When the 2003 Michelin Red Guide to Britain and Ireland was published earlier this year, there were very few surprises. Gordon Ramsay's flagship restaurant on Royal Hospital Road and Michel Roux's Waterside Inn at Bray held on to their three stars, while no other establishment was deemed worthy of promotion to the premier league. Indeed, so parsimonious were the judges, only one restaurant was given an extra star: Pied a Terre. A total of 94 restaurants were awarded one Michelin star, but only eight others were granted this honour. This means that, according to the most respected food critics in the world, Pied a Terre is one of the 11 best restaurants in Britain and Ireland.
As a food critic, you quickly learn to spot the hallmarks of a Michelin-starred restaurant. To begin with, the atmosphere will be completely joyless, and Pied a Terre is no exception. Its ambience is more like that of a religious temple than an expense-account Mecca, with low ceilings, earth-tone fabrics and a dark, slate floor. My fellow customers weren't there to have a good time; they were there to worship at the altar of modern French cuisine. I half expected the maitre 'd to ask me to remove my shoes.
Secondly, there are the over-attentive staff. From the moment you sit down, you're fawned upon by a succession of French flunkies. Turn to your left and there's a woman standing to attention with a bottle of Badoit, ready to replenish your glass as soon as you take your first sip; turn to your right and there's a man brandishing a bread basket with a collection of dinky, multi-coloured rolls that look like oversized Dolly Mixtures. If you tell either of them to go away, they will become mortally offended and flounce off as if you've just mentioned Agincourt, the Franco-Prussian War and Hitler's invasion of Paris in the same breath.
Then there are the funny-shaped plates. God knows why, but Michelin-starred food is never served on ordinary, circular crockery. At Pied a Terre my first course came in a bowl--the only time I've seen Foie Gras presented that way--and my second on a small, oblong dish that looked like an ash tray. Both would have been perfect for serving canapés and, in truth, each dish was about the size of an hors dourves. This is another rule of premier-league food: less is more, as in, the less you get, the more you pay.
Finally, there's the cuisine itself which is nearly always exquisite. In fairness to Pied a Terre, the foie gras was described on the menu as being served in a "Sauternes consommé" so perhaps it wasn't surprising that it came in a soup bowl. It was mind-blowingly good, the sort of taste experience you take with you to the grave. If the Maquis de Sade had been offered a final meal as he awaited execution in the Bastille, this is the kind of thing he would have requested.
My main course of English lamb wasn't quite as good, which is to say it was merely excellent. I committed the cardinal sin of asking for it medium, rather than medium rare, so the Australian chef, Shane Osborn, may have had a heart-attack while he was preparing it. Perhaps I should have had the rabbit, which is served with a little baby carrot on top, the sort of touch my fellow critics describe as "amusing". But I can't honestly say I was disappointed by anything I ate at Pied a Terre, including the free canapés and petits fours that bookended the meal, another obligatory feature of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Julie Burchill once took me to a very similar establishment and, as we were walking out, said, "I expect to leave a restaurant with an empty stomach or an empty wallet, but not both." Pied a Terre won't exactly leave you hungry, but it helps if you have a generous expense account. Lunch for two, including two glasses of wine each, came to £135--and neither of us had puddings. Having said that, if the maitre 'd does ask me to remove my shoes next time, I'll happily oblige.