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Siebeck's superstars

Wolfram Siebeck visits the London restaurant of famous TV chef Jamie Oliver. Then goes to recover in some really good establishments.

This is the third of Wolfram Siebeck's articles inspired by the Guardian's list of the world's fifty best restaurants. In his first article he visits the winning nanocuisine restaurant The Fat Duck. In the second, he lays into the ultimate yuckerie.

TV cooks – even if they're not really proper cooks – pay a high price for their popularity. The audience believes they are connoisseurs, the creme de la creme. When, a few years ago, the German food magazine Feinschmecker launched a survey to find Germany's best chef, the emerging winner was TV chef Alfred Biolek. Experts threw their arms up in horror, and the magazine's editors in Hamburg struggled to retain their composure.

So it comes as no surprise that a TV chef like Jamie Oliver is world famous but hardly considered worth mentioning in established gourmet guides. Which of course does not prevent his modest eatery from being permanently booked out and his equally popular cook books from being printed in vast numbers. Not undeservedly, I should add. They herald a sensibly relaxed approach to their subject matter, and purge their readers of culinary fear.

But the Michelin Guide only gives the "naked chef" a naked fork for his restaurant, the lowest rating possible in the famous red book. And if in spite of this his restaurant Fifteen, in an unsightly part of North London on the City Road, serves evening meals in two sittings, this is also the price of his TV fame. Only this time it's paid for by the guests – the tasting menu costs 60 pounds.

The name of the restaurant refers to the fifteen employees who attempt to cope with the constant hustle and bustle. They are teenagers, welfare cases and other problem individuals whom Oliver offers the chance to rectify their lives over pureed haricot beans. They're all extremely friendly and this spills out into the atmosphere of the restaurant. In Fifteen it's as loud as a disco – and that's without music. It is in a cellar, decorated not unskilfully by a graffiti artist. The customers are under thirty. Grandpas like myself are advised to rip their trousers before braving the rowdy kindergarten.

The "tasting menu" here has little in common with the usual finicky opera celebrated in elegant establishments. First there's a spoonful of soup, then some very good ravioli in a broth, followed by turbot on a rather vulgar ratatouille. Two very delicious cremes round off the proceedings, one chocolate and one panna cotta. The bread is good too and plenty of wines on the wine menu are worth a try. I drank an Australian Shiraz called Wirra Wirra and resolved not to make any jokes about the name.

Among London's many one-star restaurants there are one or two worth mentioning. (Many means 31, Berlin only manages to scrape 7.) The Savoy Grill, for decades the meeting place of the rich and beautiful, where Noël Coward once had a regular table, the Mirabelle, another such glitterati magnet, and then there's the eighth best restaurant in the world, the Tom Aikens.

At least it's listed as such on the oh so reliable Guardian list of the world's fifty best restaurants. After my experience with the other winners of this survey among 600 so-called experts, I approached this gastronomic heavyweight somewhat tentatively. This was in fact the fault of the sluggish traffic which still clogs the centre of London despite the toll, and through which my taxi struggled. There are just too many people on the move with only one thing on their minds, which is to get into the next pub and guzzle down something cheap. They eat standing up in snack bars jam packed with people in shirts and ties at midday, and in their underwear in the evening. The German catering trade would be over the moon if they got to serve only half this amount people, naked or otherwise.

So anyway, back to number 8 on the Guardian list: Tom Aikens. The chef Tom Aikens, who gave his name to the restaurant, earned himself an excellent reputation ten years ago in Pied a Terre. He was one of the young anti-traditionalists, who, together with Gordon Ramsay and others, took it upon themselves to show the beef steak chefs how modern cooking should look and taste. Tom Aikens has stayed true to his mission.

