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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sketch Lecture Room & Library – Gastronomic Theatre Fit for a King

sketch
9 Conduit Street
London W1S 2XG
Website
Map
Online Reservations

- À la carte: Starters from £21-44, Mains from £28-55, Desserts from £10-27 (all but one under £14)
- Tasting
: 8-course menu at £95; 7-course vegetarian menu at £70
- Lunch:
Gourmet rapide menus from £30-£48 (depending on 2 or 3 courses and whether or not you want wine and water included)

Be transported into a surreal and magical world that is sealed off from the mundane trappings of the everyday world. You have ascended to the upper echelons of sketch, and you are here to be looked after. Let the food dazzle and delight; permit the grand surroundings mesmerize; allow your whims be catered for; and, most of all, enjoy every minute...because it don’t come cheap!

Be transported into a surreal and magical world that is sealed off from the mundane trappings of the everyday world. You have ascended to the upper echelons of sketch, and you are here to be looked after. Let the food dazzle and delight; permit the grand surroundings mesmerize; allow your whims be catered for; and, most of all, enjoy every minute...because it don’t come cheap!

No ordinary townhouse

Let me preface this review by saying that I have been to sketch once before, so it wasn’t a complete shock to me when I walked in this time. One of our friends had somehow managed to secure one of the bars for her birthday drinks and Mrs. LF and I were introduced to the decadent, avant-garde madness that lies beyond this Georgian townhouse’s rather ordinary looking white facade. If you’ve never been and are planning to go, whichever part of sketch you decide to visit, do insist on visiting the bathrooms on the ground floor that lie through The Gallery dining room as they are certainly worth seeing.

sketch - a georgian townhouse

Looks normal enough from outside

Yes, sketch. A London institution that has somehow managed to retain its en vogue status since opening its doors six years ago, which is no mean feat given the constantly sprouting up competition. But we were not there to celebrity spot; we were there to eat some good food. And that meant stepping into the upper echelons of this mysterious and quirky little world. We were there for The Lecture Room and Library, the 1-starred Michelin dining room that is run under the close control of Pierre Gagnaire (who is apparently present every 4-6 weeks for a number of days), the acclaimed French chef whose iconoclastic modern fusion style of cooking seems rather well suited toward the raison d’être of sketch.

No ordinary greeting

When we ‘checked in’ at the little reception desk, David, the tall and charmingly flamboyant Irish man who seemed to be in charge, became very animated when he learned we would be dining upstairs. He offered us a tour of the premises, to be carried out by his rather fetching assistant, but we opted to postpone this until the end of the evening. We also declined the offer of a cocktail in one of the downstairs bars as we had already had that pleasure at our friend’s birthday celebration. I should say that the cocktails at sketch are imaginative, fun and excellent – but they are also probably the most expensive drinks I’ve ever bought in a London bar. Mrs. LF told our host that we’d rather just go upstairs. He then informed us that, as we were the first guests to arrive, we could have the upstairs parlour to ourselves. Now that sounded like a plan.

While attempting to ascertain our knowledge of chef Gagnaire, he opened the roped-off stairs for us and, with a grand gesture, bid us to follow him up the stairs. As we ascended, he informed us about all of the chef’s restaurants around the globe and gave us a potted biography of Mr. Gagnaire in his very pleasant but thoroughly OTT fashion. We noticed some of the intriguing artwork on the way up to our destination (see below), and were indeed being made to feel like we were quite special guests at this most hoity-toity of establishments. But of course that felt very good :).

Note: you can click on any of the pictures below for higher-resolution versions of the images.

artwork at the foot of the stairs

At the foot of the stairs

ascending the stairs

Ascending the stairs

When you reach the top of the stairs, there is a large doorway which remains sealed. Then, in his special way, our leader opened the vault, revealing what is probably the most striking dining room I’ve ever had the pleasure of stepping foot into. Our photos, most other photos I’ve seen, and even the professional video cameras from the recent episode of Masterchef: The Professionals simply don’t do the place justice. It is something to be seen in person, that’s for sure. You really feel like you’ve entered an extremely exclusive and luxurious place that is sealed off from the rest of the world.

the lecture room

The Lecture Room (main dining room)

