Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
53 Park Lane Mayfair
London W1K 1QA
Tel: 020 7629 8866
Food type: French
Food rating: 8/10
Nearest tube: Green Park
Website: Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
Let’s be honest shall we? I was as surprised as most when I read the leaked Michelin list which had Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester (ADAD) at 2 star, with a rising 3rd. Unbelievable I thought. Surely, the list was a joke, a hoax. How can a restaurant unanimously panned by critics be within a whisker away from a third. While I do take critic reviews with a grain of salt – the British press seem to have adopted a blinkered approach against all things French (see AA Gill’s retarded review of Ambassade de L’ile if you don’t know what I am talking about) some of the criticism is justified. You see, expectations during the restaurant’s opening was sky high and some of the dishes on display then was no better than gastropub food. His infamous statement “I would like the clients to give me three stars in their hearts” has been constantly mocked.
At the age of 16, Ducasse began his culinary training as an apprentice at the Pavillon Landais restaurant in Soustons and at the Bordeaux hotel school. Following that, he worked under the tutelage of Michel Guérard and Gaston Lenôtre. As an assistant, Ducasse worked under the watchful eyes of Roger Vergé at Moulin de Mougins where he learned the Provençal cooking methods which has defined his style of cooking today. After a short stint at L’Amandier, Ducasse took on the position of head chef at La Terrasse in 1981. 1984 proved to be a defining year for Ducasse – he was the only survivor in a Learjet crash just months after receiving 2 stars in the Michelin Red Guide.
But Ducasse is a fighter. Some 15 surgeries later, to repair his back, legs and eye (he has a glass eye), he took on the challenge as chef des Cuisine position at Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo which includes overseeing their mighty Le Louis XV restaurant. Ducasse was charged with earning the restaurant a few stars. He insisted his contract with the hotel state that if he did not deliver three stars within four years, he could be fired. After only 3 years, he was awarded the maximum 3, at the age of 33 – the youngest chef to achieve this feat. In 1996, his eponymously named restaurant opened in Le Perc SofitelJa. It won 3 stars within 8 months of opening. The restaurant subsequently relocated to Hotel Plaza Athenee where it held on to its 3 star status. Until the closure of his New York restaurant in 2007, Ducasse was the first chef to own restaurants with the maximum 3 Michelin Stars in three different cities. Today, with 27 restaurants and counting, his empire spans 9 countries and over 4 continents.
“I am happy to close a restaurant if there’s an opportunity to do something new, something else” – Alain Ducasse
This is the third time Ducasse has opened a restaurant in London. His first, the doomed Monte’s club in Knightsbridge. His second venture was the universally panned (by critics) Spoon at the Sanderson’s hotel, was more informal. Nevertheless, the British public loved the restaurant, and it enjoyed good business until its closure in May 2007 (to be replaced by Suka).
“I never do the same restaurant twice and every restaurant has its own identity. This one will be elegant but not too formal, with dynamic service. I did a casting for the front-of-house staff because I wanted a young, ambitious team with everyone smiling. We will do our job but first we will give hospitality and we will make our guests feel welcome. I really want to change the image of French restaurants that are too formal because today that’s not what people want, things have to be more relaxed. A restaurant is a reflection of society and so if society is changing, restaurants must change.” – Alain Ducasse
Ducasse himself promised a lot more this time around. In an interview held back in November 2007, just before the restaurant opened, he proudly proclaimed that Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester would be “haute couture and not prêt à porter”. ADAD in his words “will have the modernity of Beige in Tokyo, the seriousness of La Plaza Athénée in Paris and the flavours of Le Louis XV in Monaco meeting the energy of London.”
“This is not just about me consulting. It’s my name, it’s my restaurant.” – Alain Ducasse
Heading up the kitchen at ADAD is Jocelyn Herland who was an eleventh hour replacement for Nicola Canuti. Herland was previously sous chef at La Plaza Athénée in Paris. In London, he leads a 26 man brigade which includes Bruno Riou (sous chef) and Angelo Ercolano (Pâtissier). Some say the ratio of chefs to covers suggest a lack of ambition on the part of the restaurant especially as in Paris, the ratio at 3 star places can be 1:1. However it is worth pointing out that Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York has just 12 chefs for as many as 98 covers. Ducasse of course keeps regular tabs on all his restaurants. “I sign off every detail of each new place, from the food to the design and decor – I orchestrate the whole project.”
