Hélène Darroze at the Connaught
Carlos Place, Mayfair
London, W1K 2AL
Tel. 0207 499 7070
Food type: French
Food rating: 7/10
Nearest tube: Green Park
Website: Hélène Darroze at the Connaught
Here is a summary of my lunch at Hélène Darroze last week with a fellow blogger theGirl (of Agirlhastoeat.com). It was an was an interesting experience to dine with a fellow blogger as it allowed us to talk solely about the food itself. I will spare you the introduction and background of the chef. If you want to read more about it, as well as an indepth review of the lunch and ALC menu we tried, click here. Many thanks to theGirl for providing me with pictures as I did not bring my camera along.
The dining room at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught has received a makeover since the departure of outgoing chef Angela Hartnett. Iranian-born, Parisian designer cum architect, India Mahdavi was in sole charge of the decor. Her vision was to pay homage to the English heritage of space while weaving in a bold and playful display of colours and geometry. Much like Le Gavroche, the tartan theme gives the dining room the feel of an old boys club. Neutral tones of creme mustard and lavender contrast the original mahogany wall panelling, with a central chandelier giving soft illumination to the room.
The menu here has been revised in view of the current economic climate. The business lunch menu is now £32 for 3 courses (previously £39) and also includes a cheese option (more on that later). The tasting menu (called Signature menu here) is £85 (previously £95) while ALC is £75 for 3 courses. There are of course with those annoying supplement charges for dishes which include truffles. Nevertheless, portions are at least generous.
Some canapes were brought to us while we were perusing the menu. First was a carrot veloute topped with a carrot leaf foam. Unlike say, the carrot veloute I had enjoyed at Turner’s (Birmignham) the soup did not have much of a carrot flavour to it. Its acidity and tartness was so pervalent that you could have mistaken it for a tomato soup. (3/10)
A chorizo cheesecake is an idea which can conceptually work but was carelessly executed. The natural saltiness and piquant flavour of the chorizo was overwhelmed by the sharpness of the Comte which formed the basis of the ‘cake’. From a texture point of view, the cake was a touch dense for my liking. (4/10)
Bread is made fresh in the kitchen, but much like her mentor, Darroze serves her bread cold. There was a variety on offer – white mini baguette, sliced baguette, granary, hair bread, chestnut, rosemary and apricot & raisin. The quality varied. For example, the white mini baguette was a textbook example of a great baguette with a crisp crust, with a hollow knock and soft fluffy filling. Even better was the rosemary bread which was a soft bun with good amount of seasoning and light airy filling. Less stellar was the chestnut and hair bread, both of which had crust which was annoyingly tough. (7/10 overall)
Amuse bouche was a foie gras creme brulee which had very subtle foie gras flavour that was completely overwhelmed by the peanut foam. It was only by tasting each component seperately that I was able to ascertain that the creme contained a trace amount of the fatty liver. Again, this is a dish which should conceptually work – seeing as peanut and foie gras is not an alien combination and the apple sorbet would add acidity to the dish – but this was once again let down by careless balance. (4/10)
Les chipirons de Ligne
Hélène’s squid ink risotto with sauteed squid and chorizo, confit tomatoes and parmesan foam is one of her signature dishes and was featured on a final episode of Masterchef (2007 season if I recall correctly). The risotto utilizes Carnaroli Acquerello rice (2006 vintage) which is a favourite of Alain Ducasse because of the aging process which improves the consistency of the grains and thus enables them to absorb more cooking liquor. It is prized for its firmer, almost crisp, texture which was evident when eating this dish. As a whole, the dish itself was a triumph – the risotto creamy and indulgent yet never stodgy or sickeningly rich. The squid was correctly cooked without a hint of chewiness and the acidity of the confit tomatoes complementing the chorizo without overwhelming the entire dish. If there was a slight nit pick it is that I would have preferred less parmesan foam as I am not a big fan of adding parmesan to risotto in the first place. (7/10)