While Mrs. LF made her way back downstairs to powder her nose, I had the good fortune to meet the chef, Jean-Denis Le Bras, who recently took over the upstairs kitchen. He was very pleasant and clearly enthusiastic about his food. Upon her return, Mrs. LF and I walked through the main dining room (which I presumed to be the ‘Lecture Room’), and the smaller ante-chamber (which I assumed to be the ‘Library’), which led into a very beautiful little parlour area, replete with rich reds, fireplace and Moroccan style window hangings and light fixtures.

the upstairs parlour

The ‘royal’ parlour...all to ourselves

the library as seen from the parlour

The Library (smaller dining room) as viewed from the parlour

After downing my favorite sketch cocktail, whose name now escapes me but I think has something to do with Barry White, we were offered an array of canapés, which we decided to have in the parlour as it was so cosy and we were having such a nice time there.

Our tray of canapés

Our tray of canapés

Element 1: Petite Tarts with Goat’s Cheese

Element 1: Petite Tarts with Goat’s Cheese

parmesan sablé & tarragon balls

Elements 2 & 3: Parmesan Sablé and Tapenade & Caramelized Hazelnut (top); Tarragon Balls with Corn Purée & Curry (in pot)

tuna cream & cumin bread

Element 4: Tuna Cream with Cumin Bread

yogurt & tandoori biscuit

Element 5: Yogurt with Tandoori Biscuit

Without going into laborious detail, it is suffice to say that this was a magnificent opening to our meal. Each element on the tray tasted every bit as good as it looked – which is saying something –with the goat’s cheese tarts and yogurt with tandoori biscuits being our favourites. We already felt spoiled receiving an entire tray of canapés, and not just the usual little dainty plate with one or two morsels that you normally find in such high-end restaurants. 9/10.

After asking a lot of questions about the dishes on the main menu, and receiving very detailed answers from our waiter, we finally arrived at our decisions and it was time to finally make our way to the Lecture Room.

No ordinary meal

Our table in the main room was against one of the side walls and afforded us a great view of all the action. The first thing we noted was just how comfortable the well-cushioned chairs were. Once seated, they were quick in offering to place Mrs. LF’s bag on a little stool near our table so that it didn’t stoop to retire on the god-knows-how-much-this-costs-per-square-foot carpet.

lecture room design features

Vaulted Pantheonic ceiling & North African inspired lighting in the main dining room (check out the decanters and the plush seats, too)

les pains

Les pains: mini-baguettes, white rolls, brown chestnut rolls & brioche sticks

les beurres

Les beurres: salted, unsalted, seaweed (all unpasteurized)

Of the breads, we tasted the mini-baguettes, the white rolls and the brown chestnut rolls, all of which were very good, with the mini-baguettes standing out as the best with their crispy crusts and lovely chewiness. The butters were beautifully presented (see above), and we both loved the one with seaweed in particular given its slightly salty and rich umami flavor. 8/10.

amuse bouche of raw tuna

Amuse bouche: Raw White Tuna, Cauliflower and Dried Bonito Cream & Salmon roe

The amuse bouche of tuna tartare was a very clever, refreshing and flavorsome dish, with all of the ingredients working together in concert. The clean taste of the raw fish was accentuated by salty salmon roe which was then toned down and rounded out by the bonito flakes which again possessed a lush umami flavor. The little chewy and crunchy pieces of cauliflower provided some much needed solid texture to offset the smoothness of the other ingredients. I really enjoyed this first ‘proper’ course. 8/10.

a bit of theatre

A bit of theatre: Presenting the 'Cocotte of Vegetables' in Mrs. LF's starter course about 10 minutes before it was served

starter 1 - perfume of the earth

Starter 1: Perfume of the Earth / Inspired by one of Pierre Gagnaire’s Favourite Perfumes 'Terre d’Hermès' (£39)

- Cocotte of Vegetables, Smoked Myrtle and Bay Laurel / Foie Gras Soup with Sarawak Pepper
- Chicory Fondue with Sake / Girolles Poached in Pig Jus / Culatello and Iberian Ham
- Almond Tart / White Beetroot Purée with Redcurrant / Red Beetroot Syrup / Purslane Salad
- Flambé Reblochon with Génépi / Toast “Terre de Sienne” / Caramelised Black Olives (Mrs. LF substituted the Reblochon for Brillat-Savarin)

Mrs. LF said her cocotte of vegetables was light and delicious, apart from one vegetable, which could have been a turnip (but she’s not sure), that didn’t have the sweetness of the other vegetables. 7/10.

