Let’s get straight to the point. You don’t go to the Connaught unless you are:
B) From out of town
C) Celebrating a special occasion
We fall into category C, the occasion; my husband’s birthday. While its my treat technically he’s paying, as I now earn the princely sum of nought (9 months into my maternity leave). So husband dear chose where to eat and decided that it was time we ventured back into classic cooking, ticking off another restaurant on our wish list; Helene Darroze at the Connaught.
There are restaurants which sit on our wish list, not because we’ve forgotten about them or gone off them but because to us they serve a specific purpose. All these years, the grandeur of the Connaught has meant that though its a venue we have always wanted to go to, it’s been saved for the ultimate special occasion. As dining out together is now a rarity and with a birthday to celebrate, we decided now is as good a time as any. After all, our next big anniversary isn’t for years and who know’s we might have died from sleep deprivation by then!
With baby off to bed and mother in law fully briefed, off we jumped into a cab, steadily winding through the streets of London. This rushed pre-amble was quickly forgotten though, as soon as we stepped into the grand and opulent dining room. Time moves in a hazy fashion here, you feel instantly rested, like you’ve just walked into a spa for a day of bliss. The luxurious and plush interiors, rich dark wood, and roaring log fire all work to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, whilst the uber professional yet smiley staff immediately fill you with confidence.
Then, as if by magic, the champagne trolley wheels its way towards your table. There’s no escaping it, and if you did you’d look like a right wally. Not that we were even considering sending it away. There we were, happily sipping on a glass each of Billecart-Salmon rose, starting as we meant to go on. This was to be a night of pure indulgence. No calorie counting here (as the husband often does, usually to guilt trip me).
We had informed the restaurant of our dietary requirements ahead; me the fussy pescetarian and the husband a vegetarian. So it was most pleasing to see that they had tailored the signature nine course tasting menu to our needs and helpfully printed it out. I love these menu cards as they make great keepsakes. So off we ventured onto our nine courses, all beautifully balanced and elegantly presented, attacking our senses one by one, in the most pleasurable of ways.
Food like this is best enjoyed when its a rare indulgence so that your taste buds are at their sharpest, to really savour these phenomenal dishes, like the tartare of ‘fines de claire’ oysters, Oscietra caviar jelly and chilled veloute of white coco beans. The taste of the sea enveloped in light yet creamy velouté, all within a martini glass.
It seems ingredients are handpicked from several regions around France and Italy; oysters from Papin-Poget, coco beans from Bearn, olive oil from Tuscany, green asparagus from Pertuis, white asparagus from les Landes…I think you get the picture. As fancy schmancy as it all sounds, the ingredients are used wisely and mostly to produce rustic earthy dishes, such as the home made tagliatelle rolled in a rich warming parmigiano reggiano beurre noisette, with seasonal green asparagus and morels.
I can only imagine the multitude of ingredients, the clever balancing act and the many processes behind each dish. Even the seemingly simple (and you could argue, almost a side dish) cocotte of glazed carrots with royal maple syrup, citrus and cumin seeds produced a symphony in my mouth. Its not just taste that’s key here, even textures are considered in a dish of silky and succulent scallops with crunchy hazelnuts and a spring cauliflower mousseline.
A perfectly cooked fillet of John Dory was also nicely complemented with white asparagus and breadcrumbs for extra crunch, alongside a seaweed beurre blanc. This dish almost reminded me of a nightmare dish at Galvin at Windows where I was presented with undercooked sea bass and almost raw white asparagus, which I could not cut through for love nor money. Thankfully this dish was not only edible but beautiful, even though I did still have a little trouble cutting through those pesky white asparagus. Nothing a good chopping knife couldn’t solve and it was pleasing to be handed one without even asking for it. Now that’s service.
It was all going swimmingly, until we got to the dessert end of the tasting menu. This for me is the best part, like a reward for making it through all those ‘oh so difficult to eat’ morsels. It’s this end that you remember most because frankly, without the menu to hand, and after six of the nine courses, you’d be hard pushed to remember dish one, as amazing as it may have been. And yet here is where I felt it went a bit downhill. Almost flat. Husband dear will disagree and here’s why; desserts are a personal thing. They can divide and unite people, draw out fragile heart-warming memories you’d long forgotten, and create criticism stronger than a builders brew.
The pink grapefruit with tonka bean ice cream and salted butter caramel sauce was lost on me. I’ve never liked the sour, sharp and bitter sensations a grapefruit produces and unfortunately I really don’t think the tonka bean (whatever that is) ever stood a chance in toning those sensations down, or providing a different dimension to the dish. The caramel sauce thankfully added some much needed sweetness but it was all a bit…weird.
The last dessert, I’ll call it chocolate overload, consisted of chocolate cream, spicy sponge, home made ginger bread and hot chocolate sauce. This is where the husband and I are divided. He loved it. I didn’t. This was a dangerously rich dessert that muddled all the different elements into one chocolate puddle. Even after the somewhat cleansing effects of the grapefruit/tonka bean medley, I still didn’t have the stomach for it. What I needed was something zingy, fresh, light and citrusy at the end of a long (though thoroughly enjoyable) journey.
All was not lost, little gems in the form of petit fours filled the void of a satisfying dessert, and my were they good. Inspired by the upcoming Chelsea flower show, these little beauties were more like sweet morsels of heaven. I’ve never known petit fours to be this darn good. The elderflower and rose jellies were juicy and divine, whilst the citrus olive oil marshmallows were pillow-soft, bursting with limes and lemons and inducing visions of a grove of lemon trees somewhere in southern Italy. In fact, they were so good I lost all notion of social grace and asked for more!
Having gobbled up the many petit fours, sunk the last glass of our crisp Sardinian wine and rested my napkin, I was well and truly in the midst of a food coma, when they presented us with more food; a gift bag of our menus and some complimentary cake and chocolates (“for tomorrow” I told myself). Off we went in full gastronomic euphoria as if we were slowly awakening from a dream, back home, back to baby and to reality.
My, does that Helene Darroze know how to show you a good night.
P.s. sorry for the lack of pics, even I couldn’t muster up the moxie to get my mobile out and flash away…Well it is the Connaught.