A spot of French leave

LA TOUR D'ARGENT: 15 quai de la Tournelle, Paris 5. Tel: 0101 331 43 26 49 39. Open every day but Monday for lunch and dinner. Three-course set lunch, about £47; la carte dinner around £125. All credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
LA TOUR d'Argent is one of France's oldest and poshest restaurants, with three Michelin stars, an entire canteenful of red Michelin knife- and-fork symbols, and sixth-floor plate-glass windows overlooking Ntre Dame. By the time we sat down we were in such a state of over-stimulated panic that I had to go immediately to the Dames to compose myself. I was accompanied on the first leg of the journey by a silent waiter, smoothly picked up like a relay baton by another, then another, so that I started to worry that I was going to be followed right into the cubicle by a member of staff in full evening dress holding out a crossword. Instead, next to a 2ft high bottle of eau de Cologne, there was an agitated Japanese woman doing deep breathing exercises in a sheepskin chair.

It is very much the thing just now to make an occasion out of a first trip through the Chunnel, perhaps doing something absolutely mad like going to Paris for some hugely OTT lunch. Then, in years to come, when the entire Channel is concreted over, you can bore your grandchildren about your trip then bung them a 5 million-ecu note for some bonbons.

La Tour d'Argent - which translates, appropriately, as the Tower of Money - is a suitably once-in-a-lifetime choice. La Tour offers a set lunch for Fr375 (about £47) including service, which, although quite a big pile of money, is an Eiffel Tower compared to the World Trade Centre you might pay for an la carte dinner.

To board a train at Waterloo and disembark three hours later in the heart of Paris is an overwhelming experience. All you do at the glamorous Waterloo International terminal is stick your ticket in a barrier, as if you were getting on the Tube, put your bag through the X-ray, make your way through crowds of ex-Yuppies in huge overcoats greeting each other and complaining about the queues in the newsagents, then up an escalator and on to the train. (A weekend return, booked two weeks ahead, is just £84.)

Two keynote train points must be made: 1 Just beyond Clapham, French customs men appear in the aisle without so much as a by your leave, asking to see your passports; 2 All that happens when you enter the tunnel is an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now entering the Channel Tunnel. Please adjust your watches." Then everyone catches their breath and it simply goes dark outside for 20 minutes. There are no lifejacket demonstrations, no little animals trotting along in the opposite direction, foaming at the mouth, no terrorists in balaclavas, no sea water dribbling down the walls. Next, you pop out in France and suddenly start zooming along at three times the speed that seems sensible for a train. The woman in front of us, who spent the entire journey reading out of a guide book at the top of her voice, bellowed, "Oh I say, voil La Belle France!" and that was it. We were, at last, proper Europeans.

Arriving at the Gare du Nord, you feel as if you've travelled to Leeds, yet 15 minutes later you are emerging from the Mtro on the banks of the Seine. A dream-like stroll past the Ile de la Cit brings you to the restaurant, which has stood on the quai de la Tournelle since 1582. Still in shock, we were escorted past vast flower arrangements and a suit of armour festooned with glass ducks by the relay team of waiters, one of whom had exactly the same job as a rope in a stately home, standing perfectly still to stop you going the wrong way.

We emerged, blinking, from a marbled lift into bright sunlight streaming in through two walls of windows which gave on to the pinky-grey Parisian skyline. There were golden crests on the deep blue carpet, chandeliers, oil paintings, an ancient fireplace, cooks griddling away on a little stage. There were slightly more Japanese diners than smart French families and, it seemed, slightly more waiters than diners, hovering, quivering and regrouping like wasps.

The Tour d'Argent has one of the best wine cellars in the world. The list was twice the size of a hardback road atlas. My companion had been psyching himself up for ordering for some days. Happily, the set lunch menu included a specially chosen selection. We plumped for a 1989 Petit Chablis at a comparatively modest Fr190 (£24), and tucked ourselves expectantly under crisp serviettes the size of bath towels, sipping nervously from silvery water goblets so chilled that we spent the entire meal pretending they were stuck to our lips.

It was hard to imagine what artistry could make a restaurant's cooking so legendary. Perhaps we would be offered tiny replicas of Ntre Dame sculpted out of foie gras, confit of blue-tit or pan-fried seahorse in its piranha fish cage. Picture our surprise, then, when my friend's starter, a pheasant and guinea fowl tart, arrived looking like a big meat pie with gravy. The Tour d'Argent belongs to a traditional, rather meaty school of cookery where there is no need to show off because you are very, very good at absolutely everything. "It's very nice, really," said my friend. My own, and I translate (darlings, I'm practically bilingual) "little swim" of oysters and shellfish was foaming lightly like caf-au-lait. Funnily enough, it was not the perfection of the oysters - which would have flounced out at the mere whisper of the word rubber - that got to us, but a confit of leek of startling deliciousness.

We bypassed the celebrated Duck Tour d'Argent (which would add £20 to the bill), and spat indignantly at the notion of veal. I went for the radiant simplicity of lamb with a white bean pure and my friend for baked turbot with squid and deep-fried herbs. "Really very nice," he said. Dessert items were plentiful and perfect. My chocolate and hazelnut souffl was pleasingly big: light and springy round the edges and oozing in the centre with a confidence verging on bravado. My friend went for apple crpes with an orange zabaglione sauce which were very good, they really were. A plate offering a French cake shop in miniature followed swiftly, only to be joined by another plate of truffles with the coffee, just in case we were still hungry.

It had all been lovely - a once-in-a-lifetime experience indeed, if teetering on the brink of Grand French Restaurant theme park. But as we turned for the bill and found the waiter behind us, suppressing nervous giggles, we completely understood. It wasn't the price: £130 for two, including wine, coffee and service, seemed fair, given the circumstances. It's just that we wouldn't have been in the tiniest bit surprised if the entire clientele had suddenly joined in.