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Xavier Marcel Boulestin, the restaurant’s founder

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Boulestin: The Bloomsbury Set and 1920s Culinary Nostalgia

Xavier Marcel Boulestin's French restaurant is still a favourite among literary lovers and anyone with a predilection for oeuf en gelee

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Aspic terrifies me. It’s a shame: somehow both old school — fusty, but good-fusty, like a library’s aged tang — and space-age in its texture, it can’t help but make me think of David Cronenberg, or science-fiction, or the kind of food that’s served in futuristic prisons in bad novels. Soylent green was people, yes; but aspic looks as though it might as well be. Boulestin, a twenties Covent Garden restaurant re-launched several years ago, but best known as one place the literary Bloomsbury Group had long, luxuriously greedy lunch-and-dinner assignations, is a hotspot for the literary diner, and a hotspot for all lovers of oeuf en gelee. Almost half its menu is composed of dishes from its founding decade, though the difference between these and those more recently incorporated isn’t all that stark. Per The Telegraph’s review from 2013, which also notes that Boulestin is “stately”: “many classy things are done to eggs.”

“If anyone had attempted to open this in the 90s,” wrote Jay Rayner in The Observer, “when it was illegal to launch a restaurant which wasn't gargantuan, white-walled and chrome-accessorised or that didn't serve food in hoity-toity towers, everybody would have pointed and laughed. But we are grown-ups now. We value the classics, or at least our version of them.” He described the re-launched version, delightfully, as “a big, sloppy wallow in culinary nostalgia.” I’ve already made my feelings on nostalgia clear when writing about Quaglino’s; I do think, however, that there’s also something to be said in praise of sloppiness. I don’t mean this in the sense of unclean, or unseemly. I am thinking “sloppy” in the sense of homey, and imperfect. The restaurant’s chairs are all upholstered in that very particular sage green I have long associated, for some reason, with a sated after-dinner feeling. It has a chequered floor, like a bistro, but also — to a Brit, at least — a little like a pie and mash shop. There is nothing too chic or too modern about jellied fat or buttered bread. “There are no tablecloths,” the Evening Standard noted. “Apparently, they were a recent sacrifice in a bid to dial down the formality a few notches.”

The restaurant’s founder Xavier Marcel Boulestin, says Rayner was “the sort of man that London had a lot of time for in the 1920s: a taste maker who turned his hand to everything from interior design to writing fiction. From photographs he looks like a chap who could do serious damage to a good bottle of cognac; he was all brilliantined hair and Homburg at a jaunty angle.” He was also in the social circle of Virginia Woolf, for whom he cooked on his first catering job, in his own home, in 1925; the restaurant came a little later, opening in 1927. "I'm full of sanguinity about the future: and thankful to lift the burden onto your back,” Woolf once wrote in a letter to a friend. “Nor can I see myself any reason why we should quarrel…What about a good dinner (not English) at Boulestin or some such place?" Her servant, Mabel, took French cooking lessons at the restaurant: making what resulted sound divinely comforting, Virginia conjures “stews & mashes & deep many-coloured dishes swimming in gravy thick with carrots and onions.”

An archive photograph of the restaurant
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New-York-based writer Sadie Stein — a true Woolf-hound, and the purveyor of an Instagram account that makes the best case for pursuing cosiness, warm décor, and good, unpretentious food that I have yet seen on the literary internet — recorded her own visit to the restaurant in 2015 for Saveur; and unlike me, was not afraid of eating Woolfian aspic. “Food,” she writes, “was integral to Bloomsbury: cocoa and conversation in the evenings, recipes exchanged in letters, and lusty country banquets that thumbed their nose at propriety and didn't spare the garlic. All that talking and talking needed fuel.” (And, about that ouef en gelee, which Stein braved and loved: “A glistening oval of aspic. My spoon unleashes a river of almost shockingly vibrant yolk, sharp with tarragon.”)

It’s true that writing and debating can be hungry work, and while most modern journalists and essayists subsist — as far as I can tell; of course not from experience! — on cheap vodka, cold beer, jellied Haribo and cortisol when on a deadline, there are few things more encouraging or comforting than dinner parties. Several bottles of red wine, a roast bird, other people, crisped potatoes and green salad, one friend with a specific signature dessert, et cetera — or, in the case of Boulestin, a three-course French meal with one’s peers. I’m loathe to sound like someone who might keep a Pinterest board that’s crammed with inspirational self-care memes, mostly as not many people want to share a five-hour dinner with this kind of zealot: but it is important, I think, to take time to take time, and to give your time to others. To take theirs without feeling embarrassed about it.

Prone to sudden, storm-cloud-like depressive jags, I know that living fast and living lonely rarely helps me in the long-term. I know, too, as someone who has previously had a problem with the very fact of eating, that there is real meaning in a meal: in eating socially, allowing it to be restorative and not destructive. I agree with Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Doing all three things well is essential — doing them a little sloppily, instead of minimally and with white plates and chrome cutlery, is very heaven. Maybe I could get used to ouef en gelee.

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