Twelve years ago, Gascon super-chef Pierre Koffmann sold his business on Chelsea's Royal Hospital Road to Gordon Ramsay, and moved Tante Claire, then considered to be London's finest restaurant, to a new home in Knightsbridge's Berkeley Hotel. There, it was assumed, a wider clientele would have the chance to experience the fabled, three-Michelin-starred cooking of this hugely influential chef, whose protégés include Tom Aikens, Tom Kitchin and Gordon Ramsay himself.
But things didn't quite work out that way, and the expensive formality of the transplanted Tante Claire never recaptured the spirit of the original. In my 1998 review, I likened it to being asked on a date by a fiftysomething merchant banker – a good thing, but I wasn't quite ready for it yet.
Eventually, the punctilious Koffmann, disaffected by the rigours and rituals required at that level of fine-dining, retired from the London restaurant scene, apart from a little light consultancy work.
Last year he was tempted out of semi-retirement to launch a rapturously received pop-up restaurant in Selfridges. Galvanised by that successful comeback, Koffmann, now 62, has returned full-time to the fray, and to the Berkeley Hotel, with a new restaurant in the space recently vacated by Gordon Ramsay's Boxwood Café.
Like a legendary rock star going back on the road for one last triumphant tour, Koffmann has returned to his roots, while playing all the big hits. His new restaurant, Koffmann's, may be slightly less formal than its predecessors, but there are no unexpected changes of musical direction.
Celebrating the gutsy cuisine of the chef's childhood in south-west France, Koffmann's offers a masterclass in evolved French cooking. This is food designed to be relished, rather than gazed at; the flavours huge, the reductions lip-stickingly intense. Starters include wood pigeon pie, scallops with squid ink and Gascon black pudding with sautéed apples. Mains include braised beef cheeks, calf's liver Lyonnaise, and whole roasted black-leg chicken, stuffed with bread and garlic. A reminder, in three sybaritic courses, of why we fell in love with French food in the first place.
In Koffmann's hands, traditional dishes are meticulously refined. A casserole of meaty snails and girolles on a bed of none-more-creamy mashed potato comes anointed with a herb foam conveying a whispered suggestion of garlic and parsley rather than the usual knock-out punch. Tiny shimmering scallops, poached in beurre blanc and Noilly Prat, are served on the shell they've been cooked in, still carrying traces of its pastry seal.
Roasted rabbit with Dijon mustard, the breast stuffed with an offal-rich forcemeat, is revelatory. But fabulous though all these dishes were, they were only the warm-up act to Koffmann's near-mythical signature dish: pig's trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels, the big hit of his career, widely covered but never bettered.
Koffmann may be condemned to perform it at every service, but clearly he's not just phoning it in. Extraordinary to look at, this gelatinous cornucopia, glazed to the sheen of burnished copper, yields maddeningly delicious mouthfuls of spiced pork, silky fat and delicate stuffing, right down to its pointy little toes, which I resorted to picking at like some deranged chiropodist.
The dishes come fully garnished – our sides included crisp, weightless pommes frites, served in a twist of French newspaper, a brasserie-style touch at odds with the high polish of the rest of the meal. A huge amount of work has clearly gone into the food, but nothing we ate felt effortful or overworked, apart, perhaps, from the desserts, a ho-hum pistachio soufflé with an unpleasantly synthetic aftertaste, and a "vacherin" of strained yoghurt with strawberries and powdery meringue.
Koffmann said before opening that he was aiming for an air of "convivial bonhomie", and the clientele did seem marginally younger and less suit-heavy than at Tante Claire. But as an experience, Koffmann's has more in common with the shrine than the brasserie, and feels about as informal as the Institute of Directors. Chairs are pulled out, waiters hover, and the all-French wine list offers no clues to the uninitiated. In the more relaxed modern style, some wines are available by the carafe, and the open kitchen allows a few tables to watch the master at the pass.
A discreet revamp has done little to lift a dining room that's never going to be party central. But the food is definitely, triumphantly vaut le voyage, and a three course set lunch for £22.50 puts it within reach of the hoped-for younger crowd. There may still be a touch of the fiftysomething merchant banker about Koffmann's new place, but this time around, I'm definitely ready for it.
Koffmann's at The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London SW1 (020-7235 1010)
Dinner for two with wine, around £150. Set lunch, £18 for two courses, £22.50 for three courses
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Vive la France
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