Le Cercle, London SW1

I once told a young chef that I didn't like his beetroot ice-cream. He smiled. "I like the fact that you don't like it," he said. "Think of couture fashion. Do you wear it? No, but it's something that you do. It's part of the repertory." When I booked at Le Cercle, a new French restaurant in Knightsbridge, I was hoping for something out of the ordinary - a beetroot ice-cream moment if you will. Even if I did end up ordering the vanilla.

I once told a young chef that I didn't like his beetroot ice-cream. He smiled. "I like the fact that you don't like it," he said. "Think of couture fashion. Do you wear it? No, but it's something that you do. It's part of the repertory." When I booked at Le Cercle, a new French restaurant in Knightsbridge, I was hoping for something out of the ordinary - a beetroot ice-cream moment if you will. Even if I did end up ordering the vanilla.

I expected the unexpected because Le Cercle is an offshoot of Club Gascon, an exquisite place where social pleasure loves to dwell, and the imagination is let loose on the food of south-west France, whether it's prunes or goose fat. Le Cercle has the same tapas-style "tasting" menu, that allows diners to choose from seven different sections: vegetal, marin, fermier and terroirs, plaisirs, fromagerie and gourmandises. Yet at just over £100 for three of us, it cost a lot less than Club Gascon.

A "cercle" was a private club in 19th-century France, where members would gather for cards and conversation. It seemed appropriate that Le Cercle's doorway, off Sloane Square, led down to an ill-lit basement. When I asked the doorwoman about the waiting time for a table (there's an irritating "no reservations" policy after 8pm) I felt as if I was being vetted. Once I got to the bottom of the stairs, and saw the high-ceilinged room, divided by elegant drapes, I was glad I hadn't been blackballed.

The waiter, in a brown leather jerkin, explained the menu. He should have explained the jerkin. We were free to order from whatever, wherever, whenever. Incroyable! Good to see French cuisine finally modernising, and this menu emphasises cleanliness, complementary flavours and simplicity.

The frisée, soft egg, crispy Parmesan (£4) was unutterably elegant. Finally, frisée made sense to me. They paired it with a port dressing and it changed my world. The white asparagus (£4.50) came from Les Landes, and was served cold - with a beetroot vinaigrette. I've always preferred the more subtle and delicate white spear, protected from the chlorophyll-producing sunlight, to green asparagus. But it seemed a shame to serve them cold.

A pretty spring salad (£4.50) was enlivened with balsamic (good to see that the chef wasn't too proud to use something as resolutely un-French as balsamic) and xipister, a Basque hot sauce with vinegar, garlic, oil, salt, pepper and thyme. It gently lifted the dish out of an English garden in the spring-time, and laid it out in a French sunflower field under the midday sun.

Tuna confit (£5.50) was served with buttery pork in batter, and a thick smear of bernaise. I've never thought of tuna as comfort food before, but this oozing plateful of calories will make me think differently in future. In stark contrast was the pan-fried gilt head bream (£5.75) which was sharp and clean - all because of the accompanying fennel. And the Pyrenean lamb (£7.25) was impossibly sweet, with only a dark-green watercress purée to serve as a reminder that the dish was meant to be savoury.

I'd had some wonderful veal sweetbreads at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons the weekend before. (What can I say? Off piste at Claridge's one minute, Le Manoir the next.) I decided to order a tête de veau (calf's head and brain) at Le Cercle, and relished every mouthful. Not so the andouillette grillée. On the menu, it said they were AAAAA, apparently the quality-control organisation in charge of sausages. Maybe it was meant to be a warning. There was a little too much of the farmyard about them.

On the dessert menu there was something called Le Provençal (£3.25). It was three shot glasses filled, variously, with a black olive mousse, a red pepper granita and a green tomato sorbet. I'm sure the dish would be perfect for people who prefer something savoury at the end of their meal. But I struggled to remember the chef's words - "think of couture fashion" - and his beetroot ice-cream. Then I got on with ordering the vanilla. E

Le Cercle, 1 Wilbraham Place, London SW1 (020-7901 9999)

SECOND HELPINGS: GLOBAL TAPAS

By Caroline Stacey

Fino

Strictly speaking tapas are bar snacks, but as well as all the fine sherries, this sleek basement makes plates of the freshest Spanish food - possibly the best in Britain - the raison d'être.

33 Charlotte Street, London W1 (020-7813 8010)

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All day mezze in a North African-looking tea room with a good kitchen pedigree behind the filigree. Crab kibbeh, tabbouleh, octopus salad - why stop ordering when none of them is very big?

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