Those forsaking things French by way of protesting about nuclear testing in the south Pacific may be relieved to know that Greenpeace has drawn the picket line far short of boycotting food and wine. Their spokesman, Adam Woolf, puts it thus: "Greenpeace believes the best way is to put pressure on Chirac, not necessarily wine makers or cheese makers. The majority of the French public is already opposed to the tests."
Well, phew. My having eaten lunch at Le Gavroche recently was not contributing to the end of the world, after all. It was also very nice, and, arguably, a bargain. This is the deal: stick to the set-price menu and pounds 38 buys you three courses, plus pre-meal nibbles called amuse-gueules and post- meal nibbles called petits fours. It also provides endless coffee and a half bottle of wine. There is a carte, of course, listing plenty of impressive-sounding food. However, here an omelette costs pounds 16.60.
Never mind that the word gavroche translates as "street urchin", and ragamuffin faces peer up from matchbooks and menus. Le Gavroche is, indisputably, meant for millionaires. That a waitress inadvertently addressed me as "sir", though I was in thorough-going pumps and pearls mode, tips it as a sort of unofficial gentlemen's club. Perhaps perversely, I have only eaten there with women friends, and can commend it as a luxurious venue for ladies who not only lunch, but who are genuinely fond of their tuck. Physically speaking, it is a fancy Mayfair restaurant, heavily cushioned and stuffed with gewgaws attesting to the florid tastes and long careers of its founders, Albert and Michel Roux. The upshot is something of a period piece, a kitsch reminder of France and French taste before Philippe Starck.
Granted, Le Gavroche has had to make certain concessions to modernity since it opened in 1967. Pierre Koffmann joined the kitchen as a young chef in 1970. Read his delightful Tante Claire cookbook and you find the reminiscence: "The cooking at Le Gavroche at that time was completely classical, with no hint of la nouvelle cuisine... we used a good 20 litres of double cream a day to cook the food for about 50 customers."
All this changed when the British learned they had arteries. Yet, back then, as Mr Koffmann recalls, customers loved rich food. So, evidently, did Michelin inspectors: in 1974, Le Gavroche was among the first restaurants in Britain to receive a Michelin star. By 1977, it had another. From 1982 until 1992, it was one of only two British restaurants to have three stars. Then, in 1993, it lost its third star. The party line on the demotion was that it came as a result of a chef change: Albert had been succeeded by his son, Michel.
Commenting publicly, Albert Roux tends to be diplomatic about the demotion, saying it is his son's challenge, in due course, with due effort, to win back the third star. And, by high-street standards, the younger Roux is a genius. The eating starts in an upstairs bar, where menus are perused and those luscious little samplers, amuse-gueules, popped into mouths. My favourite was a tiny base of puff pastry topped with a sort of divine cousin of coleslaw.
The set-price menu is a separate booklet from the carte. This is a tactful arrangement, whereby those on a budget do not need feel humiliated by the choice of the cheapest item of a larger spread. Generously, the smaller menu gives a choice of three dishes for each course. The only possible foible in store is the begging of a translation of the menu, which is written exclusively in French. With a bit of coaching, we chose soupe de moules au safran, mousseline de grouse a la bruxelloise, pave de cabillaud gratine a la viennoise and souris d'agneau braisee au madere; that is to say, mussel soup, grouse mousse, cod, and lamb braised with Madeira. Even before we ate, Le Gavroche proved its class: the waitress returned to say the kitchen was out of grouse mousse and was making more. This would take 20 minutes. Was that a problem? Clearly Michel Roux is honouring his father's most generous edict: that Le Gavroche never be "out" of anything listed on its menu.
Still, who would have expected grouse mousse in the first place? It sounds like strange pabulum for a toothless old laird. In fact, it was splendidly good, its light texture belying a full, enjoyably gamy taste, and artfully countered by deeply savoury salty greens. By the look of them, they were just green stuff, great green stuff; however, they must have been the bruxelloise bit, referring, it would follow, to Brussels sprouts. The note of doubt is that they tasted so good. This was, altogether, a star turn with autumnal British produce. By comparison, the mussel soup was pleasing, the flesh having been shelled and left to tangle with julienned root vegetables in a creamy stock, which tasted more like a carefully prepared bisque than mussel liquor. It was an accomplished bit of cooking, particularly given that the mussels were not overcooked, but was it better than a humbler dish of mussels cooked simply in their shells? Hard thing to better, that.
Of the main courses, the cod, impressively crusted, was very slightly overcooked, a bit "dead". The knuckle of lamb arrived sitting some five inches proud on the plate, jutting above its altogether more sophisticated sauce. You do not often see this cut of meat in restaurants; perhaps it is regarded as lowly. This is a shame, for it was excellent, the meat rich and melting, the flavour intense. It came with a perfect little potato gratin. Only its highly reduced Madeira sauce seemed subtly off key: too slick, too glutinous and slightly cloying.
There is a choice between pudding, or cheese. The pastry sampled was loose, luscious and lemony, topped by a jaunty, meringue-type cap and countered by diced strawberries. Like so many posh puddings, it looked like a hat out of Easter Parade. And, for a dessert in autumn involving spring ingredients, it was surprisingly pleasing. That said, the question remains: why not serve something autumnal, say an apple flan?
The cheeseboard must be one of the best in London: close to two dozen cheeses, all ripe, each topped with a little marker indicating whether it comes from a cow, goat or sheep. The accompanying onion and raisin breads, sliced thin and perhaps too cold from storage in a fridge, are first class.
The meal includes a half bottle of wine for each person, an arrangement that, provided there are at least two of you, again affords some tempting choices, such as an Alsatian pinot blanc or a good pomerol. Of the wines we sampled, a chablis, Cuvee Albert Roux, was fine; a 1993 pinot noir from Alsace was knockout. This red, the colour of new velvet, had been properly decanted and managed that most teasing balance between soft fullness and berry-like fruit.
As a treat, we each had a glass of champagne in the bar. This indulgence ran the pounds 76 bill up to pounds 92. According to the restaurant, this total included VAT and service. It is not clear why, then, the total was not written in when the credit card bill was presented. Are we to infer that the pounds 38 set-price meal, all in, is more than pounds 38? Let us hope not
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