11/09/2010 9 Comments
Nine years ago my girlfriend (now my wife) organised a surprise birthday party for me and what a job she did too. There were friends from work, friends from the wine shop I used to work in, friends from university and old friends from school. Getting them all into my flat that day while I was out must have been a massive logistical effort and I had to hold back the tears when I walked in and saw them all.
A few months later it was her birthday. I’d just got my first bonus at work and I wanted to give her something special in return, so I booked a table at Le Gavroche. Le Gavroche is a restaurant in London which was opened by Albert and Michel Roux in 1967 and is now run by Albert’s son, Michel Roux Jr. It was the first restaurant in the UK ever to be awarded three michelin stars and it is more than a bit posh.
I should point out that at the time I was working as a software developer in the financial sector. My job involved taking business requirements and then developing the software to make the numbers work. Dining in high society was a million miles away.
The day of the dinner arrived and in my excitement I had a look at the Le Gavroche website:
….blah blah…exceptional cuisine…..blah blah….unparalleled service….blah blah….gentlemen must wear a suit….blah blah….luxurious bogs…..
What? Oh shit. Gentlemen must wear a suit? I didn’t have a suit. It was 3pm and I was due at the restaurant in 5 hours. And I needed a suit. My exceedingly understanding boss let me leave and I departed with a plan. I’d just got my bonus – I was going to see Paul Smith.
The Paul Smith shop on Floral Street is the Aladdin’s cave of clothes. Although I clearly had no fucking clue what I was doing a friendly assistant sorted everything out for me and in an hour my transformation from scruffy computer programmer was complete. Well almost.
Me: It looks fantastic. I just need you to take up the trousers and we’re done.
Him: No problem. It will be ready in 3 days.
Me: Oh. Poo.
I explained my situation. He could have turned up his nose at the idiot in front of him who clearly didn’t belong there but he didn’t. “Don’t worry. I know a trick,” he said. He then proceeded to pin the trousers and then fasten them up on the inside with double-sided tape. “They’ll be good for tonight if you’re careful. Come back in when you can and we’ll get them done properly.”
What a legend he was. Anyway, I hurried back to my flat, got ready and made it to the restaurant only a few minutes late. We were shown in and seated in the bar where we viewed the menus over champagne and amuse-bouches. When I saw the prices, I began to sweat a little. Secretly hoping Miss Rabbit would have a sudden hankering for soup, I told her “Don’t worry about the prices, just have what you want.” “What prices?” she replied.
Her menu, it transpired, had no prices. Yep, only the gentleman’s menu had prices on it. Sexist? No, I don’t think so, at least. More a tongue-in-cheek nod to an old-fashioned tradition. I had also been handed a wine list. It was like an encyclopaedia – had I received it in other circumstances I could have spent an afternoon reading the thing. No opportunity for that but I did have time for a quick peek at the uber posh stuff though. Anyone for Chateau d’Yquem 1849? Yours for just £30,000 a bottle. I didn’t order that.
I ordered Lobster Mousse with Caviar, followed by Dover Sole with Wild Mushrooms.(This probably sounds extravagant but remember where I was – it wasn’t as though Pot Noodle with Cheesey Strings was an alternative.)
Miss Rabbit ordered Langoustines followed by Lobster although I don’t remember exactly how each was done.
We were shown in to the restaurant and seated. This place was posh. Silver cutlery, bone china crockery, crystal glasses and Andrew Lloyd-Webber on the table next to us. Seriously. He and Lady Lloyd-Webber had the duck. I did my best not to look at him while he was eating it though.
The food was mind blowing. I thought lobster mousse would be nice but it was like eating a lobster flavoured cloud. The texture was like nothing I’d had before and nothing I’ve had since. It was also the first time I’d had caviar and it was quite nice. Probably not nice enough to justify how eye-wateringly expensive it is, but quite nice nonetheless.
It wasn’t just the food though – the service was equally amazing. It was almost as if the staff existed in another dimension until you needed them for something. They would then appear from nowhere, carry out their task with unimaginable care and efficiency, then vanish once more, reappearing again only when you wanted them to do so.
Despite my formal and unfamiliar surroundings, I soon began to relax. The food was going down nicely as was the wine, and I was beginning to forget that I was essentially a fish out of water. After the main course I needed to go to the toilet so I got up and started to walk towards the bathroom. Then disaster struck.
I am not used to eating with a napkin on my lap and as I stood up it had fallen on the floor. Worse still, some of my double sided sticky tape had popped out and fastened to it. I found myself walking down the middle of the poshest restaurant I have ever visited with my napkin stuck to the bottom of my trousers.
I stopped in the middle of the restaurant, turned round and looked at Ms. Rabbit with a look of utter defeat. It had been going so well, but now I had revealed in front of the whole restaurant that there was an impostor in their midst. It was a bit like that bit in Shaun of the Dead when they all pretend to be zombies until one of them makes a mistake. I realised I was going to be torn to pieces.
But then, just as I was looking for a window to jump out, a miracle occurred. The waiters suddenly appeared from their other dimension, fixed my trousers, retrieved the napkin, folded it into a swan, set it back on the table and vanished. And no one else had even had time to look up from their ’82 Lafites to notice. (No one that is except Miss Rabbit – she notices everything.)
And above all, that was the thing that really stood out for me that day. I was a couple of years out of university, the poorest person in the restaurant by some margin and obviously not naturally comfortable in my surroundings. The staff made me feel comfortable though. They weren’t there to judge the computer programmer treading his napkin half way down the restaurant. They were there to help us have a brilliant evening and we did. Just as the assistant in Paul Smith had helped me out without judging me earlier in the day.
When I got back to the table, we both ordered the Assiette du Chef for our dessert – seven mini puddings on one plate. We accompanied that with two glasses of Chateau d’Yquem 1990 (still to this day the best wine I have ever had) and they followed it up with petit fours and then truffles.
When we went to leave, the lady who had welcomed us into the restaurant asked if we needed a taxi, then proceeded to sprint down Upper Brook to Park Lane and hail one for us.
We’ve never been back to Le Gavroche, even though we both agree it was all round the most amazing experience we’ve had in a restaurant. You see, I have this perfect memory of the place and I worry it would be somehow diluted by a repeat visit….. and yet still, I do have a dream of going back again one day.
Either way, my objective for the day had been to do something special for Miss Rabbit’s birthday and despite one or two minor hiccups on the way I had truly achieved my goal. Between suit and meal I had spent my entire bonus in one day. What was the total bill? Worth every penny.