Eating out: Untrendily perfect
THE OAK ROOM; Le Meridien Hotel, 21 Piccadilly, London W1V OBH. Tel: 0171 437 0202. Open for lunch Mon-Fri 12-2.15pm; and for dinner Mon-Sat 7-11.15pm. Four course set lunch pounds 29.50, a la cart e pounds 160 per head including wine. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 16 November 1997
Well, shiver my timbers, it certainly is a stunning setting. Marco is probably right when he says it is the grandest and most beautiful dining room in London. The pale oak-panelled walls rise majestically up to the lofty ceiling, with a touch of gold here and there, and vast mirrors. As you walk into the room, the sheer scale of it quite takes your breath away. Yet despite this grandeur, it isn't an intimidating room, or even an impersonal one.
In smart places like this, I'm always avid to know who the other diners are, why they are here, whether they come to places like this all the time, or if this a rare excursion. My companion on this occasion was an old friend who does something grown-up for BT, but who languished for years in the shiny world of advertising, so he was able to identify one large group of advertising execs. Actually, the 40ish guy with flowing locks and snappy suit was a dead giveaway. Right down near the entrance, a young couple in streetwise gear (relatively speaking) were more of a conundrum. Possibly, we decided, a rock star and partner with oodles of dosh, staying true to their humble roots by refusing to dress upwardly.
Actually, you don't have to be incredibly wealthy to eat here. At lunch time, there is a fabulously tempting set menu, which begins with oysters in a champagne jelly, as far as I recall, for a mere pounds 29.50. Okay, so that's not exactly greasy spoon prices, but for 30 quid a head you can play for a couple of hours at being frightfully grand, while the delightful waiters cosset you into a state of blissful serenity. You won't get much better value for money than that.
As it happens, we went for the full Monty, largely due to the boss. Part of Marco's charm is his unabashed delight in his work and success. Like a little boy with a new toy, he is chuffed to pieces to be in the Oak Room. Installed with his staff only a few weeks ago, his grin spreads from ear to ear as he looks about. The other part of Marco's charm is, of course, that he cooks like an angel. And when such an angel offers to manage your lunch for you, who could possibly refuse.
Absolved of all responsibility, we luxuriated in our temporary corner of paradise. The pounds 75 a la carte meal arrived, course after heavenly course. My friend didn't think he was particularly partial to oysters, but the cool, silky creatures of our amuse-gueule, embedded in champagne jelly on a hidden cushion of fromage frais, changed all that. Our first course proper arrived before us - one pale slice of terrine of foie gras with green peppercorns and Sauternes jelly for monsieur, and for madame, a little dark crystal ball which soon revealed its secret - a sphere of foie gras, glazed in Madeira jelly. We shared, we marvelled, we cleaned our plates.
The next act, a light one, revealed an oval tranche of wild salmon with crayfish and caviare and fromage frais on one side of the stage, and on the other a millefeuille of crab and tomatoes - the tomatoes playing the role of pastry leaves - perched in the centre of a perfect circle of red tomato vinaigrette. There is none of the fashionable drizzly sauce, spattered artily here and there across the plate. Oh no, this is precise detailed presentation. Marco Pierre White and his team are perfectionists, no doubt about that, both visually and in terms of taste. This heady cavalcade of dishes steeped in the classic luxuries is enough to turn the head of the most dedicated gourmet, let alone the rest of us more ordinary souls. If I had one small reservation - and if the food weren't so very good, I would hardly have picked up on it - it would be that the autumnal tomatoes of our millefeuille were a little bland.
Next I discovered that a bressole of bresse pigeon, is a neat little parcel of rare pigeon breast, sandwiched with foie gras (yes, more of it), wrapped in Savoy cabbage. The slick of potato mousseline, with its neat quiff, was to die for, so smooth and rich and disastrously delicious that I ate far more of it than I should, given what had gone before and what was still to come. My BT chum was, meanwhile, gleefully tucking into Marco's homage to that other great London chef, Pierre Koffman - a whole, laboriously boned pig's trotter stuffed with morels, sweetbreads and more, wickedly sticky and melting, and bathed in a dream of an "essence of morels".
By this point, I was kind of hoping that the mini breast of a creme caramel trembling before us was the last offering. It was lovely, with its jaunty little raisin perched on top, and about all that could be squeezed into my stomach. But it soon became clear that it had been a minor stop gap. Advancing towards us was the grand finale, a whole roast Rasta pineapple. Vanilla pod dreadlocks sprang out from top to toe and, weee, off came the top knot, the body was cleaved in two, and our plates were filled with neat, juicy slices. It was doused in a sweet chilli sauce that played merrily with the fresh sweetness of the caramelised fruit. On the side was a neat scoop of fromage frais (again) ice-cream, and a small dryish cake to sop up the juices. A pudding of grand design, with a hint of a tongue in its cheek.
Later, when the glow and the glamour were receding, I realised I had been utterly seduced by a meal that had very little connection with the "modern British" eclectic school of cooking. No bandwaggoning here, no East meets West, no char-grilling, no sun-dried tomatoes, no caper berries, no trendy ingredients for trend's sake. What a pleasure to eat a meal with barely a salt cellar out of place, a meal with just a swanky little jig of unorthodoxy at the end. A blessed, rare oasis in the desert of anything goes.
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