Thursday, March 4, 2010

Michelin star-cross'd lovers

One Friday night last February, Andrew and I had a drink with some of his colleagues and decided to find some place to have dinner and start our weekend off right. We walked up to Charlotte Street, which I had discovered was a restaurant mecca. We walked up the street to see what was still open (it was getting late) and what looked good. We stopped in front of a restaurant whose name I recognized, a French place, and decided to give it a try, so we went inside and asked if there was a table available. The hostess seemed surprised that we didn't have reservations, but they did have a table, so someone took our coats and someone else led us into the dining room. It was a beautiful space, and the food looked really tasty and well presented. French, in fact. But we started to notice that things were not quite normal as soon as we sat down. It was very quiet, for one thing, and the other diners were dressed up in a way that we weren't. After we were seated, someone brought a little dish of olives. Nice, we thought. Very nice, actually. Then someone came by with a basket of warm rolls. Lovely. We're in for a treat, we thought. Then someone else came by with a tray of butter. This was our first big tip-off. The butter girl was at least the fifth staff member we had seen, and we still hadn't received our menus, so none of them were waiters. And this was a tiny restaurant. And there was a butter girl. That's not normal. Nor is an offer of salted butters or unsalted butters from three or four different regions of France. We went for the salted butter from Brittany as the menus showed up. We looked at each other, then opened the menus. Yikes. Set menu. Minimum price per person 55 pounds, without dessert or wine. We looked back at each other in horror. We put our heads together and consulted in whispers. Then I got up nervously, found the hostess, and explained to her our mistake. She seemed embarrassed on our behalf but said it wasn't a problem; she would get our coats. Andrew, head down, scurried out of the dining room after me and we ran out onto the street. I have rarely been so humiliated. Only later did we find out that it was a two-Michelin star restaurant, one of the top five or ten in all of London. As we made our way up the street, we passed the menu, including prices, posted outside the restaurant. The moral of the story here, kids, is always look at the menu before you go into a restaurant. We did have some excellent - and cheap - Thai food, two doors down. But we knew it was cheap going in. Live and learn.

The experience did inspire us, though, to learn more about the Michelin star system. We discovered that we had already been to at least one Michelin starred restaurant: the River Cafe has one star. A one-star rating indicates that a restaurant is exceptional; two stars indicate an even higher level of quality. The three-star rating is very rare. There are only two restaurants in London with three stars, and only about eight or 10 with two stars. Andrew was apparently inspired, because for my birthday a few weeks later he took me to a two-star restaurant, the Square, for lunch, a Bib Gourmand (a separate Michelin rating system for "affordable" restaurants, ie no more than 28 pounds per dish) restaurant, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, for dinner, and a bed-and-breakfast with a one-star restaurant, West Stoke House, for the weekend.

Let's start with the lunch. He told me it was a two-star restaurant right before we went in, and I thought it was impressive that he had gotten us a table, but I was a little nervous, too, after our previous experience. It really was lovely, though, and, would you believe, it was miraculous food. We both had to go back to work afterwards, so we skipped wine, but we did order a bottle of sparkling water, a little luxury in its own way. We started with an amuse bouche that was a sort of potato and anchovy foam with a crispy wafer of potato, or if you want to be crass about it, a potato chip. It was light and savory and delicious. I don't know how they can fit that much flavor into one mouthful. For lunch, I started with a dish of scallops and leeks with all sorts of sauces strewn about the plate in an artistic way. I do remember one of the sauces being a vanilla and onion emulsion that felt like velvet and tasted like heaven. My main was lamb with pearl barley and braised lettuce. The lamb was so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon, but it retained a nice, toothsome texture. The barley and lettuce were sweet and succulent, and it was all held together with a thick, creamy broth. It was the most comforting dish I've ever tasted. It made me pine for a long-forgotten childhood, except the childhood was not mine; it was a cosseted little Edwardian girl's childhood populated by beloved nannies and taking place in spotless nurseries with frilly pinafores and floppy hair bows. It was everything lovely about old England on a plate.

