Food and Drink: Can you afford such good taste?: Marco Pierre White's newest restaurant is extremely expensive, but food and service are close to perfection, says Emily Green
Saturday 20 November 1993
Or is it? It will probably cost pounds 100 a head from the carte. Per person. Or pounds 35- pounds 40 for a three-course set lunch at pounds 22.50 plus wine. I have just eaten the set lunch. It was close to perfection. I have also recently eaten at the bare-bones canteen of the highly acclaimed 'Modern British' chef Alastair Little. While Mr White put on the Ritz, Mr Little, or those running the restaurant in his absence, put on paper napkins, an exceptionally rude North American waitress and hit-and-miss food.
The starters at Alastair Little cost from pounds 6 to pounds 12; main courses pounds 18- pounds 19; puddings pounds 6. For those who have saved up for a special meal, Marco Pierre White's luxury ship is looking more like a bargain.
Yet Mr Little is seen as the darling of the 'populists', who scoff at florid luxury, preferring puritanical notions of good taste. By contrast, Mr White is the mascot of the Fortune 500 Club, which expects luxury as a matter of course. Perhaps this can be put down to inverted snobbery. Mr Little is an articulate and charming middle-class Oxbridge boy with friends at the Groucho Club, while Mr White is a self- made man from a council estate in Leeds. Or perhaps it is because the public, including myself, is only now catching up with what real cooking and real care mean and what they should cost.
Personally, I think both restaurants cost too much and both chefs have got too much publicity for their own good. I confess to being at fault here, along with The Good Food Guide and every other leading restaurant critic.
Less important than chef as celebrity is chef as teacher. Among those whom Mr White has trained, promoted and even, in some cases, financed when they set out on their own, are Jean-Christophe Novelli at the Four Seasons in Hyde Park, Richard Neat at Pied a Terre in Fitzrovia, Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine in South Kensington, Stephen Terry at the Canteen in Chelsea (all London), Simon Gueller at Millers in Harrogate, and the excellent London baker Philippe Dade. This is a better record than any catering college I know.
As for Mr White's new venture, he follows Nico Ladenis, another famous chef with two Michelin stars, in retreating from independent premises into the bosom of a grand London hotel. These palatial old premises, with their posh addresses and all that marble, enhance a sense of occasion. At The Restaurant, so does the carte: it is big and handsome in expensive buff rag paper.
It begins with Mr White quoting an even bigger egotist than himself, Salvador Dali, saying: 'At six I wanted to be a chef, at seven, Napoleon, and my ambitions have been growing ever since.' The type size grows for Marco Pierre White's name below, then it shrinks, but not to Dali's diminutive scale, in generous acknowledgement of his sous-chef, Donovan Cooke, and long-serving pastry chef, Roger Pizey.
The carte lists 26 dishes, each followed by a year (presumably when Mr White first began serving them). So one encounters the likes of: 'John Dory with roast sea scallops, etuvee of endive, veloute of tarragon 1989'. It is my good fortune to have sampled at least some of the dishes offered on this lavish new carte at Mr White's former restaurant, Harveys in Wandsworth, south London. Most of these were superb. He assures me that the cooking has since evolved - along with the prices.
But these great big terrible prices buy the best linen, the best glass, the best staff, a luscious array of burgundies and a dozen young chefs who aim each day for perfection. The very same prices also bar many of us who would love the food but cannot afford it, and invite the tyranny of tasteless millionaires who demand conspicuous listings of foie gras, truffle, langoustine, caviare and scallops to signal quality. It would be exciting and even more impressive to see what Mr White can do with flavourful but more humble ingredients such as anchovies, herring, more vegetables, less protein.
Enough griping. As chef, Mr White has a rare and good habit. He thinks. The food often looks simple and tastes clean.
From the set lunch, a parfait of chicken liver and foie gras with brioche may not be an original starter, but it is original to find it so light and so pink, without a hint of green-grey oxidisation. Another starter is perhaps the best of his dishes: escabeche of red mullet with pickled onions and carrots. There was always saffron in it; now there are fields of it. The dish has every taste one can register: sweetness from the carrots, sourness from the vinegar of the marinade, smokiness from the saffron and a salty, sea-fresh hit with small dabs of caviare around the plate.
He trumps the escabeche with stuffed quails - two of them ('one looks too small'). These quails are the first and only ones, I now realise, that I have eaten properly cooked. They were moist and flavourful, with crisp skin. A silky, light, subtly sweet sauce is played on the presence of peeled green grapes, soaked in beaumes de venise. Yet there is only a hint of alcohol to them. What dominates is a light, perfumed sense of honey, of the perfect muscat grape. Also on the plate is a neat triangle of perfect pommes Anna and, intelligently relegated to a side-dish, rough, salty spinach.
Staff not only proffer finger bowls for guests who order the quails; they supply three changes of napkin.
A small tray of petits fours arrives before the pudding. This is unorthodox but smart. That you may have to wait for the third course is signalled by a strategically employed quote from Brillat-Savarin on the opening page of the dessert menu: 'To know how to eat well, one must first know how to wait.'
We waited and we got a vanilla souffle, rather like an elegant cousin of seaside candyfloss. Staff neatly score it and drop in a ball of vanilla ice-cream. The richness of the ice-cream suits, for the souffle itself seems to lack egg yolks: it is light, white, fizzy, fun: it tickles the mouth. A pear tart with frangipane is, to me, less pleasing, rather mealy and dry. Coffee is perfect, if you happen to want espresso. For those who prefer filter coffee, there is hot water to dilute it.
A word about the room. Mr White has assembled a romantic, luxurious setting which is one of the few in London that is neither gloomy nor frilly. Just handsome. Curiously, there are two managers and they are exact opposites. One is an Englishman who lays on banter like the blag- artist who sold me my car in a north London Rover dealership.
The other is an immaculate French gent, who seems to have been born in a restaurant. His name is Jean Cottard. He has served the Rouxs and then Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire. He is, perhaps, the best restaurant manager in London. He can discern those of us constrained to bargain set-lunches at a glance, and he treats us like royalty.
The Restaurant, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1 (071-259 5380). Open lunch Mon-Fri; dinner Mon-Sat. Wheelchair access to restaurant and to gent's wc. Access, Visa.
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