Helene Darroze (London): Haute cuisine with a few lows

(Visited December 2012)

The feel of the room is so elegant, luxurious that service seems to go out of its way, very out of its way, maybe too out of its way, to be friendly and chummy, lest some customers are intimidated. Man is very disappointed to have changed for once, in order to comply with the dress code, the jeans he always wears for a more or less civilised pair of trousers, when in the room there are not only jeans but even hoods…

We had been at Darroze always for the great value lunch menu (two of them reported here and here). This time we try a la carte (£80 for three courses at the time of writing), where we’ve spotted some interesting ways to burn money on expensive extra treats. As we shall see, some money will be better burnt than other, but some will also magically re-emerge from the ashes…

Bread is a pleasure to eat and the selection is varied:

breads

breads

A rustic amuse of top notch Bayonne (that would be South West) ham, the only potential French competitor for Italian hams🙂, with well made, light focaccia like bread

Ham and focaccia

Ham and focaccia

is followed by a stunner of ‘foie gras creme brulee ‘ topped by peanut foam

Foie gras creme brulee with peanut foam

Foie gras creme brulee with peanut foam

What a great combination, the peanut foam dense and substantial, a contrast of temperatures, a contrast of textures, if only the caramel disk had been lighter and less hard to break this would have been a perfect dish.

What can go wrong with Alba truffle? Well, we are not sure as we’re always going to be ecstatic with their perfume (costing a £30 supplement) in this dish of Jerusalem artichokes with Lardo di Colonnata, Parmigiano Reggiano cappuccino, and confit egg yolk:

Jerusalem artichokes, confit egg yolk , lardo di colonnata and Alba truffle

Jerusalem artichokes, confit egg yolk , lardo di colonnata and Alba truffle

However, amidst the vapors of olfactory delight we spot a rather too low temperature of service, a dominance of sweetness, and a presence of the Lardo di Colonnata which is just perfunctory (one wonders how intensively Colonnata pigs must be raised to fill with their Lardo all of Italy and most of the world).

As a dish, aside from the truffle, we liked better the other starter, a delightful and delightfully cooked (rare) pigeon, accompanied by the finest of fine ravioli filled with all the explosive power of offal, and all in a Puy lentil soup that attained a no-holds-barred depth of flavour.

Offal ravioli and wood pigeon

Offal ravioli and wood pigeon

This was close to perfection. A pity then that the Dover sole (£8 supplement) and especially the accompanying calamari were overcooked in this dish

Dover sole

Dover sole

We don’t expect to eat rubbery calamari in a 2* restaurant. Well, actually we do, as we’ve encountered this problem before at Darroze. The bright side is that we’ll appreciate even more the superfresh grilled calamari we’ll find in some humble trattorias and tavernas on the Mediterranean coast (e.g. here or here). Aside from the execution, this is a cute, original dish full of finesse, but that for us personally fails to stir much emotion, the sole hidden visually and flavourwise, pushed aside instead of being helped centrestage: the mariniere of spinach and shiso leaves, the seaweed butter, the lemongrass cappuccino, the clams (in meaningless quantity), the pieds de mouton, felt a little confused and made the sole moan: what am I doing here? We should say, a Dover sole Grenoblaise style had at Koffmann’s a couple of days later provided an unfortunate (for Darroze) benchmark for the delight Dover sole can be.

In the other main, this admittedly giant, but definitely lonely, Scottish scallop

Tandoori scallop

Tandoori scallop

had been roasted with Tandoori spices to nice and very controlled effect, the prettily turned vegetables dancing joyously around it, the velvety carrot and citrous mousseline providing that sweet-acidic dimension, and the jus adding yet further complexity. A very accomplished dish of subtle rather than in -yer-face flavours. But we deserved a couple of scallops in a main, no?

After a pleasant and suitably acidic pre-dessert of vanilla cream with passion fruit granite and praline, we enter the marvellous world of desserts at Darroze. Silence please:

Steamed pistachio sponge with grapefruit

Steamed pistachio sponge with grapefruit

Pistachio cream

Pistachio cream

Carupano chocolate ganache, Gianduia biscuit and galangal creamCarupano chocolate ganache, Gianduia biscuit and galangal cream

The pistachio dessert had it all, an array of textures, intensity and balance of flavours concentrated in a disarming apparent simplicity, precision of execution.

The chocolate ganache… ah, the chocolate ganache: just beautiful. Sad it could not go on forever, with the intense hazelnuts of the gianduia separated from the ganache on top by a crunchy tiny sliver of chocolate “crust”, and a different textured bottom layer: we could  live on the thing (well, Woman could).

The generous and excellent petit fours are still there, as are the complimentary caneles. They might improve on the coffee.

Service today was not good, not good at all, for reasons that it would be just tedious to dwell on. We don’t know if it was because of our stony faces in certain moments or for other reasons, but the bill arrived with a significant discount (no Dover sole supplement, no truffle supplement). Normally, unless this kind of treat was a ‘reward’ for very regular custom, we’d protest, but you know what? This time we just took it. Man had suffered too much both having to wear his only pair of proper trousers AND ALSO having to waive his arms to get some water while risking dehydration… (Dramatise? Us? Naaah).

Here at Darroze we seem to always have the same type of experience, suitably scaled in quality according to the price of the menu: some unevenness, some absolute pinnacles, a sense that the meat dishes and the desserts tend to be the way for the kitchen to really come into its own, the love for ‘Les Landes’ mixed with Mediterranean and exotic influences and ingredients, a sense of generosity and comfort, absurdly variable service. You can feel very well indeed here, you may return on a whim at some point, you may not ache to return immediately.

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught on Urbanspoon

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