I fear the gout.
It all starts on Tuesday. One of those swan song days of summer when the sun drips golden Tate & Lyle tendrils and the air shimmers above the juddering road works in its glittering, maudlin way. I slip into Racine and am transported to Parisian bistro chic. The staff are kind and pretend not to notice that I have a man’s tartan tie in lieu of a proper belt for my Oxfam coat. PR and publishing women beam at one another in the private dining area and the air tinkles with light, pleasant conversation, as bubbly and sanguine as the citrus peel-infused champagne we delicately sip upon. I talk to Clotilde Dusoulier who has recently updated Ginette Mathiot’s tome “I Know How to Cook”. She is utterly lovely, and without a smidge of the jealous measuring up, so prolific in some of the more seasoned British food bloggers I have had the vile misfortune to come across. As we sit around the table Henry Harris talks us through what we are about to receive. I’ve heard much of his culinary prowess but this is the first time I’ve had the honour. As he describes veal bones simmered for long meaty days, I get the impression that eating here could well be the culinary equivalent of reading an Ian McEwan novel, i.e. I know I’m in safe and capable hands. He is reassuringly spattered with caramel sauce. There are ten of us – an assortment of broadsheet journalists and the fabulous women from Sauce and Phaidon. I am sat opposite Tim Hayward and next to Susan Smillie from the Guardian; I haven’t seen Susan for yonks and I suddenly realise half way through the meal how incredibly loud we are being compared to everyone else. At one point I am vaguely horrified to hear my own braying Sid James-esque laugh booming above the polite murmurs of conversation around me. As gout winks at me from the opposite table I blank him and eagerly sup down the most intense fish soup, deep, briny and a fine burnt orange hue. The bourguignon is served and as I spoon the soft, wine-blackened flesh into my cosseted cakehole I swear I can feel the purine begin its stealthy calcification in my joints. I finish with crème caramel and someone else’s apple tart – I’m a firm believer in rushing selflessly to the aide of my fellow diners when they appear to be struggling (I’m nice like that). My requests to take my leftover stew home (Susan’s encouragement fuels me on) are met with bafflement and “why not?” smiles, but I brazen it out as I cannot abide waste; especially not when the pickings are this rich. Gout grins at me as I leave, waggles his crystalline fingers.
The following evening I go to the opening night of Koffman’s pop up. A starter of lobster with avocado cream feels like the closest thing I have had to vegetable matter in a long time. It’s silky and perfectly balanced with fresh bites of apple and delicate lemon jelly. My veal chop is impossibly tender, like biting into bovine butter and the famed pistachio soufflé is a pale green nimbus of perfection, the finest fairy fare. Our waiter offers us dessert as soon as we sit down and gets our plates muddled up. When we ask him to describe what we are eating he has to go and ask someone. But it’s the first night. My dining companions complain that £75 is a lot of money for this. When Koffman first executed these dishes they were cutting edge back in the day, they tell me. But now, the rest of the industry has caught up, and you can get these dishes at a lot of other places for a lot less money, they moan. I silently eat my way through the lot and feel immature and ignorant for being so utterly bowled over at the sheer quality. We chat to Claire, his wife, about potatoes and her beautiful son.
There’s much rubbernecking in the glamorous surroundings, it’s the perfect marriage of fleeting, flirty pop-up and Selfridges glam. We spot Brett Graham from the Ledbury and his lovely fiancé, Henrietta Green, Fiona Simms and gout is there too, sat by the window with his darling companion weight gain. I stick two fingers up at them and plough joyfully through my second dessert.
By Friday the lack of vitamins has clearly mussed with my mind because I decide to eschew meeting Gordon Ramsay on the London Eye in favour of making my little sister a birthday cake. She is very pleased about this. I wonder what I am doing, exhausted and dusted in icing sugar at 1am. I lie awake in bed that night fretting about the levels of uric acid in my bloodstream whilst simultaneously mulling over what a luxuriously decadent thing it must be to contract this “Disease of Kings.”
Saturday and it’s the gourmet odyssey, a day on a route master bus starting off at the almost ironically uncool met bar for champagne at 11am then to Sake No Hana for starter of sushi, followed by a melting main clod of veal at Hibiscus (the clod is the section just behind the shoulder) and the best bit of all, dessert at Wild Honey. I’m not really a pudding kind of person, but this was the highlight, a fudgy, praline fondant perfectly offset with salted caramel ice cream and the syrupy petrol of PX sherry. Then back on the bus to the Met bar followed by a friend’s birthday dinner at Franklins (I order a woefully abused cauliflower cheese, shrivelled, stingy and as wretched as hospital slops). I’m starting to feel like an ungrateful oink eschewing the finest freshwater beauties in favour of acorns but I have an inexplicable urge to lie for hours on the sofa with a good book and a big bowl of pomegranate seeds. Sunday is the highlight for me, a truly epiphanic talk by Simon Schama on the history of food followed by a hearty Sunday lunch with him, Fay Maschler and various notable others (more on this to follow). The whole experience is deliciously surreal.
The festival is rounded off with a brilliant awards ceremony at Shoreditch house with categories like “warmth and welcome”, “bravery” and “understanding of ceremony” followed by a feast at Pizza East. The place is filled to the rafters with chefs, PR, critics and industry folk. I tuck in to addictive meatballs in tomato sauce, chicken cacciatore, Caesar salad, churros and salted caramel tart. On the way out I clock gout eyeing me up again and laugh at him. Bacchanalian excess or not, this has been a week of sublime feasting – one I shall never forget.
The inaugural London Restaurant Festival ran from 8th-13th Oct