Of the chicory fondue, she described it as a meaty and flavorsome dish with all the ingredients interacting beautifully together. 7/10.

The almond tart was “Interesting in the way it looked and the way it tasted also. It tasted more like a dessert because of the white marzipan-tasting layer that enveloped the dish (not my favourite, but very different and unique for sure).” 6/10.

The flambé of Brillat-Savarin with génépi was amazingly tasty as all of the ingredients used here came through somehow…even the Génépi in a very subtle way. We were also so surprised and pleased to see génépi on the menu as we love drinking in the alps at night after a hard day of skiing and had never seen it outside of the little region we normally go skiing in. 9/10.

langoustine addressed five ways

Starter 2: Langoustines, Addressed in Five Ways (£44)

- Roasted in Chickpea Flour / Carrot Syrup and Chorizo
- Tartare / Hitcho Vodka Jelly / Sardinian Lemon Paste
- Spicy Jelly / Cockle Marinière / Macco Artichoke Ice Cream
- Mousseline with Noilly Prat / Basmati Rice / Matcha Green Tea and Almond Paste Butter
- A la Plancha with Epine-Vinette and Lardo di Colonnata / Toast of Agria Potato

The most ‘normal’ of the langoustine quintuplets was arguably the best. It had been roasted beautifully and was still moist and succulent. It was resting on top of a deeply flavoured sauce, of which the strongest element was the chorizo (there were also chunks of the meat scattered around). The sausage made a surprisingly good companion to the langoustine and did not overpower the delicate, sweet flavor as I thought it might have. It was well seasoned, and I liked the addition of the thinly sliced chives on top. 9/10.

The tartare was probably my second-favorite dish and simply showed off the freshness of the crustacea. I don’t remember the vodka jelly, but I do remember the divine lemon paste, which was a perfect foil for the raw langoustine, and the crunchy slivers of cucumber also worked well. 8/10.

Although I did like all five of these mini-creations, my least favorite was probably the third one, which included a cockle marinière, although I did rather enjoy the artichoke ice cream. 6/10.

We were back on track with the little moussiline, which definitely had a subtle hint of vermouth, and went exceedingly well with the Japanese green tea soup, with the rice providing the necessary grip and bite. A mellow and subtle dish which I appreciated. 8/10.

Last up was a little sandwich of langoustine with some clever toast of extremely thin fried potato. The inherent sweetness of the langoustine was here matched with the quite sharp flavor of European barberries and the unctuousness of the little dabs of lard. 8/10.

What I loved about this starter was the sheer variety of ingredients – both in terms of geography (from Italy to Japan) and typicity (alcohols to rarely used berries) – and how they unearthed a variety of pleasing flavor duos (and trios) with the simple luxury of sweet langoustine. It was highly inventive, technically well cooked and thoroughly enjoyable.

main course 1 - pig

Main Course 1: Pig (£32)

- Spanish Pork Fillet Marinated with Juniper
- Black Pudding and Rhubarb Ravioli
- Blackcurrant Sauce Diable / Thinly Sliced Turnips in Dark Beer

Of her trio of pork dishes, Mrs. LF reflected that the Spanish pork fillet had been perfectly cooked, and tasted exquisite. She felt that “It didn’t taste obviously porky, perhaps as it was accompanied with a reddish sauce and also marinated in juniper. Usually I have pork more with a white wine or white sauce. Anyway, the marinade gave an unusual twist to the pork, which I really liked.” 8/10.

She said that the black pudding dish was “Quite rich for my own personal taste, and I therefore appreciated the small portion as I couldn’t have stomached more than that. Having said that, if you are a black pudding lover, it is a perfect dish. The black pudding tasted great and suited its well-textured ravioli wrapping perfectly.” 8/10.

