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RESTAURANT Club culture greets the man from Monte Carlo Alain Ducasse is 'the very first chef to bring a letter of noblesse to Mediterranean cuisine'. His cooking has attracted controversy, but his notion of food minimalism is very exciting. It is Giorgiocompared to Christian Lacroix Photograph by Julian Anderson

Annie Bell
Friday 15 September 1995 23:02

An interesting stellar configuration is developing at the top of Sloane Street. On certain days, from Tuesday, there will be not one, but two three Michelin-starred chefs operating within a hundred yards of each other.

Marco Pierre White at The Restaurant is the youngest-ever British chef to achieve three stars, and now Alain Ducasse, the youngest-ever French chef to achieve three stars, is consultant chef at a new dining club called Monte's, at 164 Sloane Street.

The Restaurant democratically offers itself up as the perfect special- occasion venue for anyone who cares to pay pounds 110 for dinner, or pounds 35 for lunch. To eat at Monte's you must first pay a joining fee of pounds 250, and pounds 500 per annum thereafter for the privilege of dinner at pounds 60, or lunch at pounds 30. Most members are likely to eat there with some frequency - what would be the point of joining otherwise? With so many good places to choose from today, this suggests they are looking for something more than they can find in a restaurant.

It would be difficult to argue that the reason is superior food. Clubs escape the judgement of the guides and for a chef of Ducasse's standing this could be seen as an advantage. He will only be here for a matter of weeks every year, and he is the first to admit that he is not trying to achieve anything of the standard of the Louis XV restaurant at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where he earned his three stars.

The tradition of prestigious dining clubs is nurtured in London by Mark Birley and Anton Mosimann. Birley, founder of Annabel's, is responsible for Harry's Bar and Mark's Club. To join either you have to be proposed and seconded by existing members and approved by a committee. This maintains exclusivity and ensures that you are surrounded by "like-minded" people.

Mosimann's, which opened in 1988, was the last significant dining club to open in London. Housed in a converted church, the ambience is restrained Gothic - well, quite restrained - with lots of fleur-de-lys and a mezzanine bar that looks over the dining area. The service is utterly wonderful. For Anton Mosimann, the attraction of opening a club was to develop a relationship with his diners, and the experience is genuinely one of dining at a friend's house.

On the menu you can expect to find a balanced mix of well-executed traditional and more adventurous Pacific rim stuff. Roast grouse, a special when I visited, was positively superb, perching perilously on the dividing line between gamey and high, so tender it literally melted, slathered with a silky bread sauce, a dab of cranberry sauce and sausage. And chips. Heaven.

The entrepreneurial drive for Monte's comes from Andrew Young, a dynamic 39-year-old New Yorker with restaurant and hotel developments to his name that stretch from Sun City to Budapest. Mr Young was looking stressed, hardly surprising when you consider that he has just spent pounds 5 million of someone else's money (a Middle Eastern backer) and is waiting for the inspectors to pass the building work.

My suspicion that we are a very clubby sort of nation was confirmed by Mr Young, who said that Monte's could never work in New York. The only other places he would try are Houston, Dallas and maybe Paris. It would seem that we love nothing more than to be recognised and welcomed.

Alain Ducasse brings with him a style of cooking not seen before within the Michelin framework. Raymond Blanc described him as "the very first chef to bring a letter of noblesse to Mediterranean cuisine". Which means there are no cream sauces, very little butter; instead he relies on the juices of whatever it is he is cooking and plenty of light Nicoise olive oil.

Ducasse maintains "it isn't necessary to demonstrate your technical proficiency in every dish"; great cooking is precision applied to good ingredients. "The more precise you are," he says, "the fewer accessories you need." His cooking has attracted controversy, but his notion of food minimalism is very exciting. It is Giorgio Armani compared to Christian Lacroix.

Ducasse selected a handful of dishes for me to try within hours of the saucepans arriving at Monte's. First came a thin pumpkin soup, poured at the table over fine-textured ricotta gnocchi and tiny croutons, and to follow a selection of vegetables, each stuffed with themselves: courgette, tomato and potato, served warm with a small green salad. Next came thin cannelloni, gratinated and filled with sauteed spinach, rocket and Parmesan, on a bed of finely sliced artichoke hearts sauteed with bitter salad leaves.

A turbot steak was roasted on the bone, served with caramelised baby onions, baby fennel and baby capers and transparent sheaths of deep-fried parsley and basil, and the best mashed potato I have ever eaten: the potatoes were crushed rather than sieved, full of lumps, and olive oil literally oozed out of it, some coarsely chopped parsley had also been thrown in.

Had it been a formal review, my rating would have been 10 out of 10 - nothing groundbreaking, just honest food perfectly executed.

A master of control and organisation, Ducasse operates his kitchen in Monaco "Big Brother" style from a small office with a window into the kitchen and a bank of video screens that monitor his chefs. The London brigade of 23 chefs, who service 90 covers, will travel back and forth between Monaco and London, and it is fair to expect some exceptional food.

Monte's is four stories of Thirties ocean liner elegance. No one will sneer if you turn up in a T-shirt - you will be loaned an Yves Saint Laurent jacket. If I have one gripe it is that prospective members are "vetted" by a committee who apparently "know everybody who is anybody", and not every Ducasse fan wants to run that gauntlet. Mosimann's, by contrast, scores by admitting members with two professional references.

At Mosimann's, you might wonder how the grouse was cooked. At Mark's Club you ask which of your friends shot it. Time will tell which Monte's will follow

: this sets it apart from restaurants that treat even regular diners as though they could not care whether they see them again

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