Posh restaurants, I have a love/hate thing going with them. Every so often I indulge, to inspire my own cooking. I always go at lunch time when it's economically viable for someone without a business expense account. I'm interested in Helene Darroze because she's a female chef and the only one to have two Michelin stars. Last year she lost a star and was no doubt gutted or 'ecoeuré'. She's got a restaurant in Paris and opened in London at the Connaught in 2008. Maybe the expansion knocked her sideways for a bit. This year she regained her second star. This, according to Michelin, makes her officially the best female chef in the world. Helene is a fourth generation restaurateur. There is a delightful sentence in her French wikipedia page where at a banquet 'Le Président de la République Jacques Chirac lui adresse ses félicitations et reprend deux fois de son pigeonneau farci.' President Jacques Chirac congratulated her and twice served himself her stuffed pigeon. (As if we are living in the time of Louis 14th where a chef's worth is based on how many servings the king took of a dish.)
Her food is small, beautifully presented, intensely flavoured and uses ingredients from her region in France, that stretch of the Atlantic coast from Arcachon to Biarritz known as Les Landes. This is one of my favourite areas in France; less brassy and nouveau riche than the Cote d'Azure, but more conservative too. Thérèse Desqueroux, Francois Mauriac's 1920's novel set there, chronicles the Bovary style frustration of a woman married into the bourgeoisie, who had to address her husband as 'vous' and 'sir' and ended up poisoning him, not herself, with arsenic. That's progress.
The Connaught is located in the backwaters of Bond Street/Green Park. As a Londoner, it's always a wondrous journey to visit rich parts of London. It's like visiting a foreign land that I barely knew existed. To think that many tourists, especially the wealthy ones, only ever see this aspect of London; the Ritz/Harrods/West End/Mayfair section of London that is archaic and unrepresentative of the whole. There is little vibrancy in these parts, no street culture, no dirt, and no British people. No wonder the Americans think we are Dickensian. But that's also part of the charm. It's pretendy English out of the picture books or from a Richard Curtis movie.
Opposite the Connaught there are clothes shops in residential houses. Roland Mouret's gallery of dresses hang individually on rails like works of art; his 'galaxy' dress. I suppose this is also the London of Posh Spice when she visits and of movie stars. (Although there were rumours on Twitter this week of Britney Spears buying bagels in Stoke Newington).
So as a treat to myself after Camp Bestival I booked lunch at Helene Darroze with my friend, graphic designer Maria Grist. It was £42 for three courses including two glasses of wine. Not bad. I asked for the vegetarian menu which is more expensive but they were happy to do a cheap lunch version of it.
I'm afraid I lost my notes with the exact names of the courses or the ingredients so you'll have to make do with pictures. Overall the amuse bouches were stunning, the mains good, the desserts good at the time but ultimately forgettable, the petits fours fantastic.
The service was polite, humorous not overly obsequious. All the staff are French speaking. The Maitre D joked that they once had a British guy who started speaking with a French accent after two weeks working there.Amuse bouche of tomato foam and olive bread. Don't normally like foam, but this was intense.
The waiter explained that we had two types of butter with our breads: salted and unsalted. They are 'à la baratte', churned in small quantities in barrels. You can leave butter made 'a la baratte' out in the sun all day and it wont melt said the waiter. I'm a complete butter freak so this was heavenly for me. Here is a site that sells different types of butter. My favourite is salted Normandy butter which I can eat straight from the packet.
A foie gras cocktail.
This was sublime: strong cheesy flavours with girolles.
Ajo soup: (garlic soup) nice but very subtle in flavour, could have been punchier. Lovely after-taste of almonds.
The waitress made a mistake with my order and gave me a violet aubergine dish. It looks like something alien or science fiction, all those fluorescent green pointy cauliflower bits but very pretty. Not really a main though.
My actual choice was ravioli with artichokes. Fantastic. Only three of them though. Helene Darroze does that tiny food thing. Thank god for the amuse bouches.
Maria's meat main.
A pretty strawberry dessert.
Nice knives and forks with a beehive pattern.
The petits fours trolley was beautifully presented. "What would you like?" asked the waiter. "Can I have one of each?" "Yes of course"I had ten petits fours and he offered seconds.
At the entrance a bundle of Armagnac bottles made by Helene's father, Francis. Some date back to 1900.
I thought this was a reasonably priced meal for two with wine.
Going to the washroom was an experience: the tap is turned on for you as you exit the loo, a towel is handed out. I thought the toilet lady was going to wash and dry my hands for me. This is all part of the Michelin starred experience; you feel pampered. You get to pretend you are rich and important for a couple of hours.
London. W1K 2AL
T: +44 (0)20 7499 7070