Pierre Koffmann – Restaurant on the Roof
Selfridges & Co
400 Oxford Street
London W1A 1AB
Reservations: 020 7318 7778 or firstname.lastname@example.org (there were a few lunch tables still left as of Sunday afternoon)
3-course menu at £75/person
I heard it through the @vines
When I first learned about what is hopefully the inaugural London Restaurant Festival a few months ago, one of the events that I was most interested in was the pop-up restaurant that chef Pierre Koffmann would be opening on the roof of Selfridges. I have ‘only’ lived in London for ten years and never had the chance to eat at his now legendary restaurant Tante Claire, which held 3 Michelin stars and used to be pretty much the place to eat in the capital back in the day. Coincidentally, the same space is now home to Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant, which is one of only three restaurants in the UK to maintain the coveted astral trifecta from the chubby dude who dresses in white tires. Besides Tante Claire, Koffmann is famous for having tutored so many of the people who have today emerged as celebrated and/or celebrity chefs in the UK (including Gordon).
So I was going to try my damndest to get a taste of his food. But given that the restaurant was originally only going to be open for a matter of days (now, given such strong demand, it seems it will stay open as long as he wants it to), I figured all the tables would be taken up by a mix of restaurant critics, his friends, various a-to-z-dash celebrities and London’s great and good. Not moi.
But there was a saving grace. My relatively new ‘friend’ on twitter, one @richardvines (chief food critic for Bloomberg), tweeted the reservation line and email address before it was announced to the general public, and I somehow snagged a table for what I then thought would be the only Sunday lunch slot in existence, which was when I believed another chef alumni whose food I’ve been wanting to taste would be joining the big man.
For once, Laissez got lucky.
The name is Bond
I tried to avoid and ignore the various reports emanating from the social media world after the opening, but was too weak in the end. Most were full of praise, so my excitement was further piqued.
Mrs. LF and I made our way to Selfridges on a gray Sunday afternoon and I kind of guessed we’d have to get up there via the elevator. And this was partly true.
What I didn’t realize was that there would be a separate elevator reserved exclusively for the few and the privileged who had managed to secure a table at this exclusive roof-top restaurant, and that this lift would be manned by a six-foot-something attractive blonde woman. She checked out my credentials, confirmed everything was in place, and we were on our way up in the world.
I didn’t know if there would be any sharks with lasers up there, but at this point I definitely felt like James Bond and not much was going to surprise me.
Quite a place you’ve got up here
The elevator intrigue was only the beginning. When we got out of the lift, we walked into a contemporary white doily of a room, which led to a rather long white corridor, which led to little lobby of sorts (replete with cloakroom and funky modern art), which led to a makeshift bar, which led to what is probably the coolest dining space I’ve seen in a long time, where our table was ready and waiting for us. A brief pictorial tour can be found below. (Feel free to click on any images below for full resolution images).
Yes, I would say this was the coolest looking restaurant I’d been to in a long while, although my recent visit to Sketch’s Lecture Room & Library (stay posted for more on that) was also jostling for that position. Whoever designed this space had a little stroke of genius as it was very playful and avant-garde yet sufficiently reined in to avoid being over the top. I loved the cool gray-blues, the clean whites and the straw colored floor covering. Even the black chairs with tall backs were different and tied in nicely with the top hat motif. It was all very Magritte. Bravo.
From mystique to rustique
Having declined the offer of a cocktail or a glass of champagne – too much wine tasting as of late – we were presented with the menu. This is when the next little shock came. 3 courses for £75. No à l carte pricing. Now don’t get me wrong, I was prepared to pay for this experience, but it was a bit more than I had bargained for, and I sort of hoped details like this would have been more forthcoming ahead of time.
After hearing about the specials of the day on offer courtesy guest chef Eric Chavot (of Capital fame) – a raw scallop ceviche starter and a main course of braised beef cheeks – we got gave the very polite yet not so confident waitress our orders…and waited.
In the meantime, we were offered bread. The white country baguette was superb, and was definitely some of the best bread I’ve had in a restaurant as of late (also excellent was the sourdough at Launceton Place – more to come on that too). It had one of those crusts that has been cooked through so well, it could do serious damage to your gums. The crust had a very satisfying almost burnt flavor and the middle was full of huge air pockets and possessed exactly the right amount of chew. Very satisfying, though the butter didn’t seem that special. 9/10.
Shortly thereafter, an amuse bouche of duck rillette arrived. Traditionally made from pork, I had never tasted a rillette of duck, and wasn’t disappointed. It had a lovely soft texture, an indication that it had been cooked in lots of fat, and was well salted. A nice little rich mouthful or two that was quite rustic in appearance. 6/10.
