Michelin stars – those elusive badges of tip-top quality – inspire both the dreams and nightmares of the world's greatest chefs; seldom released from the clenched fists of the Michelin Guide, they are about as slippery as a buttered snitch. Even Gordon Ramsay's dropped a few of late and he's got massive hands. How nice then to be Pierre Koffmann, a former mentor of Ramsay and Marco Pierre-White, and one of just a few UK-based chefs who has been awarded three Michelin stars for his restaurant, La Tante Claire, which closed in 2003. He returned to the kitchen in 2010, opening Koffmann's at The Berkeley Hotel in super-posh Knighstbridge, where he is resolved not to chase awards and serve only the traditional Gascon cuisine of his childhood in southwest France. All this I discovered after a good friend and food critic proposed we go there for a free lunch, so I dug out an old jacket, ironed my jeans and dutifully accepted.
The restaurant is situated on the corner of Wilton Place, a short stroll from Knightsbridge station on the Underground. The exterior is remarkable only for a topiary pig – an animal I was to see more of later – while the interior is rather unremarkable: a low-ceilinged though spacious room with flowers and muted paintings of food. However, there is a good open view of the kitchen and at the forefront, a tremendous red ham-slicer.
The first course came unprompted – a quite delicious amuse-bouche of filo covered in onion, anchovies and olives. The pastry stuck to the roof of my mouth – a fused bouche! – and had to be dislodged with a finger.
They were fresh, subtle and sweet, perfectly fulfilling, and seemed to lull me into a state of uninhibited optimism about the whole meal as though I was drunk. I may have been drunk. Whatever the explanation, when our waiter returned I surprised myself by venturing on impulse for the fabled dish: "the Pig's Trotter please!" (£28).
The impact of the trotter on Koffmann's career cannot be understated – a bold and rustic meal of timeless popularity, a feat of technicality which has come to define him and his cooking. Indeed, in the market square of his hometown of Tarbes in Gascony there are plans afoot to erect a magnificent, bronze trotter on a plinth in his honour, and if that isn't true then it probably should be.
So to the dish in question: braised for three hours and filled with sweetbreads, morels and chicken mousse, it emerged dark and glistening from the kitchen with an almost tangible sense of its own importance. I launched in to discover that this was not pig skin as I had hoped, in the pork crackling sense. No it was spongy and gelatinous and not entirely to my taste. Still, I made a valiant advance along the leg, stopping short of the cloven hoof, and I decided in conclusion that the balance of meaty flavours had been exceptional. My sensible fellow diner went for the lobster which was light and succulent and accompanied by a newspaper cone of the most moreish French fries.
For dessert it had to be the Pistachio Soufflé (£14) – another spectacle. It arrives obese and quivering, clearly struggling to support itself. Then, adding to its torment, the waiter breaks a small notch at the top and torpedoes in a heaped spoon of pistachio ice-cream.
It was an explosion of cool foam, a sweet delight, until my friend mentioned that he could only taste egg and I had to confess it was actually quite eggy. But I'm nit-picking, overall Koffmann's was a sumptuous spread of French cuisine from arguably the best in the game: la crème de la crème! Oh yes I said it.