Jocelyn Herland doesn’t have an easy job. Since he joined Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Dorchester not too long ago, he had to live with some vile, mostly unjust criticism from the British press. Of course, a restaurant doesn’t serve the most stunning food right after its opening, but considering that this particular restaurant bore the name of Alain Ducasse, expectations were,rightfully so, very high. When the critics ate their way through the menu they made it a sport to criticise every possible element of the restaurant. To be honest, one must say that he wasn’t the only one who was criticised without much reason. His compatriots Helene Darroze and Jean Christophe Ansanay-Alex had similarly negative reviews from most of the major British newspapers. In the latter’s case, it went as far as being very personal, the reason of which escapes me. But, Herland tries his best to deliver well-made, product focused food of the highest order, as far as it is possible. Being realistic, he acknowledges that the comparatively low price they charge here limit his creativity. In Paris, the cheapest menu is a mere 260euro, in Monaco, you can expect to pay similar prices. This being said, one thing has to be mentioned. For prices as low as these, one can simply not expect the same products, amount of work or perfection than you have in these other places. Therefore, it would be wrong to judge Parisian restaurants on the same standard as those in London. Although, there are always sparks here and there, not many but they do exist.
When one sets foot in the Patrick Jouin-designed room, one immediately sees how successful this refurbishment was. Jouin has created a light, warm, modern and welcoming room, where one feels more than well. This young designer is quite talented, as his various projects around the world show (amongst them are the famous Auberge de l’Ill and ADPA). For those of you, who want to spend a bit of extra money, there is the so-called table lumiere, a table for 6 or 7 people, completely cut-off from the rest of the restaurant by a wall of some fancy light sticks. In this little cocoon, you will see the (Hermes) crockery change according to the season and can expect to pay 1300£ for your meal (drinks exclusive).
The rest of us sits equally well in the normal room of the restaurant. At lunch, the sun (if it does shine) shines through the windows, and you have a lovely view on Hyde Park, which lies vis-a-vis the restaurant on the other side of Park Lane. The tables are widely spaced, which is a rare pleasure but the background music really isn’t necessary in a restaurant of that standard. However, they don’t have it running for dinner, which would not fit with the ambience that reigns here.
The service is as good as always and is remarkably knowledgeable which is always good. The sommelier presides over a nice selection of wines, that aren’t that crazy, in terms of price. Bottles start at 30£ and for 45£ you have a decent selection of interesting wines. Those who want to celebrate can decide to have various vintages of Yquem (up to the 1930′s), or any of the other big Burgundy or Bordeaux producers. I let the sommelier choose the wines for me today, and must say that he did a very good job.
A meal here always starts with very good gougeres. They are light, slightly crunchy and go very well with a glass of champagne. It’s just a classical combination that is hard to beat. Of course. this is nothing that you don’t find elsewhere but very well-made and very pleasing.
A few words about the bread. It came in four different varieties: Baguette, sourdough, olive and some kind of epi. It is baked in the house, which as we know, is a rare thing in London. The bread is probably the best you can find in any London restaurant and shows, once again, that it makes a difference if you do your job properly. With it came very good salted butter and Fontainebleau, which is very light, both in texture and seasoning.
After this, I got some barbajuans, little Monegasque ravioli, stuffed with squash and ricotta. These are then deep-fried and served piping hot. They always blow me away at the Louis XV, in Monte Carlo, and here they weren’t in the worst of shapes neither. The little ravioli are unbelievably light, well seasoned and most importantly, extremely comforting to eat. Also, the squash/ricotta filling worked even better than the spinach/herb/ricotta version I had at my last meals in Monte Carlo. Excellent.
Following this comes the amuse-bouche. Today, it was a brunoise of courgettes, a cream of artichokes, an artichoke a la barigoule and a tomatoe emulsion. All flavours were there, and the elements were well cooked, but I didn’t understand, why they served this cold. It just tasted a little empty at this cool temperature, not as rich as it would have when served slightly hotter or at least lukewarm. Good not more.