Mrs. LF wasn’t feeling particularly well and didn’t want anything too heavy, so opted for the pressed leeks. As you can see, it was a beautifully presented and simple dish, with only about four elements to it. This of course meant that the ingredients themselves had to do the talking, and according to Mrs. LF most of them had plenty to say. The leek terrine itself didn’t have that unpleasant taste that leeks can often have and was exquisitely prepared, with a very pleasant texture. The vinaigrette was also excellent and , although the truffles weren’t that pungent and didn’t come through very strongly, it had the right amount of acidity and she liked it so much that she mopped it all up with a piece of that glorious bread. The langoustines were perfectly cooked and very sweet, nicely complementing the sharpness of the vinaigrette and the freshness of the leeks. 7/10.
My cocktail starter was a throwback to the classic (some would say old fashioned) presentation of prawn cocktails. It looked the part though, with the reds and pinks of the langoustine against the green of the avocado giving it a very fresh appearance. It had a very refreshing taste too, with the sweetness of the lobster being well offset by the sharpness the diced cubes of apple, the vinaigrette and the little translucent gelatine squares (which were so mild, you could barely taste them when isolated from the rest of the components). The little smear of smooth avocado versus the crispness of the apples and the thin slices of iceberg-looking lettuce also provided a good array of textures. I would like to emphasise that the high quality of the lobster itself. All in all, it was a good dish, but there was no ‘wow’ factor for me. 7/10.
I had ordered a glass of the 2007 Moreau Chablis 1er Cru (£11.50 per 175ml glass), to go with my starter, but as it was brought out very early on in the meal, there was only a bit of it left by the time the starter arrived – greedy old me. As with many Chablis, its nose was fairly discreet, but there was a hint of something floral and a certain undercurrent of sulphur. In the mouth it was actually fruitier than I had expected and was quite a full and round wine. It was very intense and had a small pang of saltiness. The little bit of it that I had left perfectly complemented the sweet langoustine and sharp citrus flavors in the dish. 7/10.
This was another rich and rustic dish which reminded Mrs. LF of dishes her grandmother used to make in the countryside of Normandy. It didn’t quite live up to that memory, though. I only had a bit of it, but agreed with her general sentiment. While the meat itself was very soft on the inside, there were thin tendrils of drier meat on the outside which had an odd, unpleasant and intense flavor which was almost gamey. I don’t know if something technically went wrong with the dish or not, but I am guessing that taste should not have been present. The side of mash was excellent, and you can read more about the potatoes below as they also made an appearance in my main course. 6/10.
Even though many of the other dishes on the menu sounded more appetizing to me at the time, I don’t think I could have forgiven myself if I didn’t try what was probably the most famous of Koffmann’s signature dishes, so I went for it. As I’d never seen an image of the dish, it certainly looked unique to me; not necessarily that appetizing, but certainly unique. The skin directly above the pig’s toes neatly wrapped around the filling to make a perfect cylindrical casing which definitely appeared like it would pack a flavor punch.
However, with all the build-up and hype surrounding this dish, I was pretty disappointed. Maybe I am just a gastronomic neophyte, but it just didn’t do much for me. The skin itself was quite soft and rubbery and had distant echoes of a distinct and not so agreeable piggy flavor which thankfully stayed in the background and didn’t perform an all-out assault my taste buds. If you want to get really picky, I noticed that some of the hairs still remained on one part of the skin, indicating that it had probably not been singed perfectly.
As for the innards, they looked like a soft white mash of something like strangely textured potatoes. Of course, it was really a bunch of sweetbreads shoved inside the bottom of this poor piglet’s foot. It tasted very rich, but for me it lacked a distinct flavor. It was sort of like eating a huge amount of perfectly soft and fluffy scrambled eggs that were too succulent for their own good. I kept eating it mostly because I felt obliged to finish this chef’s heralded masterpiece, and I really should have stopped before finishing, because although I didn’t realize it then, my stomach would still be trying to digest it at 2am that same night.
I also didn’t think the textures of the dish were particularly well balanced: there was the sort of stretchy skin, the scrambled egginess of the sweetbreads and occasionally the slight chew of a morel (which were very nice by the way). As Mrs. LF succinctly explained how I felt to me (even though she hadn’t tasted it), “It just wasn’t the kind of dish that you took one bite of and loved so much that you dove back in as soon as you could.”
Strangely enough, the high point of the whole plate for me was the mashed potatoes, which were faultless. They were near on as good as those served by Mr. Robuchon, having that soft, creamy texture which you know only comes through huge amounts of butter and cream. And besides having a perfect texture, they were also exceedingly well seasoned. I kept combining each bite of organs and skin with a good dollop of potato to make it more palatable for me. I should also say that the underlying sauce that was scattered about the plate was also extremely good.
So, while I loved the idea of it, it just wasn’t for me in the end. I am very reticent to rate this dish, as for me the taste was simply not agreeable and if I was going on taste alone it would get a very low score. However, given the subjective nature of the exercise and the trust and respect I have for the chef, I think a 6/10 is probably about right.
