Le Gavroche opened in 1967 and was the first UK restaurant to gain three Michelin stars under Albert Roux; these days it has two stars, with Albert’s son Michel Junior at the helm. The basement dining room remains cosy and rather masculine in its décor; the “host” sees a menu with prices, but not the “guest”, though the waiting staff guessed wrong this evening as to our respective roles.
As we looked at the menu some nibbles appeared: goujons of sole and crisps of chicken with truffle mayonnaise and foie gras. These were classy, the chicken rich and carefully judged, the deep fried sole pieces hard to fault, crisp and carefully seasoned (8/10). These were better than a nibble of smoked salmon with skate, which was pleasant but no more than that (5/10). Bread is made from scratch and was of high quality, with mini baguettes having lovely texture.
Crab salad had crab grilled with a hint of curry sauce, alongside tempura crab with Asian dressing. The crab was as fresh as you could wish, the cooked crab accurately judged (just about 8/10). Artichoke hearts were filled with foie gras, truffles and chicken mousse, and this was a lovely, rich dish: the artichoke was tender, the mousse gorgeous: classic French cooking (easily 8/10).
For the main course, wild turbot was cooked simply and served with carrots, radish and chive butter sauce. The fish was timed beautifully and the sauce carefully judged (8/10). Roast saddle of rabbit was served as a kind of millefeuille, with a middle layer of rosti and a top layer of Parmesan crisp. The rabbit had lovely flavour, the rosti was spot on, the Parmesan crisp adding an extra rich flavour note (easily 8/10).
Desserts have always been a strength of Le Gavroche. Millefeuille of raspberries and praline-flavoured chocolate were served with faultless pastry layers, the high quality raspberries a classic balance to the richness of the chocolate (9/10). Even better was passion fruit soufflé with white chocolate ice cream, the soufflé having perfect texture all the way through, having risen beautifully, the passion fruit flavour coming through well, the white chocolate ice cream a nice balance. I have eaten a lot of soufflés in my life, but this was as good as it gets: flawless (10/10). Coffee was also terrific, dark and full of flavour: a proprietary blend. Service was silky smooth throughout the evening. It was interesting how much better this meal was than the last two bargain lunches I tried here, which were good value but not of the same calibre in terms of the food itself. Sometimes you get what you pay for.
Below are notes from previous meals.
You enter via a discreet door on Upper Brook Street, and are led into a small welcome area with a few chairs and sofas where you can peruse the menu and have a drink. The dining room is downstairs and has a very "gentleman’s club" feel, since the walls are painted dark green and in the bar area there is a globe and an array of green-upholstered armchairs that are probably fabric rather than leather. The ceiling is very low and the feel is slightly oppressive, though the tables are generously spaced. The carpet is dark blue with a pink and cream pattern, and the walls have a few abstract paintings and prints to relieve the dark green colour.
The ceiling is white and has plenty of ceiling spots, supplemented by side lamps to give an effective lighting scheme. The chairs are red with a low back, and all around the walls is banquette seating covered in green material. Dotted around the room are elegant flower displays, including a display of handsome orchids. There is no music in this temple of gastronomy. Waiters are formally dressed and the service is slick and attentive. The service is very well drilled, friendly and efficient. Each table has a perfectly ironed white linen tablecloth, and in addition to silver condiment holders there is a candle in a brass holder and also a somewhat eccentric large metal sculpture of a housefly (other tables have different animal or insect sculptures, including a frog).
Here are notes from a recent meal.
The set lunch at Le Gavroche is one of the few food bargains (relatively speaking) in London. £48 buys you a full meal including wine. To be sure, you don’t see langoustines or turbot on the lunch menu, but a lot of work goes into the dishes. Today we began with a couple of nibbles, one of foie gras and one of lobster, that both had good flavour (in particular the lobster) and texture (8/10). A nibble of a tiger prawn with guacamole and a perfectly cooked, well seasoned prawn, the guacamole a pleasant accompaniment (8/10). A taste of lobster bisque was also an example of how this soup should taste, with a rich stock and plenty of lobster taste coming through, with accurate seasoning. If you try to cook this at home you will discover that you need a lot of work and costly ingredients to make this deceptively simple dish taste anywhere near this good (8/10).
