Hélène Darroze at the Connaught
Carlos Place, Mayfair
London, W1K 2AL
Tel. 020 3147 7200
Food type: French
Nearest tube: Green Park
Website: Hélène Darroze at the Connaught
It has been a while since I last visited Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. I’ve been twice, once when the restaurant shortly opened and the second shortly after they were promoted to two stars. The cooking here is pleasant enough, although its not on the top of my list of places to revisit as I feel that there are other stronger 2* restaurants in London I would rather go back to. Interestingly enough, Darroze’s flagship restaurant in Paris was demoted from 2*s to 1* around the same time her restaurant in London was promoted. Perhaps Madame Darroze has been concentrating more of efforts here in London, although from what I understand, she splits her time between both restaurants equally.
Since my last visit, the restaurant has introduced their now famous ‘ping pong ball and board’ menu concept. Each ball contains the core ingredient of a specific dish on the menu and the idea is that you would leave on the board the items you want while putting aside the items you do not fancy. If you are ordering from the lunch menu you er… order the old fashioned way. I guess it makes it easier for the front of house when taking the orders with their multi-course, design your own tasting menu. It is a bit of fun, but my wife thinks that this is a naff idea and out of place in a dining room which is formal and opulent.
One of the reasons I don’t visit as much as I should is because of the pricing, which is very chunky by London standards. The carte consists of 5, 7 or 9 courses priced at £95, £130 and £175. This doesn’t sound that bad until you realise that many items on the menu come with a supplement, some of them rather ambitious such as a £45 supplement for asparagus (with langoustine) and £85 supplement for caviar. There is a concessions lunch menu at £52 for 3 courses inclusive of 2 glasses of wine, water and coffee. Some of the lunch menu options also feature supplements. The lunch menu also uses the less glamorous cuts. Take for example the duck which is featured on both the lunch menu and the main menu. The lunch options features the legs while the main menu uses the breast. In some ways, the 9 course Inspiration menu at £175 is the ‘cheapest’ option to experience the main menu since it is all inclusive without any further supplements and this was what we went for.
While we were browsing the menus, a trio of canapés were brought to us. The first, a cornetto filled with beef tartare, topped with a yoghurt sphere. The cone had pleasant texture and the yoghurt sphere provided acidity, but I felt the beef could have done with bolder seasoning. A cured mackerel on a ‘bread pillow’ was more interesting – the mackerel having good flavour with nice umami hit, and the bread pillow crisp and airy. The best of the lot was a mushroom veloute with wild garlic powder which had excellent depth of flavour and was comforting on a wet, cold spring day.
The first official course was beetroot in different preparations with burrata and a Manuka honey vinaigrette. On the side, was a punterella salad. This was from the lunch menu. Although there were various varieties of beetroot, they all ultimately amalgamated into one flavour. It all looked very pretty on the plate, but if blindfolded, most guests would struggle to tell them apart. The punterella was actually the best part of the dish having very good flavour. I find it hard to get excited over beetroot dishes. This was not a bad dish per se, and certainly there is nothing wrong technically, but it just feels boring and uninspiring. Also serving a dish from the lunch menu seems a bit of a cop out.
Next was salmon from Adour served raw with a apple and lime consommé. I believe the salmon is wild and the idea is that the acid from the consommé would gently cure the salmon much like you would with a ceviche. The salmon had good flavour and it was nice to see the trimmings used to make a rilette which was stuffed within a feuille casing. Again the presentation of the dish was absolutely stunning.
We followed with a wild garlic and ricotta ‘lasagna’ with smoked eel, finished with chicken jus and wild garlic sauce. This was my least favourite dish of the day. The main problem for me is the ricotta itself which had a grainy texture. I’m sure this is not a technical error from the kitchen, but ricotta does have a tendency to go grainy when cooked which I find unpleasant to eat. I do like the strong flavours from the wild garlic, interspersed with the rich chicken jus and smoked eel. I do wish there was more of the confit lemon to cut through all the richness.
Madame Darroze’s signature tandoori scallops was next. The dish has undergone a bit of a face lift in terms of presentation, but the spirit of the dish remains. The scallop is coated with tandoori spices and nicely timed. It is paired with a carrot puree, with confit kumquats for acidity which cleverly balances the spicing on the scallop. In keeping with todays food trend, there was a string of spiralized carrot draping the scallop. The chicken jus makes its appearance again, this time infused with coriander which provided suitable richness to the dish. This is a harmonious eating dish and it is clear why it has remained a signature dish at the restaurant since it opened.
