London life: the uncomfortable truth about fine dining

The restaurant serves 24 tiny dishes with names like ‘Mielikki essence and strawberries’

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The day I moved to London, I set fire to my bedroom. Before my arrival, the room had been a humble cupboard. I had no bed or chair, but a good stock of tea lights, which — feeling homesick — I lit. Presently, the tea lights lit a pile of paper and then the carpet . . . I was 22 and moving to London felt like a mistake.

Fourteen years on, I tend to tell everyone I love London. I don’t love all of it — just the few places I go to all the time, like the curiously chic butcher, which is also a restaurant. In my perfect world, I’d eat there all the time; I am an habitué; I’ve even been there on my own.

Such places — I have similar feelings for my hairdresser and a pub nearby full of arty-looking dogs and taxidermy — make me feel local. And that’s good.

But not always good, apparently. My wife thinks we should try places beyond east London; she wants to go to a famous restaurant. And she picks one — 24 tiny dishes with avant-garde names.

On the big night, I select a blue shirt and blue trousers — understated. My wife, dressed — casually — to the nines, curls the fringe of her shiny blonde bob.

Her restaurant smells of wood smoke. Waiters skim about. The lights are dim — squint and we could be dining in a friendly forest in Finland. We order the second cheapest bottle of white. And so the show begins.

Enter a warm ball of bread with a scoop of aniseed butter. “Mmm,” I say. “Mmm. Aniseed butter.”

Two bites in, my wife queries the whole concept of aniseed butter.

Enter a mushroom tart, unbearably light: “Mmm,” I say, as the morsel evaporates on my tongue. “Wow. Subtle.”

“It’s tasteless,” my wife says.

Further dishes make fleeting appearances — something with truffle gel, something soft and something fishy — and then a menu arrives on thick paper, our own special menu because every table is unique. “Mielikki essence and strawberries,” I read. “Where are the meat dishes?”

Enter a cold crab claw.

“It’s frozen,” my wife observes.

It’s crab ice-cream, judging by our menu. We try it. “Mmm. That’s . . . ”

“Gross,” she says. But there’s no need to panic, there’s plenty still to go. The wine is going down well, at least, and we’ll order red with the meat. I have my heart set on slivers of duck, or a tiny pink cutlet, or beef. But perhaps this is a fish restaurant.

One clam appears, swimming in white foam. “Mmm,” I say, dispatching the mollusc in a trice, and set off questing for the loo.

In the mirror, my shirt appears to be clashing with my trousers — different blues. My beard — in its shy early phase — conveys an air of mild dirtiness. It is intended to give me gravitas, but perhaps it makes me look defeated. And homeless.

Back at the table, my wife notes that we are more than halfway through.

An oyster cased in lemon peel. No duck. Cheese wrapped in cloth. A rubbery thing. Not a sliver of duck in sight. And something else — no one knows what. “What’s this?” I ask.

“I feel swizzed,” my wife says sadly.

A waiter sneaks up, wondering if we’re happy. Couldn’t be happier. He smiles, as if he is also happy and we his favourite table — but then maybe it’s just his training and maybe . . . I feel like a giant slob next to him.

Pudding. Hopes of meat completely dashed, I order a bottle of red anyway — pushing us over budget — and banter about Donald Trump. My wife is visibly depressed. Wolfing into the wine, she denounces the food dish by dish.

And then we have a strawberry — an ex-strawberry, that is — and the strawberry is the final straw: it resembles a sweet, cold human tongue.

“We’ve been given the bad menu,” she says. “Why can’t we have what they’re having? I’m going to complain.”

But she can’t because we’re suddenly given a tour of the kitchen, where all the magic happens, and we stand about staring at the chefs and nodding sagely. If we can’t pay the bill, we’ll be doing the washing up in here.

Leaving, my wife accidentally hoofs a small, superfluous stool beside her chair, stumbles and cries out in pain. Two waiters police the situation. “It’s nothing,” I say.

In the taxi, we pass my butcher. It is late, but my fellow habitués are still eating meat merrily. Warm light spills on to the pavement and — like Mole smelling his home — I would like to peek inside.

Alexander Gilmour is associate editor of House & Home; @AIMGilmour

Next week: Jane Owen’s ‘Provincial life’

Illustration: Sarah Hanson

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