The 82 cover restaurant is designed by Patrick Jouin, who was also responsible for the decor at La Plaza Athénée. The decor is relatively muted – beige being the predominant colour throughout. Hundreds of green silk buttons are pinned on the restaurant’s wall – ‘Hyde Park’ in the eyes of a Frenchman. Tables are large and well spaced apart with comfortable white leather seats.
In the centre of the restaurant is the Table Lumière, the restaurant’s private dining ‘room’. Seating up to six guest, the table is encircled by a curtain of 4,500 cracked fibre-optic strands that fall from the ceiling. Priced at a mere £1,350, guests will be served a menu surprise on Hermès china, Puiforcat silverware and Saint-Louis crystal. Patrick Jouin describes dining here ‘like walking into a cloud’.
The menu is described by Ducasse as ‘contemporary classic’. While the menu when the restaurant opened bore very little resemblance to Ducasse’s Le Louis XV and Plaza Athénée, there is an increasing number of Ducasse signature dishes (e.g. Turbot ‘Matelote’, Foie Gras ravioli) included on the menu in recent months. Dinner is £75 for 3 courses, £90 for 4. The tasting menu is priced at £115, with a truffle tasting menu at £200. Lunch is naturally more attractive with an all inclusive 3 course meal will set you back £45.
Bread was a lovely selection of various breads – Hay Baguette, Sourdough, Black Olive, Hazelnut & Raisin and Scottish Brioche with Bacon. These were made in house but were served cold. Apparently Mr. Ducasse doesn’t want us to eat too much bread. Bread were of good quality, but not the finest I have tasted in London. Hay Baguette for example was soft, yet crispy, although could have done with just a touch more moisture. Black olive had the saltiness of the olives gently spiking giving the bread a gentle lift. (7/10) A choice of salted butter from Neal’s Yard and a pot of Fontainebleau (unsalted fresh cream cheese with whipped cream) accompanied the bread. It is worth mentioning that the pot holding the Fontainebleau is rounded making scooping the cheese a tricky exercise as it rocks about.
Nibbles came in the form of Gruyere and Parmesan Goujeres… a whole plateful of them. These cheese puffs did not have as strong an aroma of the heavenly Gruyere as the ones encountered at Hibiscus, but was nicely spiked with a gentle dashing of paprika and black pepper. The choux pastry was how Greg Wallace would put it ‘as light as a feather’. The sharpness of the Parmesan provided a nice counterpoint to the sweet and salty gruyere. Utterly enjoyable. Utterly delicious. May I have more? (8/10)
Arriving in an egg shaped container, the amuse bouche of Royale of Broccoli with thin strips of crisp vegetables (carrots and radish) gave us a glimpse of the potential this kitchen had in store for us. Gone (for good I hope) are the vegetable crudites and dip. The broccoli mousse and cauliflower foam had a richness which belied the fact that it was simple, humble vegetables I was enjoying. A salty element in the form of the black olive lifted was a ingenious substitute for salt and provided a lift for the raw vegetables. Again, technique was excellent and this proved a sensible amuse to open up our palates for the meal to come. (8/10)
Three well made ravioli parcels filled with unctious, almost liquid foie gras sat in a consomme of foie gras and foie gras foam, garnished with slices of new season black truffle. Before we could even taste the dish, we were hit by the unmistakable aroma of the truffle. The silky smooth ravioli literally exploded in the mouth with the rich, creamy distinctive flavour of the liver. Little parcels of joy I call them. Thin triangles of sweet butternut squash felt superfluous but were in reality a needed addition to balance the richness of the dish. All this, bound together by the heady foie gras consomme. (8/10)
