Paris isn't sure of Hélène Darroze and her two Michelin stars. What will London make of the foie-gras queen?
Restaurant Hélène Darroze, 4 Rue d'Assas, Paris, tel: 00 33 1 4222 0011
Sunday 27 April 2008
They say that Hélène Darroze and her two-Michelin-starred Left Bank restaurant will never be accepted by Paris. She is, after all, an outsider, from France's south-west, where both her father and grand-father were chefs. Le Figaro's restaurant critic even suggested she only gained her second star in 2003 because the Guide felt it should promote a female chef.
In June, Darroze moves into The Connaught in London, so I popped over (j'adore l'Eurostar) to see what we will be getting. Foie gras, it seems. Five of the 15 starters and main courses on offer feature goose or duck foie gras. This is to be expected – it is the product of her region, her terroir, and her history – but this much foie gras in Mayfair may well produce picket lines and placards.
My Parisian friend thinks we are all mad. "But a lot of English people like foie gras," he protests. "A lot of English people also like animals," I reply, but I don't want to shove my opinions down his throat, distending his liver until he is in a state of extreme discomfort.
Settled into the lush, plush, first-floor boudoir of a room, cosseted in velvets and silks, I fully expect the amuse-bouche to be a little rich, creamy thing. Then the exact opposite comes along: a trolley bearing a quaint, cream-enamelled, hand-operated slicing machine. Wordlessly, the waiter spins the handle, and pink, paper-thin slices of cured Gascon ham from the rare black Bigorre pig settle into an airy pile. Hand-churned butters and fingers of cornmeal-crusted baguettes are brought, and the meal begins. I can't tell you how good the ham is, how moist, fragrant and almost chestnutty it tastes.
So where is the little rich creamy thing? Ah, here it is, a duck-liver crème brûlée with green-apple ice-cream and pistachios, a dish that could taste like baby food were it not as perfectly executed as this.
Next, a dodine – a kind of ballotine – of Landes chicken with morels, black truffle and, yes, foie gras (£30) is a beige log oozing a sap of truffle-flecked jelly, with a little bouquet of herbs and spring flowers. The flavours are full, rounded and fresh.
I decide I like madame's cooking. It is high craft, but the craft is designed more to maximise flavour than be decorative. Ink-black, creamy carnaroli rice topped with curls of line-caught squid, dabs of confit tomato and a foamy emulsion of Parmigiano (£25.50) is sweet and earthy.
The wine list carries eight vintages of Dom Perignon and a 1964 Mouton Rothschild for £2,080, but I use regionality as my excuse for frugality, with a 2004 Domaine D'Escausses Vigne Blanche Gaillac from the south-west (£40), that is surprisingly fruity and elegant.
While the constant trolleys and theatrical generosity are certainly the influence of Darroze's long-time mentor, Alain Ducasse, her cooking seems her own. Milk-fed lamb from the Pyrenees (£44) is a cracking dish, with a spinach-filled, boned rack roasted until moist and tender; grilled cutlets of almost pathetic tenderness; and a bowl of soft, spreadable lamb shoulder slow-cooked in goose fat.
A simpler pavé of herb-crusted sturgeon (£52) from Aquitaine cuts like marshmallow and tastes as sweet as scallop against its lemony Aquitaine-caviar sauce.
The cheese trolley (£14.50) is an event in itself, with huge rounds and slabs piled on top of each other in bell jars. To follow, an exotic concoction of vanilla, chicory, coriander and chocolate (£17) is beautifully constructed, but the chocolate hit is muted. Petits fours, caramels and marshmallows then come in waves, washing me down the stairs and out the door.
It has been a genuinely dazzling meal, taken in high comfort, at very high prices. Darroze will bring something new to London, with her particular combination of rustic lavishness. Apart from the foie gras issue, she may well find us more welcoming than Paris. n
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Restaurant Hélène Darroze, 4 Rue d'Assas, Paris, tel: (00 33) 1 4222 0011. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Saturday. Around £240 for dinner for two
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