October 14 2009
One sometimes has the distinct feeling that, of all the people involved in setting up a fashionable restaurant, the least important is the chef. The architect, the interior designer, the fashionista who dreamt up the (highly impractical) staff uniforms, the artisans who spent weeks brushing squares of silver leaf onto the mirrors… all take precedence over the poor old cook, who often seems to be hired as an afterthought. Like people who buy paintings to match their décor, restaurateurs choose a cuisine to match their interiors.
When the aesthetic dynamic is minimalism, this is particularly irksome. For instance, I remember arriving at the Habita Hotel in Mexico City, somewhat jaded from a 14-hour flight, and – thanks to the snowy-white inscrutability of my bedroom – being unable to locate the bathroom door for several minutes. The sink boasted nothing as bourgeois as taps: it was as though I was stuck inside a high-tech hi-fi, unable to make anything work. Even more annoyingly, the fruit bowl contained a perfect pyramid of limes, which matched the décor perfectly but were of little use as sustenance.
If an award for terrible restaurant décor could be awarded to an entire nation, les palmes would definitely go to France. There is nothing wrong with artless little bistros, or even the grand brasseries of the belle époque, but as a rule, the more Michelin stars a French restaurant receives, the worse the décor becomes. Out go the rustic wooden tables and the framed Pernod posters; in come swirly carpet tiles and chintz swagging – the sort of curtains you might still find in the breakfast room of a pretentious Eastbourne boarding house but which disappeared from London restaurants in the late 1960s.
Sometimes, however, the setting actually lives up to the food. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris is such a place. Robuchon’s outposts in Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and London aren’t too shabby, either; the food is best in Paris, however, and the surroundings are profoundly elegant. The décor is as rich and sleek as M Robuchon’s legendary pommes purée truffée (so, incidentally, is the clientele). Bag a barstool by the kitchen and tinker with upmarket tapas. Grazing was never more heavenly.
In a completely different way, Hakkasan (pictured), tucked away in a basement just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, does the same thing. Sexy lighting and carved dark-wood screens conjure up the aura of an upmarket opium den and, appropriately, the dim sum are deeply addictive: I have frequent cravings for baked venison puffs and mushroom cheung fun.
Delicious though they are, however, and as exquisite as Monsieur Robuchon’s creations are, they would not taste nearly as good in a less beautiful room: not easy on the wallet, perhaps, but very easy on the eye.