I’ll keep on saying this until I’m blue in the teeth: when it comes to high-end French restos, your money goes so much further in London than in Paris. The prices at the likes of Le Meurice, L’Arpège or Le Cinq can be eye-watering, and my recent meal at Le Chateaubriand was, frankly, a waste of money. But it’s an open secret that if you go to one of these fancy Parisian restaurants at lunchtime, prices start to just enter the realms of reasonableness.
So how does the lunch menu chez Hélène Darroze fare? This is the original eponymous restaurant of one of France’s most revered chefs. Hailing from a family of chefs in the south-west of France she started her professional career working with Alain Ducasse before setting up her own place in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Darroze apparently alternates her working weeks between The Connaught in London and Paris, so at first I considered myself to be very lucky when I saw her walking in and out of the kitchen on my visit. Alas, she wasn’t donned in chef’s whites. She looked like she was doing some admin, clutching paperwork and a calculator, which is fair enough, but a slight disappointment that she didn’t speak to any of the customers.
Her Parisian gaff is a two-floor affair, with quote unquote tapas being served on the ground floor and the ‘Salle à Manger’ on the first floor. Go mid-week and the main restaurant is all very business lunchy: hushed tones are dampened even further by the carpeted walls which absorb the sound of deals being struck and extramarital affairs being maintained (this is Paris after all). The colour scheme is a deep shade of Chateauneuf du Pape – a design concept from the mid-noughties – and the carpet floor is just beginning to fray a little (perhaps that’s symbolic of the cooking?). The female waitresses are attired in polka dot dresses whilst the male waiters are in oversized bow ties. You begin to wonder if you’re in a Coen Brothers film. Indeed, at the very beginning, I started to question if I still existed as they kept me waiting for 15 minutes before I could even see a menu.
Despite the wobble at the outset, the food got off to a good start with a no-nonsense amuse bouche of ham sliced at the table from a trolley and served with beautiful home-made bread.
But then things nose-dived. A starter of beetroot with burrata came on a tiny disc of pastry. If I hadn’t already got my fill from all the free bread this starter would’ve passed by unnoticed. It was the size of a canapé: conspicuously small on a large plate and consumed in a moment like an aardvark hoovering ants. A non-entity of a dish which didn’t show much technical skill either.
Things improved with the main: a delicately-cooked piece of veal shaped almost like a sausage, coated in a creamy velouté and a tiny walk-on part for some seasonal vegetables. Pleasant but it needed a bit more flavour for me – it all seemed a bit Ed Sheeran in its monotony.
Finally, there was some impressive pastry work with the chocolate bombe dessert, and to round off the meal, mojito profiteroles as petits fours. These impressed me – and it takes a lot for me to be moved by desserts.
But then came the shock of the bill – even for lunch. With wines by the glass coming in around £15 for even the simplest plonk (no Coravin to speak of), an espresso at £5 and – get this – water at a whopping £7, we’re unfortunately back into the old Parisian territory of being charged a heck of a lot for something really quite mediocre.
Overall, it’s OK. There are some flashes of genius, especially in the pastry section. But I wonder if Darroze has let her eye off the ball here. It may be her flagship restaurant but it feels a little unloved, and with its lacking customer service, unlovable.
I’ve made two visits now. I don’t think there will be a third.
4 Rue d'Assas
by J A Smith