The Capital, Knightsbridge, London
The Capital - 4/5
We've come for the tasting menu, with its 'five wine flight' - though why it's meant to be airborne is beyond me. We're four hungry boys, and some of the à la carte choices on Eric Chavot's menu look scrumptious: perhaps we could bung them into the dégustation?
'But of course,' purrs the waitress. 'I will send the sommelier.' He glides across - perhaps it will be like flying. Could he choose some wines for the extra courses? A smile flickers. 'Naturally, sir. I'll look after you.'
40 covers - and four sommeliers - in a fancy hotel. At the next door table, a tweeded young fogey is cooing at his Ribena-faced great uncle and blustering about income tax. His face displays an earnest wish to see his dinner date dead and a robust inheritance (taxed or not) come his way. An obstreperous WASP two tables down glares silently at his blonde partner, who returns the steely stare from behind her diamonds. It's Saturday, but we're wearing suits; C has even plumped for red braces and The Old School Tie. What is it about this place?
Both food and chef at The Capital are very French. But Chavot has updated everything, so while we have frogs' legs, foie gras and lamb, they're deep-fried with curried ricotta gnocchi, Kilner jarred with passion fruit, and Maghrebised with couscous respectively. It's more hip and happening than, say, Le Gavroche, which holds its truffles-Bresse-chicken-foie-gras-langoustines-and-caviar to its chest, like a lover's bosom. That, and the fact that five courses with matching wines are about £135 here - cheap for two Michelin stars in SW3 - while The Capital's three-course lunch, at £29.50, is the best deal in the... capital. Including Wetherspoon's post-3pm beer 'n' burger.
Bread is an unpromising woolly affair. But with house champagne comes an amuse that does what it, what all amuses should. A creamy shot of cucumber gazpacho with tuna tartare cleanses and enlivens and leaves us excited, expectant, refreshed. Then a single seared scallop with bulls-eye sweetcorn vélouté, crackling with popcorn, envelops the mouth in autumn flavours straight out of Keats.
Frog thigh tears blissfully away from graphite-thin bone, with a Gruyère foam R incontrovertibly pronounces 'foamy'. After a wait, the foie gras arrives lukewarm, piled in its dinky jar, criss-crossed by crostini, with an ironic teaspoon of Malibu jelly. Le fatty liver is virtually obligatory in a place like this, but this one's oversweet with the exotic fruiting, and it doesn't help that we're expected to eat it with miniature shovels (not pictured). No matter: sublime crab lasagne follows, while exactingly fried John Dory is dished up with white, peasanty beans and a sharp slick of pimento sauce.
The night's best dish - as you might hope - is signature, and Eric's been cooking it since his days at the bucket-reachingly named Interlude de Chavot. Squid is stuffed with rabbit forcemeat and wrapped in sliced pancetta, with roast rabbit saddle, fried rabbit liver and deep-fried calamari. The sauce is heady with tomatoes, thyme and garlic, transformed by long French bubblings of veal bones and demi-glace. It's an inspired pairing: gummy, yielding white rabbit and flash-cooked tender squid, fluffed by the sexy, sunny sauce.
Lamb fillet appears, couscoused, cumined and raisiny, with a black pudding spring roll. A spicy St Emilion - two years past its best, according to Decanter - is a gutsy counterpoint. T, who was ten when the port was bottled, is listening while R squeals favourably about the cheese; but this board isn't, in fact, in great shape. Perhaps Bernard Antony is having supplier trouble this week: Brillat-Savarin is just extra-creamy Dairylea - perhaps normal - but a leathery Morbier still needs time and a Beaufort is positively chalky. None justifies a £12 supplement. Amongst the puddings: a monotone champagne baba with good apple sorbet; a caramel and ginger tart, ideal for insulating arteries; and jasmine and jivara jelly, with a banana ice cream so pregnant with that fruit, it's like tasting it for the first time.
The hour's late, the room's deserted. Great Uncle Ribena wheezed off a while ago, his mini-me scurrying behind.
The bill thuds to the table like a dropped coffin. Slowly, gingerly, we unfold it.
Eye-watering. Three extra courses, three extra glasses: three hundred and fifty extra pounds. The Capital's tasting menu, which a friend declared to be 'a steal,' has actually become a form of stealing. Worse, we've already quaffed and scoffed our way through every drop, every morsel. It's too late. What are we to do?
Cough up, of course; and we punch in our PINs with trembling fingers. It was our own stupid fault to give that smooth sommelier free rein over the bill and evening. Lesson learned, though; and it was still a lovely dinner. Menus, it seems, are just like ski slopes: deviate at your peril.
The Capital, 22 Basil Street, London SW3
Tel. +44 (0)20 7589 5171
Final bill: £1109.24 (£277.31 a head)
Five-course tasting menu with 'five wine flight': £147 including service.
Perrier-Jouet NV (I seem to remember)
2006 Albarino A20 Rais Baixas
2004 Pinot Grigio, Collio Schiopetto, Friuli-Venezia Guilia
2004 Gewurztraminer, St Hippolyte, Marcel Deiss, Alsace
2007 Gruner Veltliner, Schloss Gobelsburg, Renner, Kamptal
2006 Puligny-Montrachet, V. Vignes, Vincent Girardin, Burgundy
2002 Nuits-St-Georges, V. Vignes, D. Rion et Fils, Burgundy
2001 St Emilion Grand Cru, Chateau Haut-Brisson, Bordeaux
1995 Port, LBV Niepoort
2005 Chateu Belingard, Monbazillac, SW France