Menu Exceptionnel (8-course tasting menu) at £95/person and wine pairing at £55/person
The Build Up
I had wanted to dine at Le Gavroche for a long time. After all, it is historically one of the most haloed institutions of high cuisine in London, and probably the UK. Before it was set up in 1967 by the now legendary Roux brothers (Michel and Albert), it was apparently impossible to find foie gras or poulet de bresse in the UK. They brought grand French dining to the shores of the UK. The restaurant has held 2 Michelin stars since 1993, and before that it had 3 Michelin stars beginning from 1982. The kitchen counts such graduates as Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. After being properly introduced to Michel Roux Jr., the current Chef Patron, through the BBC’s program Masterchef: The Professionals, I really liked him and respected his precise palette, seeming mastery of the classics, and technical knowledge in the kitchen. So, in summary, you could say I was more than eagerly awaiting our opportunity to dine at this much celebrated landmark of Franco-Anglo gastronomy.
The Front of House, the Last of Priorities?
We were a tad bit ahead of schedule for our rather early 6.30pm reservation (the only time I could secure on a Saturday night). Upon entering the rather subdued exterior – it sort of looks like the entrance to a posh block of apartments, except for the little Relais & Châteaux brass plaque you might notice on your left as you walk in – we were very pleasantly and efficiently greeted by the smiling the Maître d’, Emmanuel Landré. After finding our name in their book, we were led through the little lounge/bar on the ground floor (we were not offered an aperitif, which I had been informed was the norm), and then down the stairs to the main dining room.
After being seated, we had a chance to look around and soak up the atmosphere without being accused of staring at anyone (a particular strength of the missus, but hey, she is French) as there were only a few tables seated at this point. I won’t spend too much time on the decor, but suffice to say it is a very traditional dining space that is well laid out. Many of the tables for 2 have the seats positioned at 5 and 7 o’clock (if you imagine the round tables to be a clock) which makes for good intimacy and privacy. Once the room began to fill up, there was some background noise, but it was barely noticeable and was very easy to hear each other in normal voices. There are also nice little odd touches abounding, such as a metal sculpture of a different animal on each table, decorative plates with a colourful illustration containing Michel’s face, and the restaurant’s own silverware which has ‘Le Gavroche’ (the little boy from Les Misérables) carved into the bottom of the knife and fork. So far so good, then.
After my wife visited the facilities, some canapés were placed in front of us. We didn’t quite understand what they were, as it was explained very quickly and softly to us. One of them was a little rectangular brown biscuit that we believe was topped with a squeeze of thick green Roquefort paste with some type of orange roe on top of it. It was excellent with a perfect balance of richness from the cheese being offset by the tart and tangy roe. The other canapé was a fried disc with a center cavity that oozed some type of gooey pork ragout. The filling didn’t have that much flavour or nuance but the outer crust had been fried properly and was light and crisp.
After finishing the canapés we meandered through the menu (and I through the very impressive wine list), trying to decide what to have. I had always wanted to try the 8-course tasting menu here (they call it the ‘Menu Exceptionnel’) as I figured this is one of the places it’s probably worth having the tasting menu: you get to try 8 different courses that the chef has selected without having to share any of it with the rest of the table! You see, in my family, we have the policy of tasting each other’s dishes (all of them) and this can sometimes be frustrating when something is so good you want to have it all to yourself. I could tell my wife was not leaning toward the tasting menu, but in the end I think she decided to appease me and we went for it, even though it had some dishes which we definitely wouldn’t have ordered off of the standard appetizer/main course menu. I also went for the full wine pairing (how could I resist?), while my counterpart decided to take the evening by the glass. As a side note, I did like the novelty of the woman’s menu not having prices on it, and for the sake of fair disclosure, the tasting menu was £95 each, and the wine pairing was a further £55/person.
Well this, my friends, is where things unfortunately took a definite turn for the worse. While we were studying the menus, the head waiter – or at least the guy who appeared to be in charge of the floor – came to our table and rather abruptly asked us what we would like to order. No “good evening, how are you, my name is so-and-so and I will be your waiter”, not even a “hello”. In most restaurants, this would be unpleasant but would pass quickly from one’s mind, but this came from the head waiter of a 2-star Michelin restaurant that is built upon a reputation of service excellence. We told him that we were still trying to decide and he quickly disappeared. He returned and then took our orders without any interaction whatsoever. We found the whole experience a bit cold and mechanical, and hoped that the food would make up for what had been a rather frosty reception.
Prior to the first course coming out, the sommelier came to serve the first accompanying wine and to help Mrs. LF select a glass of white. She was very young and pleasant, but was also quite timid and seemed to lack a little bit in confidence, which sometimes made it difficult to understand what she was saying. Although the woman was perfectly nice and seemed knowledgeably, in this type of establishment you really expect and want someone who is more assertive and can help guide you to select something that he or she knows will be good with the food and is confident you will enjoy. Anyway, she poured my 2005 Pouilly Fuissé “Aux Chailloux” from Domaine Jean Pierre Sève, which smelled amazing – lots of oak and rich complexity going on in the nose. And that placated me for the time being.
