Food and Drink: It's cool for copycats

EATING OUT: Marco Pierre White mimics Damien Hirst's art. Chefs at Quo Vadis copy MPW's cooking. Just how successful are they?
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The Independent Culture
Being original isn't everything. Especially in cooking. It's an art, but one where ideas can be endlessly recycled as long as they're well executed. In fact, faithful replication is precisely what matters when a chef starts to spread his style of cooking between more than one restaurant. Marco Pierre White - you may have heard of him - is a restaurateur. A chef too, and a indisputably brilliant one, but over the past few years he's undergone a metamorphosis from obsessive in the kitchen to eminently skillful operator of a handful of restaurants. Having perfected his Caesar salad, foie gras parfait, stuffed cabbage, omelette Arnold Bennett, skate with capers and winkles, sea bass with citrus fruits, lemon tart - above all, lemon tart - to name a few, he has to make sure they're always identically good wherever they're cooked. Despite similarities between menus, they're not identical, and each restaurant is distinctive, too. He has a gift for acquiring inherently beautiful dining rooms and making sure they run as smoothly as a parfait. Marco has worked his magic on the Oak Room, the Criterion and Mirabelle. Quo Vadis, the Soho landmark above which Karl Marx laboured away in obscurity writing Das Kapital, is the one he jointly took over with Damien Hirst, who furnished it with a collection of his own work and that of his contemporaries. The two fell out. Hirst took his art with him. The upstairs bar, where Hirst's cows' heads did not make the most congenial background for drinking, is being gutted.

It's a shame to lose such a collection from a semi-public place - but it's not a disaster for Quo Vadis. Restaurants are not art galleries, they're not there to challenge our perceptions; food that does that is unlikely to be enjoyable, while confrontational art can make you feel queasy when you're eating. Wasn't Mark Rothko famously given the brush- off by the Four Seasons when they saw the gloomy canvases he'd produced? Anyway, this Marco claims he had no difficulty knocking up replacement artworks. These include a stack of sheeps' skulls, assorted fish and reptile skeletons, butterflies pinned on a painted circle, a heart criss-crossed with barbed wire. Contemporary art is about ideas, and these derivative works just make a diverting addition to a room decorated with muted lustre.

As well as such unsanctioned imitators, artists have always had technicians who follow their instructions - Giotto didn't do all the colouring in himself, Damien Hirst has people to paint his dots - and Marco the artist, having established his canon of modern classics, understands how to have it beautifully reproduced. It's not food that sets out to challenge, or surprise, or even show off techniques. As a result, Quo Vadis's all-bases-covered menu was a lexicon of things we wanted to order. The least successful of a selection made with difficulty was calamari risotto that positioned itself right at the subtle-to-bland end of the ambrosia scale. I'd have appreciated more impact from the squid for eight quid. A toffee pudding registered too dry on the spectrum of stickiness. Otherwise, these were perfect renditions. My red mullet soup was so beautiful that, if I had a living room to redecorate, I would be tempted to cover the walls with a similar colour. Even the rouille served with this refulgent, species-specific variation on fish soup was more richly yellow than usual, and, with thin croutons and the requisite gruyere, was ladelled in by the waiter. I'd prefer to assemble my own soup-borne rafts, but it was the only instance of excessive interference from the staff. For the surprisingly moderate prices there's plenty of bourgeois luxury in the forms of foie gras, truffles, caviar and lobster. Another starter combined the first two in an unconscionably smooth parfait, entirely surrounded by a band of almost-white butter. Once you've perfected a parfait you can't take it any further, observed one of my co-lunchers, who wondered if the truffle speckles were any more than an attempt to do so. "That said, it tastes bloody good," he conceded. Main courses all had a straightforward structure; not rendered unrecognisable, but following the traditional protein-and-veg template. Each had a sauce that represented the essence of the dish, reduced far enough to concentrate the flavour but not so much that only an indistinguishable sticky saltiness remains. A skin- wrapped cylinder of cod occupying centre stage with an exquisite supporting cast of baby vegetables around it - roast plum tomatoes, fennel, a fondant potato, aubergine sliced and pureed and a fried sage leaf or two - had a sauce based on bouillabaise. Sweet, Chinese-spiced sauce for duck confit with pak choi and roast carrots made an Oriental change of clothing for an dish that was more European at heart. Each of these was pounds 12.50 each. For pounds 2 more, the perfectly pink, plump rack of lamb, was, said a man who never eats anything else if he can help it, "the largest amount of lamb I've ever had on a plate, and that's really saying something". Beside it was mashed potato of utter smoothness, not wallpaper-paste starchy as it can be. Sauce: a meaty stock.

The two puddings that worked better were summer berries in red wine jelly, and a pineapple tarte tatin with black pepper to add tickle to the sweetness. This extended lunchwithout a wrinkle cost pounds 40 a head - probably half what you'd pay for the original Marco at the Oak Room, where he's in the kitchen. Never mind the unauthorised school-of-BritArt copies, Quo Vadis provides legitimate scuola de Marco cooking. Who needs the original?

Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London W1 (0171-437 9585) Mon-Fri lunch & dinner, Sat dinner, Sun lunch & dinner. Average pounds 25-pounds 35 without wine. Major cards except Diners Club. Disabled access