After the unmitigated disaster of our recent experience at Les Deux Salons, I wanted my next meal with fashion-and-now-food blogger Michael Ford to be really special. In a recent conversation about places with a good reputation for their vegetarian offering - Michael being sadly afflicted by that mercifully rare condition which causes its sufferers to forbid themselves lovely meat - newly-Michelin-starred Gauthier Soho cropped up as being somewhere that we were both keen to try, and although only one indicator of quality, Bibendum's having chosen the restaurant to receive his five-pointed favour was enough to persuade me that this was somewhere we could be guaranteed a good time.
And 'good' it most certainly was, at times very good indeed, but I knew before I'd put down my fork at the end of the seventh course that it was going to be a challenge to write up. For one thing, Michael and I both had the tasting menu and as his was vegetarian and mine wasn't, between us we racked up about a dozen different courses - that's a lot of food requiring a lot of adjectives. Or it would be, if it weren't for the second problem, namely that everything was so uniformly...nice that a dozen synonyms for that would do the job, albeit without making for remotely interesting reading.
But write it up I must, or I would not be a very good blogger (bitch-slap to the first person who says "No change there then") so, it being a very good place to start, let's start at the very beginning. Gauthier Soho occupies a largely-unmodified Georgian townhouse on Romilly Street in Soho, formerly known as the Lindsay House and home to Richard Corrigan's signature restaurant until he decamped to Mayfair a couple of years ago. It's an attractive if impractical space for a restaurant, with no one main dining room but several rooms of various sizes over its three floors. The decor is don't-scare-the-horses luxe; warm neutrals, soft lighting and softer carpets.
The Gauthier of the name is Alexis Gauthier, erstwhile head chef of Michelin-starred Roussillon in Pimlico; in February 2011, barely nine months after it opened, Gauthier Soho won its first star while Roussillon's was taken away. Gauthier describes his style of cooking as 'cuisine by intuition and instinct', proudly relying on his experience and understanding of ingredients and technique rather than recipe books and tradition in order to create his dishes. It's also been described, uglily, as 'vegecentric', meaning that the focus even in meat dishes is on the vegetable.
You'd think then that there'd be more than two vegetarian dishes on the à la carte menu, especially one that is divided into five sections from which diners are invited to choose three, four or the full five plats. On the contrary; it's very meat- and fish-heavy and vegetarians wanting more than two plats are obliged to opt for the seven-course gout du jour. In fairness, that had always been our intention, but it seems rather an odd state of affairs. As indeed is the fact that I've still not told you anything about what we actually ate.
I had foie gras with crisp, thin slices of baked apple (very nice), langoustine with ginger and fennel (happily substituted by the kitchen for the advertised celery, to which - restaurateurs please note, poisoners please don't - I am allergic), black truffle risotto with parmesan and veal jus (very luxurious, quite tasty, but a bit wet), seared rose veal with...I don't remember what, something polenta-y I think (nice, although the searing was more like light cooking, rendering the meat a smidgeon tough) and then rhubarb with rhubarb sorbet (a lovely, zingy, reviving facial slap of a dish) followed by Gauthier's signature Louis XV, a chocolate and wafer confection with a thick, viscous chocolate coating and a shaving of real gold leaf on top. It was, you've guessed it, very...nice, like a Michelin-starred Twix Fino. Cheeses, French bien sur, were terrific.
If I'm not at all enthusiastic about any of this, I'm certainly not critical of it either; there was nothing wrong with any of it, nothing whatsoever, but in seven courses only one mouthful really made me sit up and take notice (the rhubarb) while the rest was just so polite and refined that I found myself wishing that there could be just a little spice here, or allium there, or contrast somewhere to liven things up a bit.
All the niceties of fine dining were present and correct and certainly added value to what, at £68 for seven courses (£60 for the vegetarian version which Michael has eloquently written about here) was certainly excellent value for money. Amuse-bouches were lovely (I particularly liked a truffled quail's egg) as for the most part were the petit-fours, although one bite of an as-bad-as-it-sounds basil truffle had us both screwing up our noses in distaste and leaving the rest.
Inexplicably, there's no matching wine flight available or even suggestions for wines by the glass to accompany the tasting menus and the sommelier wasn't on hand to assist so I had to make a noble stab at choosing something from the lengthy list that would work, or at least not clash, with everything; an Argentina Villa Vieja Viognier at £27 did the job for the savouries while a glass each of Plessis saw us through the desserts. When another table's bottle of wine was erroneously emptied into our glasses - another reason to let diners do it themselves, dear restaurateurs? - another bottle was opened and the exact amount of ours that had been wasted was replaced, then a top up given. Good service recovery, but the initial slip-up isn't the sort of thing you expect at this level.
Other little niggles worthy of note: in what I can only imagine is meant to be a mark of respect to the building's townhouse past, guests have to ring an old-fashioned push doorbell for entry, and the loud peal annoyed the living hell out of me as it went off every few minutes throughout much of the epic four hours that we were there. It would be irritating enough even in a busier, buzzier place, but slight gripe number two is that Gauthier Soho is otherwise strikingly, monastically quiet; I'm not a fan of muzak in restaurants - though who is, for that matter - but because of the mish-mash of small dining spaces no one room can ever build up the elusive atmosphere that makes a restaurant somewhere you enjoy being and would want to return to.
Which leads us to the big question, I suppose, which is would I recommend Gauthier Soho, and indeed I would - my body-double Bibendum rates it worth a visit and so do I, but with some caveats. Come if you want to experience good food, prepared thoughtfully with obvious technical expertise and care, in surroundings well-suited to contemplation, at not excessive prices. But if you're after more of a thrill, something to amaze and delight you and serve up a side order of excitement with your spectacle, then this is probably not the place for you.
My search for somewhere which caters really, truly, exceptionally well for my vegetarian Michael goes on. Suggestions are most warmly invited.
Gauthier Soho, 21 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AF Tel: 020 7494 3111 http://www.gauthiersoho.co.uk