It's 1968 and I'm in some swankpot restaurant entertaining dollybird number two. Edda Dell'Orso's crooning Morricone. There's a fawning waiter in a maroon mess jacket. He's flambéing Crêpes Suzette at the table. Behind him hovers a suave eagle-eyed maitre d' of the old school. Or that, at least, is how I imagine it; in my dreams. Silver Service. That's what it used to be called. And when was the last time you had that?
Well, Greasy Spooners, I have some very good news indeed. Please make your way as fast as you can to the soon-to-be-hallowed doors of Otto's in the Gray's Inn Road. Otto's opened in 2012 so it's a relatively new kid on the block. It's a small-ish restaurant, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a sushi bar, just across the road from the barristers of Gray's Inn and almost next door to the newscasters of ITN. Visiting Otto's is to enter a culinary time machine. A little trip in time back to one of those smartish, sophisticated and very grown up local restaurants which used to exist in the land of Never-Never. We're in Frasier and Niles Crane territory; this, I think, is what used to be known as 'gastronomy'.
The maverick genius behind this new enterprise is Austrian-born Otto Albert Tepassé, old hand and late of the Tour d' Argent and Mirabelle. If you're lucky- and rich- you may have eaten at the Tour d' Argent. It's that oh-so-famous restaurant in Paris where they serve the spécialité de la maison: pressed duck. But this is no ordinary duck. Each dish comes with a signed and numbered certificate as if it was a trinket from the Franklin Mint.
Tour d'Argent, Paris, 1974. The generosity of a more leisurely age.
Now, too, you can experience the delights of pressed duck, here in foggy old London. If you're prepared to pre-book a slot, pay £140 and watch the whole performance (it takes over an hour). For this is the generosity of a more lesiurely age. No second sittings here. Otto's devotes a whole page on its menu to the story behind its very own Edwardian duck press (Christofle, 1910, if you're wondering). They have a lobster press too, but somehow that doesn't seem quite as exciting:
Pressed Duck is mostly prepared in front of the customer. The Duck is roasted to rare and carried to the table where thin slices are cut from the breasts. The breast slices are then placed in a dish of reduced red wine. The rest of the Duck except for the legs, which are served grilled, is pressed in the special screw press. The juice obtained is flavoured with Cognac, thickened with Duck liver and poured over the slices of breast which finish cooking in the sauce.
Which reminds me. Back in the early 90's, I managed- with difficulty- to secure a job of sorts as a junior 'expert' (I hesitate to use the word) at the now defunct auction house, Phillips, which then eeked its trade at the shabbier end of New Bond Street. The first objet I ever had the pleasure of cataloguing was- you guessed- a silver-plated duck press; a relic, I expect of some smart high falutin' 50's restaurant gone bust. Floundering, I described it optimistically as a 'grape press' and gave it an embrassingly low estimate. It was bought for a steal by one Prudence Leith.
Inside, Ottos' has an Old European vibe. White- washed walls. Large tables, pressed linen, spacious padded banquettes in crushed rasberry, art nouveau lamps and Viennese busts. Decorative nick-nacks in silver-plate grace each table. Ours was a lobster. Downstairs, there's a framed poster of Catherine Deneuve's naked back, Belle de Jour; upstairs, bizarrely, there's a thing for Marilyn Monroe going on, and Audrey Hepburn to a lesser extent- photographs, posters and cushions. It's kitsch. But it works. I think. Up to a Point. It's weirdly edgy, even slightly eccentric as, seemingly, is Mein Host.
We sat quite close to the fabled duck press. Saw it in action, too- surrounded by a team of eager white coated waiters wrestling with the wheel on the top. They like trolleys at Otto's. And waiters, too, of which there seems to be an inexhaustible supply. At the table opposite us, a trolley spiked with a piglet's haunch (presumably the Jambon Agé de Serrano?) was parked with great ceremony.
The food is of the Old School. It's rich. It's Gothic. It's French. It's wonderful. My first course of brains (Cervelle de Veau a la Grenobloise, Poêlée de Champignons Sauvage) was superb. Barely cooked, flashed in the pan - as it should be, meltingly soft, amost runny, served in a conplex sauce enlivened with lemon, capers, parsley and mushrooms. Mrs Aitch's Snail Ravioli (Ravioles d’Escargots à la Bourguignonne) was 'divine'.
Then I had to have the Steak Tartare with Rôsti potatoes (Tartare de Bœuf, Préparé à la Table, Pomme d’Arphin), of course I did- it's a very Greasy Spoon dish. It said 'prepared at the table' on the menu. I thought this was going to take a minute or so. Not so, this was theatre. It took about fifteen minutes. Having something done in front of you is, of course, a childish pleasure. Yet another trolley was wheeled out with the numerous ingredients spread out across the top. Plus a wooden bowl. Our waitress cracked an egg into it and made a mayonnaise, subsequently mashing in all the other ingredients one by one. Lea & Perrins and Tabasco added to taste.
Mrs Aitch had Saddle of Hare in a rasberry vinegar and bitter chocolate sauce (Selle de Lièvre de Fennes, Choux Rouge, Vinaigre de Framboise et Sauce au Chocolat), an enlightened choice for a dark and rainy London night. The dish was 'immaculate' , the meat was 'unbelieveably tender' and it also came with 'delicious creamed potatoes'. 'It was so much better than I thought it was going to be'. Always a good sign, that.
Through all this culinary excitement, Otto remained inscrutable. But on leaving, I told him how much I had enjoyed the brains, and his face lit up into a huge smile. The bill came to about £75 for two, including wine, two courses and coffee. And that included a Kir Royale and a Bellini. You can also have a very reasonably priced lunch at Otto's: two courses costs £24 and a half carafe of the superior house wine is £12.
As you can gather, we're rather smitten with Otto's. He's ignored popular opinion and just gone ahead and done it. Opened an old-fashioned French restaurant of the Old School. As if the River Café had never exisited. It's all so splendidly unfashionable. It's terribly exciting. Who's ever heard of bruschetta?
Otto's, 182 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8EW (020 7713 0107)