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Words: Chris Zacharia
Aside from the excellence of its high end French cooking, Pied à Terre is known in foodie circles for offering one of the best value Michelin menus in the country.
Tasting menus are at the heart of why we march out of our warm houses, abandoning our own perfectly good kitchens in order to eat at a restaurant. When ordering a tasting menu, you place your senses in the trust of a chef, who for the next few hours will guide you on a journey of pleasure.
Yet tasting menus are, as my MA-in-Sociology brother would say, ‘problematic’. Prolonging the meal beyond its traditional three-act structure of starter-main-dessert is risky. Stamina and curiosity are as indispensable as hunger and thirst.
Pied à Terre has been on London’s Charlotte St for over twenty years. This alone should make you bow your head in respect. With diner after restaurant after bistro, Charlotte St applies Darwin to dinner, a survival-of-the-fittest where being an excellent restaurant is no guarantee that someone won’t steal your lunch.
Try walking down Charlotte St peckish, and see how long it takes before you’re ensnared by the fragrant coconut or grilled beef. And with so many competitors, is it really worth going all out for a Michelin-starred meal?
But as you smear squid ink and piquillo pepper on your 67°octopus, you’re not thinking about objective quality. Absorbing, intelligently composed dishes dominate your mind and your senses, leaving little room for nit-picking. If you’re sitting there asking ‘Is this worth a Michelin star?’ you’re kind of missing the point. Unless you work for the Michelin star committee, in which case please carry on.
Like all pleasurable experiences, the mind is the epicentre of the enjoyment. Pied à Terre’s tasting menu is always a game between you and the chef – why has gingerbread been added to the venison? Can you find the promised ‘potato spaghetti’? And that’s before you factor in the cheeky sommelier, whose pairings playfully draw out a new dimension to the contents of both dish and glass.
Of course, it’s only fun if the food tastes as astounding as it should. And it does. After we’ve enjoyed amuse bouche of parmesan and gruyere cream, foamed feta and gratin, the opening dish immediately elevates us to that place of pure pleasure.
Raw scallops marinated in miso; celeriac, Perigord truffle and pink hay bales of fermented cucumber. Earthiness, in the form of truffle and celeriac, meets seaside freshness in the outrageously delicate raw scallops. The flavours are united by the savoury tang of the miso, itself a microcosm of land and sea.
These disparate ingredients are united so brilliantly that suddenly they belong together. Every mouthful is a new chapter in a compelling tale of flavour, composition and texture. Spoiler: it’s the best dish out of the magnificent seven. I’m still trying to get my head around it now.
How do you find this dish, which defies easy categorisation, a partner in wine? Our sommelier reveals that the light, fruity white wine we’ve been drinking is from Catalonia and made from the same grape varieties used in Cava. Mas Macià’s acidity make it an able partner to the miso.
Plate after plate, the spectacle continues. Escargot in a silky soup of tomato and red wine brings out the fruitiness of the snails, partnered with a bone-dry Riesling whose acidity balances the tomato and cleanses the mouth. Dazzling splashes of colour swirl around the octopus.
A fillet of red mullet, plastered with lacy strings of potato held together in a raft, swims in a sauce of coconut and saffron. Its drinkable companion, from the New World, brings hints of mango and a subtle minerality to cope with the coconut.
If you really love food, Pied à Terre’s tasting menu will have you talking about nothing else. Every time we begin chatting about work or life, something amazing arrives to turn our attention firmly back to food.
Take the venison dish, the meaty lynchpin, the final blast of savoury before the sweets begin. Sliced to reveal their grapefruit-coloured bellies, the venison rests upon a thicket of British pumpkin spiced with ginger and is finished with a velvety venison gravy. Slow-roasted shredded off-cuts, drenched in a peppery sauce poivrade, are sandwiched between gingerbread pain d’epice.
A fat, juicy Portuguese red, reminiscent of port, brings it all together in a headlock of berries. The plate becomes a ballroom of sweet and savoury, vegetal and carnal, spicy and warming as all the best midwinter dishes are. We’re gibbering about it to the poor sommelier, the waiter and waitress, and had we had another glass we probably would have spread the gospel to the nearby tables.
Commendably, there are two courses for dessert, each with a matching dessert wine. Ewe’s milk cheese, in the shape of a girolle, is thankfully light and airy, as is the subsequent Greek yoghurt with passion fruit and tapioca.
After the desserts are removed, we’re left with a thicket of wine glasses, each an echo of an edible partner. Which was better, the venison or the scallops? And what about the red mullet? The debate rages as we leave the restaurant, head back down Charlotte Street and onto the bus.
And that’s what makes tasting menus worth it. Long after the last smidgen of scallop has been savoured, long after the ill-advised final sip of wine, the pleasure of these dishes stays with you.
34 Charlotte St
Tel: 020 7636 1178