Jonathan Ray

Scoff out | 25 June 2011

Scoff out | 25 June 2011
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LE RESTAURANT GASTRONOMIQUE Hotel Le Bristol, 112 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris. +33 (0)1 53 43 43 00 by Jonathan Ray

Hotel Le Bristol’s Restaurant Gastronomique is a swanky spot and no mistake. It’s all thick-carpeted, wood-panelled splendour, with a regiment of waiters per table and a touch too much one-two-three-and-off-with-the-cloche for my taste, but please, please don’t be put off, for the food here is outstanding with a capital O.

It’s President Sarkozy’s favourite spot (the Elysée Palace is almost next door), and it’s no surprise to learn that head chef, Eric Frechon, not only boasts three Michelin stars, but also the Légion d’Honneur.

I have never had – I’ve never even seen – Bresse chicken poached in an inflated pig’s bladder before, but nor have I ever eaten chicken so succulent, so flavoursome, so creamy and so downright moreish. All I needed was a fork for the breast and its accompanying asparagus, freshwater crayfish and morel mushrooms, so tender was it. Oh, and a spoon for the subsequent soup, made from the wondrous fowl’s legs, wings and oysters.

This remarkable dish did cost a terrifying €240 for two, but it was extravagantly, gorgeously, lip-smackingly delicious. As, indeed, were our starters of macaroni stuffed with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras (€85) and king crab with green tomato aspic (€78). Cheese and puddings, too, were exceptional.

The sommelier chose our wines and instead of the expected top-price cru classé claret or Burgundy we were recommended some fascinating and tasty dry and sweet wines of the Jura.

Le Restaurant Gastronomique is absurdly, eye-wateringly expensive but it is once-in-a-lifetime stuff and worth every bloody penny.

MARIANAS 12 du Toit Street Stanford, South Africa. (028) 341 0272 by Bibi van der Zee

At last, after many years of questing, I have had the perfect lunch. On holiday in South Africa, and alone for the first time since our honeymoon back in the pre-baby mists of time, we found our way to the tiny but famous Marianas, where they serve only lunch, and that just four times a week.

Peter, husband of the eponymous chef, greeted us like old friends and ushered us to a little table, wreathed round by grape vines and anemones, and looking down over the garden, through the vegetable plot, and up to purple mountains that drowse behind Stanford.

We ordered wine by the glass, and the first sip of Hermanuspietersfontein Sauvignon Blanc actually brought tears to my eyes. Peter brought home-made bread and talked us through the day’s menu, local foods all cooked with Mariana’s own twist of humour, some classical style and a subtle hand with ingredients. Starters were barley salad, springbok rillette, pear salad or gruyère tart, followed by picked pickled fish, confit de canard with lentils, apricots and honey, springbok pie, oink nek or skaap and dinges (‘sheep with two teeth — lamb but slightly older, has a bit more flavour,’ explained Peter).

My pickled yellowtail fish in a cold curry sauce was tangy and wonderful, while Mike’s tender oink nek (deboned neck of pork) came in a sea of buttery gravy. Full of giggly happiness and wriggling our toes in the sun, we ended our meal with a shared glass of sparkling wine with Peter and Mariana, and my favourite sort of rambling amiable political conversation. It’s an odd feeling to know you have actually had the perfect lunch. The quest for the perfect dinner, however, continues.

Since her return, Bibi has been drinking nothing but South African wine

NORTH ROAD RESTAURANT 69-73 St John Street, London, EC1M 4AN. 0203 217 0033 by Dan Jellinek

Back in 1997 the American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a highly entertaining book, The man who ate everything, whose premise was to make a list of all the foods he hated, from clams to falafel, and then seek out the best and finest examples across the world in an attempt to eliminate his prejudices one by one.

Looking down the menu in the light, modern surroundings of Christoffer Hruskova’s ‘Nordic-inspired modern European’ restaurant North Road, I was reminded of this book simply because so many of the menu entries seemed to play on my deepest edible taboos.

Raw pickled mackerel, lumpfish roe and soured cream, chicken skin and onion, parsley juice, fermented morel broth, millet porridge — I might not have even heard of half of these accompaniments before, but I was not sure that was a problem. Other horrors sounded more familiar — like milk skin as part of a pudding.

A more sane diner might have simply avoided the more extreme-sounding of these oddities and stuck to the scallops and pork belly, but in the spirit of Steingarten I ordered all the foulest-sounding ingredients, challenging the chef to surprise and enlighten me.

I was not disappointed: everything I tasted was a heady, earthy mix of textures and tastes, but all delicious. The key was balance: I won’t list the dishes I had, because you must experiment, but sea herbs to pine cones, the stronger tastes were restrained and played off the more mainstream ingredients to great effect. Even the burned milk skin turned out to be a horror-free thin, sweet, dried-out version that lightly glazed a ball of ice-cream. One of my highlights was a simple side-dish of braised cabbage — no frills, and as British as it is Nordic — but amid all the more exotic ingredients, just spot on.

At £20 for a set three-course lunch and a tasting menu for dinner at £55 a head, the North Road is well worth an adventure.

THE GILBERT SCOTT St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London, NW1 2AR. 0207 278 3888 by Lucinda Baring

There has been a lot of fanfare about the newly reopened St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and, to be fair, the building is amazing. Its highly anticipated restaurant, however, is less so. Celebrity chefs taking on big hotel restaurants are terribly en vogue, but I’d be surprised if Marcus Wareing has a hit on his hands here.

The room is big and grand with high ceilings and huge windows — never an easy space in which to create atmosphere but cramming the tables so close together isn’t the answer. Our neighbours were practically in our laps and though we’d become firm friends by the end of the evening, you can’t discuss the nitty gritty with your husband while your new buddy, a head teacher from Bromley, leans over to proffer an oyster.

The oysters were a hit, by the way, as was hub’s Dorset crab with pear and hazelnuts, but my Brown and Forrest salmon was disappointing, mostly because the caper butter was just a huge dollop of cold butter without much capery flavour. My main course was better. I had the Suffolk stew (mutton meatballs with barley), which was good (the head teacher thought so too), and the jugged Dorset steak with pork dumplings was also nice, if a little heavy.

Bizarrely for a staunch cheese man, my husband was most impressed by the puddings — Kendal mint choc-ice and an orange marmalade jaffa cake — but my more seasoned sweet tooth wasn’t blown away.

The problem is that the dishes sound so wonderfully exciting that when they fall short the fall feels even greater. The menu is trying to be fashionable — everything is very English and very retro (a side dish of sage and onion Paxo; Mrs Beeton’s snow eggs) — but it’s much too big (13 starters and 15 main courses). Perhaps Mr Wareing should revert to quality over quantity.

Lucinda always goes the extra mile for The Spectator by squeezing in that extra course.