Hélène Darroze at the Connaught – The Anglo-French Combination Loses Something in Translation

The Connaught
Carlos Place
London W1K 2AL
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Dinner: Signature menu (7-course tasting) at £85/person, 3-course menu at £75/person; Lunch menus at £35 (inclusive of water & coffee) and £42 (inclusive of 2 glasses of wine + water & coffee)

A grand yet modern dining room in a historic London hotel & a famous French female chef producing very good food somehow fail to produce a lasting impression

The woman who snatched the reins from Angela & Gordon

I will spare you the full introduction to chef Hélène Darroze as she is probably already pretty well known to most readers of this blog. How about some quick bullet points instead (I have been working too much lately)? Hopefully, like a good amuse bouche, they will be easily digestible:

  • Darroze comes from the Southwest of France (Les Landes) where her family has been in the hospitality and culinary fields for four generations, with her father holding a Michelin star at their Relais & Château hotel and restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan
  • She earned her BA in business and wanted to go into the hospitality business too, so got a job on the administrative side of Alain Ducasse’s organization and, after being there for a while and observing everything, decided she too wanted to be a chef, eventually rising to become his ‘right-hand woman’ (no small feat), cooking alongside the master chef at his Monaco-based Le Louis XV
  • She then went back to her family’s business and, due to a difference of cooking styles (it’s ‘complicated’), her father ‘volunteered’ to resign;
  • She retained the family’s Michelin star, won tons of awards for her culinary promise and prowess, then opened up her own restaurant on the left bank in Paris, which received 2 Michelin stars within two years of opening
  • In the spring of 2008, she was eventually convinced to take over the restaurant at London’s historically important Connaught hotel when Angela Hartnett and Gordon Ramsay Holdings essentially got booted out, gaining a Michelin star there within a year of opening. She took a big brigade from Paris to set up the operation and commutes every other week to London so is in the London kitchen approximately half the time

Given all the above, I had been very interested to try her food, especially given her reputation as being one of the best ambassadors for the food of her region and one of the brighter lights in the French culinary scene.

The triplet mystery

So, on a cold and rainy November evening, the dynamic duo arrived at the imposing façade of the oh-so English Connaught Hotel.

Anglo exterior, French guts

The restaurant lies to your right after entering the hotel, and is reached via a narrow corridor of dark wood panelling. The hotel was recently completely refurbished for the small price of £70 million and is quite classically beautiful inside.

Light at the end of the corridor?

Surprisingly, once inside the rather grand dining room, things become a bit lighter, with comfy upholstered chairs of white and mustard-yellow swirls, cushioned bench seating of muted gray with a vertical diamond pattern, some art deco details and golden chandeliers. This all somehow resolves itself very neatly within the still clubby carcass (i.e. dark wood panelling) of the room.

A quick perusal of the menu revealed the usual tasting menu and a 3-course option. We opted for the simpler of the two and began pondering the options there within. As I was ruminating, I was struck by the descriptions of her dishes. Nearly all of them were described in threes, and I was reminded of our recent meal at Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room & Library, where he is also fond of focusing on one primary ingredient for a dish and preparing in three different ways. As I was wondering whether this phenomenon of triplets was a peculiarly French affectation, some nibbles interrupted my train of thought.

Sorry, hold on, this is the…starter?

Amuse Bouche 1: Leek & potato velouté with barley foam; Parma ham; breadsticks

Now I thought this was slightly odd. We were in a very posh French dining room and Parma ham was being laid out on a sheet of black slate, with breadsticks poking up out of a basket on the side. It all seemed very Italian to me, although I guess the kitchen had salvaged its haute cuisine/French-ness by serving a tall glass of velouté as part of the trio. The Parma ham was good, but also particularly salty (6/10). The breadsticks were, well, breadsticks and don’t stand out in my memory (5/10). The leek and potato concoction was probably the nicest of the three, with a lovely smooth consistency and a subtle heat (the spicy kind) to it (7/10). A rather odd start, but a start nonetheless.

Amuse Bouche 2: Foie gras crème brûlée; green apple sorbet; peanut cappuccino

The next amuse was apparently a signature dish of Darroze. I thought it worked quite well, with the richness of the foie gras cream being well accented by the sweetness of the peanut foam and cut through by the very noticeable streak of green apple. It was all very pleasant, but the foie gras flavor did remain quite muted beneath it all and this little glass of joy certainly wasn’t an earth-shattering gastronomic moment for me. 7/10.

