Nobody does it better

EATING OUT: THE CONNAUGHT; Carlos Place, London W1Y 6AL. Tel: 0171 491 0668. Open daily for lunch from 12.30pm to 2.30pm and for dinner from 6.30pm to 10.45pm. Three-course set lunch pounds 25, four-course set dinner pounds 55. Average a la carte price , pounds 60 per person. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
In my last review I referred, perhaps just a touch sneeringly, to the "gammon-and-pineapple-school of Seventies cooking". Who'd have thought I'd be eating my words, more or less literally, so soon?

Yes, I had gammon and pineapple for lunch last week. And by God it was good. But then I did have it at an establishment in which God would probably choose to lunch - especially if he wanted to impress his friends. I had it at the Connaught in Mayfair.

Actually, I have always liked gammon. And when I saw it was one of the two "regular luncheon dishes" (it's on the menu every Tuesday), I could hardly not order it: when life offers you an opportunity, however slight, to share a little joke with yourself, you have to take it. I didn't know for sure it was going to come with pineapple but the admirably unfashion- conscious menu description, braised gammon California, seemed to be hinting that tropical fruits were likely to be involved.

Since I was having the gammon as a main course, it seemed only natural to start with an avocado and prawn cocktail. You couldn't say the Connaught's version is a pretty dish: it comes moulded into a large ball, served in a battered pewter cup. But you couldn't fault the ingredients: perfectly ripe chunks of buttery avocado, large Atlantic prawns and, an unexpected bonus, some flakes of poached salmon. The dressing was classic: pale pink, and almost certainly made from real mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcester sauce, lemon juice and Tabasco. Who would have it any other way?

My friend Ivan, an accomplished gastronome with a penchant for timeless classics, ordered consomme en gelee "Cole Porter". This was simply a bowl of rich, beefy (probably oxtaily), crystal clear, jellied stock, garnished with a sprinkling of finely minced hard-boiled egg, so it's hard to see how Cole Porter got involved. Perhaps, like Ivan, he just liked it a lot.

Back to that gammon. It arrived in fine style, on a trolley (more properly called a chariot) beneath an enormous silver dome. This monumental piece of silverware was swivelled under the platter on the chariot to reveal a simply enormous leg of gammon, glistening with its coating of caramelised brown sugar and mustard. It was carved before many amazed eyes, in beautifully even slices, by a little man in a black tie who had probably been doing this for several months of Tuesdays, but never with any less care.

California turned out to spell pineapple and peaches. Both had been glazed with sugar that had been caramelised under the salamander. Done like this, the whole sweet and sour potential of the fruit was fulfilled beyond all expectations, and went very nicely with the almost-too-salty and wonderfully flavourful gammon. There was parsley sauce, too. It's hardly exciting, this bland white sauce, flecked sparingly with the finely chopped herb. But that was the whole point of it, and its soft milkiness - a comforting smother to the acid, sugar and salt - actually made the dish.

The little man in black somehow made the offer of seconds sound like one I shouldn't refuse. Seconds, of course, turned out to be firsts all over again. But it was such a treat that I managed. Meanwhile Ivan was slowly working his way through a huge tureen of Irish stew: meltingly tender lamb, on (and) off the bone, in a sauce that was thickened by pureed potatoes, and had a few whole ones bobbing around among the lamb. He thought it almost a car- icature of the dish: "delicious, though I don't suppose you'd ever get one like this in Ireland. More's the pity."

By rights I should have had Black Forest gateau for pud, and had it been on the trolley, I could certainly not have resisted. Instead I chose another enduring classic: creme brulee. I ordered the same pudding the last time I came to the Connaught, almost seven years ago. It hadn't changed a bit. The brulee top was made, as it should be, with caster sugar (not demerera), and the custard was perfect - thick, but still a little loose, and speckled with the seeds of a real vanilla pod. Nestling at the bottom of the dish (the same kind of pewter cup that my prawn cocktail came in) was a clutch of fresh raspberries. I like raspberries with creme brulee, but I prefer them served on the side, so they don't transmit their flavour into the custard. But I'd hardly expect the Connaught to change the habit of several lifetimes just for me. And Ivan wanted nothing changed about his trifle.

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Baring are about to publish a cookbook called The Prawn Cocktail Years. This loving retrospective is sure to be a best seller, and I've no doubt it won't be long before fashionable young chefs, who were barely out of nappies first time around, are all serving jellied tomato ring, chicken Kiev and rum baba, all with a generous side order of ironic smiles. Provided it is done well, I expect to enjoy this timely revival as much as anyone. But it's worth remembering that the Connaught has never stopped serving this kind of food, and, because nobody does it better, has never felt the need for irony.

As Ivan pointed out, what the Connaught has, no modern retro usurper of bygone culinary elegance can ever hope to replicate. The grandeur continues to fade, but at such a geological rate that I dare to hope my grandchildren will still be able to enjoy it, just as it is today (and was yesterday). It pulls off the remarkable feat of being the most quintessentially English and resolutely French of restaurants, both at the same time. The sheer delight of the place lies in the fact that both culinary cultures are preserved strictly in the aspic of the old school: this is a living museum of our culinary history. And just like our other great museums - the V&A, the Natural History Museum, the British Museum - everybody should go there once.

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