After a few hours of work that mostly consisted of my prancing about in my new dress and serving birthday cake to my colleagues, I went to the salon for a hair cut and met Andrew at home for round two of the eating extravaganza that was my birthday. I put on another new dress and did my makeup, then we enjoyed a glass of champagne and walked to Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, which is just a few minutes' walk away from our flat. You wouldn't think I could possibly eat again, but I made room tell you the truth, I can't remember exactly what I had. We've been back a few times since, and I'll list what I can remember here. Everything we've ever had there has been marvelous, but almost as nice as the food is the atmosphere. It's dressed up but completely comfortable. You're never made to feel nervous or anxious, just well taken care of. So much so that you don't necessarily remember all the ingredients in each dish, you just remember what a great time you had. But let's see. We've had a few different aperitifs de maison, usually champagne with something sweet and a dash of something bitter, perfect pre-dinner warmups. The one we had on my birthday had a splash of Pimm's winter liqueur, we found out from the bartender. It was cool and refreshing and bracing and warming all at the same time. Starters we've loved over the past year include steak tartare, mackerel tartare, lasagne of Dorset crab, heirloom tomato salad, and soupe de poissons. Mains have included steak bordelaise, game stew, Confit duck with black pudding and salade Lyonnais, a beautiful roasted winter vegetable pie, sea bream, and lamb chops with perfect vegetables. We've eaten a lot of good food in the past year! I do remember the dessert we had on my birthday, because it was one I had heard of before but never seen: baba au rhum. We performed a play in tenth grade that included a dinner party featuring baba au rhum, and I had never understood what it was. What it is, apparently, is a sort of sweet, raisin-studded pastry that is doused in rum and set on fire. Oh, and served with whipped cream. It was yummy, and dangerous! Perfect birthday fun. The fact that I can't remember the exact menu of that night aside from subsequent visits just goes to show what a comfortable, wonderful place it is. It's my favorite London restaurant, and I can't wait to go back again.

After a full day of eating, I was ready for a day of fasting, which was good, because Andrew's big birthday present to me was a weekend in the country that involved even more eating. On Friday, after work, we took the train to Chichester and took a cab to West Stoke House, which is a restaurant with rooms (is this an English thing only? I love the concept). We checked in and were shown up to our room, which was spacious, beautiful in an old English country house sort of way, and very comfortable. Then we popped downstairs for some coffee. The reception area was really a living room, with lots of comfy couches and beautiful paintings and a cabinet with movies that you can take up to your room. The staff members were really friendly but in a formal way that made us feel like VIPs. Yet, just like at Galvin, even though everything was the best it could be, everything was also completely relaxed and easygoing. Lovely.

On Saturday, after a fantastic English breakfast, we walked down to a nearby fishing village on the English channel and marveled at the enormous swans swimming in the harbor. They were actually kind of scary up close. You could see exactly how strong their necks and wings were. We admired them from a safe distance. The village also had a pretty little church, with lots of graves in the churchyard with epitaphs about drownings and failed rescues. We decided to take a train to Arundel, about 30 minutes east, to see the castle there. It was very impressive, but we only got to see it from the outside because it was still closed for the winter. I would like to go back and see the inside. It is still occupied by the family that has owned it for hundreds of years. The head of the family would be very high up in the royal succession, but the family has always been Catholic, even through the reformation and all the related persecutions afterwards. Some of their ancestors were even imprisoned in the Tower of London at some point, but they have maintained their aristocratic status to this day. Fascinating. The town of Arundel is gorgeous. It's built up on a hill, and there are lots of little, winding roads and narrow passageways with hidden shops and cafes. We had a nice, blessedly light, lunch, then found a neat little art shop where we bought two Aubrey Beardsley prints, one of a Pierrot-type character in a library and the other of a satyr reading to a lady in a garden. We walked around the castle and its extensive grounds and saw towers and follies and lakes and birds and sheep and daffodils. It was wonderful. Then we took the train back to Chichester and got another cab back to West Stoke House to relax and get ready for dinner.

We started in the lounge area, where other guests were also waiting with drinks and menus. Soon afterwards, we were ushered into a beautiful dining room with gauzy curtains and robin's-egg blue walls and more of the beautiful, colorful, abstract paintings we had seen in the lounge the night before. The whole house was decorated in a similar fashion. The historical architectural details had been maintained and highlighted, but with subtle colors. The way the simple lines of the building were set off by the more energetic shapes in the paintings made for a very modern look.

Our dinner began with an amuse bouche of pea soup with mint, if I remember correctly. I had fish for both courses, first a light white fish served with thinly sliced cucumber and dill, then a meatier fish served with pea shoots and tiny morel mushrooms. It was all delicious and flavorful and, for me one of the most interesting aspects of fine dining, the sort of thing I could never make at home. The best part of the meal, though, was the dessert. We shared a trio of rhubarb desserts. There was a tiny rhubarb tart, a tiny rhubarb crisp, and a tiny rhubarb mousse. They were exquisite. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she's grown too big. It was like eating enchanted dolls' food. And it taught me an important lesson: I love rhubarb!

After enjoying our coffee and petit fours in the lounge after dinner, we went back up to our room to enjoy some wine Andrew had sneakily sent up while we were eating dinner and watch Lost in Translation in our jammies. The next morning, after breakfast, we had time for a walk along the Sussex Downs with spectacular views, and then it was back on the train and back to London. It was the best birthday of my life.

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