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 (18/20). 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 (18/20).
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 (18/20). 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 (18/20). 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 (17/20).
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 (17/20). 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 (19/20).
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 (17/20).
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 (16/20). 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 18/20). 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 (19/20). 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.