The day: 29th December 2009, Lunch.
The place: Carlos Place Mayfair, London W1K 2AL
The venue: Helene Darroze at The Connaught
The food: Modern French
The drinks: Beside the usual suspects, also very good value by the glass options.
We sought a lunch refuge from unremitting heavy rain in multistarred Helene Darroze’s venue at the Connaught.
(Us, drenched) ‘Hello, do you have a table for two?’
(Receptionist, looking dubious & worried) ‘Ehm, have you had a look at our menu?’
But we appreciated her concern that two miserable looking fellows like us might come to regret a fickle fine dining urge…
In fact, in this luxury, wood-panelled stucco-ceilinged Baccarat-crystalled environment, one of those places where service goes to the absurd point of not even letting you make the effort to open the bathroom tap as somebody does it for you,
we were on the verge of a fine experience which was very far from breaking the bank.
The amuse must be a clear self-introduction by the chef, and these
chorizo cake, leek and potato Vichyssoise with Bellini foam
suggest a liking for rich textures and muscular dishes, with no national boundaries. The velvety and lightly unctuous Vichyssoise is paired with pungent and strong, decisive flavours. And it works (except that the crumbly cake tends to disintegrate in your hands – maybe they should call the bathroom guy to pick up the crumbs for you, lest you get tired).
The bread, arrives after the amuse, a selection from a lined banneton taken from the rustic stone topped workbench that sits in the middle of the room, hosting a triumph of bread types, olive oil bottles, rosmery and sage pots, the look of which puts you immediately in a good mood… and we opt for a rye and a fig bread.
Two very different starters. One, an almost vegetarian dish, a
Poivrade Artichoke…simply roasted, herb and salad ravioli gratinated with Brebis basque cheese, Culatello di Zibello, Chicken jus pearled with Sicilian olive oil
which Man liked more than Woman, especially the cut of the artichoke (which you cannot appreciate, as it is hidden by the Culatello of Zibello sliver), the overall neatness of the presentation, the fine jus, the seductive sweet saltiness of the Culatello, and the ethereal encasing of the chunky filling of spinach and ricotta (a recipe Helen has probably stealed from the Sainsbury’s ricotta tub 🙂). Woman, ever the Italian, found the proportion between pasta and spinach in the parcel to be unbalanced, and the artichoke not particularly intense in flavour.
Whereas we enter international fusion territory again with this
Line caught Calamari…sauteed a la minute, black and creamy Carnaroli Acquerello rice, light bitter jus with chorizo and confit tomatoes, Reggiano parmesan emulsion
where a creamy, enveloping ink black risotto accompanies four slightly too hard yet obviously very fresh calamari. And if the parmesan cream, poured on the dish at the table, wasn’t just a touch over-salty, we would appreciate its overwhelmingly intense perfume and flavour and rich texture even more.
A venison reached the highest culinary echelons, and we will give it the place of honour, but this
Halibut…roasted with a crust of hazelnut and rosemary, potato gnocchi, watercress, walnut emulsion
wasn’t bad either…enveloped in its fine, tasty hazelnut crust, cooked perfectly.
Oh, look, the gnocchi even have the all-important indentation which is so rare to find even in Italy…but, but, wait a minute…they are very hard! We bite the bullet (ah ah) and are confirmed in our belief that Italian and French people have different concepts of pasta and starchy food in general… Gnocchi aside, we found this an elegant, well-structured and subtly complex dish, where the walnut foam was an intoxicating actor.
Our state so far can be described as extremely comfortable, relaxed and satisfied, both by the food and by the setting. The sweet offerings that followed did nothing to alter this state…
Chestnuts biscuitrs, chantilly, wafer, yuzu curd, yuzu sorbet
A chestnut triumph: the intense chestnut cream cubes are an impact piece. On the whole, very intricate and teasing play on flavours and textures, from the light crunchiness of the chestnut wafers to the soft chunkiness of the sponge base to the – perhaps the lime sorbet too much of a contrast, both temperature-wise and tartness wise. On the other hand…
Hazelnuts, home made pralinee’, Carupano chocolate cremeux, lemon and ginger foam
The lime and ginger foam well suits the hazelnut dessert: striking flavours, very good, with multilayered textures: tangy and airy lime and ginger, frothy but consistent praline and creamy chocolate: yummy!
Amiable and correct (except for a rather hurried tall blond). And generous, with a sense of pampering. They let you try the wine by the glass, which not everybody does even at this level.
Some noisy customers who may have all the money in the world but obviously cannot buy themselves manners. And the hardish calamari, tsk, tsk…one wouldn’t expect them in this sort of restaurant.
Roasted fillet of Venison with a coffee Bernoisette, celeriac fondant and crispy, intense jus perfumed with robusta, Stilton chantilly
What a sumptuous, very deeply and chromatically flavoured meat and reduction. We keep wondering what that delightful pungent burnt hint comes from; until we check the menu and remember the coffee. The meat is served not sliced as for some reason we were expecting, but in a whole succulent fillet chunk, on top of a very powerful celeriac (for Woman almost too powerful), and made memorable by the cheesy (Stilton) cream. As in many great dishes, an air of simplicity masks craftsmanship and complexity, and the flavours are at the same time robust and subtle.
The treat concluded with a nice filter coffee (we still tend not to trust espresso in French restaurants, despite our excellent experience at Hibiscus), a stunning selection of petit four, a whole trolley from which you can choose, and even a canele to take home (more on this story later…). How spoiled can one be?
The tasting menu would have cost a standard £85. Our 3 course (in fact more) lunch menu at £42 included two glasses of wine each, water and coffee, so that the total bill including service came to less than £95. Unbelievable value. Now, we are, as you know, tight fisted bastards; but with such generosity and quality one really feels one has to express some tangible gratitude, and so we did.
What the amuse bouche promised, the rest of the meal delivered: rich, solid, elaborate dishes, elegantly presented, classically conceived but with a search for interesting, unusual, complex combinations. To be stern, we can’t say that every single dish was executed or conceived faultlessly or that every one of them was a total success, in our opinion. But this is to be stern and maybe too much so. This is a place where one can enjoy a wonderful, relaxed, lunch of unquestionably high standard and technical complexity, in an elegant environment, and feeling pampered. At lunch, incredible value too. One feels strongly like going back.