Two by two in Charlotte St
PIED A TERRE; 34 Charlotte Street, London W1P 1HJ. Tel: 0171 636 1178. Mon-Fri 12.15- 2.15pm and Mon-Sat 7.15-10.45pm. Three-course set lunch pounds 22. Set dinner, three courses pounds 29.50, seven courses pounds 46. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 30 March 1997
The sheet metal doors were rather intimidating, but once inside we were greeted warmly and seated at the back of the dining room, from where we were promised we'd be able to "see everyone". The decor didn't offer much visual excitement, being fashionably understated and monochrome. The room has been criticised for its lack of atmosphere mainly because it has no windows, but two similarly windowless restaurants nearby, Elena's L'Etoile and Chez Gerard, are renowned for their atmosphere, so it's a mystery why Pied a Terre seems much boxier.
As we settled in, Sharon immediately started knocking over glasses and scattering knives, like a gangster's moll who has been asked to create a diversion. On our first excursion as Helen's dining companions, we'd gone to a restaurant in the Cotswolds and I had provided a spectacular climax by vomiting into an ashtray at the table. Sharon, who was under strict instructions to provide similar colour this time, arrived wearing an expensive new hairpiece, which sat on top of her head like a frisky doughnut.
As usual, we ordered Campari and soda and, while we scanned the menu, were brought four canapes. The menu was in English, but the complicated dishes had their roots in France. There are two set menus, but we chose from the main menu, which offered a choice of eight starters and eight main courses at a fixed price of pounds 32.50. Pied a Terre prides itself on being the cheapest two-starred restaurant in London. With its exotic litany of snails and partridges, quail and hare, the menu read like the passenger list from Noah's Ark, climaxing in the frightening-sounding "braised pigs head and tongue with steamed trotter, celery puree, wild mushrooms, deep-fried brains and ears".
Our orders were taken by the manager, whose relaxed attitude was a world away from the clenched-buttock snootiness often shown by staff at award- winning restaurants. When Sharon took it on herself to make a bleating noise to indicate that she wanted lamb as a main course, he didn't recoil in horror, but joined in delightedly, even making a popping-mouth face to accompany my order of monkfish.
While we waited for our starters, a further surprise dish arrived of pungent red mullet in saffron sauce. The starters proper were so complex and artfully-worked that it was difficult to identify what was what, particularly as each dish seemed to be packed with mystery ingredients not mentioned on the menu. My pan-fried langoustine with truffled potato salad came with a full supporting cast, which I reeled off like a panicking contestant on The Generation Game - "artichoke heart, asparagus tip, radish, no, sorry, turnip..." as they sped past my gullet. Sharon's roasted scallops with apple and ginger puree, fennel and chive sauce was such a hit that she was still trying to suck the sauce off individual bits of chive when the waiter came to take her plate. We wondered whether starters featured purees because Tom Aikens is so young that Heinz baby food is still one of his influences.
The restaurant was starting to fill up and we managed to eavesdrop on a ruddy plutocrat's attempts to impress his glamorous young foreign companion. We marvelled as she dead-batted his every attempt to charm, turning her nose up at the menu - she was a vegetarian - and the wine list - she only likes sweet sherry. Seemingly oblivious to her surliness, he battled on, trying to force her to speculate whether he was a pussy cat or a tiger, neither of which, surprisingly, featured on the menu.
The main courses were as spectacularly beautiful as the starters. My monkfish was plump and moist, and came on top of parsley mash, with braised salsify and brandade. The only discordant note in the smoky mix of tastes came from chunks of over-sharp artichoke. Sharon's lamb fillet sat inside a Stonehenge formation of confit turnip and roast garlic, and was topped with the alarming addition of fried lamb's tongues. She nibbled cautiously on them, then hid them under garlic husks. We agreed that it was grown-up cooking, everything sensationally dark and autumnal-tasting - the food equivalent of Alan Rickman.
Our puddings ordered, we were startled by the arrival of a pre-pudding, a vanilla cream of intense richness which left us both feeling a bit full. When Sharon's chocolate assortment came, it was arranged on a giant white plate, half of which had been dipped into molten chocolate to create a sensual ebony-and-ivory backdrop to the assorted souffles, ice-creams, tarts, mousses and parfaits. My own banana-themed cluster encompassed cheesecake, tartlet, and brulee, and my hopes began to rise that the evening might yet end in a Cotswold-style incident.
It was now well past our 9.30pm deadline, but there was no attempt to rush us out. On the contrary, we were brought two stainless-steel slabs laden with scores of petit fours, which we could do no more than look at. As we rounded off with coffee and limeflower tea, we pondered whether it would be possible, in view of the unexpected courses, to have a free four-course dinner just by coming in. As it was, our bill came to pounds 139, including wine at pounds 31 but excluding service. Despite every encouragement, Sharon's hairpiece - and her dinner - stayed put, so after drinking a final toast to our missing mentor Helen, we stepped back into the shadows.
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