Belle Epoque was the “golden age” between 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It conjures up images of optimism and artistic innovation, but rarely that of a Heathrow hotel dining room. Nonetheless, that is the rather hopeful name of the main Sofitel restaurant near terminal 5. This kind of location does not sound a promising spot for fine dining, but it has earned 3 AA rosettes, roughly the equivalent of a Michelin star in AA Guide terms.
The restaurant is on the ground floor of the hotel and seats up to 80 guests. It is smartly decorated, though inevitably there is a “hotel dining room” feel to the place. The head chef is Mayur Nagarale, who previously was senior sous chef at Brasserie Roux at the same location, and before that worked in various London hotels since 2002 after moving to the UK from Mumbai.
The wine list ranged in price from £26 to £458 and ranged quite widely around the world. Sample references were Beres Dry Furmint 2013 at £36 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £12, the classy Donnhoff Spatlese Felsenturmchen 2006 at £67 compared to a retail price of £20, and Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 2011 at £99 for a wine that will set you back £28 in a shop. For those with means, Antinori Tignanello 1998 was an excessive £260 compared to its retail price of £92, and Charmes Chambertin Domaine Arlaud 2003 a chunky £266 for a bottle whose current market price is £120.
Bread was supplied by a bakery called The Bread Factory; they are one of the best of the commercial suppliers in London, and the olive roll here was good, as were slices of the hazelnut brown loaf. A nibble of tomato and basil mousse with tomato tartare, aged vinegar and chicory was a pleasant start to the meal; the tomatoes could have had deeper flavour but the dish was well balanced (13/20).
Cured mackerel was rather ordinary, langoustine tail with it lacking sweetness and the horseradish flavour too subdued, though carrots were fine (11/20). The scallops in my starter lacked inherent sweetness, though the celeriac puree and artichokes with them were pleasant. The pork belly that accompanied the shellfish, smoked over apple wood, was very good and avoided the over-fattiness that can often afflict this ingredient (13/20).
Turbot was grilled and served with a bak choi-like Asian green vegetable that I had not come across before, as well as buttermilk sauce and a few shrimps. The fish was cooked properly but lacked flavour. The best tasting turbot comes from large fish (ideally several kilograms in weight), and this came from a specimen that was just 550g, which limited how good the dish was ever going to be (12/20).
An unusual main dish of girolle pie flavoured with Thai spices worked well, having enough chilli bite to lift the mushrooms, though a little Roscoff onion soufflé did not really add much. A further element was a pea and girolle ragout (13/20). Monkfish crusted in red pepper and almonds was well cooked though olive gnocchi with it did not work, appearing distinctly soggy. The cauliflower with it, which came both soused and as puree, was fine (13/20 if I politely ignore the gnocchi).
A pre-dessert of lychee bavarois with lychee sorbet was refreshing, the sorbet made in a Pacojet and having plenty of fruit flavour (13/20). Banana parfait and tart came with passion fruit, almonds and salted palm sugar, a carefully made dish (13/20). Granny Smith apple mousse was a quite technical dish, a deconstructed apple crumble with each element presented separately, accompanied by a ginger and lime ice cream. This was all very clever though I am not sure that, other than visually, it really worked as well as just making a good traditional crumble. However the ice cream was particularly successful as a pairing for the crumble (13/20). Coffee was Musetti and was pleasant enough, though there are many better coffee suppliers in London these days.
Service, led by a manager who used to work at Gymkhana, was friendly and capable, the staff well drilled. The bill came to £88 a head including a good bottle of wine. One curiosity is that, since business is heavily driven by the life cycle of the airport, Friday and Saturday nights are the quietest here. On the Saturday night that we visited there were plenty of spare seats, yet on the following Monday they had 78 bookings.
Overall La Belle Epoque offers surprisingly elaborate food in its hotel setting. The kitchen showed considerable technical skill, and the main issues that I had were twofold. The first was that the dishes tended to be unnecessarily complex, with more elements than were really needed. As French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery said: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” The other limiting factor here is the ingredient quality, which is constrained by the hotel setting. The turbot, langoustine and scallops all demonstrated that you can take an ordinary ingredient and cook it properly, but you cannot transform it into a great dish. Being a fine dining restaurant inside a large hotel chain with its own preferred suppliers is going to set a ceiling on what can realistically be achieved. Nonetheless, the kitchen team is doing their best and producing some capable, inventive and pleasant dishes. Whether La Belle Epoque can shake off the hotel dining room image and draw in customers who are not just waiting for an airplane remains to be seen.Book