France's king of cookery invades Soho

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The Independent Online

Move aside, Sir Terence, the French are coming to London. More than a year after Sir Terence Conran cheekily took his "stadium restaurant" concept to Paris, one of France's leading restaurateurs is returning the compliment.

Next month Alain Ducasse, the reigning monarch of French haute cuisine with seven Michelin stars, will be in London, opening a 300-seat duplicate of his Paris success, Spoon. This is the first time a chef with an established reputation in France has expanded here, although other Frenchmen have made their mark on the British palate, such as the Roux brothers. In planning his invasion of the supposed restaurant capital of the universe, M Ducasse is leaving little to chance.

He has allied himself with two other high priests of style - Ian Schrager, the chief exponent in New York and London of the concept hotel, and designer Philippe Starck, whose lemon squeezer on legs is compulsory for anyone who wants to be considered modern.

The Starck-designed Spoon will open at the Sanderson Hotel, the latest in Mr Schrager's London portfolio. Unlike most other restaurants in the heart of Soho, Spoon will have an outdoor garden and picnic area, because M Ducasse believes the picnic is a branch of cookery that deserves more attention.

But despite his Michelin stars, the concept of Spoon, English name and all, owes more to London's eclectic approach than the traditional French values rewarded by the tyre company's restaurant inspectors.

The Paris branch of Spoon has outsize white plastic "World Food" menus in English, subtitled in French, rather than the other way round. Diners are encouraged to combine ingredients from different columns to "create the unthinkable" (though presumably not the inedible). It is possible, say, to have home-grown bean sprouts of the day with pickled eggplant and steamed shrimp, or steamed lobster with mango chutney and coleslaw with sesame seeds.

"When I go out to a restaurant there is always something I don't like," says M Ducasse. "At Spoon, there are no rules. If you want dessert first, go ahead." In Paris this "anything goes" approach must seem shockingly novel, but in London, where chefs think nothing of combining Pacific Rim (itself a hybrid) with Tex-Mex, or reviving the prawn cocktail for a laugh, it is not so easy to attract attention.

Will M Ducasse fall into the same trap as Sir Terence in Paris, where critics grumbled that the food at his Alcazar restaurant was "too French"? Why, they asked, could there not be at least one traditional English dish? In Paris, there is a three-week wait for a table at Spoon, and limos clog the rue de Marignan, off the Champs-Elysées, for its upmarket takeaways.

There is one mystery. Cutlery and chopsticks feature on the tables, but no spoons. Why the name? "A spoon is the first object I remember receiving from my mother," says M Ducasse, blinking behind his glasses. "It's an hommage to a wonderful lady."

We are about to discover whether this brand of eccentricity will take off in London.

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