Unfortunately, due to the amount of time that has elapsed since our visit and this review (and our lack of sufficient notes), neither of us can sufficiently recall the last dish (blackcurrant sauce diable and turnips) and therefore can provide no description/rating (shame on us!).

main course 2 - scallops & john dory

Main Course 2: Scallops & John Dory (£49)

- John Dory Fillet Poached in Citrus Butter / Paimpol Coco Bean Velouté
- John Dory Gravlax / Scallop Tartare with Gingerbread
- Oyster Hummus / Liebig Cucumber

I had opted for seafood again in my main course, which this time came on a trio of plates. The principal dish was my favorite. The fish had been skilfully poached and the butter flavor came through nicely. There was diced vegetal crunchiness and the unusual flavor of the white bean velouté  was yet again another example of a rare ingredient (at least for me) providing a new flavor combination that worked well with the core element of the dish, the delicate  and mildly flavored John Dory. 9/10.

I thought the prettiest plate by far was that of the raw fish. It didn’t pack that much of a flavor punch, although there was again evidence of Gagnaire’s hand in the use of three thin slices of crisp gingerbread underneath the fish and scallops, which I thought was a little stroke of genius. 7/10.

I must say that I am not an oyster person, having only had one or two in my life, and was sort of nervous about the last little dish. I went along with the waiter’s suggestion of swallowing it all in one go, and was actually pleasantly surprised. I think this was because the most dominant flavor by far was that of hummus. It was the familiar rich chickpea and a hint of cucumber that I could taste, and it was the slimy texture of the chewy oyster I could feel, so I managed to get through without too much pain. I would certainly like to learn to appreciate oysters, but as of now I am a total novice and just don’t get the fascination. 6/10.

dessert: saffron nonette

Dessert: Nonette

- Saffron nonette with citrus and limoncello marmalade
- Traditional crème caramel
- Confit grapefruit melon and watermelon

We were quite torn between a few of the dessert on the menu, but as we were feeling quite full by this point, we opted to split one of the lighter-sounding sweets. The nonette cake itself was the main component of the dessert. Although we were informed it was a traditional dessert from the Alsace region in France, it certainly did have its Middle Eastern influences with the main flavor elements being orange and saffron. The pain d’épice based cake was dense, sticky and packed with that sharp and sweet flavor of orange marmalade (here, more sweet than sharp), along with a subtle hint of saffron which was well infused throughout. It was okay, but didn’t knock our socks off. My favorite part of the dessert was actually the crème caramel, which was excellent. It had the perfect consistency and very good depth of flavor. The citrus hit of the last pot was very refreshing and nice way to finish our last course. Overall, this was probably the weakest part of the meal, although we did shy away from some of the more ambitious sounding desserts and, given the renown of Gagnaire’s – and his kitchen’s – pastry skills (i.e. they make the good pastries at Fortnum & Mason), I am sure his Grand Dessert (at £27!) or his Gâteau au Chocolat (£10) would have been mind-blowing. But our bellies were already blown and we just couldn’t stomach it. 6/10 for our little trio.

petit fours

Petit Fours

- Dark chocolate with lemon syrup
- Blackcurrant and marzipan
- Turkish Delight with ginger

Saying that, there’s always room for (some more) dessert :). The little petit fours were all very nice and were given to us even though we didn’t order tea or coffee. The little chocolate discs and the dark chocolate with lemon syrup filling stand out as the best of the bunch in my memory.

No ordinary blue loo

blue loos

Black and blue loo for you

I finally had my chance to nip off to the bathrooms, and was eager to see what I might find inside (okay, that didn’t sound quite right). But given the insaneness of the sketch’s other toilets, I didn’t know what to expect. These were much more ‘normal’, except for the fact that they were black and neon blue, and that pretty much all surfaces were reflective. It was sufficiently cool, though, and I didn’t feel let down. The only slightly odd thing was that there was a very nice Japanese woman whose only job seemed to be keeping watch on the loos and escorting customers up and down the stairs from the restaurant to the WCs and back again. She also had to wear a slightly odd, and probably fairly demeaning, costume which was essentially a glorified maid’s outfit. But hey, I guess that is just sketch.

No ordinary sommelier

I didn’t discuss the wines earlier as I thought they deserved a special mention. Helping us throughout the evening with our wine selections was the extremely helpful, professional and generous Baptiste, who we later learned was actually Assistant Manager and not the sommelier after all. He hails from the Loire region in France and was thoroughly knowledgeable (and slightly partial :)) to the wines of this region, and proved to be the perfect sommelier throughout the evening. The wine list was very interesting but, as I was the only one drinking, I was limited to glasses or half bottles.

