To the casual observer, one of the key distinguishers of French cuisine is the participation of very refined old men in waiting tables. Naturally there are exceptions; British, Indian and even American restaurants do have the odd wandering gentleman clearing plates and wiping surfaces. But in France, grown men seem generally much more relaxed about doing this than elsewhere. Being a waiter there is considered a privilege, not a gap-year adventure.
Yet you could look from Bordeaux to Brest, Paris to Perpignon and struggle to find a man more in keeping with this tradition than Otto Albert Tepasse – and he was born in Germany. He is the eponymous owner and maître d' of this restaurant on the Gray's Inn Road in Holborn, central London – just up from where The Times used to be, and ITN is now – and one of the most spectacular-looking men in the city.
Under narrow eyes set wide apart and a gentle, greying side-parting, he sports a vast European nose and flashes an erudite and mostly toothless smile. These features flit about between tables at great speed, like a hovercraft on turbo boosters; and the heat of the restaurant means he sweats constantly. These aspects of his visage combine to provide an immense sense of reassurance. The nose looks as though it's been dipped into a billion vintages. Perhaps the toothlessness was a price worth paying for a life of good food. And the sweat is humbling rather than horrible: I like a waiter to suffer for our pleasure. All told, the harmony between French zest and German efficiency personifies a reminder of what the European Union was founded to achieve.
And that's before we even get into the grub. But dear me – what fantastic grub! You can get the Canard de la Rouen à la Presse, which uses a 19th-century approach to cooking duck developed at the famed Tour d'Argent in Paris – but you have to order it well in advance. The ducks come from the House Burgaud in Challans. It's all rather spectacular, but the trouble is it's £120 for two. For all I know, this could be excellent value; but on the assumption that it's out of your price range, I'm choosing from elsewhere on the menu.
From the starters, the scallops in shell (£12.50) with vegetable julienne and lemongrass nage – a foamy sauce – is unimprovably magnificent. The sauce is creamy and rich and pungent, and coats the scallops in just the right quantity. A foie-gras terrine (£12.50) comes with excellent apricot-and-ginger compote, on a walnut-and-corn bread. I have a soft spot for snails, and the posse that turns up here, drowning in garlic and buttery joy with crispy ham in the mix (£18.95) is just sublime.
From the mains, both the roast saddle of rabbit with crunchy spring cabbage, Jersey Royals, pancetta and mustard sauce (£19.50), and a beef tartare with potato rosti (£24) are very good. My pan-fried beef with rosti, mushrooms and a fine truffle-and-port sauce is a fraction too gristly for my liking, especially at £24.95; but the filleted John Dory with Provençal vegetables and crushed potato with basil (£22.50) is delicious.
There is a range of fabulous desserts, from vanilla crème brûlée to macaronade with pistachio cream and fresh strawberries (both £6.50) and – my favourite – profiteroles with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream (£6.25). What I like about the first and last of these is that this vanilla isn't a euphemism for "bland", but as the thumping addition of a truly great flavour. As for the wines, they are as varied, lovely and expensive as you'd expect.
None of this is cheap, and though we see a couple of children in this small room, it's not a family-meal-out kind of place. It could probably best be described as a decent lunch spot for the lawyers of Clerkenwell, or a romantic treat for the refined palates of the ITN media types. Either way, the experience really is made by the presence of Otto himself. We have barely spoken to him, yet on leaving it feels like we know – from his food and his brow – a great deal about this charismatic man. And his passion makes me want to come back.
Otto's,182 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1, tel: 020 7713 0107. £100 for two, including a bottle of wine
Three more Gallic greats
Low-lit, with candles everywhere, this city-centre bistro offers some real treats, including a great pre-theatre menu.
3 St Peter's Square, Leeds, tel: 0113 243 6553
Didier and Stephanie's
A fairly traditional and romantic sort of place, where the ever-changing menu wins a consistent thumbs-up.
56 St Helen's Road, Swansea, tel: 01792 655 603
Yorkshire meets Alsace at this recent arrival, where chef Lionel Strub's dishes have instantly won a following.
28a Swan Road, Harrogate, tel: 01423 565 551
Reviews extracted from 'Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013', www.hardens.com
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