Eating Out: Living the high life chez Che

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The Independent Culture

23 St James's Street, London SW1. Tel: 0171 747 9380 Bar and cigar lounge open 11am-11pm, Mon-Fri, and 5-11pm Sat. Restaurant open for lunch noon-3pm, Mon-Fri; for dinner, 5.30-11.30pm, Mon-Sat. Average price per head, pounds 35 without drinks. Two wine lists: Fine-Dining, and Fifty Under pounds 50. Credit cards accepted

THERE'S A certain point beyond which restaurants aren't about food. They're about money and the show of power. Hey, look what I can afford to put in my mouth! Arms dealers. Dodgy entrepreneurs. Maundering old men growing grumpy and slow-witted as they try to retain a vestige of control over their sometime mistresses.

It's a tough call, though. Sometimes you find a restaurant that looks as though it should be about money and power, but isn't.

Che is such a place. Yes indeed, when the bill comes it spins you round and splits you up the mainseam, but any restaurant where a 1961 Hermitage la Chapelle at pounds 4,895 seems like a reasonable choice has gone way beyond money. Instead, you're in a gastronomic fairyland, an oenophiliac Saturnalia where the air is jangling with dulcimers and the laws do not run.

It's therefore appropriate that Che occupies the old Barclay's Bank premises in the Economist building. The ground floor is given over to a sleek modern bar and, down a few stairs, a shady divan where bad men suck on big Havanas, slyly aware that Slick Willy's mythopoeic incontinence has relocated the cigar forever. Up the escalator is the restaurant proper: a vast, high, coolly modern room with tables far enough apart that even the harshest of seductions or the bitterest of ordnance deals cannot impinge on one's privacy. Lousy music, though. All music is lousy in restaurants. We don't want it. It's common. Can it.

Then they bring you the wine list, and it's the sort of wine list that makes you feel that ordering a bottle of Roederer non-vintage at pounds 47.50 - about the cheapest wine to be had that night - is an act of astonishing parsimony and that the next step will be growing huge boots and red knobbly hands and bad teeth and an accent. Wonders unfold, page after page: an `82 Beychevelle, a `45 Mouton-Rothschild, a `66 Petrus, a `69 La Tache, so that tears spring to the eyes and you start wishing you'd not listened to what your mother said, but become a stony-eyed cocaine dealer with a wad of untraceable notes. And then you start wondering who the hell can afford to romp in this oenophiliac paradise. Flat-eyed Japanese bankers, riding out the recession, possessing the taste-buds of the raw fish on which they were trained? Dodgy characters with trousers the wrong length? Who? Looking around doesn't help. You can't tell. Young-ish, made it themselves I'd guess, all pretty happy. As they should be.

I imagine there are plenty of chefs who would be intimidated or at least inhibited by having to cook against such an astounding wine-cellar, but Jim Scurby (late of The Square) has risen to the challenge, not by going head-to-head with the opulence of the wine list but by complementing it with a lightness of touch, more Armani than Hunstman of Savile Row, but with a real sensual depth. His antipasti make you realise that, if they were rare, potatoes would be one of the world's great delicacies, and his musky shrimp lasagna is a whole space-time dimension away from the pointless, tasteless splod of waterworms more usually on offer.

Then a partridge. The classic French trial of a chef is a simple roast chicken, but game is a better test; get it just a gnat's-breath wrong and it can mutate into plague-pit corruption or a Hush Puppy. This one, though, was done to the Platonic perfection of which all other partridges are mere imperfect copies, and dished up with butch poitrine fumee, chestnuts and the fashionable, slightly sticky reduction which I suspect is going to get tiresome a couple of years from now, like Gordon Brown or kitten-heel shoes. As for my companion, scallops, she had; a greedy woman, but reduced to positive languor, my dears, so soft and lubricious were they, clad in their Rigby & Peller pancetta and artichoke, that you really needed to keep your teeth out of the way and, once you'd finished, ask them how it was for them.

Puddings were a weak spot. You can't really foul up a sticky toffee pudding, it being a Monica food: as long as it's moist, sweet and enthusiastic, it'll do the trick. But the Gateau Opera was more Starr than Lewinsky: determinedly dry, unsympathetic, curiously parasitical, and left on the plate as it deserved.

And then the bill. It ... no, let me first say I liked Che and feel immensely well-disposed towards it. The owner, a Mr Farsi, is but 30 years old, and mentioned that he had enjoyed a bottle of the near-as-dammit pounds 5,000 Mouton-Rothschild with his Christmas lunch. Manager John Davy's staff are young, enthusiastic, and appear to thoroughly like each other; certainly the service is both affable and unobtrusively efficient. The head sommelier, Tim McLaughlin- Green, has built one of the most remarkable wine lists in London, with the benefit of access to Mr Farsi's own cellar for some of the more astounding rarities, and, what's more, had the excellent good taste to give me a free glass of Croft `45 port, seeing that it had been decanted anyway: an astounding wine of a depth which had me reaching for the perfumers' vocabulary, galbanum and myrrh and gentle, caressing coumarin ... and how oddly moving that there they were, out in Oporto, the war grinding to its end and Europe in ruins, still laying down the port in the hope that things would get back together again.

But still, and even given the New Year's Eve bonuses like the Excelsior Brass Band parading round the room on the stroke of midnight, and the squeakers and the party-poppers and the free black plastic bowler (chaps) or `20s feather headband (dames), I couldn't help wondering who would happily shell out two hundred and seventy one pounds thirteen pence (of which pounds 30.13 was service charge) for two dinners (albeit damn fine ones) and a bottle of non-vintage Champagne. Are they people who just aren't concerned about the money? People who are only concerned about the money, with the food as a sort of delivery-vehicle for a financial warhead? People who know the Receiver in Bankruptcy will be calling any day now, and are determined to go down in style? Don't know. What I do know is that lunch the next day was dim sum at the New World Restaurant. pounds 10.50 for two. Very good, and did I yearn to be back at Che? Well, actually, yes I did.