Pigeon from Racan was served rare as requested – the bird spit roasted and then flambed. The pigeon itself was of superb quality tender without a hint of toughness which is often associated with this bird especially when incorrectly cooked. This was accompanied by a generous slab of grilled foie gras from Darroze’s home town, Landes which had good liver flavour and correctly seasoned. Salsify, two ways, fondant and crispy twirls added a touch of sweetness which was a logical pairing with the gameyness of the pigeon. What made this dish remarkable was the sauce perfumed with Mexican mollé which was intense and rich – its chocolatey notes adding great depth of flavour. (8/10)
Les Fromages Affines Par Maitre Bernard Anthony
Cheese here is supplied by Bernard Anthony of Alsace who is one of the top affineurs well known for his discriminating quest for quality. The selection here is limited to 3(!) cheese only and Anthony’s famous aged comte was unavailable. At least great care is taken in pairing the individual cheese with different condiments. Le Gabietout, a mixed cow’s and sheep’s milk cheese from Pyrenees was in great condition – the cheese exuding its fruity and slightly nutty bite. This was matched with some candied carrots spiced with star anise. Morbier, accompanied by some quince and cucumber jelly, was less ripe than ideal – the cheese itself was mild and refreshing although from experience, I prefer a greater depth of flavour that you can obtain when it is aged. Lastly was a classic pairing of Stilton with pear puree and celery. Stichelton is a type of stilton which is made in the traditional way using unpasteurized milk and is made exclusively by the Welbeck Farm. (You can purchase it at Borough market or from Neal’s Yard Dairy). This cheese was in stellar condition – full flavoured, rich, creamy and buttery. (8/10 overall)
Avocado Mousse, Blood Orange, Almond Crumble, Hazlenut
A little pre-dessert of avocado mousse raised a few eyebrows even before anyone dug a spoon into it. The mousse itself had the richness and oiliness of the avoccado although I cannot for the love of my life see how this added anything to the dish other than the shock factor. I would not have been shocked if the mousse was made out of cardboard and green colouring. This was simply a conceptually bad dish from the start. [hint: when a glutton like me leaves half my dessert untouched there is something wrong] (0/10)
Dessert proper was a light refreshing plate of Victorian pineapple with gingerbread ice cream, banana bread (reminds me of my childhood), juicy raisins soaked in rum and passion fruit marmalade. Victorian pineapples, despite being a quarter the size of regular pineapples, are prized for its sweet, intense flavour. The composition of this dessert to highlight the natural beauty of the pineapple cannot be faulted – the various components creating an interesting juxtaposition of flavours which worked in perfect harmony. (7/10)
Petit fours were a good end to the meal and worthy of a special mention. These were all capable and thoroughly enjoyable with the lemon tart exceptionally good with the right amount of tartness backed by the slightly salty pastry. (8/10) More chocolates (by master chocolatier Pierre Hermes) are offered with coffee although this come at a hefty price of £8 (!)
Service here was pleasant and attentive although staff could (and should) have better knowledge about the food they were serving. For instance, when enquiring about the cheese our waitress struggled to answer questions beyond what she was prepped to tell us.
The food here is a real enigma. The cooking here displayed good technique with execution spot-on for those dishes which had to be prepared a la minute. All 3 ALC dishes I had as well as the petit fours were of very high standard. This is a good sign as Ms. Darroze was not in the kitchen when we visited. However, there were far too many errors either from dishes which were just conceptually bad (avocado dessert) or just sloppy in terms of balance (e.g. Foie Gras creme brulee). The lunch menu that theGirl tried showed some signs of creativity but in general was about the level of gastro-pub food (cauliflower soup, chocolate mousse). Restaurants only need to look at what Chris Staines is doing with his lunch service at Foliage to understand what can be achieved under the constraints of a small budget. In view of this, I feel that a rating of 7/10 is just about right. The restaurant has still a way to go before it achieves its second star which I am sure it is gunning for, judging by the prices they charge.