WHEN I WAS about 14 I did one of those so-called vocational aptitude tests which, in conjunction with an interview with a scary stranger, is supposed to help you work out what you want to do with your life. The chief findings of this rather stressful ordeal were that I was in the bottom five per cent of the country at mental arithmetic, and wanted to work with animals. It was hinted that a career as a vet might be beyond me, presumably because of the risk that I might give St Bernard-sized doses of doggy medication to hapless chihuahuas. The conclusion of the independent assessor was that maybe I could work in a pet shop, provided I wasn't allowed to operate the till.
At college, I played darts, and my inability to subtract any two-figure number without a nought or a five at the end from any three-figure number without the same became legendary. However, I did play a lot of darts, and eventually I improved.
But it wasn't until a few weeks ago that the mathematical chip on my shoulder was finally expunged. I appeared on Celebrity Countdown on Channel 4 where my opponent was a fellow foodie, the very lovely Jilly Goolden. We were Even-Stevens on the wordy bit, but when it came to the maths I astonished myself by getting both teasers bang on the target number. I think Jilly was a more gracious loser than I was a winner. I fear I looked terribly smug. Frankly, I was back in the classroom, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from turning to Jilly and slapping the side of my face while taunting, "Der-brain, der-brain!"
Last week I was recounting the story of my great victory to my girlfriend, Marie, as we drank kirs at the bar of the Paris restaurant, Laperouse. "This show started in France," she told me (she is French). "Les Chiffres et les Lettres - it's been going for years." "Nonsense," I countered, "it's another English format, bought by the French, just like N'oublies pas ta Brosse Dents." "Boll-ox," she said, with delightful, equal emphasis on both syllables. I decided to drop the matter, before it became vicious, and started to look at the wine list. (Incidentally, it turns out she is quite right.)
It was a special occasion for us, and Laperouse is a very special restaurant - perhaps the most romantic in Paris, which is saying something (the Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon would be another contender). I'm not going to describe the place for you, because that would spoil the surprise. I'll just say that it's old, and that Balzac and Proust went there a lot. Go there with someone you love, and be amazed.
So I was looking at the wine list, after something just a bit lush. Marie had ordered jarret de veau a l'ancienne and I was expecting coq au vin Laperouse, so a hefty Bordeaux seemed in order. My eye came to rest on a Chateaux Petrus 1983, on offer for an astonishingly reasonable Fr5500 (a little over pounds 65, I calculated, at the current exchange rate). I ordered it from the waitress, who nodded and smiled with, I felt, deep approval, and went and whispered to the sommelier. She returned to us immediately, and offered us another kir on the house. As she was pouring it, the sommelier appeared and showed us, with some pride, the Petrus, it's ageing label emblazoned with the famous gothic script. "Classy place," I thought to myself, "where else but Paris?"
But Marie sensed was something going on. "Have you ordered something expensive?" she asked. "Well, a bit extravagant," I confessed, "but it'll be worth it. I promise." "How much?" she asked. "Don't worry about it." "How much?" she demanded. "If you really need to know, about pounds 60." "Are you sure?" she persisted, "there were an awful lot of noughts on that part of the wine list."
An uneasy feeling started to creep up from my toes. I reached over for another look at the wine list. Fr5500. Divide by eight point five. That's, er, not 65. More like 650. I blushed as I raised a hand sheepishly to attract the waitress's attention. "Er," I asked her, "has the sommelier opened the bottle yet?" "I'm not sure," she said, looking me in the eye, "I'll go and see." She seemed to walk ever so slowly across the room and through the door the sommelier had recently exited. I strained for the sound of a cork popping. She returned with a slightly arched eyebrow - to keep me guessing. "He has not opened it yet," she said, challengingly. "Would you like to change your mind?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm afraid I would," and in a misguided attempt not to lose too much face, I reordered, a lesser bottle from the same year, for a respectable FF810. Still the most expensive wine I have ordered in a restaurant. And, I'm sorry to say, a bit of a disappointment.
The food, however, was sumptuous, in the classic French mould. We both started with quenelles de la mere parfumees aux truffes, and each plate carried a worryingly large but, it turned out, feather-light pair of poached mousses, based on simple white fish but with a sweetness that I would guess came from the inclusion of scallops. They came with a rich cream-based sauce extravagantly garnished with slivers of black truffle, and we both loved them.
Our main courses were both unfinishably huge. My coq au vin was cooked for so long, and with so much heavily reduced red wine that it was as black as oxtail stew and almost as rich. A few mouthfuls were all I could manage. I preferred Marie's veal, meltingly tender, with a lighter, herb- scented jus.
The smart thing to do would have been to share a main course, because the puddings were also huge. Marie had pain perdu et ses petits pots de cremes - a brioche soaked in creme anglaise and flashed under the grill, served with little pots of vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut custard. She liked it a lot, but was soon distracted by my souffle Laperouse, flavoured with Grand Marnier, which achieved the perfection of beinq crusty on the outside, light and moussey under the crust, and completely gooey and saucy in the middle.
By now we had both forgotten about maths and money, and agreed, with an extravagant confidence borrowed from our surroundings, that this was undoubtedly the best souffle in the world. I didn't dare look at the bill, but however much it was, it was worth it.Reuse content