J mocked me when I opted for a dish of egg and crayfish. After all, these ingredients are as cheap as chips. But this was a signature dish of Ducasse. No pressure then on the kitchen to deliver something amazing. And boy did they deliver! A simple, humble soft-boiled egg, had egg white which was completely set but a perfectly oozy, runny yolk. I suspect the work of a water-bath at hand here. Forget the sweet, tender crayfish, the ceps (coming to the end of its season now) and wafer-crisp croutons – these were all the bridesmaid to the nantua sauce (a béchamel-based sauce made with crayfish and tomatoes). Luscious, utterly beautiful, a complete work of art, I greedily moped up every single drop of the sauce with my bread. For a moment, I nearly had an Oliver Twist moment. ‘Can I have more sir?’ Sadly I couldn’t. (10/10)
A fillet of turbot, cooked on the bone, was accompanied by a semi-circle of gnocchi, matchstick strips of Paris mushrooms (or button mushrooms if you like) and crisp, crunchy croutons (the same croutons that were featured previously). The sauce Matelote, made with reduced red wine and mushrooms was deep, having a meaty flavour to it. Drenching the croutons, the sauce played tricks on my mind – fooling me to believe that I was biting into pork scratchings. It was surprising then that the turbot itself was slightly muted. I don’t know if this was because of the fact that English fish simply is not as good as the ones you can get from the Meditteranean. With all this going, the gnocchi was destined to be a spectator, even if it was as soft and fluffy as a pillow. (7/10) One small slip is that the turbot wasn’t pin-boned properly, a mistake which is quite surprising given the restaurant’s 2 Michelin star status. The restaurant were however quick to apologize for this.
A meaty square of baked sea bass was timed correctly with the fish having a firm, almost swordfish like texture but still remaining as juicy as ever. The parsley and shellfish jus accompanying it was more of a feminine afair – clean, grassy with the saltiness of the shellfish coming through right at the end. More interesting (for me at least) was the gratin of razor clams. The bread crumb, parsley and pepper crusted clams were soft and tender, without a hint of chewiness. Overall, this dish was a slight let down, not that it was bad but because it was unable to reach the dazzling heights of the others preceeding it. Compared to the turbot, the sea bass was like the ugly stepsister of Cinderella. (6/10)
So we come to mains and we have for you is… a duck pie?!? Ok, I am fully aware that a pithivier is a pie. Nevertheless, I am open-minded when it comes to food. After all, Heston Blumenthal deems it worthy to serve fries in his 3 starred Fat Duck restaurant. Objectively, this pie was yummy. Very, very yummy indeed. The filling of duck and foie gras was as rich as it was gamey. The encasing puff pastry buttery yet so light and delicate in texture, with its slight sweetness to its crust. This was in contrast to the bitter sweet caramelized endive. All these, tied together by the sauce rouennaise – a Bordelaise sauce enriched with pureed duck liver – which packed the punch of Mike Tyson in his prime. (7/10)
Lamb was served as various cuts – saddle, rack, kidney and sweetbread. Accompanying this was some vegetables – carrots, leek and chicory wrapped with squid cooked with a bit of nutty brown parsley butter. A little roasting jus was drizzled onto the lamb at tableside to finish off the dish. The dish bore a lot of resemblance to Tom Kitchin’s submission of a meat course in the Great British Menu, season 3. All components of this dish was correctly cooked, but to be honest, there was nothing on this plate of which shouted ‘exceptional’. (6/10)
Cheese here is supplied by Bernard Anthony from Alsace – thought to be one of the best affineur in the world. Unsurprisingly, many 3 star restaurants in France are supplied by him. There is no trolley available, but we are instead presented with a selection of 4 cheeses paired with small individual garnishes, served with various biscuits and walnut bread. A goats cheese (? Pelardon) was matched with a pepper puree, an excellent Tomme de Savoie (8/10) with a frisee salad dressed, Anthony’s signature aged Comte (of the 2 year variety) (9/10) with a mushroom puree and finally a creamy, but not fully matured Roquefort (7/10) with a pear chutney. Of these pairings, I felt the Roquefort and pear chutney, a classical combination, worked the best with the sweet, honey-like chutney cutting through the saltiness of the Roquefort.
