I think it was Rick Stein in his excellent TV series ‘Secret France’ who described the French attitude to food the best: “for the French, food isn’t a part of life, it is life itself.”
I have to agree. It’s the country where no part of an animal is wasted, pastry is given due prominence and salads are Never Knowingly Underdressed. But there can come a point where the cuisine becomes so refined it loses its meaning, its essence, its va-va-voom.
Hélène Darroze is one of France’s best-known chefs and has been working at the highest level for many years, but something I’ve found about her restaurants is a lack of this je ne sais quoi. Her flagship restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a decent enough restaurant but on my second visit there a couple of years ago I found it quite tired, as if it had become its own tribute band.
As for her London outpost at The Connaught, this has recently been redesigned by Pierre Yovanovitch. In modernising the restaurant he seems to have taken some inspiration from the Neptune and Coral Room school of thought. This formerly stuffy dining room is now all rainbow trout carpets and round tables but fortunately hasn’t succumbed to the current obsession with foliage. The lighting is soft and flattering, table spacing is spot-on and the seats are comfortable. Like the cuisine, it tries to show it’s in tune with contemporary tastes but doesn’t venture too far out of its comfort zone. This is still The Connaught. You can have all the café-au-lait banquettes and mustard-yellow chairs you want but the wooden panelling is non-negotiable.
it wasn’t so much the ripe Camembert that reeked but the blatant upselling
On this visit the restaurant was nearly at full capacity. This didn’t faze the staff, but then that’s probably because the ratio of staff to diners is 1:1. That, of course, is reflected in the price. Whilst this meant service was attentive, there was an uncomfortable sense of being watched as serving staff paraded up and down like prison guards. It’s always pleasing when a sommelier remembers you chose a particular red wine for your venison and this is delivered before the dish arrives, but not so much when another waiter walks off half way through your order. And then there were almost egregious attempts to get you to part with even more of your cash: later on, as a server trundled an unrequested cheese trolley before the table, it wasn’t so much the ripe Camembert that reeked but the blatant upselling.
Despite a long wait for the starter, and some uneven pacing throughout the meal, I couldn’t really fault any of the food on a technical level. If there’s any kind of unifying theme, it seems that Darroze is paying tribute to classic British ingredients and dishes but through a very French lens. We should be flattered.
Foie gras encrusted in crunchy Sancho pepper and koji rice with pear and apple opened proceedings well with a delicious combination of textures and autumnal flavours.
Fish cookery was very good too. Turbot with dill, confit egg yolk, charred leek and Baeri caviar may not be bold or adventurous, but it was very well-executed. Then, from the sublime to the dull, a hake dish. Hake is the Ed Sheeran of fish: it’s so middle-of-the-road it needs a strong supporting act. Fortunately this came in the form of a black pudding purée and a jus made from seasonal Jerusalem artichoke and sought-after sorrel.
In further deference to a UK audience, venison was served as a kind of deconstructed mini-Wellington: essentially the meat filling with a mushroom coating but without the crispy outer pastry, which seemed a pity. An emulsion made from Stichelton (Nottingham’s finest blue cheese) brought the dish together well, though a portion of venison larger than two 50 pence pieces would have been welcome.
Pastry is under the direction of patissier Maxime Renard. For a £18 supplement you can have the legendary baba made with the Darroze family Armagnac. That was extremely tempting but perhaps best enjoyed when the new mortgage application is approved. Instead, a dessert comprising shards of chocolate eclipsing a chocolate mousse with earl grey and bergamot was nice enough. The combination of earl grey tea and bergamot almost seems like tautology but a little citrus zing never goes amiss with chocolate, even if the dish as a whole wasn’t entirely remarkable.
And of course there were elaborate flourishes throughout, from the shavings of butter arranged like coral to the petits fours (which are never really freebies).
But then came the damage report. Again, we’re in Mark-Up City. Even eschewing the wine flight and choosing just two glasses at a lower price point, the bill came to £250. Each. If you don’t laugh you cry, my companion consoled me, but what really irked me was the £9 charge for a single shot from a Nespresso machine. You can buy a single Nespresso capsule for 28p. Aside from the hideous profit margin, surely it’s sacrilege for a French restaurateur to serve office coffee in a fine dining restaurant?
Yes, it’s The Connaught, where the cheapest room is £600 per night. Before you even walk in to the restaurant you know you’re going to pay silly money and have to live off beans and rainwater until the next pay day. They can charge what they like because there will always be a market for it. But is it too cynical to think this is less about French food and more about playing to the Rolex-wearing gallery? For a meal at £250 per head it’s got to be special. Overall, despite an effective refurbishment, this was a bit ‘meh’ and seemed to lack the true French soul of somewhere like the aptly-named Authentique Epicerie in Tufnell Park. You will still have a good meal here, if you’re happy to pay that price for it, but I think I know where I’d rather go.
by J A Smith