Happiness is a warm financier. Not only does the madeleine-style cake appear on the dessert menu at L'Autre Pied, this week's venue, but "warm financier" is also a pretty good description of my dinner guest, the Independent reader Kevin Williams. Kevin, who works for a City bank, was the highest bidder in this year's readers' auction to join me on a restaurant review. His generosity benefits charities helping vulnerable and dispossessed people at home and abroad that's warm financing, by any reckoning.
It was Kevin's choice to go to L'Autre Pied. He's an admirer of Pied à Terre, that two-Michelin-starred temple to exquisiteness, and was curious to try this, its new, less formal, sister restaurant. Actually, make that little brother. The head chef, Marcus Eaves, is only 26, and until recently worked as sous-chef to Shane Osborn at Pied à Terre. Wisely deciding to keep his talents within the organisation, his employers have given him a stake in this new venture, housed in a Marylebone location that was until recently the modern British restaurant Blandford Street.
A brief refit has meant that the dcor is largely unchanged, and amen to that how many new restaurants spend a fortune on expensive redesigns, only to close shortly afterwards, when their prices prove too high? That said, it's still a weirdly mismatched interior, dark and moody but distinctly non-intimate, with shiny scarlet-leather banquettes clashing with delicate, almost oriental, hand-painted wallpapers and bespoke lightboxes. The feel is modern brasserie, not posh restaurant, with tablecloths jettisoned in favour of zebrano veneer tables, squeezed close together.
Still, that did give me the chance, while I waited for Kevin, to eavesdrop on the two surgeons at a nearby table, one of whom seemed to be having a crisis with a patient, and kept breaking off from flirting to hiss instructions down the phone to his team. Compared to that, my dinner with a complete stranger was a relaxed breeze. Kevin confirmed my admiration for The Independent's readers; a well-travelled Welshman, his enjoyment of eating out is matched only by his love of music. Soon we were enthusing about the Austin music scene and debating the relative virtues of The Decemberists and The Guillemots, and it was quite a struggle to refocus on the menu.
As at Pied à Terre, behind the relatively straightforward descriptions lies modern French cooking of some complexity and technical mastery. The setting here may be more informal but the food at this Pied is as manicured and polished as the original. Foams, emulsions, pures and beignets adorn the dishes, and mystery ingredients abound, inspiring mild panic in Kevin, who kept chasing unknown herbs around his plate yelping, "It's tarragon! Or is it lemon thyme?"
His starter of salmon gravadlax with curried cauliflower pure was not gravadlax in the conventional sense the fish didn't seem to have been dill-cured, and there was no mustard sauce in the assembly as far as we could tell. But we were probably too busy talking about what went wrong with Elvis Costello's career to make a thorough investigation. My roasted duck breast was as tiny and exquisite as a brooch, arranged as a circular fan of well-flavoured slices, studded with pearl-like baby turnips. Neither dish was what you would call hearty. "Dainty," we agreed glumly. Thank God we ordered the bread.
Nor did our main courses call for a discreet unbuttoning of the trouser waistband. My confit of cod with smoked pomme pure was upmarket invalid food suitable for one of the area's top-dollar private hospitals. The cod and the potatoes sat in two opposing humps on the plate, like relatives who are trying to ignore each other at a wedding, and if the cod had indeed been cooked in duck fat, or whatever it takes to qualify as confited, it wasn't letting on about it. Kevin's roast pheasant in game broth looked and tasted wonderful, with barley and diced root veg to add texture and colour, but it was still short on carbs. In no way did it look like a plateful that could satisfy a man whose dream gig climaxes in The Clash and Elvis Presley duetting on "Brand New Cadillac".
With Kevin having made such a generous donation to be there, we both felt the pressure to stay positive, an enterprise that was greatly assisted by a 39 bottle of white St Joseph from Pierre Gaillard recommended by the owner David Moore. As at Pied à Terre, the wine list is a serious draw, but prices are more competitive. Generally, though, we were struggling not to put the boot into this Other Foot. "Oh God, I'm going to be party to a bad review I can't believe it!" Kevin eventually groaned.
Our desserts beautifully presented, and distinctly more indulgent went some way towards cheering us up. My springy warm financier (the cake, not Kevin) was served with coffee sorbet and foamed almond milk, which in no way put me in mind of cuckoo spit (stay positive, stay positive ...). Kevin's apple parfait and blackberry sorbet used autumnal ingredients to fresh and vivid effect.
Our bill came to 116 before service not a bad price for cooking of this quality, served by a crack front-of-house team. I'm sure L'Autre Pied will find its clientele; people who enjoy high production values without the folderol of fine dining. But I suspect Kevin won't be among them, and I know I won't be.
"I just wish I could have come up with a few more metaphors," was Kevin's rueful assessment of his own performance. His summary of L'Autre Pied, though, was spot-on. "I think it has got an identity crisis." Absolutely. Hang on, though, Kevin. Identity Crisis. Wasn't that the title of a Shelby Lynne album ...?
L'Autre Pied 5-7 Blandford Street, London W1 (020-74869696)
Around 60 per head for dinner including wine and service. Set lunch/pre-theatre dinner 16.50 for two courses
This upmarket Turkish restaurant specialises in marinated meats, skewered and grilled over hot charcoals. Main courses include grilled chicken Iskender on toasted bread with yogurt, tomato sauce and butter (11.50) or Pastirmali Kuzu, lamb saddle stuffed with pastirma and served on aubergine puree (11.50).
10-12 Crawford Street, London W1 (020 7224 2446)
The Providores & Tapa Room
Choose between tapas, brunch or inspired south-east asian and New Zealand fusion cuisine at Peter Gordon's multi-faceted restaurant. Mains include pan-fried rainbow trout on a black rice and plantain dolmade with wasabi braised baby gem, green peas, lotus crisps sesame and lime (23.50).
109 Marylebone High Street, London W1 (020 7935 6175)
Galvin Bistrot De Luxe
The combination of classic French cooking (think cuisine bourgeois), great value for money (15.50 for a set lunch) and classy interior (leather upholstery, white linen and dark wood) ensures that Chris and Jeff Galvin's slick Baker Street restaurant is perpetually packed out.
66 Baker Street, W1 (020 7935 4007)
Don't expect show-off cooking here that would be missing the point this charming, relaxed and unfussy popular local Italian restaurant. The food, however, is delicious, simply prepared and fresh; and with prices at around 20 per head, you'll be able to afford a return visit.
32 Paddington Street, London W1 (020 7935 7031)