Restaurants: Oh my sainted aunt

La Tante Claire may be one of Britain's best restaurants, but with a minimum charge of pounds 50, it pays to share a dessert. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Gordon Ramsay opened for business last summer in the former premises of La Tante Claire, his high-profile ejection of a certain party attracted more media coverage in a single week than former occupier Pierre Koffmann sought in 21 years at the Chelsea site. Koffmann's only gimmick has been the quiet production of sensational cooking, ensuring that La Tante Claire is consistently cited as the best restaurant in Britain, one of only four to hold three Michelin stars.

Koffmann's decision to sell up to Ramsay prompted an offer from the Savoy Group to custom-build him the restaurant of his dreams. Over the summer, La Tante Claire 2 has slowly been taking shape in the Berkeley Hotel, a discreetly grand affair just off Knightsbridge. The new restaurant, which opened in November, is bigger and swankier than the old, but Koffmann himself is still cooking full-time, and has brought many of his old staff across with him.

Ascending through a small formal garden into the Japanese-style reception area, Sharon, Helen and I felt like we were entering a cathedral, so intense and reverential was the pre-dinner atmosphere. The restaurant itself was noisier and more lively, but a silence fell as the three of us entered, and we were stared at as though we'd come dressed as Cher on Oscar night. The only all-female group in the place, we were whisked into a small and rather bare ante-chamber off the main dining room, holding just three tables. "Perhaps this is the VIP area," speculated Helen hopefully. We trusted it was just a coincidence that the lights in our section were dimmed moments after we were seated.

Appropriately, in a restaurant that's named after an aunt, the decor is decidedly Yardley. There's lots of pastels, pink and green, and a camellia motif runs through the upholstery, tableware and some distractingly ugly paintings. Stylish love-seats - two-person sofas - encourage trysting, but the atmosphere retains the slight sterility of the hotel dining room.

Our discontent at our closeted position increased as we failed to catch the eye of a succession of waiters, and were forced to ask for bread, butter and the wine list in turn. When we'd finally secured menus, we were exhilarated to note that the restaurant imposes a minimum charge at dinner of pounds 50 a head. "It's probably to stop people coming in and just ordering a bowl of soup," said Helen. But as I then pointed out, a bowl of soup costs pounds 25, so they'd still be turning a tidy profit. Certain dishes were listed without prices. But we soon decided not to let the prices intimidate us. "We've all had a tough year - we deserve a treat," I declared, while furtively scanning the wine list for anything under pounds 30.

The menu features a mix of new creations and some existing Koffmann specialities, including braised pig's foot stuffed with morels, his signature dish. The descriptions come in rather tricky French, sprinkled with unfamiliar words, and Helen and I were locked in a grandiose battle of Francophone one-upmanship ("Chevreuil - that's baby goat!" "No, it's cheese!") when our waiter arrived to take us through the day's specials.

After a round of amuse-geules - subtly spiced aubergine compote with tomato coulis - I started with a mackerel tartare, which had the simple, appropriate beauty of an Andy Goldsworthy installation. A disc of ravishingly fresh chopped mackerel was bordered by smoked salmon and cobbled with caviare, topped with a standing stone of creme fraiche. Helen was also knocked out by her choice, a thin pastry tart with overlapping slices of meaty black truffle. Sharon's crepinette - a flat pork sausage seasoned with truffles - was served in a white bean soup which she described as "beyond creamy", and she was particularly impressed by the little explosions of taste that detonated in its silky depths, like porky pearls.

Our main courses were all variations on the theme of perfectly treated, tender meat in some kind of complex sauce. My fillet of venison in vinegar and bitter chocolate sauce - another Koffmann speciality - came served in a fan of delicate pink slices, with a rich tangle of cabbage spiked with tiny cubes of carrot and bacon. "It's a very traditional French thing to put chocolate into rich meat sauces," Helen pronounced loftily, still coming on like the precocious love-child of Escoffier and Larousse.

Sharon's tournedos Rossini was simply and perfectly executed, the sweet, clean taste of the fillet complicated by sauteed foie gras, and a dense truffle sauce. Helen was equally content with her saddle of rabbit, an impressive array of unidentifiable joints, some of which were pinkly stuffed with minced offal, in a fragrant rosemary jus. "It tastes very ... expensive," she said. "Very ingredienty and meaty. In fact, classic haute cuisine, n'est-ce-pas?"

The richness of the food (and the stiffness of the prices) influenced our decision to order a single dessert between three of us ("a partager", Helen and I barked simultaneously.) When our waiter returned with our croustade aux pommes - a caramelised apple tart topped with melt-in-the mouth filo crisps - he happily dissected it for us so we could all have a bit. In fact, the service warmed up considerably over the evening, and when Helen asked if they sold cigarettes, he offered one of his own. Perhaps he was impressed by our cammand of his native tongue. Or perhaps he was actually Spanish and just humouring us.

Finishing off with coffees and petit fours, we agreed the food was first- rate, but that we couldn't think of any occasion when we might want to return, although Helen thought it might be fun to go with an objectionable vegetarian who was paying the bill. Ours came to pounds 250, including a bottle of burgundy which at pounds 26 was only marginally more expensive than Sharon's soup. "I don't think this is a place for modern people like us," was Helen's verdict, and we agreed it was like being asked on a date by a very eligible 55- year-old merchant banker - definitely a good thing, but we're not quite ready for it yet

La Tante Claire, The Berkeley Hotel, Wilton Place, London SW1 (0171- 823 2003). Mon-Fri 12.30pm-2pm; Mon-Sat 7pm-11pm; set lunch pounds 28. Limited disabled access. All cards except American Express and Diners Club

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