Pied à Terre. Fitzrovia fine dining for fans of finesse.
We’d booked to go to Atelier de Joel Robuchon as a birthday treat for J, son of C. I ask whether J, whose taste in food tends towards the adventurous, might not prefer something a little more down with the kids but I am told that I do not know what I am talking about. As it transpires, we need to change the day and the Robuchon is no longer available. I am not disappointed. I don’t know what it is but there is something about the those restaurants-named-after-a-chef without the chef actually being there that doesn’t do it for me.
So I am charged with finding a Michelin-starred restaurant at short notice, to fill the Robuchon-sized gap and don’t start on the whole Michelin thing – I know. I do the half-hearted OpenTable scroll and then something deep in my subconscious brings Pied à Terre floating to the surface. Sometimes something has been there for so long that you don’t even think about it; the bright lights of all those new openings make you blind to the bleedingly obvious.
And I have always meant to try Pied à Terre. I’d been to L’Autre Pied a few times early on, but wasn’t blown away (I’m told it’s much improved) and having heard that the chef from there is now here, I probably just put it into my secondary, one day, whenever, list. The list, you ask? Oh yes indeed. Scorned by people who pretend to be above such things, I am afraid that I do indeed have a list of places I wish to eat at and it gets longer by the week, what with all the new openings, never mind those places I feel I need to visit because I just do.
Meanwhile I walk from Marble Arch to Fitzrovia in the sub-zero and by the time I arrive my cheeks are glowing in a healthy way but I have lost all feeling in my face, which is frozen. I check out my new free Botox look in the mirror; it’s not great.
I am shown into a small, atmospheric room. It is 6:15 so it is not exactly buzzing and this is not a complaint, simply an observation. I like a quiet room. Inverted cut glass bowl light fittings hang above each table and there is ever-so-trendy copper, lining the skylight and part of the walls. I notice that there is no music and my heart does a little singing thing. We’re with grown-ups, for the most part, in this stylish, sophisticated space.
I get very confused over the various menus. There is the à la carte, a tasting menu, a truffle tasting menu, a vegetarian à la carte and a vegetarian tasting menu. The truffle menu is £145 before service, which gives me pause. And to make it even more problematic, we can create our own menu and they will make the vegetarian menu into a fish one. For someone indecisive, this is a special form of torture, especially since the men have suggested that I order for the table.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to be table mistress but this level of choice is enough to make my brain bleed. A Piedmont truffle is brought to the table. We are told/sold that it is the finest they have had for 5 or 6 years. As if to emphasise the point, they bring the truffle twice. I suspect that we have been taking so long over the menu that they have forgotten the first visit.
I want truffle, but not the whole truffle menu; I want more than the à la carte but not the whole tasting shebang and I suddenly come up with a cunning plan. À la carte, with an inter-course truffle dish.
So we start with a couple of good canapés, one deep-fried croquette, oozing a cheesy, truffle-y centre and a chopped salmon tartare on rice crackers flavoured with squid ink. Both excellent. Then some bread, a selection, from which I choose some very dark bread, I recall molasses but couldn’t swear to that, so shoot me.
Before eating my Marinated Hand-dived Scallops with Red Prawns, Yuzu, Fennel and Watermelon Relish, I need to try some of C’s Mushroom Soup with Truffle, Creamed Orzo Pasta,Wild Mushroom Focaccia and Winter Truffle. It is intensely mushroomy, rich and earthy. I eat half his focaccia, because I can.
It could not be more different to my pretty, delicate scallops, so lovely that I forget to snap before fork-attack. I put it down to excitement, although I admit it might be the Kir, followed by the Saint Aubin, which may or may not have gone to my head as I have been abstaining for two months, in a sorry bid to reduce calorific intake and now the merest sip of alcohol is enough to make me lose my mind.
But I am sufficiently cogent to appreciate the subtlety of this dish, with each smooth-as-silk scallop draped with shaved fennel, atop which some caviar, a marinated red prawn and a disc of something orange. I want to say radish but I’m not sure. At the centre, a citrus-y relish of watermelon chunks. It’s gorgeous. It’s not something I would normally choose, normally veering to the heavier side of the menu, but I do not feel carb done by.
The inter-course filler arrives and the chef has prepared a tranche of halibut, with tiny Romesco tips, and a champagne sauce. The waiter comes bearing the truffle and a very long narrow microplane. One shave and you’re out. There wasn’t enough. Go on, son, I say, silently, but no. It seems churlish to ask for more. It is my only moment of disappointment. If you big it up, big it up on the plate too. I’d have been quite happy to pay for the privilege.
Yet more fish with Poached and Roasted Lemon Sole with Prawns, Mayer Lemon Oil Emulsion and Wilted Greens. Again, beautifully presented, a perfect piece of sole, fat prawns and a grilled fennel slice, with pine nuts and olives and something slightly grilled-cheesy on top. I’d worried a bit about the olives and their tendency to overpower but it was spot on with the fennel. Seriously good cooking. lots going on but nothing out of place or unnecessary; complicated but not fussy.
We do not really need the pre-dessert, which is a creamy white and dark chocolate layering but of course it is eaten. C shuns real dessert but I feel that it would be unjust to let J eat on his own and I order what mostly comprises Agen Prunes, Armagnac mousse, Salted Almond ice-cream (a revelation) and bits of cake and blobs of something I can’t identify. Sorry. I can’t put it any more elegantly than that. The mousse came wrapped in a cigar of pastry of such delicacy that it was almost a shame to eat it. I did, of course. The ice-cream was simply superb. I’d like a whole big scoop of that please, next time.
And just when you thought it was all over, they score a blinder with the petits fours. Fabulous Lapsang Souchong chocolate and aero-textured white chocolate that bubbles in your fingers threatening to disappear if you wait too long to eat it (we didn’t) and other little tasty treats which I hoover up with abandon.
We do not linger as the restaurant is now full and there is a child of about 6 playing on an iPad and shouting, which seems rather incongruous in this somewhat adult environment.
The Summing up : I do love a surprise and the quality of the cooking here was a revelation to me. It’s the real deal. I know it has gone in and out of fashion and gained and lost stars but no matter. This is food cooked by someone who knows how to present an elegant, balanced plate, with food of interest and restraint and in a setting which screams sophisticated, quietly. Service is attentive if somewhat overly so, at times. I don’t want to be asked what I thought of every course as I’m eating it and after, but these are minor quibbles. It’s my sort of fine dining, unfussy, precise and clever with a recognisable style and identity. Who could ask for anything more?