The notes below are from a meal in November 2007.
This was the opening week, but expectations were high. Alain Ducasse had promised in interviews that this would be "haute couture, and not prêt-á-porter" cuisine, and had brought in the deputy chef from 3 star Michelin Plaza Athenee, Jocelyn Herland, to head things up. The room is surprisingly understated, except for a circular curtain of fibre-optic lights enclosing a private table for six to one side of the dining room (available for a mere £1,350 a time), designed by Patrick Jouin, who used to work with uber restaurant designer Philippe Starck. Tables are well spaced and the general theme is of muted creams and beige. So we sat down with high hopes.
To begin with on the table are some crudités with an olive dip. This is one thing on the Riviera in the summer, where the vegetables are dazzling and fresh from the local markets of Nice and San Remo, but vegetables here are from "various UK suppliers" and so what you have are some carrots and radishes that taste utterly ordinary, the kind of thing that you might serve at a dinner party. No amuse-bouche appears, yet this is a place where Mr Ducasse says "I would like the clients to give me three stars in their hearts".
Well, I thought, let’s see what appears next. Bread is at least baked on the premises, of just four kinds: a nice sourdough, a cereal seed roll, a "Scottish bread" that is a soft white bread, and a pleasant baguette. These rolls had good texture but were light on salt, and were merely pleasant (16/20). My first dish was langoustines, served cold, on a bed of avocado. The langoustines themselves have reasonable taste and were tender, but a shadow of the lovely langoustine dishes that I have eaten in France, this despite langoustines after all coming from the Irish Sea and hence beng local produce (15/20). Moreover, are a few cold langoustines on a bed of pureed avocado really what you expect in a restaurant that presumably has serious ambitions? Other appetisers were no better e.g. autumn vegetables that were similar to the crudités other than some being cooked, and a very ordinary pumpkin ravioli in a Parmesan emulsion that was surprisingly lacking in intensity of taste (15/20).
For the next course I had seared scallops, of good quality but cooked just a fraction long, served with white and green Swiss chard and a ponzu dressing that was much too aggressive, the acidity overwhelming the scallops (15/20). My peppered Angus beef fillet was very pleasant, but by comparison less good than one I had eaten at Hawksmoor a few months back. This was served with nicely made chips and a rather odd note, lettuce on top of a little Thai style papaya salad, which for me did not sit well with the beef and chips at all (16/20).
Again, I was by no means getting the short end of the stick here: my fellow diners sampled a wide range of dishes, which ranged from similar standard (halibut with yellow caper sauce, spinach and Jerusalem artichokes) to some pigeon served with a crostini that was distinctly overdone and a coating of jus that was clearly cooked too hard, to the extent of a note of charcoal appearing. Dover sole fillet was cooked fine but the prawns with it were seriously overcooked. A poached breast of Landes chicken had good taste but was distinctly tepid. The dishes as this stage did not even look as though they were of a top restaurant from a presentation viewpoint, The mid course and main courses had the appearance more of bistro food than a place with serious Michelin ambitions. The room has 82 covers for just 25 chefs, which in itself should have been a warning to me (in Paris the ratio of chefs to diners in a 3 star place can be nearly 1:1) that the ambition level of the cooking on the plate would be more modest than the publicity suggested.
I had assumed the cheese at least would be hard to fault given the sources were Bernard Antony and Neals Yard, yet instead of a cheese board just four tiny pieces of pre-selected cheese appeared. Stilton was past its best, Cheddar was fine, but St Maure had moved past its peak to a hint of chalkiness, and the Comte was OK but unrecognisable as Antony’s (15/20).
The desserts, it has to be said, came as a revelation after all this. My Rum Baba had beautiful soft texture, and was nearly as good as the classic version served in Louis XV (19/20). Other desserts tried, such as croustillant chocolat praline orange, and a pretty star of chocolate and raspberry (pictured) were genuinely top drawer, around the 18/20 and 19/20 level.
Service was amiable but a shambles. Dishes were presented to the wrong person on three out of four courses, and there were long gaps in service. After four hours we had to skip petit-fours and make a dash for it. No doubt this aspect will improve as the restaurant settles down, as hopefully will the English of the waiters. When my wife asked about the "croustillant" the waiter looked surprised and said "I will bring him straight away", referring to the manager (Christian), who I do not think was on the menu, delectable though he no doubt is.
The wine list was shockingly expensive: there was hardly a wine less than £60. We had a pleasant Germany Riesling for £85 that can be bought for around £12, and I saw another wine for £80 that I paid £8 for just a couple of years back at retail price. A glass of simple Tokaji dessert wine will set you back £25. The wine waiter claimed that the mark-ups were "less than Claridges" but that is hardly the point, nor did it seem that way from the list. Some of the very serious wines were merely four times retail, but there was no relief at all at the lower end of the list. There is a point where mark-ups cross the line from legitimate profit-making to gouging, and to me this list seems to have crossed it. This is particularly a pity since the growers were of high quality.
The tasting menu was £115 with three courses £75, but there were no amuse-bouche, no pre-desserts, and in our case no petit-fours since we simply timed out after four hours and had to leave. The cheese was miniscule in portion size, and the double espresso barely covered the bottom of the cup. I have not felt as ripped off in a restaurant for a long time. They even left the credit card slip open despite having added service.
Objectively I can get the mark up to 16/20 due to the superb desserts, but remember that the bill was over £200 a head after I had scoured the wine list for some of the cheapest options available. Desserts aside, not one dish was more than 16/20 (1 Michelin star) level, and many were below that. I am a big fan of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in Monaco and Paris, but it felt to me as in this case he had decided that Londoners probably could not tell the difference, so why should he even bother to try when there are all those rich hedge fund managers on expenses who will pay the bill. Desserts excepted, this was a huge disappointment to me. Barely one star in this client's heart, Mr Ducasse: prêt-á-porter food at haute couture prices.Book