When I first heard that Selfridges was opening a "pop-up" restaurant, I was a little suspicious. It seemed so contrary to the credit-crunch spirit of this new culinary phenomenon. Aren't these underground restaurants, run out of people's homes, supposed to be cheap and cheerful?
The fact that the restaurant in question was going to be run by Pierre Koffmann made it all the more absurd. Koffmann is a figure of towering authority in the foodie world, one of the few London-based chefs to have earnt three Michelin stars. His restaurant, La Tante Claire, was one of the best in the country until it closed in 2002. Among the young guns who did a stint in the kitchen were Eric Chavot, Tom Aikens, Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay. Installing Koffmann in a pop-up restaurant is like hiring Tiger Woods to run a pitch-and-putt course.
According to the advance publicity, the kitchen would only be open for two weeks in October. Koffmann's reputation is such that it was fully booked almost immediately and the only way I could get a table was to prostrate myself at the feet of Selfridges' PR manager. I was a little put out when Selfridges announced it was extending the restaurant's life by a further six weeks, but at least it meant others would be able to sample Koffmann's cooking. Some chefs are legends in their own lunchtime; lunch at La Tante Claire was legendary.
To get to the restaurant, we take a dedicated lift from the perfume section on the ground floor. We emerge a few minutes later in a long white corridor that leads to a semi-permanent canvas structure, tied to the roof with rope. It resembles what I imagine one of Colonel Gadaffi's desert encampments looks like.
All diners have to have the set menu, £75 for three courses. Not cheap, particularly considering it doesn't include any extras. For that sort of money I'd expect a tasting menu, not just three courses. It's particularly irksome given that my wife is a vegetarian and there isn't a single vegetarian option on the menu. The meal is going to have to be pretty good to justify this sort of high-handedness.
I start with game pithivier with a jus corsé and, credit where it's due, it is one of the best things I've eaten all year. The meat is enclosed in a wonderfully light pillow of pastry and the jus comes in a little jug so you can make a hole in the crust and pour it in. It is rich and intoxicating, the kind of dish that plunges you into a narcoleptic reverie.
Our waiter informs us that Eric Chavot is doing a guest stint tonight and, for my main course, I opt for one of his dishes: roast venison with red cabbage, hazlenut purée and red wine and cassis reduction. This is not quite in the same class as the game. A deconstructed version of the Middle European classic, the venison appears beside a mound of cold, pickled red cabbage. The flavours are all fully developed and the dish is well-balanced, but it's not the winter warmer I expected.
I finish with caramelised banana with vanilla and rum panacotta, which is suitably sticky and sweet but, again, not mind-blowing enough to justify the prices.
My wife's meal, by contrast, is a serious let-down. After consulting with the kitchen, our waiter informs her that she'll have to have whatever vegetables are on the menu, only without the protein accompaniments. So her starter consists of pressed leeks with a truffle vinaigrette – a dish that's supposed to include langoustines – and her main course is buttered tagliatelle, which on the menu is accompanied by Royale de Lièvre.
To add insult to injury, no offer of a reduction in the £75 price is made. Had the kitchen come up with some alternative that my wife could eat, that would be one thing. But to be charged full price for dishes that had already been prepared, only without their most expensive components, was ridiculous. It was as if she'd paid for a first-class ticket on Air France and then been downgraded to economy without any offer of compensation.
All in all, then, a disappointing evening. If anyone is thinking of going to this "pop-up" restaurant over the coming week (it's open to Friday – unless they extend again), I'd advise them to ignore the guest chefs and stick to Pierre Koffmann's dishes. And if you're partner's a vegetarian, leave them at home. n
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Pierre Koffmann Restaurant on the Roof Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, W1
Monday-Friday, lunch and dinner. About £220 for two, including wine and service
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Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010’