His restaurant in Chelsea, just a few feet away from the Michelin building, is not just minimalist, it is decorated in strict Zen aesthetics that permit nothing but black and white inside and out. Only the waiters break with the colour scheme by wearing colourful ties with their black shirts. Apart from that, they are slow, incompetent and absent-minded. There is no trace left in the whole of London of the old, flat-footed waiters whose eyes were all over the place and who did their job so brilliantly that a pleasant symbiosis developed between them and the guests. In this respect, Tom Aikens is just another on a whole list of grim addresses which frustrate their guests throughout Europe.

But what Tom Aikens produces in the kitchen has all the perfection the staff lacks. The man has developed an exquisite approach to modern cooking. Very reduced – when, for example, he dedicates a starter to the zucchini – and yet so imaginative that he can play with this vegetable and tease out of it delightful unknown nuances.

His pea soup is a culinary masterpiece (unnecessarily served in a modish preserving jar). It testifies to a profound understanding of aromas and an extraordinary feel for sensory subtleties. Main courses such as sweetbread or a cut of veal back are robbed of all banality and combined so originally with delicate substances that they deserve a place on any best-of list. The desserts too, starkly simplified and extra-terrestrially scrumptious, confirm all expectations raised by the preceding masterpieces. Even the waiters gathered momentum as the meal progressed, decanting the better Chardonnays and serving them in large Burgundy glasses.

Lunch menus of this quality at 29 pounds (without wine) are a rare joy, even in other capital cities.

But what London does offer in copious amounts are – what a surprise! - fast food joints. One chain Pret a Manger has spread like the plague. Apparently it's nothing but a Macdonald's with a French name. And wherever they spring up, traditional pubs wither like corn in a heat wave.

So once again, anyone hungry for real Dover sole or a choice of juicy rump steaks from a trolley is forced to depend on the restaurants of the big hotels. At the Dorchester at Hyde Park they've been practising this for decades. You'd never know in the The Grill Room of this grand hotel that it was here that Anton Mosimann launched his crusade to bring Nouvelle Cuisine to the English. The red velvet is little faded, the ceiling lighting dreary, and the owner's snow-white robed relatives only show up in high summer when the heat in Brunei becomes unbearable. But the elderly guests sit about as they always did, waiting to be served with great slabs of meat from the good side of the beef. They were never interested in whether good or better chefs existed, the type who believe the culinary arts are best left in the hands of people who eat frogs' legs.

For decades I've sought sanctuary in the Grill Room at the Dorchester when the catastrophes of the art cooks all became too much. But I never ate anything except smoked salmon, Dover sole or bread and butter pudding. It was always good and it still is. Although the obligatory Yorkshire pudding (Siebeck's bracketed description of this as a sort of Danish pastry has left us shell-shocked – ed.) seems as antiquated as the bearskins worn by the Royal guards. But the accompanying vegetables are as organic as the beef. The waiters in tails however serve the Chardonnay in the sort of tiny glasses which I personally use for sherry at home.

Whenever I feel like delving deeper into the traditions of English cooking, I go to Rules. The old Victorian brasserie is as wonderful in its way as the Train Bleu at the Paris Gare de Lyon, a nostalgic gem of the early 19th century. Culinary charm has always featured, although in varying doses. At the moment though there is a master at the stove who took me quite by surprise. It is a long time since I tasted a chicken curry with raisin rice and fruit chutney, or a breast of pork with spring onions quite as delicious. Rules is one of a handful of restaurants to which I always return, even if their neighbours are getting less desirable all the time.

Fifteen Restaurant
Westland Place, London N1 7LP, Tel. 0044-870/787 15 15, open daily

Tom Aikens
Elystan Street 43, London SW3 3NT, Tel. 0044-20/75 84 20 03, closed weekends

The Grill Room
The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London W1A 2HJ, Tel. 0044-20/76 29 88 88, open daily

Rules Restaurant
Maiden Lane 35, London WC2E 7LB, Tel. 0044-20/78 36 53 14, open daily


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on June 23, 2005.

Wolfram Siebeck, born in 1928 in Duisburg, is one of Germany's most famous chefs and restaurant critics. He writes a regular column for Die Zeit.


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