England basks and fans itself in a heatwave—an extraordinary occurrence during Wimbledon fortnight—and London looks splendid, buffed and busy, the monuments gleaming in the sunshine, the parks and gardens still green in their early summer glory. I’ve been here a week, to launch my book, not really to eat, though eating has taken place—especially on Friday night at Itsu and on Saturday night when kind friends took me to Michel Roux Junior’s Le Gavroche, the 40-year-old temple of French gastronomy on Upper Brook Street. It had been a busy day with the England football team’s shameful, wasteful implosion; a victory by the rude young Scot, Andy Murray, at Wimbledon; London’s Gay Pride march and a Pink Floyd concert in Hyde Park.
Itsu is a new and highly fashionable Japanese restaurant full of hi-tech tricks, owned by the same guy who invented the Pret A Manger sandwich and salad bars that have sprung up all over the city. It stands at a very posh corner where Walton Street meets the Fulham Road and Draycott Avenue, a location that determines its clientele. The sidewalk outside is crowded with loud young men in expensive shirts smoking and talking about soccer while the upstairs bar is full of supermodels. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations—instead, the hostesses at the door hand each hopeful a little card to keep until a table is ready, at which point the card buzzes and glows red. You can sit at the bar on a high stool or in a booth with a polished wooden table. Meanwhile, a steel conveyor belt carries sideplates laden with freshly made food past your elbow, each dainty covered with a clear plastic dome. Hot dishes can be ordered from a menu.
Although there’s a branch or two of Nobu in the city, London has never been famous for Japanese food; nor will Itsu suddenly boost that reputation. There’s only one (anonymous) sake, served hot or cold. The sushi and sashimi (entry-level salmon, tuna, scallop and cooked shrimp and eel), gyoza (called dumplings here), miso soup, edamame pods, et alia are strictly high-street by Toronto standards and curiously salty. Then again, they’re fresh, honestly made, fairly cheap and apparently exotic and novel to the local crowd.
Far more interesting to me are the more conventional summer treats on sale at the Pimlico Road Farmers Market (Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.). There must be about 20 stalls squeezed onto a triangular space between Ebury Street and Pimlico Road, shaded by trees and overlooked by a statue of the boy Mozart. They’re all bonafide farmers and producers, and the goodies they bring add up to a sort of inventory of English food: pork pies and mushroom sandwiches; gooseberry fool and cherry crumble; game meats and organically raised lamb and pork; fresh mackerel and dressed Suffolk crabs; very good breads, pastries and cakes; great big drums of old hard cheese and tiny wheels of goat cheese. Vegetables had the bloom of the garden upon them. Standing on the other side of Ebury Street, I could smell the old-fashioned roses at the flower stall—buckets of roses the colour of ivory or apricot. It just reminded me how few of the flowers that florists sell have any scent at all. This market is lovely and almost affordable if you arrive at five minutes to one when the farmers are packing up and dropping their prices.
I wanted to go to one very good London restaurant while I was here—to recalibrate standards and see how it compares with Toronto’s finest —but had almost given up hope, not being a millionaire. Then some very kind friends invited me to Le Gavroche. Long ago, the Roux brothers—Albert and Michel Senior—were instrumental in introducing high-end French cuisine to les Anglais. Some of their other enterprises—the Waterside Inn at Bray, for example—have been hugely successful, others less assured, but Le Gavroche has always been a focus of their attention. Its timelessness is part of the charm, along with its suave understanding of what the English require of their restaurants. My host keeps some of his wine there and our evening was built around two bottles of Claret from his collection—a 1983 Cheval Blanc poured alongside a 1983 Chateau Lafleur, preceded by Champagne and a really delicious Batard Montrachet.
The dining room is downstairs—gracious, comfortable, the green walls hung with mirrors and pictures, the tables smothered in white linen, each one sporting a different silver sculpture (ours was a crab about the size of a dinner plate). Service was impeccable, anticipatory, invisible—though the waiters were all beaming by the end of the meal as France had just knocked out Brazil.
Dinner began with little canapés—tiny pastry tarts of smoked salmon mousse with a few beads of salmon roe; slightly larger pastries of remoulade sauce and raw beef. The amuse was a small slice of dense, fine-grained pork paté served with a melba toast and coriander sauce. I chose my first course to flatter the white Burgundy—half a dozen peeled langoustines, each the size of a baby’s finger, nestled in a small ring of Dover sole mousse with a rich cream sauce flavoured with mushroom and basil. The main course starred lamb—a rare old breed called Soay with very dark, lean meat more like venison than lamb in texture and taste. The kitchen had roasted the tenderloin and also wrapped some of the braised shank in a glossy pouch of pastry. The tips of four asparagus spears lay on a very small of mushroom duxelles and the sauce was a simple, middle-weight lamb jus. It was the perfect food for the wines. The Cheval Blanc slid in under the taste of the lamb while the Lafleur—richer, more opulent, and about 50-50 Merlot and Cabernet Franc—gracefully covered it. The cheeseboard appeared next—the best I have ever seen, with dozens of French and English cheeses in perfect condition. We didn’t have dessert but petits fours appeared.
The thing about a three-Michelin-star restaurant is that nothing at all is wrong. It’s flawless. The service is fabulous. The ingredients are the finest. The accoutrements do everything they should do. Le Gavroche doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks or show off or impose itself on you at all. The staff wants you to have a lovely time— they don’t need to be noticed. The food is impeccable, classical French with all that entails—complex techniques, big sauces—but, like a great French wine, elegantly civilized. It isn’t exciting food. There was nothing at all that made me gasp in amazement. But that was fine. Dinner was like listening to Haydn played very beautifully indeed, and, because I was in the mood for it, I didn’t mind that it wasn’t Pink Floyd.