The starter proper was a mousseline of chicken, the warm mousse having at its centre Roquefort, and covered with a Hollandaise sauce. This dish had the potential to be a bit of a basket case, as Roquefort is very salty, and the dish as stated is very rich, but a clever accompaniment of slices of apple gave a much needed balancing acidity, and the Roquefort flavour was carefully controlled. The texture of the mousse was silky smooth, the chicken flavour good and this for me was a very classy piece of cooking (8/10, bordering on 9/10).
A game pie was another accomplished dish, with excellent pastry encasing a filling of venison and rabbit enriched with a little foie gras, on a bed of spinach with a superb rich sauce. The latter was made from a chicken stock initially, then enriched with the game bones, resulting in an intense but not overwhelming sauce (9/10). Cheese is from Jacques Vernier in Paris, and is delivered weekly. Gour noir is an unusual and full-flavoured goat cheese here in lovely condition, while the classics are all here: fine Beaufort, runny Epoisses, creamy Brillat Savarin (8/10). For dessert, pear sable had superb poached pears, a lovely sable biscuit, Chantilly cream and a little chocolate sauce (9/10).
Coffee is excellent, accompanied by fine chocolates and, in the only slip-up of the meal, a hard tuile. Overall I found this a superb meal, showcasing French culinary technique with the lovely chicken mousse and terrific game pie and delicate pear dessert. This was one of the best meals I have eaten at Le Gavroche, which seems to be on the border between 8/10 and 9/10 level cooking.
Below are notes from a meal in August 2007, by way of comparison.
Bread is a choice of rolls: baguette, white or country bread. Bread is generally bought in from The Bread Factory, and I have to say I prefer their sliced bread to the rolls which are served here e.g. the country bread was a little chewy for me, though the white rolls were well made (7/10 bread).
The wine list is 42 densely packed pages of top quality wines, almost entirely French. Growers in the major regions are the very finest e.g. from Alsace you have Zind Humbrecht (perhaps the best of all) as well as Trimbach, Hugel and Ostertag, amongst others. There are half a dozen Gewürztraminers, when many wine lists would not feature even one e.g. Trimbach 2003 at £38 (retail price £9.32). Cuvee Frederich Emile Riesling 2003 from the same grower is listed at £55 (retail price around £20). The Languedoc Roussillon region has no fewer than 25 reds listed, but coverage of other countries is very sketchy, and restricted to the high end e.g. from Australia there is only Grange Hermitage listed e.g. 1988 at a spicy £720 (retail price £145). Similarly from Spain there are just five red wines, including Vega Sicilia Unico 1989 at £460 (retail price £110).
By contrast the high end of France is covered in loving depth e.g. Romanee Conti going back to 1971 (for any traders who have just made a large bonus, this is at £6,980 for a wine that can be bought for £4,508, which I suppose constitutes a modest mark-up). The northern Rhone has many of the top wines from Guigal e.g. La Mouline 2000 for £395 (retail price £124). There are several pages of dessert wines and plenty of halves. Quirkily no wines are listed by the glass, but they will do some on request. As can be seen, mark-ups vary significantly, and although the list is heavily slanted to the top end there are a few choices for people on a budget, with one obscure bottle of white at just £20. There is a good selection of desert wines by the glass (full 125 ml glasses) and you can drink right up to Chateau Yquem 1999 for £90 a glass, while Klein Constantia 2001 dessert wine is a more affordable £15. The award-winning Sipon ice wine from Slovenia is listed at £48 a glass (£112 for a bottle retail).
The prices here are certainly ambitious, with starters going up to £52 and the cheapest at £20.90, while main courses range from £26.90 to £46.20. Cheese is £13.80, while desserts are especially costly, from £12.80 to £30.80, and coffee at £6.40. A range of nibbles appeared as we browsed the extensive wine list. Savoury artichoke beignet had fresh and good quality artichoke, while a chorizo spring roll had superb deep-fried coating, while asparagus tips and truffle has in season baby asparagus. These worked better than cod brandade, which was over-salty and had a rather chewy base (7/10 overall).
I had scallops that were lightly seared, served in a ring around a few salad leaves and surrounded by a further ring of carrot "spaghetti", all resting in an excellent mustard tarragon sauce that had its mustard flavour in careful control so as not to overwhelm the scallops (7/10).
