Wednesday 12 June 2024

Pied à Terre, Fitzrovia

Since the closure of Le Gavroche, Pied à Terre is now the London restaurant which has held at least one Michelin star for the longest time. It first won the accolade shortly after it opened back in 1991, a time when fine dining meant French dining, and the term "gastropub" was still a good decade away from meaning anything (if, in fact, it ever did).

Not being a huge restaurant-goer in the early 90s (I was 13), I couldn't tell you exactly what kind of experience a star guaranteed you back then, but I have a feeling it was a lot easier to measure up places against each other when they were all cooking broadly the same kind of food. Nowadays a £5/portion duck rice streetfood stall in Singapore and a €500/head tasting menu joint part-submerged in the Norwegian Fjords both earn the same score, and how on earth you're supposed to compare venues so wildly different in every way is lost on me. And most of the time I very much get the impression it's lost on Michelin, too.

But back to London, and Charlotte Street, and to a smart and serious but friendly and fun (the best places can be all these things at once; they aren't contradictory) restaurant that's been making people happy for the best part of 35 years. Their new head chef is Phil Kearsey, ex- The French Laundry and Waterside Inn and various other top-end joints, and he's making his mark with (amongst other things) things like this fresh oyster dressed with lightly pickled bits and pieces and N25 caviar. As an introduction to a tasting menu you couldn't want for much more.

This is a terrible photo of a very lovely thing called "Eggs Kayianna", usually a rather rustic Greek breakfast dish involving scrambled eggs, tomato and feta cheese. Here it was transformed into a light mousse, which was so ethereal and easy to eat it disappeared in one single mouthful. To be fair, that was also how we were instructed to eat it, I wasn't just showing off.

Last of the welcome snacks were these boned and stuffed chicken wings, beautifully glazed and crisp on the outside and containing a scallop and caviar mixture that complimented the chicken without clashing or overpowering. Very clever stuff.

The arrival of the next dish of British heirloom tomatoes with tomato consommée and bloody mary granita is a good time to point out that as well as the featured omnivorous offering, Pied à Terre also do an equivalent 8 or 10 courses of 100% plant-based food. And though the lure of fresh seafood and duck liver (individually, or indeed combined) is, for me - currently - too great to ignore, this beautiful and powerfully flavoured dish is proof that wonders can be created for a vegan diet too. I particularly loved the consommée, studded with little drops of basil oil and with a stunning depth of flavour.

There was a lot going on in this next dish, so I may as well list it all out in full - Coal roasted Scottish langoustine / La Ratte / English pea / Grapefruit / Basil / Duck Liver Mignonette. And even that wasn't all, as on this particular day it came alongside a fancily trimmed spear of late season asparagus. Fortunately, I can't think of anything that isn't improved by more asparagus, and the rest of it wasn't the least bit confusing or overwhelming - it all made perfect sense, even the cold potato and pea mixture under the (sweet, gently smoky) langos which was a delightful surprise. Only the potato tuile on top could have perhaps done with a redo - it was a little chewy - although perhaps that was deliberate, who knows.

Morels with polenta, chicken skin, jus gras (roasting tin dripping) and sauce vin jaune was another neat summation of why people choose to eat in restaurants. Chicken and morels is a tried and true formula, and would have been worth the effort even without a stunning cream-wine sauce that bound it all together beautifully. Kearsey describes himself first and foremost as a "saucier" and each of the dressings impressed in a completely different way with the passage of each course...

...a case in point being the parsley-Riesling sauce with the next course, which did an incredible job of bringing together battered and fried mussels, bright-white and perfectly cooked monkfish, broad beans and braised fennel into a completely coherent whole while also being good enough to eat on its own. Which I did.

Saddle of lamb, so tender you could cut it with a spoon, but in a good way - it wasn't in the least bit limp or collapsy - is another great example of the kind of result only a professional kitchen, or at least a classically-trained chef, can get so right. Various seasonal veg came in puréed and roasted forms (the latter havingly lovely crispy bits) but again the megastar element was the sauce, a lamb jus split with basil oil, a most wonderful thing indeed.

Somehow I completely forgot to take a photo of the cheese course, so you'll have to imagine what Tomme aux 7 Fleurs (an unpasteurised cow's milk cheese with a crust consisting of seven different varieties of dried flowers) looked like, with its accompanying pickles, grapes and black truffle. What I can show you though is the striking carved tree trunk they used to serve the crackers, an impressive visual flourish.

Mint sorbet with toasted hazelnuts, chocolate and dried "strasberries" (a hybrid strawberry-raspberry which sounds a bit terrifying but tastes a bit like, well, a cross between a strawberry and a raspberry) served as a palate cleanser. I've noticed a lot of high-end places dropping the pre-dessert sorbet lately as being a bit old school, but there's ways of doing it - as here - that can feel contemporary and still perform that important job of resetting your taste buds between a rich lamb jus and a looming strawberry soufflé so that the 2nd half of a meal flows like a joy instead of being an exercise in endurance.

The soufflé, by the way - as if I need to even say - was perfect. A dainty little thing, nicely risen and packed full of strawberry flavour with no hint of excess egginess, it came alongside a shortbread dotted with strawberry purée and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.

Then finally - two (as you might expect to round off a menu of this ambition) petits fours of sticky dark rum and honey canele, and orange and cardamom fruit jellies.

A meal as good as this, at somewhere as important in the story of London food as Pied à Terre, is lovely in a number of different ways at once. Partly, it's great that a restaurant that means so much to so many people - least of all myself, first visiting in 2003-ish and having my little provincial mind blown by the possibilities of fine dining - can still come up with the goods decades later, delivering mature and technically impressive food (and, lest I forget, wines - including a particularly impressive Hundred Hills Signature Rosé) with the same broad attitude of hospitality that won it fans all those years ago but in a style of a thrusting new restaurant that could have opened this year. To feel so fresh and exciting 35 years on is no mean feat.

But most of all, it's just nice to sit down in a place that's been good (nearly) forever, be as sure as you can that you're going to enjoy yourself, and then do enjoy yourself. There's a huge amount to be said for consistency - restaurants that are up and down (or that lose their chefs every 2nd week) make the job of recommending somewhere to eat a complete minefield. I've lost count of the amount of times I've raved about somewhere only for the owners and kitchen team to have some blazing row a week or two later and for the menu to collapse back into lamination and sadness. Unless there's something seriously wrong with you (and, needless to say, you can afford it) you will enjoy a meal at Pied à Terre. You just will. It's that simple.

Anyway, enough talk. In short, it's my pleasure to report that despite everything, after nearly four decades of changing fortunes, after fires and global pandemics, after almost everything else about the way that Londoners eat has changed almost beyond recognition, Pied à Terre is still a restaurant worth its weight in gold. Here's to another 35 years.


I was invited to Pied à Terre and didn't see a bill. Set menu prices start at £65 and go up to £150 for the full 10-course blowout.


Douglas said...

Bravo, Chris - and that is an impressive cracker stand. Cheers, re. Hundred Hills, too!

moi said...

Lovely review! Lucky you to get such a great invite.

Dawson said...

I'm happy to hear it is good now because sadly, under the last head chef, my experience was of a rather moribund restaurant with out of date staff and depressed food. The owner character's demeanour didn't help either. Things have clearly got back on track. (It may have helped had I not had to pay the bill myself of course - but I suspect not that much.)