The first course today was a guinea fowl consommé, guinea fowl and foie gras ravioli and crispy thighs of the same bird. All in all, the dish could have been great. The ravioli were of stunning quality, cooked perfectly, the crispy thigh was equally well cooked and the consommé had very clean flavour. It shows how much work is put into these dishes. Take the thighs for instance, they are slowly cooked, boned, de-nerved and then pressed. The skin is then pressed on top of these pieces and the whole thing is pan-fried until crispy. The only problem I had with the dish, was that the whole thing lacked seasoning. Once sprinkled with a (rather substantial) bit of fleur de sel, the whole dish seemed much better and was very good. I don’t know if the whole collection of herbs were needed, but they didn’t disturb neither. Very good if relatively uninspiring (with exception of the crispy thighs, which were lovely).
The second dish brought the meal back on track. Two very big scallops, left whole – thank god – came with grilled squid, primavera jus, black and white pasta and confit tomatoes. All in all, it was a stunning dish. The scallops were, as always here, of exceptional quality and cooked to the very best. The squid too, were very good and tender. The accompanying pasta and jus (made out of asparagus, peas and broad beans) gave it a bit of a fresh backbone, which justified the title. This truly was a fantastic dish, that shows, how satisfying such a relatively simple composition can be, if made well and based on the best products that is. Excellent. This is one tip I can give anyone who goes to dine here: Get a dish with (cooked) scallops! Over the last few months I tasted various preparations around them and all of them were stunning.
The main toady was another fantastic dish. Especially in London where you don’t necessarily expect to get such divine products. Turbot was coated in Champagne-sabayon served with green asparagus and crayfish. Now this is a classical dish, that never fails to impress if it is made from such amazing products. The turbot, cut from a huge beast, was delightfully firm and tasty, which I missed with the turbot I had here in January. Also, it was cooked in a way, that let it retain its « fatty », gelatinous side, which normally only comes after having cooked it on the bone. The accompanying crayfish and asparagus were equally fantastic. Note that the asparagus were pan-fried after having been blanched, which lets their flavour come out fantastically. Combined with the lovely sabayon, which still had the slight sparkle of the Champagne, this was one rewarding, perfectly executed dish. Outstanding.
Desserts here are easily the best in London. Even those who don’t particularly like the restaurant do acknowledge that fact. In general, I find desserts at Ducasse restaurants to be among the best you’ll find anywhere. Even in some of his less bombastic restaurants like Spoon at Marignan or the Abbaye de la Celle, they serve perfect desserts (the rest is less spectacular in those places). It always puzzles me, when you get served some mediocre dessert after a fantastic meal. After all, a dessert only needs a good recipe that is followed meticulously. Today, I had a lemon and strawberry dessert, that showed, once more, how good the patisserie here is. Sandwiched between layers of arlettes (thinly cut, caramelised puff pastry) came a lemon crème chiboust (a creme patissiere to which one adds some Italian meringue), marinated strawberries and a strawberry sorbet. This was just a perfect dessert. I couldn’t see why you would not go to this restaurant, be it only to try the desserts. In fact, one should sit down there and eat the whole dessert carte. Outstanding!
Seeing that I’m a bit too gourmand, I asked for a second dessert, which was directly obliged, with this little chocolate triangle. A tender chocolate mousse came with a thin soft biscuit and a crunchy coating. Very good, strong chocolate flavors in pleasantly different textures. A bit ordinary, but very well made. Very good.
The mignardises are equally good here. Macarons, the best you’ll find anywhere in London come along with piemontesi, little gianduja filled cookies, caramelised almonds, a few caramels and chocolates. At dinner, they also have a lovely cart carrying huge numbers of different sweet treats. All of them were perfect, as is quite a lot of stuff here.
I can’t really see, as I have written many times, why some people despise this restaurant as much as they do. You get some of the finest food in London here, that goes without a doubt. Also, the service, wine (the list isn’t any more expensive than that of Ramsay, Darroze or any other restaurant of that class) and décor all add up to deliver something close to a complete experience. There is, of course, the odd dish, which will be a bit less good than the rest but I’d rather have one that isn’t as great and a few others that really work. The 2 stars are completely justified by now. If Pied a Terre has two, this easily deserves them as well. I can even see why you would give it an espoir for the third, provided you choose well.
Upon leaving, you always have one desire: Come back, as soon as possible! (Although, I will try a few different places in the meantime and give them some time to develop).