Crab was served in two forms, simply with an excellent salad of high quality tomatoes drizzled with lime and coriander dressing, and fried soft shell crab along with some rather unnecessary melba toast. The dressing on the salad was very well balanced and the crab itself very high quality, while the soft shell crab avoided any greasiness (8/10).
Turbot was served on the bone and was beautifully cooked, the fish having tremendous flavour, enhanced by a simple, classic butter and chive sauce. This was accompanied by courgette rolls inside which was ratatouille, and chickpea chips. This is classic French cooking at its best, taking a top quality ingredient and bringing out its flavour very well (9/10).
It was similarly hard to fault a fine piece of fillet of beef, served with a lovely port sauce that had been reduced to a glorious thick consistency and intensity, offered with a generous slab of excellent foie gras and macaroni with very good texture flavoured with truffle. Perhaps this could have benefited from something with some acidity to offset the richness of the dish, but there was a little pot of vegetables on the side: carrots, runner beans and baby squash cooked in butter (9/10).
The cheese board here was extensive, mostly supplied by Jacques Vernier of Paris, supplemented by a few British cheeses e.g. Mrs Montgomery Cheddar. Cheeses were in good condition e.g. Camembert, Munster that was ripe but not overly so, and Bleu d’Auvergne (8/10). The Roux kitchens are famous for their desserts, and we were not disappointed tonight. My passion fruit soufflé had flawless texture, fluffy with strong passion fruit flavour, topped with excellent white chocolate ice cream served at the table. The passion fruit’s acidity balanced the chocolate well, and technically this was extremely impressive (9/10). A plate of raspberry desserts featured millefeuille with beautiful pastry, while a mini raspberry soufflé was as good as my own, while raspberry sorbet had excellent texture. Best of all was a raspberry beignet, with a delightfully light, sweet sugar coating covering the raspberries inside. This was comfortably 9/10,and indeed the beignet was 10/10.
Filter coffee and espresso were excellent, with strong coffee flavour. My espresso arrived in a proper sized coffee cup, filled up (no smear of coffee at the bottom here). It was also topped up as often as desired (the contrast with the Vineyard, where my request to top up my tiny pool of espresso was charged at a supplement, could hardly have been greater). Petit fours were also top drawer: light tuile, superb "opera" sponge, superb pistachio macaroon and even a more than edible Chinese gooseberry sugar coated and flavoured with coconut (normally I find Chinese gooseberries pretty awful, so to make this taste nice shows some talent). Petit fours were 9/10.
What follows are notes from a meal in April 2004, by way of comparison.
Bread was a choice of either white, brown or rye rolls, and this was served warm, with good texture, balanced seasoning and reasonable flavour (6/10). The wine list was extensive and features fine growers from across the world, though the wine list is heavily weighted towards France. A basic Taittinger NV was £62, though 1997 Cristal was a relatively less excessive £230. Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile 1998 is £55, though a Jermann Pinot Grigio could be obtained for a relatively fair £38. A bargain was the 1998 Torres Mas La Plana at £55. The list has plenty of halves and dessert wines.
An initial amuse-bouche was a little foie gras pate on brown toast, which had velvety texture and strong foie gras flavour (7/10) but even better was a little piece of smoked eel served in a pastry case with green cabbage. The eel was superb, the smoky taste neatly offset by the earthiness of the lightly cooked cabbage, while the pastry case was made from extremely light, delicate pastry. The ingredients were harmonious and the components excellent, so I really have no choice but to score this 10/10.
A second nibble was a single deep-fried langoustine served on a base of avocado with balsamic dressing. The langoustine was of the highest quality and perfectly timed, while the idea of spiking the avocado with balsamic was inspired as the latter cut through the richness of the avocado. I recently had a similar dish at the 3 star Michelin Lucas Carton in Paris, and this version was better (9/10).
Half a dozen langoustines were served out of their shell, with a single langoustine shell as garnish. The shellfish rested in a buttery sauce laced with a little ginger, and were offered with finely diced tomato and cucumber and a few baby spinach leaves. The langoustines were generally carefully cooked, though one was oddly out of line with the others and was slightly overcooked. The butter sauce was reduced with white wine, which gave enough acidity to cut through the richness of the butter, and the sparing use of ginger added a welcome dimension to the dish (8/10).