He started me off with a 2007 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie (Guy Brossard) to accompany the first course, which worked sufficiently well due to the mix of sweet melon and bracing stringency.

He could tell I was really passionate about wine and when I saw that they had a half bottle of Raveneau Chablis on hand, my arm didn’t need too much twisting. It was the 2006 Chablis 1er Cru, Vaillons (Raveneau) and I can say without hesitation that it was one of the best wines I’ve had. It was a classic Chablis through and through. Its nose was slightly citrusy and floral; it was intense in flavor, with lots of green fruit and extremely subtle use of oak; and finished with a powerful, extremely long and dry finish. It was such a treat with my main course of scallops and John Dory.

To finish, Baptiste suggested I go for a 2004 Saumur, Brèze, Le Clos (Guiberteau) – a wine he knows well – and I wasn’t disappointed here either, as it abounded with fresh green apples, citrus and pears, complementing the dessert well.

But besides the amazing Ravenuau and the other well chosen wines, Baptiste was extremely observant and very eager to make sure I was happy and that my curiosity was being satisfied. At one point, he saw me staring at another table’s wine, which happened to be a 2005 Meursault, Les Luchets (Guy Roulot). He asked me why I was looking so intently at it as he had poured it, and I confessed that I was really into white Burgundy at the moment. I couldn’t believe it when he went and fetched some more of the very same wine and poured me a little tasting portion of it. It was a truly spectacular wine and I was overjoyed to try it.

But it didn’t end there. He also brought over small tasting portions of two other wines he thought I would be interested to try, without me asking and without hesitation. The other two, a 2005 Montlouis Sec, Rémus, Domaine de La Taille aux Loups (Jacky Blot) and a 2005 Coteaux du Layon, Beaulieu (Pierre Bise), were also both excellent and he knew one of the producers personally, so was able to add a lot of color to his descriptions of the wines and their makers.

This personal touch and obvious desire for the customer to walk away happy and feeling well looked after is one of the things I still remember about the meal over a month later, and one of the reasons I would want to return. This general spirit was present across all of the front of house staff, who I must say were mostly French, and made the evening a thoroughly pleasurable affair, along with the beautifully presented, appetizing, inventive and delicious food.

No ordinary damage

le bill

Le Bill

Once our evening had drawn to its close, Le Bill was presented to us within the casing of an old book which had been hollowed out inside – I suppose a little reference to the ‘Library’. It was definitely one of the more expensive dinners I’ve had, although given the fact that Mrs. LF and I felt we had been treated like minor royalty, I didn’t mind one bit paying up for this privilege.

Extraordinary enough to visit?

As you can no doubt tell, we had a delightful evening at sketch from start to finish. It is a unique venue which really pushes the boundaries in terms of design (see below for the parting shot to this review if you don’t believe me). The service and attention paid to us at every stage, from greeting to goodbyes, was exemplary and we were truly made to feel special throughout our time there, even though we were just another table of two. Chef Gagnaire’s food was inventive, creative, fun, explorative and, most important, it all worked. The kitchen was also technically proficient and all of the dishes were well seasoned (not over or under), and this on a night when the head honcho was not present. The wine list is formidable, and I have never been so well looked after by a sommelier that wasn’t even the ‘proper’ sommelier, with my desires being anticipated and more than met. Lastly, I really liked the fact that when you order à la carte, you essentially get a tasting menu of sorts anyway as there are canapés, amuse bouches and petit fours thrown in, plus the fact that each dish – whether a starter or a main course – is made up of three to five elements. This eliminates the niggling feeling that you might be ‘missing out’ on something if you don’t order the tasting menu.

doggy style

As we made our way back to the ordinary world that lay outside, sketch gave us its parting shot...and I give you mine

This is a place for special occasions, when you really feel like celebrating and being treated like a king (or queen). While it will certainly put a dent in most peoples’ bank accounts, on this occasion I was quite happy to pay for it. And I would certainly return…although next time I may opt for the Gourmet Rapide Lunch as it seems to represent good value by comparison to the dinner prices.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 8/10

Wine List: 9/10

Wine Selected: 9/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined once at sketch Lecture Room & Library for dinner.*

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