Eating out: Setting an example

L'Oranger; 5 St James's Street, London, SW1, 0171 839 3774. Lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm. Dinner Mon-Sat 6-10.30pm. Three-course dinner about pounds 33. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU SAID YOU wanted to hit the next food writer who claimed to have discerned a new trend on the restaurant scene, I would have to sympathise. So let me make it quite clear that the pattern I am about to describe is definitely not a trend. It's a phenomenon, OK?

We could call it "Too Many Chefs", but we would probably be in breach of copyright of a new cookery gameshow format. A description more worthy of the new academic discipline that is postmodern, gastro-sociology would be the Culinary Expectation Gulf Paradox. CEGP for short.

The theory behind this is that the pleasure derived from dining out decreases in direct proportion to the rising standards of restaurant food generally. Or, put more bluntly, as restaurant food gets better, punters are having a worse time in restaurants.

It seems to be a paradox, but I honestly believe it to be true. And I have several further tiers to my theory to explain why it is true. Firstly, a brief and grossly simplified recent history of British restaurant food (upper echelon). At the beginning of the Eighties there were five chefs: two Roux brothers, a Mosimann, a Blanc and a Ladenis. Between them they taught dozens of young chefs how to cook serious modern French food, of whom a clutch became the next generation of stars (the names White, Novelli and Ramsay spring to mind). This second generation has itself now spawned a third, even fourth generation of proteges. Result: there are now probably close to 200 chefs running British restaurant kitchens who can trace their tutelage, directly or indirectly, back to the Big Five.

On the plus side, this means that the standards are higher than ever: incompetence and poor quality are simply not tolerated. On the minus side, this family tree has spawned what may be described (again paradoxically) as a mediocrity of excellence.

By this I mean a large number of restaurants producing food of an undeniably high standard which nevertheless, when experienced on a regular basis, tends towards uninspiring homegeneity. And these are restaurants (there must be 50 in London now) which consider pounds 100 for two a low to average spend.

The net result is an increasing clientele of sensation-seeking foodies with sadly jaded palates. Let them loose on the current food scene and, hey presto: the Culinary Expectation Gulf. Each meal out, in some highly hyped new venue, begins with expectations which are rarely matched.

This is, I think, a phenomenon which top chefs are beginning to sense, and fear. The effect on their cooking is predictable. In their excessive zeal for novelty and excitement, chefs have been producing plates overloaded with the dubious fruits of their hyperactive imaginations.

Anyway, I was musing on this theory of mine, in a mildly self-congratulatory way, as I headed off to dine at L'Oranger. I had heard good things about the food, and read that the chef, Kamel Benamar, was a protege of both Gordon Ramsay, and previously the Roux brothers. Surely his food at L'Oranger would illustrate my point most neatly?

How disappointed I was to be. As a theorist, you understand, not as a diner. Benamar's menu is characterised by a refreshing simplicity. Starters are largely classic in form - a soup, a salad, a tartlette, a terrine - with twists that are more tasteful than boastful. My starter of cured fillet of mackerel with a tomato vinaigrette was unimprovable - the fish sweet, suggesting the gravad-style cure had hit it when it was still superfresh, and the tomato cutting it nicely. I can't remember when I last had a starter in a restaurant of this calibre that comprised only two elements. Marie had a salt cod and potato tartlet, a pleasantly peasanty affair, made greedy with a touch of cream, and offset with a concasse of fresh chopped tomatoes and shallots.

Main course fishes and meats arrive with fresh seasonal vegetables, imaginatively but not over-elaborately prepared. There is the odd wrapping and stuffing, but most of the meat and fish stand unadulterated. In choosing a fillet of her favourite fish, John Dory, Marie risked repetition as it came with "crushed potato and tomato". But the fish was spot on, the potato and tomato a lovely, garlicky exercise in homey Provencal comfort. I had what may have been the most "processed" main course: braised pig's cheek, shredded, and wrapped, faggot-style, in caul fat. It was the least successful dish, but I still enjoyed it.

Even at dessert, the temptation to embellish has been stoutly resisted; the raspberry sable with vanilla ice-cream was simple and well done - no mint leaf, no piped chocolate squiggles.

So does L'Oranger put paid to my theory? Certainly not. It is, of course, the exception that proves it. But more importantly, it points a way forward, out of the quagmire of over-elaboration. The future of gastronomic excellence is the Rigorous Omission of the Extraneous. That's ROE for short.




Richard Ehrlich's selection

The wine lists in this kind of restaurant often break down as follows: 45 per cent Bordeaux, 45 per cent Burgundy, 8 per cent Champagne, 2 per cent Everything Else. Not this list. The mark-ups are a bit stiff, but at least you can drink interesting stuff outside the blue-chip areas without spending more than pounds 30 to pounds 35. (Though you can, of course, spend much more.)

Cassis, Clos Ste Magdeleine 1996, pounds 30

Cassis is a good if pricey Provencal appellation, and the white from this property is considered one of the best in the area

Brezeme, "Le Grand Chene", JM Lombard, 1996, pounds 34

Brezeme is a tiny appellation between the northern and southern areas of the Rhone. Lombard is its main producer; big, characterful Syrah

Jurancon, "Symphonie de Novembre" 1997, Domaine Cauhape, pounds 38 or pounds 6 a glass

Cauhape makes wonderfully complex dessert wines, sometimes three per vintage from grapes picked at different times. You will just need a glass