In the music industry, trailblazers are garlanded with a number of accolades. Tottenham-born Adele, for one, has enough Brits, Grammys and Ivor Novellos to fill a trophy cabinet. In sport, sprinters and swimmers collect medals, world records and championship titles with equal gusto.
In the competitive world of fine dining, however, there is one accolade coveted above all others. Being decorated with such an award signifies that a chef has reached the upper echelons of their craft. Two such accolades are newsworthy, remarkable, even. Only 19 restaurants in the UK can boast of such success. Three awards? Well, that guarantees waiting lists that stretch for months.
The Michelin star, now globally recognised, had an unusual start in life, combining as it did culinary excellence with what is essentially a rubber ring. A series of guidebooks was launched in France by André and Édouard Michelin in 1900, 11 years after they began their tyre business. They needed a way to persuade the then small number of drivers to make more journeys and, therefore, buy more tyres. The guide contained information for motorists, including where to find the best meals while on the road.
By 1920, the dining element was in such high demand that Michelin set up a team of inspectors who – anonymously – visited and rated restaurants: one star marked 'a very good' restaurant in its category; two flagged ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’; and three stars signified ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.
Exactly 100 years later, even once-, twice-, thrice-starred chefs still aspire to add to their collection. The famously fiery Gordon Ramsay admitted to crying when he lost his. Stars can, of course, be taken away much more easily than they are won.
All the more remarkable, then, that Pied à Terre on Charlotte Street will be able to celebrate its 30th birthday next year, as the longest-standing Michelin-starred restaurant in London, and, indeed, the UK.
Owner David Moore welcomed diners back in September 2020 after a pandemic-enforced break and he seems delighted on the busy Wednesday that we visit to see diners frequenting the restaurant’s (helpfully socially-distanced-by-design) booths again. “It’s a joy to see it continue to thrive. With some helpful advice from the talented Raymond Blanc I opened the doors in 1991 with chef Richard Neat and by 1996 I was thrilled to see the restaurant gain two Michelin stars.”
The restaurant reopens with a selection of tasting menus for lunch and dinner as well as a vegan tasting menu. Head chef Asimakis Chaniotis’ menu (available with 48 hours notice) includes Pied à Terre classics as well as new dishes developed since March. I can’t say I was immediately won over by the sound of British whelks … but they tasted so much better than I had imagined, and won extra points thanks to their vessel – a conch shell filled with bouillabaisse, into which we pushed the whelks, then out of which we drank. Chaniotis came up with this one while spending time in lockdown diving for whelks at his family’s home in Kefalonia, Greece.
We’d already enjoyed our canapés by this point – the Scottish Waygu beef hot dog disappeared quickly, as did the Greek-style, light-as-foam scrambled eggs. I was slightly perplexed by the radishes, which I was to unearth myself from their soil bed, resulting in a slightly soiled crudité. I’m sure, though, that quirks like this, as well as – it goes without saying – the consistently excellent standard of cooking, are what have attracted Michelin reviewers in the past.
Friendly, well-informed, visor-wearing staff bustle to-and-fro, filling up our wine glasses with stems so thin and elegant that it’s a miracle they can support the glass above. Waitors neatly explain how chefs blend classic French recipes with 'Greek muscle', although the proof is in the pudding – and the main courses. The ‘Greece featuring Italy’ salad is as prettily presented as a flower crown, while the grouse packs a pleasingly meaty punch. The butter-soft lemon sole, cooked à la Barigoule, would win praise in any top French restaurant, though other establishments probably wouldn’t serve their cheese with Greek apricot jam.
We end our meal with a kumquat soufflé – cooked to perfection and accompanied by strawberry and basil sorbet. I love a tasting menu that’s inventive and delectable without becoming ridiculous in pursuit of both, and Pied a Terre ticks the box. Who knows what winter holds for the country and for dining out, so I’d urge you to make the most of it while you can.
34 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London, W1T 2NH, pied-a-terre.co.uk