Helene Darroze made her name in Paris before opening here; she runs the restaurant at The Connaught in paralle with the one in Paris. At a previous visit to Helene Darroze at the Connaught I had opted for the cheap lunch menu, and found it rather ordinary compared to the dinner menu. Today I was able to try the full tasting menu, which weighs in at £115 for nine courses. The three course lunch menu was priced at £35.
Nibbles were French ham from the Pyrenees, which was lovely, and sea bass croquettes, which were rather lacking in taste, and somewhat flabby in texture; alongside was a scallop coral veloute, which was pleasant (overall perhaps 4/10). Scallop carpaccio was served with crunchy, marinated artichokes (from Sardinia), and was pleasant, the scallops having good flavour (6/10). This was followed by terrine of duck foie gras (from Landes) with celeriac and gomashio (an Asian condiment made from sesame seeds), crispy ginger bread and banana puree. The foie gras itself was good, with smooth texture, but the banana accompaniment seemed an ill-conceived idea to me. For me, foie gras is best matched with something that had acidity, and mild spices and banana just didn’t work (4/10).
The best savoury dish was pea veloute with spring vegetables, a little buffalo cream, bay leaf cappuccino and crispy fondant lardons of pork belly. The peas had lovely flavour, the dish was well seasoned, and the pork crisp added a nice balance of texture (7/10). Confit of salt cod was served with Iberico lomo (tenderloin) ham jus, wild garlic emulsion and ravioli of white coco beans and pecorino. Again I struggled with the balance of the dish, the salt cod flavour overwhelming the other elements (3/10).
The meal got back on track somewhat with roasted line-caught sea bass, served with white asparagus (from Landes in the south of France) that had been coated in bottarga (mullet roe) breadcrumbs, served with seaweed and lime beurre blanc. The fish was nicely cooked, the asparagus reasonable though I was not convinced by the need to combine this ingredient with bottarga. However the beurre blanc was nicely made (6/10). Saddle of milk-fed lamb was roasted and stuffed, flavoured with tarragon and offered with grilled chuletilla (baby lamb chop), with broad beans, fresh goat cheese, black pepper and a slightly spiced reduction of the cooking juices. The lamb itself had good flavour, but again I was puzzled by the garnishes: goat cheese with lamb? (5/10).
Desserts seemed to me better composed than the savoury dishes. Apple compote (using Golden Delicious apples) was served with Granny Smith apple sorbet, clafoutis biscuit and a black Sarawak pepper cream that was fortunately quite subtle; the compote was nicely made, the sorbet very good (6/10). Madong chocolate cream was served with Moka (sic) coffee ice cream, pecan nut nougatine and Greek yoghurt. The coffee flavour was pleasingly intense, the yoghurt an interesting way to balance this (7/10). Service ran smoothly, and our sommelier was knowledgeable. The bill, admittedly with quite a bit of wine, came to a hefty £252 a head. Overall I found this meal rather disjointed. There were some good dishes, such as the lovely pea veloute and the capable desserts, but several dishes seemed to have too many and at times clashing flavour elements. For me this was at best a 6/10 level meal.
What follows are notes from previous meals.
The Connaught dining room is a dark mahogany-panelled affair, with patterned carpet and a mix of banquettes and traditional chairs. Lighting, such as it is, is provided from a oddly modern central fitting (via designer India Mahdavi) and side lamps, but the lighting is subdued to the point of gloom (better on my nmost recent visit). Tables are covered in fine white linen, with a single flower in a vase on each table.
Interestingly the tasting menu is now £85, down £5 from its earlier price, presmably a sign of the times. Admittedly this was a January evening, but the dining room was only half full. Nibbles were quite enjoyable: a tomato stick with olive oil was unusual and tasty, a velouté of artichoke had rather insipid flavour, while a little foccacia of salmon and dill had good texture but a little more salmon flavour would have been nice (6/10). An amuse bouche of foie gras with peanut foam was not well executed, as although the texture was fine, the peanut flavour completely overwhelmed the foie gras (4/10).
