Colonel Mustard had: Hake with morels, potato, and a parsley and garlic foam; Tandoori scallop with carrot, citrus and coriander; Lamb with ras-el-hanout, chickpeas, grapes and coriander; Sweetbread with cauliflower, muscat grapes, and almonds; Pigeon, beetroot, and Mexican mollé; “Baba Armagnac” with ruby grapefruit and voatsiperifery pepper; Chocolate with orange, hazelnut and tonka bean
Professor Plum had: Foie gras with cacao, pear, ginger, and wild sorrel; Tandoori scallop with carrot, citrus and coriander; Lobster with white asparagus, royal botargo, and seaweed; Sweetbread with cauliflower, muscat grapes, and almonds; Pigeon, beetroot, and Mexican mollé; Strawberry with rose, litchi, and almond; Chocolate with orange, hazelnut and tonka bean
While “women, get back in the kitchen” is a stereotypical rallying call for the misogynist community, when it comes to the professional kitchen women still face an obvious glass ceiling. That just 20% of chefs in Britain are female is obvious to anyone watching Masterchef: The Professionals, but that number decreases more and more with higher end restaurants. As a result there are just ten women running Michelin star rated restaurants in the whole country. Any woman entering such a patriarchal environment would have to be extra impressive. As Colette, the rôtisseur in Pixar’s charming Ratatouille, says: “Haute cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built on rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world. But I’m still here!” One of the obvious inspirations for the character of Colette is French chef Hélène Darroze and this week we went to her London restaurant to give her food a try.
Darroze is the latest in a foodie dynasty, having taken over her family’s restaurant during the 90s. She now divides her time between her Parisien restaurant, currently awarded one Michelin star, and her London one at the Connaught in Mayfair, where we ate. This latter received its second Michelin star in 2011, making it the most decorated restaurant that we’ve been to (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, where we ate last year, only had one star at the time, but has since been awarded its second). On top of all that, we were visiting, as with Dinner for my birthday treat from Professor Plum. As a result our expectations for our dining experience were very high.
The Connaught is an exceedingly posh 19th century hotel and the resultant rather fusty traditionalism inevitably extends to some extent to the restaurant. The decor of heavy wood panelling and a smart no jeans or trainers, wear a jacket dress code are one thing, but a toilet attendant who even turns the tap on for you to wash your hands is a little uncomfortably servile. Fortunately, while traditional French haute cuisine is very much Darroze’s comfort zone (North African or South Asian seasonings and flavours are peppered throughout the menu, but are more concessions to other culinary traditions than genuine fusion), there is enough originality, creativity and playfulness in her menu to keep things interesting, including the actual menu itself.
On arrival we were offered an aperitif of (expensive but pleasant) champagne and an amuse bouche of foccaccia topped with thinly sliced ham while perusing the menu which comes in the unusual form of marbles on a solitaire board. As with Heston Blumenthal’s liquid nitrogen filled ice cream churning gadget, I love a tableside contraption at a restaurant, so the hand cranked ham slicing device was pretty cool and got us wondering whether the restaurant had a specific ham waiter (a jambonier?).
However, the novel menu ordering system somewhat distracted us at this point. Essentially you are given the option of a menu of five, seven or nine courses and you order by placing that many marbles representing your choice of dishes on the board. The kitchen staff then decide on the appropriate order in which to bring you your food. Not only is this much more fun than a typical menu system, it actually stimulated a lot more discussion about the dishes on offer and created a pleasing sense of suspense about which of your choices would come out next.
We opted for the seven courses, mostly because that included two courses of dessert and if there’s one thing I love about upscale restaurants it’s the multiple courses of dessert. Given we know less about wine than food we took a little while choosing a wine, but the sommelier was helpful and, when our wine of choice was unavailable, we received an even more pricey bottle for the same cost as the original. The service was attentive and helpful throughout and our many dishes came at reasonable intervals. Darroze’s food is always well presented and impressive to look at. The only downside, then, was that some of it simply didn’t work so well together as others.
Of my seven courses, only the first (a beautifully cooked piece of hake with a garlic and parsley foam) and last (the chocolate) were cooked to perfection in every regard and planned with flavours that perfectly complimented each other. Every other dish had brilliant elements and ideas rather than hanging together as a whole.
As somebody who enjoys the combination of game meats with chocolate, I ordered the pigeon with mole sauce. The waiter suggested it should be cooked blue, which is slightly less well done than I usually care for but I bowed to Darroze’s expertise. Sure enough, the pigeon was perfectly cooked, just the right balance of slightly crisp outside and juicy meat, and paired well with sweet wild strawberries and beetroot, the colours of which made it the best presented dish of the night. However, the mole was so strongly flavoured (and more salty than the earthy, bitter chocolate flavours that I was hoping for) that it overwhelmed everything else on the plate.
For me, a beautiful and enormous jumbo scallop, given a hint of Indian style by its tandoori cooking was great, a perfectly proportioned dish and just the right amount of food on the plate. The puree served with it, however, did not particularly balance with the tandoori scallop itself. This may be purely a matter of taste, however, as Professor Plum, who delights in scallops now that she has discovered she has no allergy to them, enjoyed the same dish, but was disappointed with her lobster.
For all that there were slight flaws in most of the dishes, the overall effect was of something pretty special and we were both pretty pleased with the dinner as we got to dessert, which for me was the high point of the whole evening. Ordering the seven course dinner gave us two desserts, but that is not including the macaroon petits fours, a very strongly flavoured apple sorbet palate cleanser, and, because it was my birthday, a cute little cake with a candle in it, a nice touch that is indicative of the attentive and personal service in the place. A choice of espresso coffee and a chocolate followed this (we declined the cheese board, having had so much dessert already!) along with a little cake to take away.
Darroze’s signature dessert is a take on a Rum Baba, only using her family’s Armagnac in place of the title spirit. Three different Jean Darroze Armagnacs were on offer including, pleasingly, one from the year of my birth, which made the choice easy. As signature booze soaked bready-cake desserts in top London restaurants go, this is not quite a match for Heston’s tipsy cake at Dinner, but it was impressively alcoholic and the accompanying grapefruit element worked well for it. Better, though, was the chocolate and orange dessert that followed, which married its flavours and textures in the spot on way that we had hoped every dish of the evening might.
Hélène Darroze at the Connaught is a restaurant with charm and great culinary concepts that suggest the world would be a better place with more women running Michelin star restaurants. It is very easy to like, but for the price and raised expectations of its high reputation the number of slightly unbalanced flavour combinations keeps it from hitting the very highest level.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: My favourite savoury dish was probably the foie gras, with was smooth and rich and perfectly balanced with everything else on the plate (my favourite sweet was the strawberry – I can’t decide between them for ultimate winner), while my least favourite was the pigeon which was just too salty for me. The lobster was good, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped, my expectations having been raised too high by earlier dishes. I’m glad we went for seven course to try a bigger range of dishes, but by the time the last one came out I was already stuffed, and then there was palate cleansers and petite fours and a chocolate with the coffee and I was a bit worried it was all going to go a bit ‘waffer theen meent’. Luckily, the cosy decor extended to the seating, so I had a small couch to myself.