My wine accompaniment for this course was a glass of the 2002 Phileo Shiraz (South Africa) at £9 per 175ml glass, which was excellent. It was bursting with red fruit flavor – very fruit-forward for a Shiraz, even from South Africa – and was luscious. I remember soft tannins, some sweet oak, a little bit of coffee (or leather…well, something sour) and a little burst of acidity. It was rich enough to handle the trotter, and that’s saying something! 8/10.
Her highness wasn’t all that pleased with her dessert. She had been expecting a traditional Pain Perdue with the ‘sweetness’ of pineapple that was advertised in the menu’s description. While the texture of the bread was very appealing – soft yet firm and with a tiny bit of crunch left in the crust – everything just seemed drowned out by the alcohol that was ever-present in the syrupy sauce. Had it been a movie, the pineapple flavor would barely have got a mention in the credits (maybe something like ‘Key Grip’). On the other hand, the coconut ice cream was fabulous. So, another mixed bag. 5/10.
I am happy to say my apple pie was really good. The apples were very sweet and had the wonderful texture of being just cooked on the outside and still soft on the inside. The caramelized goo was good too. It had a strong burnt toffee flavor to it, which may have been too overpowering for many, but I loved when it was combined with a little bit of crème fraîche (provided in a little bowl on the side). The three thin constructs of what I believe were filo pastry were light and crispy and complemented the more gooey elements very well. It was one of the better apple pies I’ve had in a long time, although Mrs. LF didn’t rate it as much as I did (but hey, she’s French). 9/10.
After a bit of consultation with the sommelier (who was pleasant and seemed knowledgeable), I arrived back at my initial and quite unimaginative thought of pairing the apple pie with a Sauternes. But I was glad I did in the end, because the 2005 Carmes de Rieussec (at £12 per 125ml glass) was really good. It is the second wine of Château Rieussec and has been owned by Lafite for a long time. It had the classic characteristics of a good Sauternes: lots of sweet orange blossom on the nose, along with notes of honey. It had a very syrupy texture and tasted of the honey and orange it smelled like, plus some tropical fruit thrown in for good measure. It had just enough sharpness, quite a spicy and peppery finish, and a lot of length too. It was a real treat with that delectable apple pie. 8/10.
I ordered a double espresso as a long walk alone was not going to keep me alert for the rest of the afternoon. It was served by itself, and we were disappointed that for the prices being charged there were no petit fours. But a minute later, one of the waiters came back to our table with a nice little assortment of sweet nibbles. I didn’t care much for the mini financier (back left); the thin, crisp biscuit of seeds was good but not memorable; the miniscule lemon tart was perfect; the chocolate had a nice burnt caramel center; the nougat had a very pleasant and strong pistachio flavor; and the truffles (which in England are not just for Christmas, unlike in France) were bloody excellent. The coffee itself was Musetti and was perfectly fine.
The times they have a’changed
I think my overall feelings have been clearly communicated through the descriptions of the design of the space (amazing) and the food (somewhat old fashioned and rustic yet with a certain noble elegance – but hit and miss for me). As for the staff, we had a nice chat with one of them at the close of the meal who said that most people there were from Selfridge’s events team, or other parts of the store. Overall, I didn’t mind that the service wasn’t perfect, as there was a fairly laid back attitude up there and it just all felt very luxurious and novel.
Another thing that Mrs. LF and I discussed was that, at the time that Koffmann and his signature dishes came on the London dining scene, they must have been unique, exciting and had a certain flair not often seen at his contemporaries’ establishments. But food, and fine dining in particular, has moved on a lot in the last 15-20 years in many ways. With so much competition at the higher end of the restaurant world, so many new technological innovations, and so many young chefs trying to make their mark and be ‘unique’, I guess his food just seems a bit dated. I wouldn’t have minded had the food been like what Mrs. LF described – where, after one bite, I would be right back in there scoffing up the rest of it because it was so delicious – but for me it mostly wasn’t. Granted, it was one meal, but in a restaurant that by its definition is ephemeral in nature, this was the only chance it (and I) had.
I was initially surprised by the price of the meal, but I guess it was fair given the novelty of the whole affair. I mean, it is a unique experience (and possibly the last opportunity) to be able to taste Koffmann’s food, and given the expenses that went into creating the restaurant – for example, the kitchen was lifted by a crane from the sidewalk onto the roof, and I’m sure the designers didn’t come cheap – I suppose it’s justified. I was glad to have been part of it, and overall we had a very pleasant afternoon up there in the sky.
Wine List: 7/10
Wine Selected: 8/10
For more about my rating scale, click here.
PS – As a side note, Selfridge’s should do some serious thinking about what they do with this great space next. Apparently, in the thirties the wealthy used to play croquet and god knows what else up there, and given the amazing transformation they’ve given the rooftop for this event, I am sure they can dream up some more tempting and tantalizing venues.