The reviewers can't seem to agree about what car Le Gavroche most closely resembles. Half of them compare it to a Bentley, while the other half compares it to a Rolls-Royce. The first British restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars, it certainly qualifies as the grandest establishment in the country. It also boasts an impeccable lineage in the form of Albert and Michel Roux, the Fidel Castro and Che Guevara of London's culinary revolution. But why a British car? The 1969 edition of The Good Food Guide surely got it right when it declared the food to be "as near to Paris as London can get", even if it did go on to complain that £5 a head was a little on the expensive side for a three-course meal including wine.
Back in those days, when Le Gavroche was located on Sloane Street, you could still get a meal if you turned up at 12.15am. Since then it's become mildly less aristocratic, relocating to Upper Brook Street, relaxing the dress code and closing the kitchen at 11pm. The Roux brothers have gone their separate ways now, with Michel taking up residence at the Waterside Inn at Bray, and Albert's son, Michel Jr, taking over as head chef at Le Gavroche. It's now one of five restaurants in London to boast two Michelin stars, placing it just behind Gordon Ramsey's flagship on Royal Hospital Road, but some gourmands still consider it the best in the country. One thing's for sure: you won't be disappointed, even if it does cost you more than £5 a head.
The restaurant itself is in a windowless basement about two hundred yards from the American Embassy, but since I arrive five minutes before my companion, Roly Keating, a BBC executive, I'm ushered into the plush reception area on the ground floor. I'm greeted by Silvano Giraldin, the famously smooth maitre 'd who's been at Le Gavroche for 35 years, having joined the staff a year after it opened in 1967. He has the stately, funereal countenance of a very expensive undertaker, which is quite appropriate considering how carcinogenic the menu is. Make no mistake: this food will kill you. Even the chef has admitted that if he didn't make a point of entering the London marathon each year he'd have keeled over years ago.
After we're seated in the giant red velvet pincushion that constitutes the downstairs dining area, Roly plumps for the set lunch--pheasant followed by lamb--but I opt for the heart attack special. Almost everything on the menu is guaranteed to bring a cardiologist out in hives, but the most poisonous-sounding dish of all is a cheese soufflé cooked in double cream so, naturally, I go for that. Once I've polished off this signature dish--no easy task considering it's the size of a small hovercraft--only one duty remains: to eat my main course. The Michelin guide singles out the roast saddle of rabbit, but that had sounded a little too healthy so I'd chosen the lobster in a creamy brandy sauce.
Both dishes are so intoxicatingly good the effect is a little like mainlining heroin. At least, I imagine it is since I've never sampled that particular vice, but according to Lenny Bruce it's like "kissing God". My fellow diners are predominantly chief executive types, which strikes me as a little odd. Le Gavroche is a poor choice for a business lunch since as soon as the food touches your lips it's impossible to concentrate on anything else. I'm supposed to be interviewing Roly Keating, but I forget to write down anything he says. Not even Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch could do a deal here. The food grabs you by the lapels and demands your full attention.
I'm a drama critic in addition to being a restaurant critic and my acid test when it comes to judging a play is whether I want to see it again the following day. For restaurants, the opposite rule applies: it's a mark of a good meal if you come out not wanting to look at another plate of food for at least a week. Le Gavroche passes this test with a flying tricolour. For my money--and you'll need a bucket-load to eat here--it's the best restaurant in London.