eat the chocolate mousse, I would. With pleasure.
So, there we are. A much-deserved rave review for a terrific neighbourhood restaurant, if only one was lucky enough to live near Hoxton. And that represents a fairly incredible volte-face from a decade ago. Burgess is said to be planning other restaurants across London. If they’re all as good as this, lucky London.
Petit Pois, 9 Hoxton Square, London N1. For more information, including details of menus, visit www.petitpoisbistro.com.