So here I am in The Connaught, sitting down to dinner with an Independent-reading couple I have never met before. We're saying our hellos, and ...
"Would madame like an aperitif?"
So, I do hope they haven't been waiting too long ...
"'Ere we 'ave some 'am from ze famous black pig, some creespy bread filled with tomato concasse, and some gougères à la brebis."
"Right, anyway, thanks so much for bidding for this dinner in our annual charity auction ..."
"Bread for madame? Sundried tomato or bacon and chestnut? ..."
"It really does make a huge ..."
"Your champagne, madame."
Blimey. Forget any worries about making conversation with two strangers for an entire evening; at this rate we'll be struggling to have any kind of meaningful exchange at all. At Hélène Darroze's new restaurant at The Connaught, the service isn't just there to, well, serve. It appears to be the whole point of the evening. Why bother even to try to talk when so many gorgeous young men and women are on hand to bombard you with minutely detailed information about the menu in impenetrable Cointreau-ad accents? By the time we are ready to order, the head waiter has visited our table so many times I am beginning to consider myself formally engaged to him.
The Connaught's restaurant used to be famous for being very French. Then Gordon Ramsay took it over and, with Angela Hartnett at the helm, it controversially went Italian. Now, with the arrival from Paris of the rising star Hélène Darroze, it's French again. And boy, are they keen to let you know it. From the interior designer to the chocolates by France's most fashionable patissier, everything seems to have been imported from Paris. The menu is written in a hybrid of English and French that renders Dover sole as la Sole de Douvres, while other offerings, such as la ventrèche de thon de la criée de Fontarabi, need their own glossary.
My guests, Karen and Richard Walker, had flown from their home in Guernsey for this dinner, although living just 30 miles from the Normandy coast, it might have made more sense to head in the other direction for this level of cultural immersion. They were both aware of the buzz surrounding the arrival of Darroze in London. A disciple of Alain Ducasse, she was one of the first female chefs in France to win two Michelin stars, though she isn't without her critics. Me among them; I reviewed her restaurant in Paris soon after her Michelin promotion in 2003 and was disappointed by chaotic service and inconsistent food.
Several of the dishes I tried then reappear on Darroze's Connaught menu, and in the context of one of London's most formal hotel dining rooms, the borrowings from the cuisine of her home region of Landes in south-west France seem even more incongruous than they did on the Left Bank. This is rich food, often prepared with goose fat rather than olive oil, and in the context of a multi-course dinner involving flights of amuse-bouches and other interstitial delicacies, it's all just a bit too much.
By the time we'd truffled through the various unbilled delights, including a delectable foie gras crème brûlée, and a rich polenta-like dish introduced as something "the poor people eat", we were in danger of a crise de foie gras.
I pushed a reluctant Karen into ordering a starter just because the description was so absurd; Les légumes, herbes et fleurs d'été ... grilled like a Spanish "paradilla", gran pista with lardo Colonatta, olive oil and traditional 12-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena. Griddled vegetables, in other words, and not particularly interesting ones. "This is one of the most boring starters I've had in ages," said Karen, showing all the fearless independence we've come to expect from this newspaper's readers.
That disappointment apart, the rest of the meal had its highlights, but lacked consistency; here were the games with texture and temperature and the obligatory foams you'd expect from an innovative star chef, but other dishes were tethered too firmly to the peasant tradition. A delicately spiced lobster ravioli, ravishing to both eye and palate, seemed to come from a different kitchen than the main course of maize-fed chicken.
Given that Darroze is the second most famous thing to come out of Landes since the poulet, this chicken dish wasn't quite the show-stopper it should have been; the breast simmered in wine with girolles and lardons, the leg roasted, then carved table-side and introduced into the casserole. Portions are notably more hearty than is the Michelin norm; I was unable to do justice to an assiette of pork that featured black pudding and andouillette alongside various roasted, smoked and confited porky bits.
My heart sank as this huge dish was introduced with the words: "What 'élène want you to know is ..." The food may lack a distinctive sense of personality, but Hélène Darroze herself looms large over the evening. Our decision to serve ourselves cheese from the same plate was greeted with a breathy " 'élène will be 'appy". As Karen said, "I'm starting to feel like we're really getting to know her."
I selected the cheapest Burgundy, a £44 Côte de Nuits, from the panic-inducing 44-page list, and the sommelier (so attentive he almost caused me to break up with the head waiter), suggested supplementing this with a couple of glasses of Puligny Montrachet, at £19.50 a pop. Richard's work as an international financial regulator may well have prepared him for this kind of booby trap, but I stumbled in blindly, resulting in a bill nudging £150 a head.
Of course this is a special-occasion kind of place – I can't imagine business diners tolerating this level of interference – but we left feeling that the food, although good, doesn't quite live up to all the worshipful rigmarole that surrounds it. Over-seasoned, over-attentive and over here, was my facile summary. Karen's was more tactful: "It was lovely, but I don't think we'll be coming back soon."
Helene Darroze at The Connaught, Carlos Place, London, W1 (020-3147 7200)
A la carte dinner £75 per head, plus wine and service
"12.5% discretionary service charge. 100% of the service charge and 100% of cash tips are distributed to staff"
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