The first thing I thought of when I came across Big Fernand’s hamburgés concept
There’s something quite incongruous about bringing the flambéd heights of French cuisine down to the level of fast food. Especially here in London, where opening such a restaurant means jumping into the fray with those dead-eyed imbeciles at Shake Shack who ambush customers in the queue with several stages of exuberantly pointless questions like ‘have you done this before?!’ and ‘Are you having a shake shack day?!
According to my Parisian-born girlfriend, the French have been very much slower to embrace the burger’s elevation than we have – for a long time they were simply equated with McDonald’s, cheap wine and flat heels
Elisa’s disavowed herself of Parisian snobbery – she was born there, started a cooking course and then, after a particularly vicious encounter with a pastry chef, escaped (with only a small selection of her student silverware). For her the rise of Big Fernand is a sign things might have moved on.
They’ve found big success in Paris, with several branches and queues of hungry feasters along the boulevards (there’s even an app, apparently?) Now it’s crossed the channel and there’s plenty of reasons it’ll stand up to the competition here.
For a start It’s an amusingly masculine affair. You enter next to a long row of grill chefs in plaid shirts and farmer caps sweating like oarsmen and swearing to each other in French. Even the menu items are each ascribed their own Frenchman’s name: the eponymous Big Fernand to the chicken Philibert and the lamb Alphonse. For a place that specialises in one thing, there’s an impressive amount of choice on offer. Meanwhile the interior manages to be modern and yet evoke some sort of rustic French market, the smells of which surround you.
A young manager with an outrageously friendly demeanor called Mathieu bounces over to explain just how at-your-service they are. Customisability is a feature they introduced for the English audience. Flip over the menu and you see that they’re willing to let you override their carefully chosen combinations with your own choice of French-sourced meat, cheese, vegetables, herbs and sauces.
I opt for the veal, which to my chagrin can’t be cooked ‘Blue Rare’ for health reasons, while Elisa picks the beefy Bartholome. We both swap out our cheeses for my street-market favourite, raclette.
Mathieu brings us a couple of bottles of a flavourless blonde organic beer called Jade, which he assures us won’t overpower the meat. Then he bounds off to help another table and smiles over to us from time to time. He wouldn’t get far in Paris with that attitude, Elisa comments, impressed.
Their ambitions to outdo the best of London’s burgers are plastered on the walls in a 10-commandment manifesto, presumably having appeared to the founders in some sort of religious dream. Fast cooking times, fresh French bread and only the finest suckled meats are promised. My favourite is Commandment trois: “THE FRENCH FRIES WILL BE HOMEMADE CUT AND PILLED (peeled?) IN HOUSE EVERY DAY. TOO SALTY OR TOO MANY PIECES? REVOLT! WE WILL CHANGE YOUR FERNANDINES”.
Sure enough, the food arrives in a matter of minutes and it is cooked to absolute perfection. The bun is soft and giving, the veal is smooth and juicy, and the raclette’s nutty, fruity flavour chimes so perfectly with the caramelised onions that I die several petits morts before I realise Elisa’s watching me with a rather confused expression.
The freedom fries are exceptional, too – seasoned with ample salt and paprika, they’d be more than edible on their own, but they’re supplied with three separate sauces, a fantastic touch – mayonnaise, BBQ and a ‘cocktail’ that’s somewhere in between the other two and has a sharp tangy flavour which most of my fries end up in.
In my search for the toilets I go up a spindly metal staircase leading up to a room. It’s an entirely more domestic atmosphere, with couches, coffee tables and books. I’m told it’ll soon be available for any functions and Jean de Florette-themed dinner parties, and at this point it’s making my top list of destinations for a spontaneous public food-nap.
Eventually though we leave, raclette heavy on our breath, to a Napoleonic broadside of goodbyes from the grill. As we step through the door, one of them shouts See you tomorrow! How very charming. It took a fast food restaurant to remind me what I love most about French cuisine.
19 Percy St
Tel: 020 7813 2586