David Adamson goes all Gallic en Southport

Before England was up to its gills in ceviche and A5 wagyu beef, the grand papa of 'going out for something to eat' was definitely French cuisine. 

We tended to lean resentfully on our near-neighbours whenever we fancied going somewhere, well, fancy. And while we'd never admit it out loud, what the hordes from Normany and beyond brought to English restaurants post-war dragged us from the suety mire we found ourselves in.

Take my Gorton-born Grandad, Brian (b.1939), a man for whom knocking up a coquille saint-jacques is and has been for some time, to put it simply, a piece of piss. But it wasn't always this way - his natty, long coverless copy of French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David (pub.1960) betraying a time when he was led by the hand through your tarte tatins, your coq au vin, your bouillabaisse

But somewhere between then and now French cuisine and the near-papal machinery around it has seen its star rise so high that we look up at it, much like Manchester this month, as an angry vengeful god ruling whether this mother sauce is maternal enough, or that roux stirred in a figure-eight motion.

But outside of three-fork restaurants, this isn’t really French cooking. It’s much closer to what you’ll find at Bistrot Vérité.

2023 02 14 Bistrot Verite Exterior
Bistrot Vérité Image: Confidentials

My 5.45pm table, the only one available that evening, should tell you how popular this place is, and by the time I'd finished looking at the menu the remaining tables were full. The driving rain did make the warm confines of the restaurant extra appealing, you can see why they'd hunker in here for the night. 

I decided to dive into the Frenchness of the thing and go for the full cliché - it's their word after all. That left only one thing to begin with, or, in fact, two - snails and frogs' legs. 

The snails with garlic butter (three for £6) were so gorgeously garlicky that I was sure I'd get the train carriage home all to myself. For me it's one of those ingredients that can be piled into a dish with a certain amount of abandon - can something be too garlicky? Yes, but it takes some doing in my book. This dish pushed it to the perfect extent, infusing a deep earthy fragrance, along with the herby tilt of the parsley, to a decadent butter. The bread took a battering.

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Snails with garlic butter Image: Confidentials

The next gastronomic ghost to be exorcised was frogs' legs with garlic mayonnaise (four for £5). I've mentioned before my love for all things battered, and I'm pleased to say that after eating these I still stand by it. There may be more of a mental hurdle to clear for some here, especially when the batter has fallen away and you're left with, that's right; frogs' legs. But clear that hurdle and you're treated to a delightful dish that's been around for hundreds of years. These far more than 'taste like chicken', although if you need some culinary armbands before diving into the unknown, they do a bit.

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Frogs' legs with garlic mayonnaise Image: Confidentials

The array of main courses take in all you would hope for from a French bistrot - roast chicken with braised leeks, calves liver with pernod, the obligatory chateaubriand - but when the specials grab you before the server has even finished their sentence that's probably a sign that you should go for it. 

The special was sea bream with langoustine velouté, vegetables and sauteed potatoes (£20). The simplest of dishes are often the best, and this was delightful. The bream was perfectly seasoned - even for someone who smokes like a Frenchman. It was golden at the edges without dragging the flavour out to the margins of a fish that, being a subtle and delicate kind, deserves subtle and delicate care. 

The velouté had the deep tang of a sauce that's made use of the most flavourful part of the langoustine - the brains. The taste was deep enough that you'd be forgiven for thinking there was something of the mammal variety lending to the stock in some way. But no, the sea is much deeper. The tell-tale bubbles remained, a good sign of a well-made sauce. 

The vegetables were green beans, carrots and green cabbage, you know, like those ones your gran boiled into nonexistence in your childhood, but really not.

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Sea bream with langoustine velouté Image: Confidentials

There surely has to be some wine, and so I valiantly ordered a bottle of the Alain Mecon Chardonnay (£27), on the more golden end of the spectrum rather than the slightly see-through options from elsewhere. This had all the notes of a well-chosen Chardonnay (by them, not me. But also me). It was crisp by not dry, sweet but not saccharine, and the reason that when you want an involving white wine the French do it better than most. 

I pushed on to dessert, and really it could only be one thing. What Proustian delight does your mind travel to when I say crème brûlée? Well it was that. Beautifully executed. You have to body slam your spoon through the caramelised sugar, and the crème is delicate, nearly daffodil yellow, and wonderfully sleep-inducing. Order an espresso with it. 

2023 02 14 Bistrot Verite Creme Brulee
Crème brûlée Image: Confidentials

The service is in that now rather unfashionable style of having waiting staff, from the heads and maître d' to the college-age servers, dressed in starch white shirts and waistcoats, observing all the classical moves. It may be a bit of another age, but I'm all for it - this is as much a trade to be learned as tiling or knocking up a patio.  The decor of the place is unsurprisingly tasteful. You could argue that it needs a touch more decoration on the walls but overstating it wouldn't be very French now would it? Refined but ramshackle is the way to do it, and Bistrot Vérité does it well. That said, lounge versions of popular songs playing is a tad vanilla for me. Give me Gallic blasts of France's greatest, grubbiest export Serge Gainsbourg to balance out the belle epoque-ness of it all.

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Too much has certainly been made in the past of the Napoleonic march across gastronomy of French cuisine in the last century, but it's no doubt been distinctly uncool in the previous decade, unfairly in my view. There's a reason it's endured, and Bistrot Vérité sings about it to a sonorous Piaf pitch.

Bistrot Vérité, 7 Liverpool Road, Birkdale Village, Southport, PR8 4AR

  • Food 8.5/10

    Snails with garlic butter 8.5, crispy frogs legs 7.5, Sea bream with langoustine veloute 8.5, Creme brulee 8.5

  • Service 4/5

    Very attentive without being oppressive

  • Ambience 4/5

    A low-lit, relaxed bistro atmosphere is very pleasurable, but maybe less of the lounge music.