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The Tower of Gold changes its master

PUBLISHED: 10:30 13 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:00 22 October 2010

CHARLES ROBERTS

Few of us can have gone through life without the occasional bleep on the intellectual lines. But at least I can claim to have been spot on when it comes to judging honest quality - without reference to price tags.

Few of us can have gone through life without the occasional bleep on the intellectual lines. But at least I can claim to have been spot on when it comes to judging honest quality - without reference to price tags.

Be it the subtleties of an expensive suit, or the tantalising aromas issuing from a good restaurant, or the sureness of a play in the theatre, I reach towards them with confidence.

But, like as not, one specific problem repeatedly asserts itself. Which is to say, the budget only occasionally stretches to such lengths. Still, when the opportunity does come, the pleasure is doubled.

Thus it was, on a faraway morning in Paris in 1979 that I was seated on the terrace of a smart brasserie opposite the celebrated - and exceedingly expensive - restaurant, La Tour d'Argent. It was a lovely day, and I longed to see inside this icon of food. My companions were a true Norfolk quartet, the late Dr Geoffrey Bolt and his wife Heather; and Tom and Gill (now Baroness) Shephard.

Geoffrey, a man with a keen-edged sense of humour, urged me on. I took courage, crossed the road, and entered the lofty portals. Within moments a dignified gent appeared. "Could we be of help, Monsieur?" he enquired imposingly.

My plea that I longed to see the interior, just for a few moments, and that a visit to Paris could not be complete without it, held no water. The impeccable Jeeves figure requested me to leave - and to ensure that I did, took my elbow in a firm grip and steered me gravely to the door.

Well, I hadn't seen the dining room, and certainly Claude Terrail, the great man who owned and directed the establishment, had not put in an appearance. But to have got in at all, I told myself, was a worthy effort. Even a theatrical one, you might say.

Indeed, Monsieur Terrail, who died last week at the age of 88, was a firm believer in the theatrical ethos.

"A restaurant is one of the great stages of the world," he used to say. "Running one means acting in, directing and enjoying the Greatest Show on Earth."

It sounds a tad over the top. But Monsieur Terrail's

passion for his famous restaurant and his work in it are underlined by his devotion. He claimed never to have been absent from the place for more than five days since he succeeded his father in 1947.

This is an establishment with no bawling chefs and yelling underlings. Well, not so that the privileged diners would notice. The passions and demands and noise of the kitchens in full operation are out of sight and ear . . .

Press lady Virginie Guyonnet described to me that period between kitchen calm and kitchen crazy, when service begins in earnest: "An extraordinary upheaval will take place in these calm rooms, at the same time resembling a riot and a set ballet - known so accurately as the coup de feu or gunshot."

Clients must be shielded from such things - through superb service, the best of food, the finest of wines (there are 400,000 bottles in the spacious cave below the building), opulent décor . . . and the exercise of pure theatre.

Early in 2003, a quirky touch was added to La Tour's gastronomic history when the restaurant ("The most celebrated in the world", by its own reckoning) announced the sale of its millionth roast duck since records began in 1890.

Everyone who orders one gets a certificate to prove it, and goes into the records, which through the years have become a gallery of the great and the good.

Edward VII added to his waistline at La Tour, with duck No. 328, dated 1890. In 1914, it was the turn of King Alphonse XIII of Portugal, who ate duck number 40,312. It was with suitable inscrutability, no doubt, that Emperor Hiro Hito of Japan consumed No. 53,211 in 1921. Our present Queen, when she was still Princess Elizabeth, ate No. 185,397.

The birds are cooked with something of a royal flourish too: part-roasted and part-fried in Madeira, Cognac and lemon juice. At six to 10 weeks of age, says one account, they are strangled! Another claims that the wretched creatures are unfeelingly smothered - then promptly plucked.

Not surprisingly, dinner at La Tour costs about 250 euros - £170 or so according to my shaky arithmetic. For me, that very brief morning visit back in 1979 must suffice.

Towards the end of Monsieur Terrail's life, he made sure of handing over to his son - and of charging him that to exist, La Tour must change with the times. Good advice from a master.

cvr_in_france@hotmail.com


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