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Pied à Terre Needs to Keep Its Feet On The Ground

says Adam Kingl

Developing a taste for fine food was one of the worst things that could have happened to my life. The pleasures of haute cuisine should be banned from the likes of me. A simple bank statement faxed with the reservation request would allow luxurious dining establishments to cull the appreciative but proletariat masses. Such a solution would be for my own good, after all. I'd rather not have to explain to my wife that we couldn't afford a holiday because of hasty, ill-advised evenings at Le Gavroche or La Tante Claire.

I know that at places like these, I'm paying for the environment, skilled service, impressive selection, and the finest edibles of the world. But is it right for the proprietors to charge us more than usual because of qualities like a high reputation - the opinions of hacks like yours truly? Should we have to pay more for trendiness such as current fads like "simplicity", repeated like a mantra on food programs recently? And if simplicity equals quality, should the price of a dish be inversely proportional to the number of ingredients? In short, the characteristics used to justify stratospheric prices are often subjective and whimsical. So how do I justify the bill I paid at Pied à Terre for a pleasant but not overly-impressive environment, average to mediocre service, mostly excellent food, and hidden charges waiting like landmines to be stepped upon by my suicidal curiosity over a special of the day and an unlisted wine?

Maybe it was reputation to blame because Pied a Terre has plenty of it to spread about town. I was well aware that I was about to plunge a dagger into the gut of my current account, but I thought I was keeping track of the damage as we went along. As I studied the wine list in the simple, pale dining room, I was almost overwhelmed with the number of selections and their prices. There were a couple of bottles from South America in the £15-20 range, but we opted to order our food first and consult the sommelier.

We nibbled olives and a wide variety of breads while perusing the dinner menu, which offered two courses for £39.50. Our orders were going to be vastly different, but the menu suggested a glass of wine with each dish (a very good idea and a better bargain in retrospect). The sommelier suggested a bottle of Australian 1999 Rosemount Chardonnay. This wine was listed by the glass but not by the bottle. The other bottles of young, new world chardonnays on the menu were around £20, so I figured we weren't pushing the boat out too far by accepting this suggestion. I learned at the end of our visit that this bottle is charged at £45. At first, I chalked this up to my ignorance but decided to do some research anyway. Two merchants, Waitrose and an internet wine store, are both selling this same bog standard '99 Rosemount Chardonnay for £9.99. I can understand a 100% markup on wine but 350%?! That's not a "reputation" mark-up, Pied à Terre. That's rape.

Now that this issue is off my chest, let's discuss the cuisine of chef Shane Osborn. The shoes of Tom Aikens can't be easy to fill, and Pied à Terre has lost a Michelin star since the transition. This is certainly refined food, and the combinations of flavours demonstrate a good splash of courage. We received as an amuse gueule a long plate with four bites: a cold pea puree over ham hock jelly (a kicked-up pea soup); a potato and cheese fritter topped with tomato and parmesan; salt cod puree in crispy, fried crepe; and a nugget of deep-fried and breaded foie gras. These were well conceived and definitely woke up our taste buds with anticipation.

My partner's starter was black truffle and white bean soup, spiked with ham and topped with a froth of cream and truffle oil. It was excellent for cold weather dining. The only disappointment was the large shaving of truffle on top, which was insipid and dry - signs of an old fungus. While truffles are almost necessary ingredients on the menu of the finest restaurants in Europe, they are completely useless unless they are used freshly. My course was foie gras terrine, which was rich and decadent. A small salad of frisee, pears, and fried gizzards accompanied the terrine. I also enjoyed a small endive tatin topped with a slice of seared foie gras. While making tatins of anything but apples is all the rage now, this is an idea I haven't yet tired of. A glass of '82 Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes (£13) was sweet without tipping into saccharine. It cut through the fat of the dish and complemented the sugar of the pear and caramel in the tatin. These starters reminded us of high-end interpretations of Paris brasserie fare: bean and ham soup and my foie gras with gizzard salad, much like the ubiquitous Salade Follie that we saw in most Parisian cafés.

By this point in the meal, we were well-thawed from the numbing January mists and eager to tuck into our mains. My partner ordered a beautiful piece of red mullet - what regal-looking, silky flesh for common, Mediterranean marine life! The fillet was enthroned upon a disk of minced leeks, which resembled a dais of rice, and napped with a light butter sauce festooned with smoky ceps. I have never tried veal sweetbreads, and they were a special of the day. They arrived caramelised and roasted on moulded potato slices, surrounded by a ring of wilted spinach spiked with almond slices and roasted garlic cloves. All was moistened with a jus of the same dry truffle scratchings. Sweetbreads, I've discovered, being quite bland and creamy, need a real lick of bold flavours. Therefore, I understand the rustic garlic and toasty almonds. I even understand the truffle to add a punch of earthy, autumn leaf pungency. But if the truffles take a few weeks to reach the plate and arrive crisp and papery, you might as well use its oil or dried porcini instead. A very pretty presentation, but I wish I had ordered the mullet....

As we awaited dessert and watched the chain-smoker next to us strip off his jumper and inspect his nicotine-stained fingernails in his undershirt (no, I'm not making this up), the waiter, perhaps distracted by nearly-naked man, dropped our cutlery, zoomed away muttering something in French, and returned with...the wrong dessert. Well, there must be a breaking point to the concentration of any wait staff, and I think we found Pied à Terre's.

We heard about the generous table display of petit fours that one received with coffee (£4.50), so we decided to sip some java and share a mandarin parfait. This cylinder was topped by two long skis of baked meringue and a scoop of berry sorbet. This phenomenal mixture of citrus puck and stupor-inducing cream was like an orange barbituate. A few wisps of dried mandarin peel added a perfect touch. They were simultaneously crisp and melting, at first leaving only a delicate scent on the tongue but slyly seeping into the taste buds whispering "orange". Oh, did I mention that dessert impressed us? Petit fours were everything we expected with a sampling of chocolate, meringue, berry, and lemon curd to mingle with my thick cappucino. My partner ordered coffee and received an espresso. We did not pursue whether this was an error or a result of different interpretations of the term "coffee". We were too engrossed in our sugar fix.

The bill came to £188 for two people, three courses each, with one bottle and one glass of wine and 12.5% service. Yes, I was shocked, not only by the gargantuan mark-up on our chardonnay, but by a £7 supplement charge. I don't know what it was for, and the waiter never mentioned a supplement, but I suspect the sweetbreads as they weren't listed on the menu. That made a grand total of about £32 of unexpected bill. That's mighty steep, and even though we had a nice time, I still feel a little burned from another pass through the white-hot flames of trendy London dining.

Adam Kingl - February 2001

Pied à Terre - 34 Charlotte Street, London, W1P 1HJ
Tel: 020 7636 1178

Lunch 12:15-2:15 Mon-Fri, Dinner 7-10:45 Mon-Sat. Closed Sundays.

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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