20 December 2013
I hate this time of year. People in the real world, ie one outside law, are all winding down nicely for booze-sodden lunches, without having to cancel at the last minute or keep their mobile devices somewhere that they can actually feel them.
Yanked back to the office after only my starter at Café Murano yesterday, my planned review had to be put on hold. And because I don’t like to let you down, I forced myself to make an alternative reservation for the evening. I tried to book Kai, the upmarket Chinese restaurant in Mayfair, but their call-waiting music – gangsta rap – made me think that perhaps it wasn’t going to be the gentle evening out that I was looking for. I wanted something that is everything that I am not: grown-up, elegant, sophisticated and quiet.
For some reason Hélène Darroze at The Connaught isn’t wildly popular. Perhaps it isn’t edgy enough, or perhaps it’s because it’s in an hotel, but, whatever the reason, I’m very glad, because it means that I can often get a table at short notice. Not that this is a short notice sort of place.
It’s very wood panelling and plush, with big comfy chairs and large cushions. No music. A mixture of modern and traditional with original wood panelling here, a few modern lights there and a subtle Damien Hirst (I know) taking pride of place in the area where we were seated. It’s a good-sized room made cosy by strategically-placed pieces of furniture, so it doesn’t feel particularly hotel dining room-y. A great maître d’ and friendly knowledgeable staff, to me this is a celebration restaurant. And I am celebrating having got through the year with only five bulging discs and moderate level of anxiety. Result.
You won’t starve. We started with an unexpected plateful of delicate Parma ham and mini focaccia, with intense peppery olive oil. And then a choice of home-made bread, where I was inexplicably drawn towards a roll resembling a big fat cep, although I am told that it also resembled something else. I couldn’t possibly comment.
And then an amuse bouche: foie gras crème brûlée, green apple sorbet and peanut foam. Decadence in a glass, this was fantastic. Rich, crunchy, smooth, the crème brûlée at the bottom, a layer of burnt sugar above, green apple sorbet and topped by a peanut foam. I dug in my spoon and my arteries hardened on impact. I would like to say I could have eaten a lot of this but I probably couldn’t, at least not without having an instant heart-attack. I would eat it again in a nanosecond.
Trying to make lighter choices than usual (the disappearing waist) I chose the multi-coloured beetroots by Joel Thiebault (veg supplier to Paris’s top chefs, apparently), fondant Tatin tart, ricotta cheese, dandelions, Royal botargo (sic) from Greece, traditional 12-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena and Manni olive oil. Phew. Also known as beetroot tart with salad.
Delicate pretty medallions of beetroot, on a perfect pastry base, topped with incredibly fresh crumbly ricotta, a side salad of shredded beetroot and said balsamic and Bottarga, I confess that I don’t recall the Bottarga particularly, but I do recall the very gorgeous crumbly pastry. And the balsamic.
Despite the inherent brutality contained within the description, I was easily persuaded to try the Trapped blue lobster in pots, poached in Tandoori spices, carrot and confit citrus mousseline, spring onion reduction with Lampong pepper and fresh coriander. A tiny lobster, perfectly cooked, the tandoori sauce complementing but not overpowering the lobster, full of different textures and flavours, this was a very elegant dish. I would never have put tandoori spices with lobster or with the confit citrus, but it worked and gave the dish an unusual intensity, without losing the lobster.
Hitting me below the belt before we had even started, the maître d’ had waved in front of me a massive container with a stonking great white truffle in it, embedded in dry risotto rice, as is the fashion. Despite my slight cold, its pungent aroma managed to find its way into my brain. There was no way that I wasn’t going to. There were two truffle dishes on the menu: one containing veal sweetbreads- both those words guaranteed to give me pause and the other, unusually, a dessert.
White truffle from Alba, Mascarpone cream, steamed sponge pudding, almond foam. Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Oh my giddy aunt. A large glass, rich custard-y mascarpone cream at the base, a layer of steamed sponge pudding, thin slices of white truffle below the sponge, whipped light almond foam, itself infused with the scent of truffles. I died. Dude, pimp my trifle. Sweet-savoury, almost not working, on the borderline of weird, but completely fabulous. The best dessert I’ve had this year and I’ve had a few. Worth going, just for that.
There was a pre-dessert and it was perfectly nice but it pales into insignificance besides the pudding perfection of the truffle dessert. And the transaction drama? Without that I’d never have had this. Every cloud. Thank you.