I had seared tuna, served prettily as four squares of tuna alongside four matching slices of chorizo, with a fan of four asparagus spears. This was served on a black plate which was decorated with a sinuous smear of excellent aioli. The tuna was of high quality and lightly cooked, just seared on the outside, while the excellent chorizo added a hint of spice to the tuna. Best of all was the asparagus, which was of the highest quality, lightly steamed with a little balsamic; the freshness of the asparagus was a good match to the richness of the tuna and the spicy zest of the chorizo (8/10).
My wife had a special of the evening, fillet of wild salmon served with fennel; and a lobster sauce. The salmon had excellent flavour (which of course farmed salmon can never approach) and was timed very well, the fish moist yet cooked through. The sauce had excellent depth of lobster flavour, and the salmon was complemented by a few tender Jerusalem artichokes, which gave an earthy balance to the richness of the sauce, as well as a velvety puree of the artichokes (8/10).
I had fillet of beef, an impressive tower of cow topped with caramelised shallots and resting alongside a little heap of gratinated macaroni and a couple of large ceps, with a red wine sauce poured on at the table. The beef was of very high quality, tender and cooked lightly, while the sauce was a fine example of classical French cooking, gloopy and with great intensity of flavour. The ceps had fine flavour but the triumph were the shallots, beautifully caramelised (I know from personal experience that this is a difficult thing to bring off). The pasta was good, though not stunning, and I wonder whether a more classic accompaniment such as gratin Dauphinoise would have been better (8/10).
The cheese arrives on two large boards. There were no less than 36 cheeses in all. I tried fairly ripe Camembert, excellent St Maure which was moist rather than chalky, good Beaufort, ripe Epoisses and creamy Bleu de Bresse. 7/10 for the cheeses. One flaw was that the bread served with the cheese was stale, so I resorted to biscuits, although these were clearly Carr’s water biscuits from a packet.
"Delice Glace au Tokaji Aszu" was a circle of frozen ice cream laced with the rich, sherry like flavour of the Hungarian dessert wine Tokaji Aszu, fortunately kept in careful control so as not to dominate the flavour and was remarkably light in texture. The delice rested on small pieces of marinated prunes and was topped with a single whole marinated prune. The delice was encircled by a fence of delicate biscuit tuile. The outside of the plate was garnished with piped dark chocolate and pools of prune sauce (8/10).
My passion fruit soufflé could not be faulted, an even top with the lightest, fluffiest consistency that could be hoped for. The soufflé was topped with passion fruit sauce before white chocolate ice cream was poured into the centre; this has smooth texture and strong chocolate flavour. At the bottom of the soufflé was a small passion fruit macaroon. The passion fruit flavour came through well in the soufflé, and the citrus taste was a good foil for the richness of the chocolate (9/10).
Both filter and espresso coffee were excellent (8/10). These were served with fine petit fours: a feather-light macaroon laced with lemon, a shortbread biscuit, a fine tuile that had just a hint of pepper, a chocolate truffle and a nut cluster of pistachios and almonds in white chocolate. Even the usual inedible Chinese gooseberry was very good here, dipped in hardened sugar syrup and the base dipped in coconut shreds. There was also a chocolate cherry, a smooth square of chocolate sponge topped with chocolate icing and a wedge of honey cake with five-spice topped with slivers of almond in buttery fudge (9/10 petit fours). As a cute touch, the petit fours involving nuts were served in a little silver dish with a squirrel as a handle (a silver squirrel that is!).
This was the meal I have always wanted at Le Gavroche but I never had. I first came here twenty one years ago, and since Albert retired, while desserts have always been a strong suit and individual dishes could be excellent, I simply have not had until tonight a meal where the kitchen was firing on all cylinders. There was always a dry fish or an overcooked piece of meat somewhere to spoil the meal, but not tonight. Here the fine technique of French cooking was demonstrated through the superb demi-glace sauce with my beef through to the perfect soufflé. Yet also there was inventiveness: the superb eel amuse guele and the tuna with chorizo. I have always thought Le Gavroche to be a 7/10 restaurant, but tonight was definitely a strong 8/10. Ironically Michel, who is almost always in the kitchen, was tonight away about to run the Paris marathon.