Food for thought

Restaurants: Kant and Kierkegaard on the menu in Leeds
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The Independent Culture
I am lucky enough to have an agent who cares about my spiritual well-being. So on a sunny Wednesday morning, I faced the entirely pleasant prospect of a train ride to Leeds and lunch at Pool Court At 42 - a place much-acclaimed by Michelin. But I had hardly woken up before the big questions were crowding in upon me. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Is God really dead? A slap-up lunch was not going to be enough; what I needed, I knew, was a philosopher.

My agent understood only too well, and promised that, while my train sped me to Leeds, he would speak to that city's university. If he could not find a philosopher, would a theologian do? I said it would.

Pool Court is in a newly developed warehouse complex between the Corn Exchange and the River Aire; a terrace where you can eat in the summer and which looks on to the Tetley brewery on the other bank. Ten years ago, this area was derelict, but the prostitutes who once used it have moved on, and now it hums with a quiet prosperity. Michael Gill, Pool Court's proprietor, has a brasserie doing cheaper fare in the same building; and his old associate, Jonathan Wix, runs a small, rather chic and justly popular hotel (42 The Calls) next door.

Pool Court itself is sensitively done. With its white curved walls, black- and-white ceiling, plain white columns and glass shelves, it feels a bit like a small dining room in a smart Thirties ocean liner. I was absorbing all its elegance when a tall, thin man walked in - longish grey hair, grey beard, round steel-rim glasses, brown slacks, tweed jacket and woollen tartan tie. This, I knew, was my man.

Chris Coope studied under AJ Ayer at Oxford in the Sixties and now works on ethics. His wife, father-in-law and daughter are all philosophers, too - a ridiculous dynasty. There was no time to waste: over some crudites and aioli I asked my first question: "Is there a God?" "Well, I am an atheist, but, oh, the most uncertain atheist that ever lived," he sighed. It is this sort of evasiveness that has given modern philosophy a bad name.

Soon, we were on to Wittgenstein, and Coope told me the story that another philosopher had told him about his encounter with the Viennese philosopher. This man was calling at a colleague's house when a man opened the door, said: "Have you got the milk?" and then walked past - it was Wittgenstein. Philosophers seem to cling to stories of this kind, passing them round like worn relics. Such is genius.

Coope seemed surprisingly unsurprised to be asked out on this blind date, behaving as if it happened to him all the time. He surprised me, too, with the relish with which he tucked into our meal. I found it hard to imagine Kant or Kierkegaard eating and drinking with such gusto or pleasing self-irony.

If I have not said anything about the food up to now, it is because, for all the best reasons, there is not much to say. Michael Gill and his chef, Jeff Baker, aren't interested in being especially original or trendy. They offer classical modern French food of a clean, unfussy kind - things such as scallops with caviar beurre blanc, parmesan souffle, veal sweetbreads with ceps - and do so exceptionally well. Our meal was faultless, the service professional, the food delicious. Harvey Nicholls has just opened its first store outside London in Leeds. This is just where its customers will want to eat; and with the cheapest menus offering a two-course meal for pounds 12.50, most will be able to afford it

My sage began with oak-smoked cod with a horseradish and lime dressing; I, with petit chou farci - stuffed cabbage. Moist, light and flavoursome, this was a really accomplished dish. The skin on my baked sea bass was deliciously crispy, the flesh beneath it succulent. Coope's roast partridge, served with a wild-mushroom risotto, was sweet, tender and autumnal. We ended with a selection of desserts, including something like a chocolate brownie - the only let-down - and a fine creme brulee. This was all washed down with a spicy Coteau de Languedoc from a fairly short, well-chosen list.

Over coffee, Coope advanced his theory that JS Mill was not really a Utilitarian; I said that what modern philosophy lacks is any sense of its public. He agreed politely, but his heart was not really in it. Still, I think he enjoyed himself. His only complaint was the piped music - he did not object to it because he did not like music, but because he liked it so much.

We ate from the more expensive fixed-price menu - pounds 23.50 for two courses, pounds 27.50 for three. With wine and service, our bill came to pounds 82.61. Perhaps a theologian would have had more to say on the big issues - but with a good meal and some light conversation behind me, I remembered I had forgotten all about my existential ennui

Pool Court at 42, 42 The Calls, Leeds (0113 244 4242). Open lunch Mon- Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. All cards accepted