Some mignardise were brought to us to nibble on while we awaited our dessert. Macaroons came in three flavours – chocolate & passion fruit, orange and pistachio & cherry – had great texture with the crisp meringue shell melting in the mouth. The orange macaroon was a bit of a dud being a little chewier than usual. (6/10) The others, however, were some of the best macaroons I’ve had the pleasure of sampling in London. (9/10) A pair of milk chocolate with crunchy praline and Valrhona 70% dark chocolate were presented on top of a block of 60% milk chocolate (which itself was edible – trust me, the table next to me tried!). These were also very enjoyable – the praline giving the milk chocolate the crunchy texture of a little Kit-Kat bar while the dark chocolate square was bitter, velvety and intense. (8/10)
Ducasse’s Rum Baba is available here and it would have been a mistake not to have given this a go. It arrives in a domed metal contraption – the baba carefully sliced opened at tableside before a dousing of rum (your choice from a tray of different rums brought to you beforehand) is administered. A few dollop of the lightest Chantilly cream completes the dish (and is sensibly left at tableside in case you feel the need like I did to indulge in more). This was as perfect as a Baba gets – its texture as heady and airy like a wisp of cloud. If I were a deathrow in-mate, this would win hands down as dessert of choice for my last meal. (10/10)
A rich chocolate croustillant – another Ducasse signature – is given a different interpretation. The chocolate croustillant is sandwiched squares of milk chocolate and chocolate mousse. A sticky, bittersweet marmalade acts as a perfect foil for the sweet, rich chocolate. This was Kit-Kat meets chocolate orange. (8/10)
A post dessert palate cleanser of fresh mango cubes and passion fruit coulis was fresh and refreshing. The sorbet accompanying it had the citrus perfume of the lemon grass along with a slight nuttiness from the cheese (comte). My biggest amazement is to see such a dish pop out from Ducasse’s kitchen. He is after all a very classical chef, unlike other chefs like Gagnaire. (6/10)
You know how some restaurants have the cheek to charge you £5 for a cup of coffee and yet offer a pathetic piece of chocolate as petit four? Just when we thought we were all done and dusted, our waitress wheeled the almight Bon-bon trolley over with an amazing selection of sweets for us to try.
‘How many do we get to pick?’ I sheepishly expecting to be told to stick to five or so.
‘Oh! Pick as many as you like…’ she cheerfully responded. ‘In fact, here, let me give you a bit of each.’
With that, she offered me a selection of everything available on the trolley (except a madeleine which I didn’t take a particular fancy to). They were good, real good, seriously good! Despite being filled to the brim, I still found some space for these treats. The highlight of these had to be the two tarts (mango & cream, chocolate mousse and almond). (9/10)
Satisfied, impressed and awed, we finally paid up after a wonderful three hour dinner, but not before being offered a parting gift – two iced orange cake perfect for breakfast the next morning.
Service was second to none – along with Le Gavroche, this is up there as the best service I have experienced in London. Every request was greeted with a pleasant smile. No wine for the night? That will not be a problem at all. Throughout the meal, our servers were engaging, clearly picking up on the fact I was interested about their food. They were genuinely as passionate and enthusiastic about the food they were serving as I was eating it, and it showed.
Prior to visiting ADAD, I was highly sceptical with its award of 2 star rising. Deep down, I personally thought that Michelin was simply doing another French chef a favour in view of the ongoing credit crunch. How happy I am to admit that I am savagely wrong. Our meal at ADAD was an immersing, memorable experience. Two dishes in particular (soft boiled egg & crayfish and the baba) will live long with me long into the night. Not everything was perfect though. Some of the dishes, the mains in particular, were a bit too safe, a bit uninspiring for a restaurant with such high reputations. Perhaps the award of an espoir for this restaurant will encourage the restaurant to be a little more ambitious with some of its cooking as it goes in search of the holy grail. I can only await with a hungry heart.