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15 November 2005

Pétrus *****

I've heard it said that you can tell a lot about a man by his handshake - basically the firmer the handshake, the better the man.  If you offer up a damp fish, you're not dealing with a man's man.  However, if it's vice-like, this is someone you can do business with.  Or, in the case of a chef, revel in eating his food.

Now I already knew this by the time I got to meet Marcus Wareing, chef patron at Pétrus.  His food is sensational, his staff are the best in London and all in all, it doesn't matter how much dinner was, it was worth it.   Ok, obviously it matters slightly, but still, it was worth it.

Being kosher in a restaurant like Pétrus was never going to be straightforward.  The menu of £60 for three courses all looked delicious, but there was sod-all I could eat.  The most interesting starter, seared tuna with truffles, came with foie gras.  Grappling with the prospect of going hungry in one of the UK's best restaurants, I decided to bite the gourmet bullet and make changes to the chef's menu that he had no doubt spent hours constructing for its balance and flavour.

Although I sat there cringing at my own request to have the tuna without foie gras, the maitre d' could not have been easier going.  I was expecting a lot of tutting and tooth sucking, with lengthy negotiations with the kitchen.  Instead, all I got was "Certainly sir, no problem at all.  Really, it's fine, don't worry."  I was thinking that was easy for him to say, he didn't know I was about to order the sea bass without the bacon. I made my second request to order off menu.  Again, a similar response "Not a problem.  It's our pleasure."

The theatre of the evening began soon after we were shown to our table.  A large wooden trolley, with a pewter bowl stocked with iced bottles of champagne, was wheeled over.  We were asked if we wanted any, we declined, sticking to the wine.  Then arrived a small Le Parfait jar of salt cod pâté with biscuits.  In the jar there was the white, creamy flesh of the cod, with a swirl of greenish, unctuous goo.  You may gather from my description I have no idea what the goo was - perhaps a salsa verde - but the whole thing was delicious. The cream, offsetting the cod, the green goo, was slightly sharp and cut through the richness of the salt.  Also, served as an amuse bouche was foie gras in what looked like mini taco shells.  The groans of delight from my fellow diners implied it was rather good.  The next amuse then arrived, a shot glass of grey/brown soup.  The smell that hit the table as soon as the glasses were set down was unmistakable truffle.  The truffle and mushroom soup epitomised the meal - it was perfect, it tasted delicious, the strong waft of truffles and the subtle mushroom flavour.  The portion was just right, enough to get a good couple of mouthfuls, but small enough to leave us begging for more.  All of these amuses were accompanied with delicious bread and butter.  Ramsay always says that good bread is the sign of a good restaurant, it's nice to see his protégés' listen to his advice.

My starter of just seared, basically raw tuna, with shavings of truffle was heavenly.  It must have been far richer in its intended state with foie gras, but mine was great nonetheless.  Similarly my sea bass, sitting on a bed of lentils.  The bacon that was supposed to caress the lentils had been replaced by a sauce which I couldn't quite identify.  Again it was delicious.  It looked bright and crisp and tasted of the sea.  Cutting through the fish I was almost dazzled by how white it was.  The combination of the fish and lentils, provided a comforting autumnal dish.

Between recovering from the main course and deciding to turn down dessert, we were offered a tour of the kitchen.  I could have kissed the maitre d'.  We were led in to the low ceilinged, but very white kitchen and introduced to Marcus.  It was at this point I was able to size-up his hand shake and conclude from it, that his food really was rather good.

He took some time to talk to us for a bit, introduced us to a couple of the chefs and all I could do was stand there gawping as the food came off the pass.  There was no shouting, no excitable chefs leaping around.  There was diligence and attention to the finest detail.  Of the six or seven dishes that were served whilst we were standing there, Marcus sent back about three.  Either to be cooked a little longer, to have a bit more flavour added, or simply binned.  Nothing went out under his watchful eye unless it was perfect.

I know my awe isn't very cool - it doesn't help me come across as a man about town, but I was dumbstruck by the whole experience.  I imagine this was the foodie equivalent of a chav being introduced to Colleen McLoughlin.  After ten minutes gawping, we were led (I skipped) back to the table to be introduced to the bonbon trolley.  A bit like the champagne trolley, this was a wooden trolley, laden with buckets of hand made sweets: marshmallows, honeycomb, toffee, fudge and others too delicious for me to remember.  The staff were relaxed and easy going, playing-up to our child-like reaction to the trolley and egging us on to have a second helping.  Feeble as we were, we went for another round.

I had been slightly concerned that the restaurant would be stuffy.  Especially as when one walks in from The Berkeley hotel, you enter a large, hushed, oak panelled room with tables set a fair distance from each other.  The service is not poncy, it is down to earth.  The staff know the smallest details about each dish, I imagine they probably know who the suppliers are as well.  I had not eaten in any of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants prior to Pétrus, but I had read lots of reviews.  Although all of them praised the quality of the food, I don't remember any praising the quality of the front of house staff.  Which, after my experience, is deeply unfair. 

However, it is not entirely surprising that the front of house staff are overshadowed by the kitchen given how fantastic the food was.  I didn't see the bill, as I was a guest at dinner.  I am sure it wasn't cheap, but I'm also sure it was some of the best value-for-money food to be had in London.

Pétrus, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London, SW1X 7RL, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7235 1200

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What others think
The Times - one of the best fine dining restaurants in London
Square Meal - one of the capitals most highly regarded chefs

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