Bread & Butter

In the meantime, we had been served a nice selection of bread, which was of high quality. Butter was sliced from what is probably the largest slab of butter I’ve ever seen – a ginormous block of the creamy, yellow stuff was on display in the center of the dining room – and was also very good. 8/10.

Starter 1: Le Foie Gras des Landes (Duck Foie Gras from Les Landes) – One slice cooked ‘au torchon’; one slice confit with mild spices; chutney of Solliès figs

After a rather dainty start to the meal, it was a real shocker when my main course starter arrived. A huge white plate containing two MASSIVE slices of foie gras was placed before me (the above photo does not accurately convey the size of the slabs of overfed duck innards). There were two version on offer, one cooked au torchon – seasoned with port, wrapped in a kitchen towel  or torchon, and cooked sous-vide (under vacuum) – and the other mixed with a very nice streak of ‘mild spices’. I preferred the latter, while Mrs. LF was partial to the former. The slice with spice reminded me a lot of Christmas flavors (gingerbread, mulled wine, etc.) and I thought it went exceptionally well with the figs and the wonderfully concentrated chutney lurking beneath the three beautifully presented slices of fruit. The foie gras was served with large slices of country bread, which was good although I thought it was too thick for foie gras.

Left: Detail of the figs in the foie gras starter / Right: The accompanying bread for the foie gras

Overall, it was an excellent course, but it really should have been served as a main course (which wasn’t really an option given that this is a faux pas in France) or they should have served much thinner slices as I was pretty much full at this point in the meal, making it hard to salivate with anticipation over the rest of the dishes to come – not a good thing for a fine dining experience. While I can understand the desire to convey ‘value for money’ (after all, the 3-course menu is the not insignificant sum of £75/person), I thought the balance was really off on this course. 8/10 for the cooking, though.

Starter 2: Les Carottes (Carrots) – Yellow, orange, purple…caramelised in their jus with forest honey; cumin crumble; cappuccino with cumin foam

Mrs. LF had the following to say about her starter: “A wide selection of carrot varieties (of many different colors) was presented beautifully on the plate. Each was distinct in terms of both flavour and texture, while retaining the familiar underlying carrot taste. The jus with forest honey enhanced the sweetness of the carrots nicely. While intriguing to begin with, I soon tired of the dish and lost interest. The portion looked small, however in reality there was plenty, as the taste of it all was quite rich and fulsome.”

First time for everything – a carrot cappuccino with cumin foam (part of Starter 2)

On the other hand, the accompanying cappuccino, served in a tall glass, had the texture of velvet and was delightful,” Mrs. LF concluded. 6/10 overall for the dish.

Main Course 1: Le Homard Bleu (Blue Lobster) – Cooked in its shell; carrot & confit citrus mousseline; wild sorrel

My main course was very enjoyable. The lobster was sweet although a tad on the chewy side and, as is often the case, the claw had an exquisitely fine flavor. The accompaniments to the dish worked seamlessly, with the citrus mousseline providing a bit of sweet freshness (and an underlying acidity) and the brown onion reduction lending some richness and a hint of sharpness. The wild sorrel (greens) on top were actually not pointless, and had a sharp tanginess, which I thought helped to tie the dish together. Very accomplished cooking and not overly complicated. 8/10.

Main Course 2: Le Poulet Jaune des Landes (Corn-Fed Chicken) – Breast stuffed under the skin with wild mushrooms, cooked in a cocotte; Escaoutoun from Les Landes with brebis Basque cheese & cèpes; roasting jus with rosemary & walnuts

“The stuffed chicken breast was tender and cooked perfectly. The roasting jus was nice, but together with the chicken, it didn’t overwhelm me and I wasn’t in a hurry to reach for another bite,” said Mrs. LF of her main course. “The Escaoutoun, which I never had before, is speciality of Les Landes, and is a polenta-like dish blended with ewe’s-milk cheese and cèpes. The ewe’s milk cheese didn’t stand out as I thought it might do, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but overall my palate wasn’t overly excited about this novelty.” 7/10.

Dessert 1: 100% Chocolat – Venezuelan Carupano dark chocolate cream; bitter chocolate sorbet; hot chocolate sauce

Well, how was this dessert going to be bad? I mean, I love dark chocolate and that was all there was, again in three different formats. It worked delectably well and although I was stuffed at this point, thanks to eating all of my foie gras, it didn’t take long for me to dust off this very beautifully presented and technically well executed dessert. 8/10.

