Restaurants: White magic

Ben Rogers is spellbound by Mirabelle

It is interesting to compare developments in Paris and London. One thing both capitals have seen in recent years is the oligopolisation of the cities' most famous restaurants by one or two rich individuals. Most of Paris's historic brasseries, for instance (La Coupoule, Bofinger, Flo, Vaudeville and others beside), are now owned by Jean-Paul Bucher. Marco Pierre White has similarly moved in on the Criterion, Quo Vadis, Cafe Royal, the Oak Room - restaurants once frequented by Cyril Connolly and Nancy Mitford, some of them by Edward VII and Oscar Wilde.

Where though, Parisians tend to bemoan the "Bucher effect" - his restorations can be heavy-handed, his food is not as good as it should be - White's influence is all to the good. For one thing, the places he has taken over had been allowed to run down; more importantly, once all the hype has been discounted, all wild stories set aside, he is a very clever chef.

A recent profile in the New Yorker described White, in fact, as "the greatest practitioner of haute cuisine Britain has ever produced". Well, perhaps; but to talk of haute cuisine here might be misleading. Of course, White employs high French techniques - many, such as his use of aspic, not seen for years. But his creations are honed, and pared down until they become timeless, almost anonymous classics. White's cooking isn't mock rustic in the way of a lot of his rivals, but it's not poncy either.

In Mirabelle, White has created his most seductive restaurant yet, with something of the feel of a 1920s ocean liner. There are antique tasselled lights, parquet floor, a beautiful off-white wallpaper and the best display of red roses we had ever seen. A friend had known the place in the 1950s, when its Curzon Street entrance had been lined with Rollers and Daimlers, predicted it would have been "tarted-out", but not at all. Mirabelle feels like the real thing. One of our party sees herself as a character in an early Mitford novel and was especially entranced. "It's one of the very few really good restaurants in London," she cooed, apropos of the verdant courtyard, "where you can eat al fresco".

You could have fitted in a row of extra lifeboats between two rows of tables running along the sky-lit, basement dining room. In our case, this admirable tendency had been taken to extremes. The four of us were sat at a table that could easily have taken 10 - Harriet did windmills to prove it. We asked to be moved but couldn't. Natasha consoled herself with the thought that Michael Winner would have demanded this table in the first place. And, in fact, with telephone books under our bums, and the use of semaphore where necessary, we soon forgot to feel intimidated.

In a characteristically careful touch, Mirabelle's menu is beautifully worded: asparagus omelette is "Omelette-Asparagus", rather than "Norfolk asperges sauteed with Les Landes free-range eggs and a sprinkling of summer herbs". Yet, while savouring its simple language, we noticed the list before us was strangely lacking in vegetable- or fruit-based dishes. Still, I had no reason to complain at my oysters in aspic - an unforgettable confection. The oysters had not been cooked but simply dipped in a slightly briny fish aspic and then replaced in their shell. This somehow neutralised the sliminess some people don't like, while intensifying the mollusc's soft bite and breezy freshness. I soon discovered, too, that the oyster was only the half of it - the jelly left in the shell was just as good. With the first oyster swallowed, I opened my mouth around the hollow of the shell, licking off the remaining aspic. Moving my tongue up from the cool mother-of-pearl interior, it caught pleasantly against the shell's sharp, jagged side, before discovering more of the nectar nestling in the little hollow at its tip. With a couple of probes and flicks, this, too, finally gave itself up.

It is not every day that you eat something like this, and it would have been unreasonable to expect anything to rival it. Yet other dishes scored high. Asparagus with mousseline was as good as asparagus can be; roast chicken for two might have been poached, it was so moist and tender. Its skin came stuffed with herbs, which not only tasted sweet, but looked pretty - all shades of blue and green, like a plucked pheasant. Sea bream came with citrus fruits, lightly poached, I think. The fish itself was a touch over-cooked, but the citrus fruit was deliciously done. Not everything, though, was so good. A first course of grilled scallops, gros sel, basil and tomato was flat and strangely under-salted. "Gros sel-out," Mark muttered.

This, in fact, was far from fair; Mirabelle is not, for its class, expensive. On the contrary, right now (and prices will doubtless go up), it ranks as an outstanding bargain. My earth-moving oysters cost pounds 9, roast chicken pounds 12.50. Our bill for four came to pounds 210 (although this was with wine from the bottom end of the 2,000-item list).

No, if there was a problem with our meal, it was not its price, nor the predictably Savile Row crowd but a certain patchiness, which became something worse when we got to the desserts. Creme Brulee, Granny Smith - a mound of vanilla-specked creme custard, surrounded by an apple sauce, was almost too refined for its own good. Fresh fruits with a champagne jelly disappointed in a restaurant of this class. Even Natasha, who finds it hard to find fault with anything White does, had to admit the bitter chocolate tart tasted like uncooked cake mix.

Despite this, I am giving this restaurant a rave review. It is rare to leave a new fashionable London restaurant without feeling that you have been taken for a ride - below steerage. Mirabelle, however, was an exception. What more can I say?

Mirabelle, 67 Curzon Street, London W1 (0171-499 4636). All Major cards. Open noon-2.30pm, 6pm-11.45pm, seven days a week.

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