At the start of the meal, I had specified to omit sweetbreads as my wife was not keen on it. The lobster and sweetbread pthivier (which was served to the neighbouring table also having the Inspiration menu) was substituted for turbot. This turned out to be the dish of the day – the turbot cooked in a water bath and then blow torched to give it a charred finish and served with a champagne sabayon sauce. I don’t think that the water bath is not the best way to cook fish, but the turbot here was clearly of very high quality and still retained a meaty texture. The sabayon added acidity and richness whilst remaining incredibly light. On the side, a leek was stuffed with a fish mousse made from the turbot trimming flavoured with lemon grass, probably inspired by Darroze’s visits to South East Asia. The overall effect was similar to ‘Otak-otak’ found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
For main course, we were served duck. Their supplier here is Maison Burgaud which is the supplier for Tour D’Argent so you know they are working with some really fine produce. It had very good flavour although the duck was slightly tough – probably reflecting the nature of the duck which is allowed to mature to develop its flavour. I suspect the duck was also cooked in a water bath given its uniform pink hue. For added texture, the skin was coated with a mixture of buckwheat, spices and honey. What was the real winner was the duck sausage on the side made from the offal and trimmings which was truly delicious. The potatoes came in two forms – a classic fondant, cooked in duck fat and an excellent smoked mash.
We now paused for a cheese intermission. Their supplier was Beillevaire at time of writing, although I was told that they would switching to Mons. This is a departure from Bernard Anthony which used to be their supplier when the restaurant first opened. There is no cheese trolley here. The logistics of the room do not allow for it. Instead we have a selected course of 5 cheese with various condiments. The cheeses were in very good condition.
Our first dessert was their signature Baba au Armagnac served with ‘exotic’ fruits. A trolley is brought to the table featuring Armagnacs made by the Darroze family of 3 different vintages. The baba is sliced open at the table and the chosen Armagnac poured onto it. A little pot of Chantilly cream, flavoured with pepper, is provided at the side. Darroze of course trained under Ducasse so this was her take on his signature dessert from Louis XV. Her version of the baba was fine, although not in the same league as Ducasse – the sponge slightly more dense. (As a side note, I really don’t like the term exotic fruits that restaurants use on their menu, since there is nothing exotic about pineapples, kiwis or mangos. These are fruits you can buy from your local supermarket.)
The final dish of the Inspiration menu was chocolate mousse scented with cumin, which was very well judged – the perfume of the cumin just coming through without overpowering the dish. The tempered chocolate cigar was filled with yuzu sorbet which provided much needed relief at the end of a long tasting menu.
We both enjoyed our lunch at Hélène Darroze. The portion sizing here is rather substantial, even for a glutton like myself. By the end of the meal I was begging for mercy. We were later told by the Maitre’D that the portion sizes do not change whether you order 5,7 or 9 courses. Madame Darroze is perhaps trying to bring the whole Parisian experience to London, including its portion sizing. This unfortunately also involves Parisian pricing. The price of the Inspiration Menu here at £175 is at the same price point as the Seasonal (most expensive) tasting menu at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester and Gordon Ramsay, which are both 3* restaurants. Admittedly they do make use of some high quality ingredients, many imported from France, which adds to the costings. Add to the fact that the restaurant is located in a Mayfair hotel which means that the wine list is lumbered with the usual 4-5x markups and that filtered coffee costs £8. It all makes for a very expensive experience.
The problem with my meal here is not with the cooking, which is in fact very good with presentation that is often stunning. The turbot and duck are prime examples of what the kitchen are able to produce with top notch ingredients. Rather, it is the value for money factor which is the main niggle. For £175, the only luxurious ingredients on the menu were the scallops (and not a very large one at that), turbot and duck. A few of the courses felt like filler – the beetroot (from the lunch menu) and the wild garlic lasagna. You could factor in the beautiful Hermes china, Christofle cutlery and the opulent dining room, not to mention the excellent service which adds to the whole experience. However, at Ducasse, which is no less opulent, for £140, I received langoustines (XXL sized), native lobster, foie gras and halibut amongst others. Ultimately, if I wanted to treat myself to a meal at this price point, I would rather go back to Ducasse or Ramsay as the cooking there is at a slightly higher level.