The sommelier has recommended a nice Pedro Ximénez to have alongside the chocolate and, indeed, it was a very nice combination. The sherry was very rich and sweet with an almost syrupy consistency, and the two played well off of each other.

Dessert 2: La Chataigne (Chestnut) – Biscuit, chantilly, wafer; Yuzu curd; Yuzu sorbet

Mrs. LF on her dessert: “I chose this as my final course because I love the flavor of chestnuts in a dessert. I guess it is a very French thing to enjoy. During Christmas time we have marron glace, which is a French candied chestnut. We also have barquette au marron, a sort of a tart in the shape of a boat that most traditional pâtisseries carry. So I went for this desert in order to satisfy my longing for a good French chestnut dessert.  But, after biting into the filled wafer, I realised that it was filled with the chantilly and that the chestnut element was in the brown little cubes that were scattered around the plate. Whilst those were delicious, I didn’t get the satisfaction of a true chestnut dessert. Apart from those little squares, the waffle was pretty bland, and the sorbet – while refreshing – didn’t overwhelm me either.” 7/10.

Something disjointed this way comes

Service throughout had certainly been attentive in some respects, but was far from slick and faultless. For instance, our table happened to be located next to one of the areas where the waiters added the final touches to the plates before bringing them to the table, and a few times I could clearly hear two of the waiters bickering between themselves. Also, while professional and attentive for the most part, it seemed a bit disjointed as we would get abandoned for a while and then swooned over a bit later. It wasn’t by any means horrible, but it did seem like they were very stressed, highly strung and not particularly well organized. I guess service doesn’t directly affect the stars in Michelin’s rating system (the level of ‘luxury’ is rated separately with a crossed fork and spoon symbol), but I was surprised that it wasn’t smoother.

Winding (up) down (stairs)…

But anyways, our meal had drawn to a pleasant close, or so we thought. Of course, this was fine dining, and this meant petit fours. But before they were rolled out (literally), some beautiful Hermès plates were set down in front of us. I can’t recall if there was a specific point for this, as I don’t remember eating anything off of them, but they were nice to look at anyway.

Decorative Plates by Hermès (yes, we really did lift them up and check the logo underneath)

After recently being served a group of petit fours that was called ‘Like a kid in a sweet shop’ at The Fat Duck, this time it looked like the candy store was being rolled out and delivered directly to our table. A lovely old-fashioned trolley containing various sweets in glass jars was parked at our table, and of course I could not refuse any of them, even though I felt 10 pounds heavier than when we first entered the restaurant. I thought this was a great touch and made the experience a lot more fun than the usual pre-sorted plateful of sweet morsels.

Petit Four trolley – literally like an adult in a candy shop

They were all pretty good, especially the marshmallows and chocolate truffles. The truffles were so good that Mrs. LF seems to have snatched hers before I was able to take a picture of them together on the second, slightly smaller Hermès plate (see below).

Easy does it...

As we were getting ready to explode, I asked our waitress if Ms. Darroze happened to be there this evening (I often try this line). I was surprised when the answer was ‘yes’, and even more pleasantly surprised when she asked us if we would like to meet her.

One star, plus two

Of course, we answered ‘yes’, and were shown downstairs to her office (she really has one down there directly across from the kitchen). Mrs. LF was able to converse with her in French, which was great, and she seemed to be a very straight-forward, earnest and down-to-earth woman.

The Darroze family has been making their own Armagnac for donkey’s years

Upon leaving, we noticed the small army of Armagnac that was placed upon a table in the corridor near the entrance of the restaurant. We were informed that the Darroze family has been making their own Armagnac for ages, although it is done in very small batches so is not really available anywhere else besides their own establishments. I caught a glance of one (see below) that dated from 1942. It was a pretty impressive display.

