A A Gill

A A GillI’m beginning to repeat myself. I think I was probably born repeating myself. My mother swears that the first coherent sentence I ever uttered was “As I was saying ...” But God is merciful in small, unconsidered ways. As my record gets even more cracked and the Blonde’s eyes are permanently searching the exasperated heavens, so my memory is blissfully fading. I’m repeating myself, but it all sounds original to me. It’s all right, I’m not going to do the old joke of rewriting the first sentence. I don’t mind repeating myself, but I’m damned if I’m going to repeat other columnists.
Now, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but a surprising number of people take me aside, press me into comers with their groins, flutter their eyes, lick their lips and whisper, in voices breathy with emotion, that there must be a really good restaurant I keep to myself — and could I please let them into the secret? They’ll be ever so grateful, if I get their drift. And then they run their fingers between my shirt buttons. Unfortunately, it’s almost always plump, purple estate agents of the maleish gender who do this.
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but you know, I can’t remember what I said. I expect it was something along the lines of “I wish ...” I wish there were some quiet, undiscovered, perfect little restaurant that had never been reviewed, that no guide had found, that had never even considered hiring a PR. Even if I knew of one, it would be nigh on impossible to keep it to myself. Journalists are habitually lousy at keeping secrets. It cuts against the grain of what we do. But still the myth of the perfect, undiscovered bistro persists, and still chaps sidle up as if I were a pornographer and ask for the under-the-counter good stuff. I suppose they imagine that some day they’ll get to a dark doorway in a suburban alley and be welcomed into a neat, cosy little dining room smelling of veal stock and truffles and cinnamon, where the hum of conversation will drift away and a couple of dozen guilty food critics will look up from their plates. There will be a cough and a muffled “Damn!” and Michael Winner will get up from his calf s head and say: “Oh good, you’ve found it. We were going to tell you, honestly we were.” I wish.


The dream of a perfect place must be as old as going out. Nineteenth-century romantics scoured Europe for the ideal little square of landscape; Le Morte d’Arthur is full of enchanted glades; the Muslim idea of heaven is a divine walled garden. We have eternally been searching for a secret Arden, a sylvan bower, a Hundred Acre Wood, a way back to Eden. As civilisation moved to cities, the bosky,verdant ideal grew urban and became George Orwell’s yearned-for perfect pub, The Moon Under Water. Novels from the industrial revolution to the second world war are stuffed with imaginary cosy hostelleries just happened upon. The perfect little restaurant, hidden away in some sleepy yet oddly vibrant market town and run by a florid family offering the perfect paté or omelette or boiled potato, has been the basic flavour of food writing ever since the sainted Elizabeth David and those reverential American gastronome travellers started it. Unctuous, semi-pornographic descriptions of sun-dappled tables, rustic bowls of warm figs, the rough local wine, a dish of sapphire-coloured beans, a mullet as fresh and pink as the blush on a virgin’s cheek — you know the sort of thing. I can’t tell you how deeply I despise this utopian rot. It’s the sticky marrow of bibulous, irascible, invariably frustrated foodie fantasists and has little or nothing to do with the real experience of eating with real people and real ingredients. It leaves the reader with a bilious sense of discontent that they’re missing out: that perhaps, just yards from every uninspiring holiday lunch, there is a treasureknown only to the cognoscenti, so that real meals somehow fail to live up to their literary ideal. All food becomes a disappointment, a pale imitation of oleaginous prose. And in the end gastronomy gets disembodied, something you read like romantic fiction while stuffing your face with chocolate.

Le Colombier, 145 Dovehouse Street, London SW3 (0171-3511155). Lunch, Mon-Fri, noon-3pm, Sat-Sun, noon-3.30pm; dinner, Mon-Sat, 6.30pm-