Blue lobster was excellent (better than on a previous visit), seasoned with well controlled Indian spices, served with spring onion and beurre noisette, the lobster entirely without even a hint of chewiness (8/10). I had squid cooked with tomatoes and chorizo on a bed of Carnaroli rice with Parmesan foam. This dish had lots of flavour and the squid had barely an element of chewiness, while the dish was well seasoned (7/10).
My main course of roast partridge was unexciting, what flavour there was coming mainly from the accompaniments: tiny Brussels sprouts, little pieces of cooked “reinettes” apples (from C<évennes) and grapes, with a vin jaune sauce (barely 6/10). Much better was venison, served as both fillet and ribs with pepper, autumn fruits and fondant of vegetables with a Stilton emulsion and a red wine sauce; the meat was carefully cooked and had excellent flavour (8/10).
A pre dessert of pineapple with citrus flavours was refreshing (7/10). A dessert of exotic fruits set in lime jelly with coconut ice cream was very light, with feathery passion fruit “paper” and excellent marshmallow (8/10). A rich chocolate dessert using Venezuelan Carupano dark chocolate had a chocolate cream, bitter chocolate sorbet and hot chocolate sauce, and while extremely rich this was hard to argue with (8/10). Coffee is extremely high quality but is also £8, admittedly with some further chocolates, but £8?
Service was top of the range tonight, attentive and dealing with assorted diner preferences with aplomb, with just one minor slip. I have now had three meals here: the first was a dinner when Helene Darroze was in the kitchen (8/10), the second a lunch when she was not (6/10) and now a dinner when she was absent (7/10). Hence 7/10 seems a good score.
Below are notes from a lunch in August 2008.
Today I tried the £39 set lunch menu. Clearly at a £39 lunch you cannot expect the same level of ingredients in particular as at a full price dinner menu, but nonetheless they have made a good effort with the lunch choices. We began with a clever amuse bouche of ricotta cheese tart with melon and Iberico bellota ham. This combination worked quite well, the excellent ham providing an earth contrast to the cheese and the melon (7/10).
A starter of red mullet ceviche was served on a bed of crushed haricot mais from Bearn, sauce vierge with Taggische olives and sun-dried tomatoes. This was a pretty dish but I felt that there were too many competing flavours, the red mullet ending up rather lost in the mish-mash of tastes (6/10). A tomato de marmande is a peasant dish of a large beef tomato stuffed with assorted confit meats (pork, lamb) then slow cooked in the oven, with a balsamic infused chicken jus and lamb’s lettuce. This was enjoyable enough, though ultimate it did taste like a tomato stuffed with mince, which is after all, what it was (6/10).
An interpretation of Black Forest gateau was a jelly and granite of griotte (wild cherries) with a chocolate shortbread and chocolate sabayon, and to be honest is was not a good idea. Cherries and chocolate are a great combination, but despite the shortbread the overall effect was of a rather soggy chocolate mush with some cherries. Heston’s take on the Black Forest gateau at the Fat Duck is a far more successful idea. Bread is still excellent, with freshly made foccacia, chestnut and white bread, and coffee comes from a menu of choices. My companion’s dishes were rather better than mine e.g. an excellent foie gras terrine and tender lamb, but my meal was rather a let-down after the excellent dinner I had here a few weeks before. Ms Darroze was away in Paris today, and perhaps that did not help.
Below are notes from a dinner in July 2007, my first meal here.
I could tell this was not going to be a cheap evening when the waiter came up with several champagnes on ice and said “white or rosé champagne?” No “would you like to try…”, so more a demand than a request. The menu is appealing, with fairly classical French dishes, several “signature” dishes (three courses for £75) and a tasting menu for £90. There is a set lunch at £39.
The wine list is extensive and has a wide selection of growers, stretching beyond France to a decent selection from elsewhere. Mark-ups are less than many in central London. Meerlust Rubicon 2003 at £48 is not bad for a wine that retails at around £17. Didier Dagena Silex 2005 is £165 for a wine that costs around £60 in a shop. Antinori Tignanello 2005 is £100 for a wine that costs £45 or so retail. The cheapest wine is £28 a bottle. Of course there are the city expense account wines as well, but prices are a bit lower than I might have expected given the location.