And there is a quite a collection on-hand, this one from 1942

Fading away…

All things considered, our meal at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught was pleasant and a few of the dishes were excellent. However, the meal seems to have faded into the background of my brain’s culinary compartment. This is likely because nothing stood out as being truly exceptional for either of us – the food, the service, nor the ambience. I suppose a restaurant of a certain calibre and with a certain intent should be judged in the context of similar establishments, and in this case, I don’t think it holds up as well as many other 1-starred restaurants (not to mention the non-starred ones) at which I’ve dined in the last year. Maybe a visit to her restaurant in Paris would give me a greater appreciation for her particular style of food and cooking ethos, but from this meal it didn’t ever become clearly defined or fully realized – it was ‘very good’ (as the score below reflects), but not remarkable.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/11

Wine: a nice European-centric selection of wines (particularly strong in France, as you’d expect), with a few of bottles at lower price-points outside of the celebrity French regions and houses & a decent selection by the glass and half-bottle

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught once, and it was for dinner.*

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9 thoughts on “Hélène Darroze at the Connaught – The Anglo-French Combination Loses Something in Translation

  1. Thanks for this write-up. The food looks good to me. Helene Darozze has been on my eating list for years now and I have been intrigued ever since she took over the reigns at the Connaught from Angela Harnett. Her ala carte menus always read very luxuriously, and it’s nice to see that the food at least looks equal to the copywriting.

    I have resisted to visit because I’ve been informed by their front of house that it’s strictly no photography…. but I think I will try to make it there sometime this year.

    • Hi Kang, thanks for your comment & for dropping by. Yes, the food is beautifully presented & for the most part was really nice. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but it just didn’t have that thing (or things) that makes you really love it and want to go back straight away. But hard to find much fault in the food.

      Didn’t know about the photo rule, and I guess front of house ain’t going to like me now! :) I would be surprised if they don’t let someone like you (who can actually take good photos and therefore accurately & attractively present the food) take photos if you turn up there. I had a hard time getting decent photos due to my point & shoot not working particularly well in low light & have no flash options except the ‘huge annoying flash that drowns everything out’ one.

      See you soon,

      LF

  2. Perhaps over-indulging yourself on the foie gras essentially killed off your appetite for the rest of the meal (hunger being the best sauce and all that)?

    Sounds like pretty good food though from your review, although you couldn’t find that ‘special something’. It’s nice that you got to meet Helene in person too.

    • Hi there – you might be right with the foie gras, though I don’t think it jaded me too much. Yes, very accomplished cooking overall, but for both of us it lacked that ‘wow’ moment (s)/factor(s). It was a priveledge and pleasure to get to meet a chef of that caliber for sure :)

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  4. Hi!

    I was interested to read your post as I ate there in September after failing to get into her Parisian restaurant in 2008 (before she took over the Connaught). Your summary exactly describes how I felt about the meal. It was very good but it certainly wasn’t “wow” enough for the 1 Star expectations and the price. My dining companions sent back their dover sole (that took forever to come) because it was overcooked (it was quite rubbery). A shame. Frankly, I’ve been pretty disappointed by all the restaurants in Ramsay’s stable, though I’ve not been to hospital road yet.

    So is the French restaurant the best one in the world you were teasing us about a few weeks ago?

    Hope you and Mrs LF and bump are all well. Catch up with you soon x

    • Hi there Jennifer,

      Thanks for your comment and for dropping by. Interesting that we felt the same way about HD at The Connaught. I think I mentioned in the review that since she took over from Angela Hartnett, the restaurant is not part of the Ramsay Empire. But on the subject of Ramsay, I finally dined at Royal Hospital Road when my parents were in town a few weeks ago and actually thought the food was very good overall; certainly preferred it to other highly-starred restaurants in London (i.e. Le Gavroche, The Square), even though it wasn’t entirely perfect. I thought the service there was phenomenal though, and they really do treat you well. Will be posting a review on that once I get through 5-6 others in my backlog.

      Regarding the teasers on the Parisian restaurant, I assume you are referring to l’Arpège, which I just recently reviewed – http://laissezfare.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/l%E2%80%99arpege-%E2%80%93-alain-passards-perfect-pitch/ – right? If so, I think it is a phenomenally good restaurant and very personal as it is Chef Passard’s only restaurant. As you can read in the review, I tried to rationalize if it was worth it for the (very high) price, and came to the conclusion that it was worth it to have tried this man’s food at least once. A few of the dishes we had there were the best example of those dishes that I’ve ever had.

      The three of us are all doing well, thank you, and we look forward to catching up with you very soon! Will be excited to hear about your trip Down Under :)

      All the best,

      LF

  5. oh wow I love the presentation of the carrot cappuccino with cumin foam! So cool. I do love Helene Darroze. Am a new fan now and would love to try her Parisian restaurant!

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