“I’ll have the calf’s head,” said Lawrence. The table fell silent. The waitress looked impressed; this chap must be a real foodie. Lawrence grinned smugly. “Blimey, you’re feeling adventurous today,” I said. He shrugged it off nonchalantly. This was an everyday occurrence in the life of an esteemed epicurean. I chose not to remind him about the ‘gazpacho’ incident. Not to be outdone by this display of culinary bravado, I dived into the a la carte, ordering Koffmann’s signature dish of pig’s trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels. Angela, falling for none of this showmanship, plumped for the monkfish wrapped in ham.
I have been waiting eight years to dine at this restaurant, which finally opened its doors last month. You all know the story because every other journalist has written exactly the same clichéd article about how Pierre “The Bear” Koffmann “hung up his apron” in 2002 and closed the “legendary three Michelin-star La Tante Claire”, only to reappear at the London Restaurant Festival last year with a pop-up venue on the roof of Selfridges, followed by the announcement that he would be returning to the kitchen full-time, setting foodie channels ablaze with excited chatter. This is the most talked about restaurant in London.
The dining room is chic and sophisticated, as you would expect from a restaurant in the well-fed bowels of The Berkeley Hotel. There is a large picture-window into the kitchen where you can observe Pierre hard at work, dressing plates, tasting sauces, manning stoves. But don’t think for a moment that you will be getting haute cuisine here. Koffmann’s fine dining days are behind him; this is honest, hearty brasserie food, inspired by the dishes of his home province, Gascony.
Angela and Lawrence started with a meaty, flaky and buttery pigeon pie from the superb set lunch menu at a mere £22.50 for three courses. I couldn’t resist ordering Koffmann’s signature starter of La Tante Claire fame, the scallops in squid ink. There was so much squid ink on the plate that I wondered if the top had fallen off the sauce bottle while dressing the dish. Not that I’m complaining. It was delicious. I used some bread to mop up the remaining oil slick and withstood the urge to lick the plate clean.
When I read ‘Calf’s Head’ on the lunch menu, I had a vision of a head on a plate, perhaps scalped so that you could take the ‘lid’ off like a casserole pot and sup on the brains inside. What arrived, however, was rather more attractive. A large ‘cake’, coated with breadcrumbs and fried, accompanied by a slice of something that resembled cauliflower and a hunk of grainy meat. We were all intrigued. Lawrence, ever the poker player, was unfazed.
As I gobbled greedily on the sweetbreads and morels of Koffmann’s trademark trotter dish, I noticed a frown forming darkly upon Larry’s face, a storm cloud on the horizon. He muttered quietly, “What the…?” Something was amiss. “Jonesy,” he said to me, his voice faintly trembling, “what do you reckon this is?” He plonked a large slice of the fried cake onto my plate. Inside was a clear, gelatinous, membranous substance with a subtle flavour and a few meaty pink bits wallowing in the surrounding jelly. “I’m not sure, old chap. The face, perhaps?” I tried to contain my laughter while I pinched a forkful of chips from a side dish lined with newspaper – the TV listings from Le Monde – I suppose this was Pierre’s morning read.
A guessing game then ensued to identify which parts of the head Lawrence was eating. “This must be the brain,” he whispered urgently, spearing a slither of the spongy cauliflower upon his fork. Angela, meanwhile, tucked smugly into her monkfish. The grainy slice of meat on Lawrence’s plate was tongue, we concluded, but we couldn’t fathom what the gelatinous cake was and this played on his mind. “D’you want some more?” he asked me hopefully, nudging his plate in my direction. “I have quite enough here, thank you,” I replied, like a banker clutching a copy of the FT, gently turning away a Big Issue seller.
The mystery was too much to stomach. Lawrence grabbed the waitress. “Excuse me, could you tell me what this is? Presumably I’m supposed to eat it?” The waitress, previously impressed by Larry’s order, now observed him with disappointment: an A-grade student that churns out a D. She explained that the ‘headcake’ was made by boiling the skull until the marrow seeps out of the bones, all the flesh and innards turn to jelly and everything is then cooled and compacted into a mouth-watering, heady (couldn’t resist) delight. “Right,” croaked Larry, turning a slightly paler shade of white, the storm clouds now a maelstrom of bad weather across his tortured face. He pushed the plate away in resignation. “I feel unusual,” he announced.
Desserts, teas and coffees were ordered; I dug into a fantastic chocolate mousse. The food here is remarkably good value, made all the more notable when you consider who the chef is and where this restaurant is located. With options for the hardcore gastronome and casual diner alike, from trotters, heads and livers to a more conservative duck breast, Dover sole, roasted rabbit and even a sirloin steak, one thing is certain; whatever you order, you won’t get it better anywhere else. Whether you choose to eat a calf’s head or a pig’s trotter is another matter. To quote Lawrence’s parting words, “It was an experience.” Next time he’ll order the monkfish.