Before going onto the food, and there was a lot of it :), I would like to round off my comments on the service for the night, which was extremely disappointing and put a real damper on the entire evening.
It all has to do with the same head waiter mentioned above. Throughout the meal, he said nothing to us aside from mumble what we were about to eat for the courses he served us (strangely, different waiters served different courses), which was a completely pointless exercise as we had the full menu and wine pairing staring us right in the face as it had been propped up like a standing open book on the opposite side of the table! When we asked him a little later on what had been in that deep fried canapé (we were really curious), all he could offer was one word: “pork”, and we had to make him repeat himself as we couldn’t even understand this one word. How can the head waiter at such a restaurant say “pork”, full stop? It was a liquid filling, so he could have said what type of pork it was, where it came from, what else the filling consisted of, etc. But no. He had better things to do, I guess. As the evening unravelled, we found that he was wholly unable to communicate with us (due to his habit of eating his words), was cold, utterly lacking any passion, un-interactive (a new word?), and seemed completely disinterested in what he was doing (he looked down at his watch more than once throughout the evening). In the end, we decided either he had become so fed up with his current role that he just didn’t give two hoots anymore, or that he just doesn’t know how to or want to communicate with his customers. It was strange to note that with the rest of the staff, he seemed to be quite smiley and was cracking a number of inside jokes with them behind the scenes.
But the worst part of the whole evening had to be the cheese course. We got very excited by the cheese cart, which had been rolled out to a table next to ours near the end of our meal. It looked truly divine and was the largest assortment I have seen at a restaurant in London for sure. When it was our turn, Prince Charming rolled the table closer to us. He stood there, said nothing and just waited for us to make our selection (luckily each cheese had a white label sticking out of it). We didn’t know how many we could choose, and I certainly didn’t know what more than half of them were. He made us feel as if we were stupid and made no offer to help us choose or explain what any of the cheeses were. He just kept standing there. He also made us feel impatient, as if we were wasting his time by not knowing which ones to choose (as if he were thinking, “oh, I can’t deal with these uneducated diners”) – it all came across as condescending and rude.
Well, now that’s out of my system, I expect you may actually be interested in hearing something about the food…
But before that (haha! – you thought you had finally gotten there, but no…), I would like to make a general comment on the wine that accompanied the ‘Menu Exceptionnel’. The pairing was truly phenomenal. The quality of each individual wine was excellent in its own right, and the combinations vacillated from being traditional to more forward-thinking, which challenged and educated the palette and greatly enhanced to overall experience. There was not a wrong step taken in this area. So, whoever is responsible for this should take real pride because each one was a perfect complement to its respective dish and added a much appreciated dimension to the meal.
For those of you that are still with me, some comments on the food:
- Course 1: Rare Seared Salmon with Paprika, Asparagus and Truffle Dressing. I am not the greatest fan of salmon in the world. I think this stems from the fact that where I grew up we had some of the best salmon in the world and I probably ate too much of it while I was young and eventually got sick of it. The seared salmon itself was very nice, but for me didn’t offer anything extra, just a nice peace of salmon that had been seared well. The asparagus was fresh and sweet and the truffle dressing certainly complemented the asparagus but I’m not sure how well it accentuated or brought out the flavour of the salmon. Over all a decent dish but nothing wowed me. 6/10. The accompanying Pouilly Fuissé which I mentioned above was stellar and I thoroughly enjoyed it with the salmon – the perfect partner. 9/10.
- Course 2: Cheese Soufflé Cooked on Double Cream. This was the showstopper of the evening. Perfection on a plate. The delicate lightness of the soufflé was perfectly balanced by the rich double-cream sauce and the addition of a layer of slightly browned cheddar cheese on top added a tangy punch to the dish which made it stand out. Without hesitation, 10/10. They served a vintage champagne with the soufflé which I found to be an interesting choice. It was a 1998 Champagne Martel Cuvée Victoire “Fût de Chêne”, and it was one of the nicest champagnes I have had. It had the amazing aroma of toffee on the nose, and its depth and complexity of flavour (it was not a typically light and highly fizzy champagne) worked wonders with the richness of the cheese and cream. 10/10.
- Course 3: Scallop Baked in the Shell, Flavoured with Ginger. This dish unfortunately didn’t stack up. The scallops were very bland, and appeared not to have been seasoned. The sauce was certainly not very gingery, and even if it was supposed to be a subtle ginger flavor, it didn’t achieve that. Strangely enough, the best part of the dish came from the shell. Not the shell itself (!), but the shell had been sealed by placing a thin layer of pastry (pate feuilletée) around the crack of the shell, and this was baked beautifully and tasted just like a good pastry. We gorged ourselves on that. 5/10. The matching wine was a 2005 Vondeling Babiana Noctiflora (that’s a mouthful, eh?) from Paarl, South Africa. It was a mix of Chenin Blanc (the dominant grape), Viognier and Chardonnay, and was definitely more Chenin than anything else. It was a nice accompaniment to the scallops as it worked with the fishy flavor and cut through the cream. Successful but nothing amazing. 7/10.
