Eating & drinking: It's my right to be intimidated

Terry Durack
Saturday 14 August 1999 23:02

No, we couldn't go straight to our table. We had to go and perch on an awkwardly low ottoman in a crowded salon and drink a champagne cocktail that had so much fruit liqueur, it was impossible to tell if the Champagne was vintage or not. It was hard to tell if it was Champagne or not.

Later, when the sniffy waiter lifted up the gleaming silver cloches only to discover that he had the dishes the wrong way around, he got even sniffier.

Then, when the cheese trolley rolled up, my wife asked in a whisper - everybody talked in whispers - for a little chevre. He pointed a white gloved finger accusingly at a little chabichou, hissing the word "chevre" as he did so. Then he punched little holes in the air with his finger all around the cheese trolley, his voice rising with every poke. "Chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre, chevre."

Ah yes, back in the early Eighties, the French really knew how to run a three-star restaurant. They knew you didn't come to eat, you came to worship, to be overawed, intimidated, and treated more as a pampered hostage than an honoured guest.

But things have changed, and I am beginning to worry about the future of the three-star restaurant. There have been recent reports of smiling among the staff at one or two of the current crop of three-stars. How are we supposed to respect a restaurant, and feel happy to pay its exorbitant prices, if we are made to feel at home? The staff now go too far out of their way to pander to their diners to the point of providing matching little stools next to one's chair, for handbag or briefcase.

As for the new breed of sommelier, does he really think he is doing good business to gently persuade me away from my choice of wine towards one that is a good 50 francs cheaper, and that tastes as if sent down from heaven? I'm in Paris, for goodness sake. It's my right to be ripped off, cheated and short-changed. You can tell these restaurants aren't working. Their dining rooms may be filled, but they are filled with far too many French people - and young people. A proper three-star should be stocked with very quiet Japanese and very loud Americans, all old, and with more money than taste.

As for the food, where is the rich butter, cream and cognac? Why don't I feel slightly queasy after three spoonfuls? In Paris, Alain Ducasse roasts Bresse chicken with preserved lemons, olives and olive oil, and belly pork with caramelised potatoes. Pierre Gagnaire cooks sea bass with mussels, white beans, courgettes and dried tomatoes. Bernard Pacaud of L'Ambroisie goes positively rustic with his John Dory and braised lettuce with slow-cooked onions. As for dessert, Alain Passard of L'Arpege forgoes rich pastries with cream for a candied tomato with 12 spices.

This is the sort of food you can eat once or twice a week, instead of once a year. And what's the point of that? No, it's all too accessible. You can buy the cook- book, the crockery, the table art, even the copper saucepans, and access the chef on the Net. I recall asking for a copy of the menu to take home, from the Alain Chapel restaurant in Mionnay, about 10 years ago. "Non" was the answer. Not quite believing it, I asked again. "Non". I asked if I could buy one. "Non".

The only area in which I can see remnants of true three-star status is the decor. It's still pretty tragic. The carpet is inevitably busier than Piccadilly Circus, the chairs are doing something else again, and the wood panelling is very Ralph Lauren does English club.

But for the most flagrant disregard of the unspoken code of conduct between French three-star restaurateurs, we must look to Alain Ducasse. Don't let the reassuringly florid trompe'd-up decor and the groan-inducing chandelier fool you. As you leave the restaurant, you are given a large, still-warm loaf of bread from the kitchen - a small, charming gesture. No three- star restaurant in my experience - Robuchon, Chapel, Guerard, Boyer, Bocuse, Blanc, etc - has ever made a small but charming gesture. It's the beginning of the end.

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