Pied à Terre, 34 Charlotte Street, London W1

Once impressive but joyless, Pied à Terre is now so sleek, warm and pedigreed that it practically purrs. Terry Durack feels like the critic who got the cream

Sunday 23 February 2003 01:00

Pied à Terre, 34 Charlotte Street, London W1, tel: 020 7636 1178. Lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. About £150 for two, including wine and service

Few chefs worth their sea salt have not wished upon, and for, a Michelin star. Whether you think the Michelin system is a fair and admirable way of judging restaurants or believe it's a load of old cobblers, it is still the most widely understood measure of a restaurant. So restaurateurs keep aiming for a star, and restaurant critics still use the star system, perhaps lazily, to communicate a restaurant's perceived worth.

Pied à Terre is interesting because it went from one to two stars, then when chef Tom Aitken left, back to one. Now, three years later, with Shane Osborn in the kitchen, it has just won back its second star, making it the only newly two-starred restaurant in the 2003 Michelin Red Guide to Great Britain and Ireland.

My last Pied à Terre experience, two years ago, was one of knockout cooking in a don't-spare-the-foie-gras sort of way, set in a quietly anonymous and self-consciously serious room in which nobody was having any fun.

Since then, both the chef and the dining-room have reinvented themselves. Once better known as Shane Who? the Australian-born Mr Osborn is now in the weekend colour supplements, on the radio and in the social pages. Yet, thankfully, he seems to be in the kitchen more often than most celebrated chefs.

The intimate space, however, needed more than a publicist. Osborn and co-owner David Moore gave the place a new entrance, a glossy bar, a snug front-room and a glamorous dining-galley to the rear. Coffee-coloured suede and leather soften the lines, a dark African-slate floor mods it up and smart lighting gives it all a seductive shimmer. The whole place practically purrs, it's so soft, warm and pedigreed.

If this is a two-star restaurant, it's a far more relaxing and personal place than the old-style equivalent, which suggests a cultural shift in Michelin criteria. The welcome is assured, and there is real character and personality on the floor, not just servile drones. My fellow diners, a well-groomed foody, winey lot, seem pleased to be here.

Hot on the heels of an aperitif comes a personal canapé platter of four miniatures, including a little beignet of mushroom that is all lightness and crispness; a very fine foie-gras biscuit; and an almost too ethereal pumpkin mousse. Best is a thumbnail-sized tart filled with boeuf bourguignonne that in spite of its dramatic reduction in size is fresh, juicy and vegetabley. Thirty more of these and I could go home a happy man.

But 30 more and I couldn't have a starter of squiggly spaetzle noodles with trompettes des mort mushrooms in a hazelnut emulsion, topped with a louchely warm poached egg and truffle shavings. It looks a mess, but tastes earthy and rich, like a millionaire's Sunday-night tea. So I'm pleased it's a mess, instead of being corseted, manicured and foamed into two-star designer submission.

I speak too soon – an amazingly pretty dish of crisply crusted roasted red mullet and deep-fried squid turns up, hand-bagged with baby ratatouille and fennel purée. Too pretty? Perhaps the cocaine-like line of finely ground dried tomato skin that tempers the cockle and saffron vinaigrette is a bit twee but I like its sumac-like acidity.

Ordering wine from the beautifully put-together list is a refreshing experience, not least because sommelier Bruno Asselin can describe a wine as if he's just put down a glass of the stuff to come and take your order. The resulting 1996 Jean Marc Pavelot Savigny La Beaune (£45) teams so well with a dish of stuffed rabbit saddle and mustard sauce that it is now officially re-named Rabbit Wine.

It's an autopsy of rabbit, presented as three little turrets of boned, stuffed, steamed and browned meat in a wrap of carrot, each amusingly topped with a baby carrot. The farcé is rich with rabbit kidney, while a parcel of rabbit liver is topped with two pathetically tiny little rabbit cutlets. It's a show-off dish but a masterly one, with flavours that are sweet, single-minded and sensational.

Roasted monkfish is provocatively treated as meat, paired with a cannelloni of oxtail and ragout of lentils and root vegetables, and finished with a receding foam of frothy sauce – all solid and satisfying stuff.

A small hand-picked selection of cheese appears on its own tailor-made trolley, but is left behind by a particularly fine tarte of plum served with cinnamon-honey ice-cream. The touch of salt in the pristine pastry and tart fruit gives it a refreshingly savoury finish.

The meal ends with an avalanche of engaging little petits fours – fruit gels, chocolate bags of cream, nougats, the works – plus a glass of pastry lollipops that is borderline kitsch.

Osborn can be hailed as one of the few chefs whose skills perfectly match his ambition. The cooking, and the thinking behind it, are assured, precise and confident, and the restaurant is now one of the most appealing in London. In the past, two-star Michelin restaurants have given me some of my most joyless, tasteless and characterless dining experiences. Pied à Terre differs in that it has real charm, energy, personality and humour, while still conforming to Michelin's idea of two-starriness. So go – not because it has two stars, but, perhaps, in spite of it.

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