- Course 4: Seared Sea Bass on a Soft Polenta, Roasted Red Pepper Coulis, Olive and Garlic Croutons. This was a well prepared and nicely presented plate of food. The sea bass was cooked perfectly and was well seasoned, and the ‘croutons’ were actually two thin rectangular crispy sticks of bread with sort of a tapenade of olives with some garlic – they were great. The main thing that let the dish down was the fact that the polenta was just too salty (especially when it combined with the olive-covered croutons), and therefore the dish left a very salty taste in the mouth. 6/10. The wine for this course was the 2007 Domaine Gavoty Rosé “Cuvée Clarendon” (Provence). It was a fresh and tart rosé which went well with this dish, which had a strong Provencale influence to it. 8/10.
- Course 5: Hot Duck Foie Gras and Crispy Duck Pancake Flavored with Cinnamon. This was a very Chinese-inspired dish, which seemed at odds with the whole ethos of classical French cuisine. The foie gras was good and was seared properly, but the accompanying duck ‘pancake’ was really more of Cantonese style duck recipe with a deep friend pancake housing the shredded duck. I didn’t mind it too much, although it was overly salty (two courses in a row!), and didn’t particularly well complement the soft foie gras. My wife felt that it really didn’t work and that the restaurant was compromising its classical heritage for the sake of simply doing something new. All things considered, I would give it 6/10. Luckily, the accompanying Domaine de la Tour Vielle, Banyuls Reserva was a truly excellent wine. Tons of sweet raisin, a very clear and precise sweetness with a little acidity to push back on it. The texture of the wine in the mouth was like cold water drunk directly from a spring. It really went well with the sweetness and saltiness of the duck and the richness of the foie gras. 10/10.
- Course 6: Roasted Rack of Lamb, Courgette Flower Fritter and Tarragon Scented Jus. This course didn’t do much for me. The lamb was cooked well, just pink in the middle, but pretty blandly seasoned. The accompanying green broad beans were flavourful, as was the jus, and the fritter was just as it should have been. But with the blandness of the lamb and the lack of any other dominant flavours, it just lacked a wow factor. 6/10. With the lamb came a 2000 Château du Paradis, Grand Cru (St. Emilion). I do not yet have enough understanding or appreciation of fine Bordeaux’s at this stage in my wine life, and unfortunately I didn’t really like this line too much, and didn’t feel it added much to the lamb. It seemed still too young to drink, very tight and withdrawn. Maybe this is because I have more experience with new world wines, which tend to be more open and immediately satisfying, but to me it felt like the wine was saying, “you don’t deserve to understand me yet!” So I will take the wine’s advice and not offer a numerical rating :).
- Course 7: Selection of French and British Farmhouse Cheeses. You can refer to the earlier part of this review for more about the way the cheese course was served (very badly!), but the cheese on offer was amazing in terms of its variety. The ones we choose were good, some French and some British. The accompanying wine was a 2005 Château Cabezac “Belvèze” (Minervois) from the Languedoc region, which had a lot of blackberry on the nose, and was very full, round and fat in the mouth. 7/10.
- Course 8: Shortbread Biscuits with Strawberries, Banana and Rum Ice Cream. The dessert was satisfying, but nothing to write home about. The strawberries were sweet and the best part of it was the banana and rum ice cream, which tasted just like you would hope. It was accompanied by a 2004 Vin de Constance (Constantia, South Africa), which is probably the most famous of South African sweet wines. I have had other vintages that I did not think lived up to the hype that this wine has, but the 2004 definitely hit the mark. It was a perfectly balanced golden sweet wine with a real kick of acidity to keep the tropical sweetness in check; it went down a treat with the biscuit and strawberries. 10/10.
Unfortunately, Le Gavroche did not live up to the high expectations I had for the restaurant. The service for a restaurant of this calibre was simply unacceptable and should be rectified swiftly. That left the food a lot of work to do, and it generally failed to wow us with the exception of a few specific elements (as noted above, the Soufflé Suissesse was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while). The wine pairing, however, was a triumph and tremendously enhanced the enjoyment of the evening. Overall, I do not think that the dinner offered value for money. I have had better tasting menus for much less than £95/person at other fine restaurants both within the UK and abroad, and it seems that Le Gavroche’s customers are paying a steep premium for the restaurant’s reputation. I sincerely hope that our experience was an isolated one – maybe the kitchen had an off-night – and that they can make Le Gavroche into what it surely must have been in the past: a place where everything is just right. But there is a lot of work to based on what we experienced.
Wine List: 8/10
Wine Selected: 9/10
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only dined at Le Gavroche once*