Two men had just finished their meal in the dining room of one of London's most chic and intimate restaurants. They were drinking espressos and smoking Cohiba Robustos. They gazed at the Jim Dine painting at the end of the room; the faces of Mao Tse-tung and Lyndon B. Johnson stared back.
"I can give you some addresses in Madrid where you can buy some excellent cigars," said David Moore, the maître d' of Pied à Terre, located a few minutes' walk from Oxford Street. "The situation [for finding cigars] in London is very difficult at the moment."
The humidor, however, at Pied à Terre was well stocked. It held cigars that were unavailable in nearby cigar shops, including the Montecristo No. 2, Cohiba Esplendido, Romeo y Julieta Churchill and It would be worth coming here just for the cigars; but the food, wine, service and atmosphere are some of the best in fine dining in London.
With its stark white walls, low-voltage lighting and contem-porary paintings, the 40-seat restaurant has the feel of a private art gallery. Pop artist Richard Hamilton is the restaurant's major shareholder, and a few pieces from his large art collection are always on display. Past works adorning the walls include paintings from fellow pop artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Franz Joseph Kline.
Pied à Terre's food complements the dynamic art. Chef Tom Aikens delivers bold and intense French cuisine. He has an affinity for labor-intensive preparations and extracts as much character as possible from the ingredients he uses.
Aikens spent a year with French super chefs Jöel Robuchon and Gerard Boyer, and worked for a number of years with Pied à Terre's former head chef, Richard Neat, who was considered one of London's top chefs before moving to India.
Aikens' experiences come through on the plate. His cuisine is hearty and powerful, just like a great cigar. Pan-fried red mullet served on a tangy red pepper and tomato sauce is fresh and succulent with a spring-like aura to the dish. A main course of duck is incredibly complex. The breast is roasted and the leg braised, so both pieces of fowl arrive moist and rich. The dish is served with a warm duck pâté, hot foie gras and a tepid white bean casserole.
Come hungry to this place. Not only is the food rich and satisfying, but it arrives in copious amounts. Aikens believes most top-class restaurants are too stingy with portions. In fact, he's been know to go out for a pizza after a three-star meal.
Finding a great bottle of wine isn't a problem at Pied à Terre. The wine list includes about 250 selections, predominately French with a strength in Burgundy. Go for wines you seldom see in the States, including whites from Raveneau, Roulot, Coche-Dury and Jean-Noel Gagnard, and reds from Roumier, Ampeau, Senard and Dujac.
Great wines from the Rhône Valley are also available. Particularly outstanding are the wines from Jean-Luc Colombo and Rene Rostaing. Bordeaux fans will also be pleased with plenty of good bottles, although very few from the 1980s.
The sommelier, Bruno Asselin, is also in charge of the humidor. He considers having a great selection of cigars as import-ant as a serious wine list. Asselin obviously is cigar savvy, considering what is in the humidor. Strangely, he doesn't smoke cigars, and neither does the maître d'. Yet that didn't stop them from discussing the fine points of the subject with a couple of their customers.
"I always come here when I am in London," said one, a visitor from the United States, who was still puffing away on his Cohiba Robusto as he finished his coffee. He wrote down the addresses of the Madrid cigar shops supplied by the maître d' and left the restaurant with a satisfied smile. "The food is great. The wine and the service are also excellent. And besides, you always have great cigars."
Pied à Terre
34 Charlotte Street
Phone: 44 171/636-1178
Fax: 44 171/916-1171
Dinner: $85 per person, without wine