Some nibbles appear as you peruse the menu: ham from a black pig from Gascony, the French equivalent of pata negra, a gazpacho of garlic, and excellent light goujeres made from ewe’s milk cheese (8/10). Bread is made in the kitchen from scratch and is a choice of roils: cereal, black olive, chestnut and white. I thought the white was a little hard but the others were excellent (8/10).
The amuse bouche was a foie gras crème brulee with apple sorbet and peanut emulsion. The acidity of the apple worked well with the richness of the silky foie gras (8/10). I began with a single large scallop, roasted with chives and covered with a Idiazabal cheese crust, with slices of thin Brittany cauliflower in a beurre noisette; this was accompanied by a shrimp cappuccino. The scallop had lovely texture, the cheese crust an unusual pairing but one that worked OK, while the cauliflower had excellent taste, the shrimp sauce also having quite intense flavour (8/10). This was slightly better than a blue lobster from Brittany in a ravioli with spices, citrus and carrot mousseline, with spring onion and tarragon reduction with beurre noisette; this suffered from the pasta being a little harder than ideal, though the lobster was tender and the sauce rich (7/10).
A little in between course was a bowl of marscapone, cornflour and chicken stock, which was very rich but enjoyable in a “don’t count the calories” way (7/10). For main course roasted Irish wild salmon was superb, served on a bed of nicely cooked puy lentils, with carrots and spring onions simmered in a chicken stock and an emulsion of smoked bacon. The fish itself was a case study of how salmon should be cooked and should taste, the lentils an enjoyable earthy contrast and the vegetables cooked just right (9/10).
Tuna belly was marinated with Espelette pepper, cut into cubes and seared lightly, served with a mousseline of smoked potatoes and crisp finely shredded vegetables, a confit tomato sauce with botargo (tuna roe). The tuna itself had lovely flavour, but I think that the vegetables were cut so thin that they lost their flavour: a case of presentation winning out over taste. The potatoes were carefully prepared and the sauce worked well with the tuna though (7/10).
Cheese was a rather odd affair, as only three cheeses were available. Ossau was in excellent condition and supplied by top affineur Bernard Anthony, the others a pleasant Colston Basset Stilton and some good Parmesan. I am all for a limited selection of cheeses in good condition rather than throwing dozens of cheese on the board in variable states, but just three cheeses seems a little excessive in this regard. Perhaps this is a function of the restaurant being open only a short time.
There was a pre-dessert of lemon curd with lemon grass and an almond biscuit, which at least had the lemon-grass flavour in control (6/10). The dessert proper was a superb peach from France in a salad, with Sicilian pistachio ice cream, a steamed pistachio nut sponge and peach tea mousse. The peach was sublime, while I am less sure about the harmony of the well-made accompaniments (still 8/10). Better was chocolate “manjari” from Madagascar, the ganache perfumed with raspberries, served with a galangal crème brulee and raspberry sorbet. The raspberries were superb, the chocolate dark and luxurious (9/10). There is a menu of coffees and even a little trolley of greenery for herb infused teas, and Pierre Herme chocolates, so no complaints there. Other petit fours included candied ginger ale.
Service was attentive and generally excellent. The only blemish was when my wife ordered her food, explaining she didn’t eat meat, and they adjusted one dish slightly. All very good, but then next was she was presented with a foie gras amuse bouche. To be fair they replaced it with an excellent gazpacho, but this was followed by the intermediate dish of chicken stock being offered to her. Surely by then the waiter should have got the message? I suspect that the French in general have great trouble with the very concept of vegetarianism, so I think this was a conceptual problem. In every other aspect the service was excellent.
Overall this was assured, classy French cooking. The produce used was superb e.g. the terrific Irish salmon, the perfect French peach, and technique was very good. There is an emphasis on flavour, and while the considerable use of butter and stocks may not be trendy, it certainly results in fine tasting food. It is great to see this place coming hot on the heels of Ambassade de l’Ile, showing London just what top class French cooking is all about. Helene Darroze is spending a few months in the kitchen before returning to her two star place in Paris, so the only note of caution will be to see whether the high standards are maintained when she is no longer present.