I have long maintained that there is a specific reason why restaurants need restaurateurs, the profession spawned by Paris restaurants in the late 18th century. Two recent meals, one in France, the other in London, convinced me that this association is just as important today.
The first was chez Michel Chabran, a chef who has one Michelin star for his restaurant in the hotel named after himself in Pont-d’Isère, a small town just south of the hill of Hermitage, who has been at the stoves there for the past 40 years.
By contrast, Jun Tanaka is a chef who has just opened on Charlotte Street in central London, The Ninth, so named because it is the ninth restaurant he has cooked in since he started in London in 1990 at Le Gavroche.
Both chefs, in my opinion, are living proof that however talented they and their brigades may be, what they have to offer would be so much better if they had a sensitive restaurateur by their side.
That was certainly my reaction when listening to my wife’s account of her meal at Chabran’s restaurant, a dinner arranged by the director of the nearby Cave de Tain, on Monday 16 November. He didn’t want a late night but the dinner came after a particularly long day for Jancis that had begun when our alarm went off at 6.15 that morning. Soon afterwards she dropped me at Roanne station and then crossed over into the Rhône, visited a range of northern Rhône producers and conducted a blind tasting of 80 local whites during the day before facing about a dozen more wines over dinner.
All she wanted was one less course on the set menu they were presented with on arrival. The menu was pretty classic French. Two fish courses, both involving scallops, then a local speciality called a crique ardéchoise, a simple potato-based dish, then two meat courses, and finally dessert and petits fours. It was the second meat dish that was the cause of the problem: they simply wanted only one.
The two on offer – and I must say that I can never see the need for a second meat course – were a breast of pheasant alongside its leg followed by a tournedos of venison with a sauce grand veneur, a classic red-wine reduction for game. So they asked Madame Chabron, who was in charge of their service, whether it would be possible to dispense with one of them. She looked extremely doubtful and indeed the venison duly appeared. (I’m afraid I just couldn’t manage it – JR)
Putting yourself in the shoes of the customer is one of the distinguishing marks of a top restaurateur and also one of the distinguishing marks of a restaurant led by a restaurateur rather than a chef. Here was a case in point. Had there been someone with a restaurateur’s sensitivity on duty in this restaurant, long run from the kitchens by its founder and chef, then I feel certain that someone would have recognised why my wife and her host were asking for this and immediately agreed. Any of the restaurateurs portrayed in my book The Art of The Restaurateur(Phaidon, and still, annoyingly, available only in hardback) would have stepped in and dropped one of the meat courses.
At least the cooking chez Chabran was of a high standard. Anyone thinking of going out to eat in Charlotte Street, London, will have plenty of alternatives rather than run the risk of as disappointing a lunch as I experienced earlier this week at The Ninth.
Part of the problem lies in the building Tanaka has leased. He was fortunate enough to take over a former restaurant (a Greek restaurant called Andrea’s) that has obviously meant that not too much money nor time has been spent on its conversion. In fact, Tanaka himself told us that he signed the contract as recently as early October, and he was already open by the end of November.
No, the initial, major problem – and one I believe a restaurateur would have spotted and advised him against – lies in the different style of restaurant he is now proposing. Andrea’s was an old-fashioned Greek restaurant with the kitchen in the basement, somewhere where everyone was quite happy to sit and wait for their food to arrive via the lift. Tanaka wants his restaurant to be modern, serving a mixture of French and southern Mediterranean dishes, and that these dishes are to be shared.
Food like this needs to be seen to be cooking. The aromas need to permeate the dining room. And there needs to be lots of interaction between the chefs, the waiting staff and the customers. None of this happens here, sadly. Perhaps, a restaurateur would have put him off this particular site.
A restaurateur would certainly have improved the service. There were just seven of us in for lunch on a windy, rainswept Monday, of whom two were in the wine trade and seemingly none too bothered about the time that lunch would take. But still, ordering took longer than it should have done. The food when it came was good in parts. An aubergine purée underneath a whole sea bream, and the pieces of salted ox cheeks served with an oxtail consommé were the best. But too much was disappointing, most notably a dish described as king prawn macaroni that turned out to be simply prawns on the top of a bowl of macaroni. Nor were the pommes cocottes, served in a small black Staub casserole, cooked thoroughly.
Worse was to follow. At 2.45 pm Tanaka appeared, no longer in his whites but having changed into his civvies and about to walk out of the door. By coming to our table to say goodbye, he infuriated my host, who spends a lot of time commuting to Paris to eat at more three-star Michelin restaurants in a month than most people do in their lifetime, and was left wondering how many of his French counterparts would have acted in a similar fashion.
We paid the bill of £77 for two, without wine and dessert other than a plate of small madeleines, and left. As we did so there was no farewell from the manager, the waiter or the waitress seemingly preoccupied with a technical issue on their computer right by the front door.
As we stood, somewhat nonplussed, by the tables outside, I thanked my host for what I could only describe as ‘an interesting meal’ and added, ‘You know, what this place needs is a good restaurateur.’
Michel Chabran, Pont d’Isère; tel +33 (0)4 75 84 60 09
The Ninth, Charlotte Street, London; tel +44 (0)20 3019 0880