Like the United States, England has its full complement of celebrity chefs, with their TV shows, cookbooks, food products and restaurant chains. In the last few years, I’ve heard a great deal about Marco Pierre White, a Yorkshireman who grew up on a council estate in Leeds and became the youngest home-grown chef to earn three Michelin stars (Chez Nico and Tante Claire are the only other restaurants in Britain to receive that honor). I had never tasted his food, however. So when I was in London recently, I decided to take my parents and sister to the Oak Room in Le Meridien Piccadilly for dinner, which has a prix fixe of $120 per person.
Marco Pierre White has a reputation for being … difficult. Dubbed the enfant terrible of British cuisine, with brooding, Byronic good looks, he has appeared regularly on television (including in his own show, Marco ), and, according to a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph , was once photographed naked next to a pig carcass. In the past, he has thought nothing of charging customers £6 for an autograph, and recently he began issuing contracts to people who book tables for six of more at the Criterion, one of his many restaurants. They are required to fax back a legally binding document that specifies arrival and departure times, plus the exact size of the party. Any breach of the agreement results in a no-show fee on their credit card. (Who will be the first chef, I wonder, to dare to start this practice in New York?)
This year, Mr. White signed a deal with the restaurant division of Granada, which bought the Forte Hotels in August-putting him, at the ripe age of 35, in charge of some of London’s most famous and historic dining establishments. His empire now includes the Mirabelle (which opens at Christmas), the Criterion, Quo Vadis, the Cafe Royal Grill Room and MPW in Canary Wharf, and this spring he will be in charge, among other things, of revamping the kitchen at the venerable Randolph Hotel in Oxford and the Waldorf Palm Court in London. The only restaurant where he actually cooks, however, is the Oak Room.
The restaurant is down the road from the Royal Academy, of which my father is a member, although he has refused to set foot there while the controversial show of young British artists is on (it includes such works as a plastic head filled with the artist’s own blood). And when I mentioned that another of Mr. White’s ventures was Quo Vadis, my father’s face darkened. Quo Vadis, a Soho fixture since the 20’s, had been brought trendily up-to-date by Mr. White and the artist Damien Hirst-decorated with skeletons, medical instruments and Mr. Hirst’s graying cow’s heads.
There are pig’s cheeks in the Oak Room but no cow’s heads (and the former are served in a pork pot roast). We sailed through large mirrored doors into an enormous, hushed lounge where the Louis XIV furniture is more reminiscent of the England of Margaret Thatcher than the rollicking informality of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia.” The gilded walls are decorated with large oil paintings in the style of early Picasso, and the ceilings, several stories high, are hung with cut-glass chandeliers. My father looked at his watch. “It’s 8:05 and we haven’t gone to our table yet. What was it you said about a contract?”
The oak-paneled dining room is a former ballroom, and four of us were seated at a table that would comfortably have held eight. In the middle was a large white lamp with a red shade that obscured the person on the far side entirely. We moved it to a corner, but it was hard to hear across the vast expanse of table. Looking around the room, I expected to see some rich sheiks with their entourages, but the other customers were rather low-key and quiet, a smattering of businessmen and a few very English couples who looked as though they’d come up from the country for a night out.
And what an expensive night it is! In addition to the $120 prix fixe, there are more than half a dozen supplements on the menu-$15 or $30 for lobster or foie gras, sea bass with caviar and even John Dory, served not with caviar but lentils. Mr. White’s cooking is sensational, however, the most refined of haute cuisine, subtle and delicate. As we waited for our first courses, the waiter brought us each a scallop on a pool of black squid-ink sauce, topped with a miniature tentacle of fried squid. It was an extraordinary combination of unexpected tastes and textures.
I had the ballottine of wild salmon, which was superb, served with a salad of crayfish and caviar with crème fraîche. Also delicious were the flaky pastry mille-feuille of beef, crab and tomatoes, the whole dish brought together with a light tomato vinaigrette, and the grilled sea scallops afloat on a dark green chive and ginger sauce.
My father did not order the Aberdeen Angus “Molly Parkin,” asking, “Isn’t she that dreadful woman in the turban?” Instead, he went for the roast partridge, perfectly cooked and reclining on a bed of choucroute. When the waiter brought him a silver finger bowl, he looked at it and smiled. “What was the feller’s name?” he asked my mother. “You know, who took his parents to a restaurant in France and, when the finger bowl was produced, his father used it to rinse out his false teeth.”
My mother was in raptures over the tender chunks of rabbit, served with an herb risotto and sprinkled with a frizzle that I took to be fried leeks but was slivered rabbit belly. “It looks like a hedgehog,” she said delightedly.
I had the braised pig’s trotter, which was deboned and sliced and served with a sauce of morels, giving off an aroma that nearly knocked me out. My sister loved the turbot, which was given a light Provençal touch with olives, basil and eggplant.
After a perfect miniature crème caramel “to clean the palate,” as the maître d’ put it, came dessert: soufflé Rothschild,a “cadeau” of chocolate with mousse inside, a caramelized apple tart and an exquisite prune and Armagnac soufflé.
The wine list is extensive and expensive, but the sommelier was helpful about choosing good cheaper vintages. It occurred to me that when Mr. White takes over the Randolph, any sommelier there will have his work cut out for him, selling to the Oxford dons. When a new custodian at Queen Anne’s decided to take inventory of the college wines, he was advised to take a bicycle; the cellars contain 47,000 bottles of claret alone. While most restaurants start their wine markup at 200 percent, at Oxford University it remains a gentlemanly 5 percent. One don recently enjoyed a nice bottle of 1939 claret, for which he was charged 55 pence. The original price was 10 shillings.
The Oak Room ****
Le Meridien Piccadilly Hotel,(11)21 Piccadilly, London W.1
Noise Level: Low
Wine List: Extensive but expensive
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Lunch prix fixe $47, (11)dinner prix fixe $120
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to (11)2 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 7 P.M. to 11:15 P.M.
** Very Good