But in London it is, bang on the south side of Piccadilly, lurking behind a pavement populated by beggars and buskers and an unpromising frontage. Over the years, the tables and chairs have changed but the fabric of the place has remained pretty much intact - and it is a listed building. Perhaps the name should have been protected, too, because what was originally the Criterion Restaurant, then the Criterion Brasserie, has just become the Criterion Brasserie Marco Pierre White.
Mr White is the celebrity chef who, as a partner rather than employee, the Forte Organisation hopes can fill the Criterion. Without doubt, he is a brilliant cook, the youngest ever to win three Michelin stars. However, he is not a modest man. His flagship restaurant in the Hyde Park hotel is called nothing less than the Restaurant Marco Pierre White. One wonders about the wisdom of letting him loose on landmarks. What's next? Cafe Royal Marco Pierre White?
White was not the first choice as a tenant for the Criterion. Three years ago, Forte installed Bob Payton there. This jolly and egalitarian American spent great sums of money furnishing the place with Edwardian-style wicker and hired a chef who served fried spaghetti. This might have been OK for a tennis club, but did not work in a great gilded hall. After Mr Payton died in a tragic road accident, Forte turned to Mr White.
Though the circumstances are sad, this has proved the better choice. Mr White has spent enough years cooking for the sickeningly rich to know what sumptuousness is about. And he has had enough girlfriends and wives to know a romantic restaurant when he sees one. So he brought in a camp Irish designer, David Collins, and they have created a room that is the architectural equivalent of a love potion.
Mr Collins has draped turquoise chiffon from the gilded ceiling, strung the room with extraordinary dangling lamps of the sort one might expect to find only in Venetian glass shops, or Bourbon Street bordellos. The lighting is a triumph: the most beautiful, and the most flattering, likely to be seen outside of films by the cinematographer Vittorio Storraro. Contributing to its luminous cloud are small kerosene table lamps big busty standard lamps, and the spidery original spotlights refracting against the gold roof. Even the tiny silver salt and pepper shakers sparkle (though these will probably be stolen).
It is easy to imagine Oscar Wilde, velvet clad, at one of the tables, drinking absinthe and clutching a lily. He would be alone. Whistler would have walked out in a rage, disgusted with the decor: Mr Collins has covered the room's in-built mirrors with paintings depicting scenes of Araby. Good subject, shame about the painter. If these canvases belong to a school, it would be the one known in North America as "gas station art".
Still, I bitch. I do. Messrs White and Collins have done well. This new Criterion is dreamily romantic, in modern parlance, a great date restaurant. By the way, the food is good, too. And, while pricey, it is far more accessible than the astronomical sums generally associated with haute cuisine, or Food Marco Pierre White.
A long menu is intelligently laid out, if written in English Marco Pierre White. Three to ten dishes appear under each of the following categories: Soups, Risotto and Pasta, Salads, First Courses, Fish Main Courses, Meat Main Courses. Desserts come on a separate menu. These divisions make ordering easier, and offer the possibility of eating lightly (a salad and pasta).
Soups are simple: watercress with a poached egg, cockaleekie, mussel and saffron. I have tried these at other establishments of Mr White's and never found them wanting. To judge from past experiences, risottos also probably taste good, they just sound strange: risotto of ink, roast calamari; risotto of saffron.
However, most of the food is cleanly classic, say foie gras and chicken liver with either sour dough toast or brioche. Or savoy cabbage ancienne. Some dishes sound less likely to enter the Larousse Gastronomique, gravlax with beignets of oyster with citrus butter, for instance. It is shrewd to corrupt the English here. It sounds better than cured salmon with a fried oyster doughnut and lemon butter.
My night at the Criterion, I ate very nicely. So did my companion, about whose dinner I honestly cannot comment, for, rapt with my own food, I failed to spear much of his. The spaghetti of langoustine was spaghetti with langoustine: very good fresh pasta in a rich sauce with chunks of squeaky sweet flesh and some sharp rocket stirred in as a peppery counterpoint. Granted, this is not gutsy food, more French than Italian, but it is entirely pleasant. A main course of roast suckling pig was very good indeed. Great pork, good crackling, perfectly cooked root vegetables, apple sauce and damn spicy juice. Perhaps too spicy. Its pungency must owe to what Mr White calls "jus marjoram".
Three years ago, when Mr White opened the Canteen in Chelsea Harbour, he did not include salads. Today, he is confidently giving them an entire category. A salad of Belgian endive with Roquefort and walnut dressing may be had as a starter. In our case, it was cheerfully served after the main course, and made a pleasant contrast to a plate of French cheeses. The cheese was fine, its accompanying raisin bread excellent, but no reason to skip dessert. The souffle of blackberries, if a mite overcooked, was a delightful thing: served proudly puffed up, and lanced by the waiter to pour in more fruit sauce. Elsewhere on the pudding menu, there are classics, such as lemon tart, spelled, for some reason, lemon tarte. It is bound to be delicious. Marquise of chocolate, sauce caramel, good sounds in language funny. I cannot speak, even backwards, for the tarte Tatin of pineapple with black pepper.
The wine list is full of peachy bottles, not least a delicious blanc de blanc champagne, made by the tearaway independent wine maker Joseph Henriot. This costs pounds 6.50 a glass. Cocktails, say a gin and tonic, will put pounds 4.50 on the bill. House wines start at pounds 11.50, with plenty of interest at the pounds 15-pounds 20 range. If told a cotes de Beaune is not in stock, may I suggest you don't, as I did, allow yourself to be guided by the sommelier to the 1991 Mercury costing pounds 30. It was young, hard and unpleasant, an expensive mistake, mainly mine in that it was all wrong with the food.
The service is chaotic, really dippy. This is undoubtedly because the place is new, and it should settle down soon. The only really relevant warning that should attend any recommendation of this restaurant is: choose your dining partner carefully. A meal with wine will probably cost at least pounds 40 per person, and, by the time you ask for the bill, you may have proposed marriageReuse content