I am cruising through The Wallace Collection, one of London's great treasure-troves of art. Boucher, Boucher, Boucher, Boucher... Rembrandt. Oo-er. I quite like Boucher, but suddenly there is so much depth on the canvas that I almost get vertigo.
The artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin talks of walking through room after room of art without noticing much, "then something will just zap you". The major function of art, he claims, is to deliver an art experience. "You can't make it happen and it completely evades some people," he said in a recent interview. "But if you want to understand art, you have to look at a lot of art. And the more you look at it, the better your chance of experiencing that zap."
Same with food. By eating a lot of food, you start understanding what is good and what is bad, and you begin to filter those experiences, so when something special comes along - zap! And it's those zaps that keep you going.
So Boucher, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Watteau, Hals and Van Dyck make a nice warm-up for lunch. As part of a particularly energetic drive to bring good food to public spaces (Inn the Park, National Dining Rooms, Meals at Heal's and the just-opened National Café), Oliver Peyton, the indefatigable restaurateur-turned-contract caterer, recently took over the light, airy, glass-roofed Sculpture Garden and installed The Wallace restaurant. Designer Shaun Clarkson has transformed it into a pretty-as-a-picture French courtyard, complete with laurel hedges, Japanese maples, discreet pathways, and curvaceous wrought-iron metal furniture laid with crimson linen cushions. Any second now, Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier could walk by arm-in-arm. While it verges on the faux, it is an undeniably charming setting in which to tackle the easy-going, resolutely French menu.
Chef Thierry Laborde, formerly of Le Gavroche and L'Oranger, effortlessly covers bistro (entrecôte with pommes allumettes), brasserie (truffled steak tartare), and classic cuisine (black-leg chicken stuffed with foie gras). Adding to the allure is an array of good-looking pastries, shellfish, cheeses and charcuterie displayed in what looks like a cute street stall.
The elderly gentleman next to me has been supplied with a huge white terrine of goose rillettes and an entire jar of cornichons, the image forming what in another age could be an early Velazquez. I'll have what he's having, thanks. I adore the way they leave the rillettes (£6.50) on the table so you can eat as much or as little as you want. It's gorgeous, too - rich, coarse, shreddy, fatty and goosey.
On the other side of the table (the poor, misguided, didn't-order-the-terrine side) is a frisee salad with bacon lardons and soft poached egg (£6.50), which is markedly less generous. The frizzy leaves lack bite, the bacon is cold and damp, and only the egg adds any colour or life. As a member of that lively coterie of French bistro salads, it's a dud.
The truth is, you can't go wrong in a French restaurant if you start with charcuterie and finish with cheese. It's always the middle bit that goes a bit poire-shaped, as it does here with an order of warm octopus, chickpeas and lemon confit (£6.50). Now what would you expect? I was thinking octopus, Spanish-style, gentle flavours, olive oil dressing, that sort of thing. Instead I get fried baby squid, with a strangely wet, orange, crumby coating, on a strange, dry gathering of chickpeas and couscous. The maître d' does not seem as surprised as I am. "Usually it is octopus," he nods. "Today it is squid." So what happens when they run out of steak - you get cod?
A dish of sea bream (£15.50) looks like an exercise in mixed media. A generous fillet has been placed on sliced figs, wrapped in fig leaves and baked, served with good fleshy cep mushrooms and some lemon rind confit. It's an interesting but slightly incoherent idea, with fish, figs and fungi twanging off each other discordantly. A ripe, rich and fairly priced 02/04 Bourgogne Chardonnay from Louis Jadot (£23) does its best to pull it all together, assisted by a big bowl of pommes allumettes (£3.50) that are thin, crisp, dry and golden.
A wedge of tarte tatin (£6) looks all present and correct, with its light, flaky pastry bottom (or top, being upside down) and deeply caramelised apple, but the caramel must have caught early in the cooking, and leaves a burnt taste in the throat.
Already, there are people queuing to get in: young couples, families, French art-lovers, sensibly dressed Reform Club members discussing committee agendas. And why not? It's a great space, with well-drilled, friendly staff and lots of good ideas, such as the marvellously decadent "à partager" dishes (whole sea bass in salt crust, roast rib of beef), and the French-style afternoon teas. I found the shellfish platters, cheeseboards and charcuterie offerings to be the best bet, with the kitchen's à la minute cooking not quite up to the same standard. Two warm buzzes, a couple of pings, and the occasional clunk, but no zap.
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
The Wallace, The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1, tel: 020 7563 9505. Open 10am-5pm, Sun to Thurs, and 10am-9.30pm, Fri to Sat. Around £85 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: You want art with that?
Needhams, 186 Main Street, Witchford, Ely, Cambridgeshire, tel: 01353 661 405
At Luke and Verity Pearson's friendly farmhouse restaurant, the gruyère-crusted scallops and roast poussin come with a side serve of local art, with regular exhibitions installed by Ovenden Contemporary.
The Gallery Restaurant & Bar, The Mound, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 624 6580
Part of the Playfair Project linking the Royal Scottish Academy with the National Gallery of Scotland, The Gallery serves up seared cod with polenta, foie gras parfait, and magnificent views.
Sketch Gallery, 9 Conduit Street, London W1, tel: 0870 777 4488 By day, it's a gallery, with performance art and video installations. By night, it's edible art, featuring Gagnaire-inspired, verbena-infused lobster and black croque monsieur.
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