This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I booked a table at the prestigious restaurant in the Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris's chic 8th arrondissement for both professional and political reasons.
I felt I owed myself lunch at the Bristol because it is one of the few top restaurants in the French capital at which I had never eaten. Rectifying this omission was surely the true definition of altruism.
The political aspect had more to do with the hotel's location close to the Elysée Palace. This is why, among Parisian restaurateurs at least, this dining room has been nicknamed 'Sarko's canteen.'
To ensure that I was not out of my depth politically, I invited a retired American journalist with considerable experience of the Middle East. It was he who perceptively explained that the very obvious squad of gendarmes on the pavement and the equally crowded lobby were due to the fact that a visiting Head of State and his entourage were in residence.
I left the restaurant 460 euros poorer but having established what, I hope, will henceforth become known as the two halves of Lander's Law. This is to be used for judging restaurants such as this one that boast three, the maximum number, of Michelin stars and certainly know how to charge.
The first part of this law runs that these restaurants should not be judged on what they do well - given the manpower and prices plus the financial support of the hotel, which is part of the Oetker Collection, this should be a matter of course - but only on where they fail to deliver. And in this regard, Le Bristol did not shine - on two counts, at least.
Both revolved around the last 15 minutes of our meal. At precisely 3 pm the sound of hammering began in a room right next to the restaurant. It was not headache inducing but it was certainly constant and irritating. The hotel management had obviously agreed with their builders that they would stop work during the main lunch period but that they could start again at this time when, they assumed, the restaurant would be empty. It wasn't.
I am absolutely sure that the sleek businessmen and women then in the restaurant would have completely understood had the restaurant manager swiftly gone from table to table, explained and apologised for any inconvenience the noise caused. I am equally sure that in a far more humble establishment le patron would have done this himself, perhaps with a bottle of a digestif and a few glasses in his hands by way of apology. But here, despite the exceptionally high prices, there was no such initiative.
In fact, by 3 pm most of the restaurant's staff had vanished other than the waiter with the trolley of petits fours who seemed determined to ignore our table.
Having declined dessert (32-35 euros each), we ordered an espresso and a tea from an all-too-brief choice (simply English Breakfast or Earl Grey) and we were pleasantly surprised to be served an avant-dessert, a cleansing sorbet. But we were never offered a petit four despite the enthusiastic waiter offering them to put them in a box for those at the next table to take away and then wheeling the trolley, fully laden, in front of us and then parking it in the middle of the room.
So we were left wondering whether the quality of these petits fours was better or not than the quality of the four dishes we had eaten until then, courses that were certainly good but had neither really impressed nor excited.
And that is where the second aspect of Lander's Law comes in and, once again, this restaurant failed. At this level of French cooking, the chef is somewhat restricted by the ingredients he can use: he has to offer the most expensive, the most rarified, to justify the prices. There is bound to be foie gras, truffles (black and white at this time of the year), lobster, turbot and sea bass as well as Bresse chicken plus hare and venison over the winter. The real test is the wit with which these are treated.
But in all that we ate, this vital ingredient was lacking. Among the three amuse-bouches was a stick holding a ball of foie gras coated in an airy foam described as 'candy floss', now a highly popular addition to small dishes, both sweet and savoury. But the problem was that this candy floss was too large to go into anybody's mouth in one bite so I could only politely eat it while turning away from my guest and then looking at the expensive wine list (the 2007 Grüner Veltliner at 70 euros is one of the bargains) while he did the same when it was his turn.
Macaroni stuffed with black truffles; sea urchins in their shells; turbot with a lip-smacking chicken and soya reduction and three scallops with white truffles (this one dish was 110 euros!) were good but not served with any exuberance. And there was no sign, sadly, of any extra salad or vegetable to add flavour or contrast.
Perhaps Eric Frechon, the restaurant's head chef, and his brigade are overawed by the dining room and the presence of so many French politicians. Certainly, the former is one of the most elegant I have ever sat in, an oval wood-panelled oasis replete with chandeliers, vases of tall flowers and considerable space between the tables for the waiting staff in their black dinner jackets to parade in. But my memories of eating here will be coloured solely by where and with whom I ate rather than by what I was served.