I had been enjoying two two-starred and several one-starred dining experiences over the past year or so without Ms B, because I was working abroad during most weeks, only coming back to London over the weekend. For a long time I had been planning on making this up to her, at least to some extent, by taking her out to a two- or three-star restaurant in London. Besides, our ten-year wedding anniversary was approaching fast, so time was of the essence.
When we found out that two-starred Hélène Darroze at The Connaught offered a “weekday dinner formule” for a mere £60 per person, including three courses, two glasses of wine, mineral water, and coffee, we immediately made a reservation. From several food-loving friends we had heard plenty of great things over the years about this fine culinary establishment on the ground floor of one of London’s most luxurious hotels. We had been to the hotel several times before, but only to canvass craftily curated curious cocktail concoctions at Connaught’s famous bar.
From the moment we arrived, just on time for our 6:30pm reservation, the staff exceeded all our expectations. I think I don’t even need all fingers of my right hand to count the times when I was equally impressed with the service. So effortlessly welcoming, unpretentious, courteous, quick, knowledgeable, and helpful. Before you could even throw a glance around to look out for one of the waiters, they were already at your table to answer a question you hadn’t even asked yet. At the same time, they kept a very low profile and their service never felt intrusive or overbearing. Tip to the hat.
The atmosphere is old-school English country-house style with wooden panelling all over the walls, but the large windows allow a good amount of light in. The period elements are well-balanced with modern design ideas, ensuring the dining hall looks classically elegant, but with a pleasantly fresh vibe, not stuffy and outdated like more than one top-end private members club and fine dining location in this town (we won’t point any fingers).
Out of three options for starters, we picked foie gras from Robert Dupérier (from the Landes region in the very south-west of France) with wild strawberry, lemon, elderflower, and fennel, paired with a Cider du Saint-Bernard from the Aosta Valley in Italy, and the lobster from St Ives, Cornwall, with Acquerello rice, chorizo, parmesan cheese, and bottarga, paired with a 2017 Vermentino, Colli Di Luni, Il Torchio Liguria DOC, Italy.
From the three options for mains, we chose pollock freshly landed from Alan Dwan’s Cornish skipper The Ajax, served with white asparagus, peas, wild garlic, paired with 2018 Chateau la Coste Rosé from Provence, as well as duck from the Vendée region on France’s Atlantic coast, potato, sherry vinegar, mustard, paired with a 2015 Domaine de la Mirandole, Côtes du Rhône.
As dessert, we went for Yorkshire rhubarb, Sarawak black pepper, vanilla, and for Valrhona Taïnori chocolate, ginger, and lemon.
A glorious selection of three different amuse-bouche arrived within less than five minutes after we ordered. My favourite were the trout croquettes with fish roe (not sure if that’s what the waiter called them), which had an unexpected complexity of differing textures. Ms B was a huge fan of the crispy cauliflower mushrooms with snow peas and dill. The goji berry wild garlic jelly blobs on oatmeal wafers were very pleasing on the eyes and palate as well and incredibly refreshing.
Shortly after we had devoured our amuse-bouche the most beautiful loaf of home-baked super-fresh rustic rye bread that either of us had ever seen outside of Germany arrived in a basket covered in a serviette. The Espelette pepper butter and the unsalted butter that accompanied it were pleasant, even though nothing out of the ordinary. (Ever since we got hooked on seaweed butter a year ago or so, peppered or unsalted butters are having a difficult time living up to our expectations. Not that the butters seem to care.)
We were so fond of the bread that we finished the whole loaf within five minutes and the waiter brought another loaf of the same lovely baked bliss.
At the same time our starters arrived. Ms B’s bits of Cornish lobster were perfectly prepared and very substantial for a starter. The black risotto-style aged Acquerello rice was out of this world in terms of both the firm texture and strong taste. The taste of the squid ink was omnipresent but not overpowering. Can’t really go wrong with chorizo and bottarga, and the parmesan cheese foam was not just nice to look at but combined well with the other flavours. As expected, the fresh and fruity Ligurian white worked just fine for Ms B.
I had heard great things about the foie gras starters at Hélène Darroze (from other reviews it seems no one visits without trying it). While I’ve never been a huge fan of the product or the production process, I’ll readily admit that the terrine was tasty. It went very well with the fennel shavings and the presentation was flawless. Ms B & I both felt that the cider was among the best we’ve tasted and a great pairing.
Less than ten minutes after we had finished our starters, the mains arrived. The duck was perhaps not as hot as I would have expected, but perfect in texture and taste and marvellous to look at with its crust containing sprinkles of nutty bits, herbs and spices. It went very well with the sauce and the potato puree.
Did I like my pollock? Yes I did. I think it was a fine dish. I’m not sure if I think it was two stars. The looks and the texture were not perfect, and just like with the duck, the temperature was too low in my view. The choice of super potent brown sauce (I couldn’t quite make it out, was the dominating flavour tarragon perchance?) was clearly a mistake from where I’m standing. I avoided the sauce altogether.
The asparagus was pleasant, but not as soft and buttery as it could have been. The confit egg yolk was a nice touch, but already broken when it arrived at our table (no biggie, just saying). As other reviewers have remarked, the peas are the best you will ever taste even if you live to a hundred years, completely insane. I hate peas from the bottom of my heart, but I would kill for a handful of these little beauties. The wine pairing worked really well in our view.
Our pre-dessert involved bread ice cream with apple jam and olive oil, magnificent, even though not much to look at.
After gobbling down all this amazing food and considering that each dish was much bigger than we would have expected at a top-end restaurant (except for the foie gras perhaps), we were grateful that the desserts were reasonable in size.
As those of you who regularly read this blog will know, I love my rhubarb (which my parents grow in their garden to this day), so no surprise I enjoyed my Yorkshire rhubarb dessert. I will say, though, that the rhubarb was particularly strong in acidity and flavour, so I would have preferred if the intensity of the flavours would have been buffered, among others by simply cutting it into smaller bits. The Valrhona Taïnori chocolate, kind of the Rolls Royce of chocolates, was fabulous and combined very well with the ginger and lemon.
The staff surprised us with two profiteroles that carried chocolate plates saying ‘happy anniversary’. Very sweet. We were also served a petit four, given two wrapped-up canelés, and the waiter took a polaroid photo of us to take home.
We are very glad we chose this restaurant to celebrate our ten-year anniversary. The day would have been special in any case, of course, but combining it with a gourmet dinner made the day even more memorable to us. The food was marvellous, the service was completely out of this world. 4.5 out of 5 in our book. We’ll be back for more soon.
For some more restaurant reviews, feel welcome to have a look at our posts about the Robot Restaurant, Tokyo, Gruvelageret near the North Pole, Lafleur, Frankfurt, and The Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold.