There are restaurants I really want to love, and Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, in London's Mayfair, is one of them. It is a beautiful, comfortable place where they make diners feel happy and special, and to get there you have the joy of walking through the lobby (or hanging around in the bar) of a one of the world's great hotels. Ms. Darroze (who divides most of her time between London and her restaurant in Paris) is an appealing, earnest chef who puts a modern, luxurious spin on the cooking and ingredients of her native South-West France, leavened with flavors from elsewhere in Europe and from Asia.
In 2008, not too long after the restaurant opened, I found the cooking inconsistent -- although so many things about it were terrific that Jackie and I had a grand time anyway. A year or two later, the scenario was repeated: we had a lovely evening despite some flawed execution.
But, as I say, it is a restaurant I want to love, so we went back during a recent visit to London, soon after the menu had undergone a change in approach. It is no longer divided into traditional courses, but offers a single list of main products -- with their provenance, down to the farmer or fishing boat, which somehow does not come off as corny -- with a laconic description of the ingredients supporting each one. You pick four, six or seven of these plus dessert, depending on how many different tastes you want and how much you want to spend, and the kitchen figures out the optimal sequence. This is not entirely unique in the restaurant world, but it is a surprisingly exciting way to order because you actually feel more involved in the process of putting together your meal. I am not sure why that should be, but it is quite true. Perhaps it is the novelty of the arrangement. However it is organized, it is a tempting menu, to the point where it can be hard to make a choice.
Furniture, lighting, glasses, crockery, cutlery: all are beautiful, notably the little spoons for the salt and pepper (Espelette chili to be precise) and the dessert cutlery with its open-work handles. And the framework of the dining room itself is that of The Connaught in the old days, for those who remember it: paneling on the walls and fancy plasterwork on the ceiling. The staff is welcoming, cheerful and well informed about every aspect of the menu; food and drink are served with unfailing grace and precision. All the peripherals -- Bayonne ham sliced tableside on a big red hand-cranked machine, for example -- are elegant and fun.
For the most part, the food is wonderful -- better than I remember -- with happy surprises on every plate. Is it perfect? No. And I don't think it is unreasonable to look forward to something approaching perfection in a restaurant with the high aspirations that are evident here. A clever and delicious variant on squash ravioli -- with crushed amaretti re-baked to heighten crunch and taste, sage in two flavorful forms (crisp leaves and aromatic foam), little blobs of mostarda di Cremona, roasted squash nuggets and surprising but harmonious chunks of tender lobster -- was marred, though not gravely, by the gummy pasta jackets of the plump ravioli.
Other highlights (and despite my quibble about its pasta, the delightful squash dish was a highlight) were a Jerusalem artichoke tart scented with Ibérico de bellota ham, on a fragile sablé base, generously topped with sliced black truffles and served with a flute of artichoke soup -- one of those dishes whose aroma heralds its arrival from three meters away; marble-sized balls of foie gras rolled in minced truffle and served with pretty apple nuggets, discs of celeriac and wine gel; and, maybe best of all, perfect hake (from the fishing boat Nahikari, which puts in at the Basque port of Saint-Jean de Luz) with piquillo pepper, crisp-fried slices of early-season artichokes from the Italian Riviera and chorizo broth. This latter dish illustrates how Ms. Darroze's cooking is simultaneously well grounded and up to date: the flavors are quite traditional, but they are lifted by precise execution and imaginative re-thinking.
Another such example might have been the lamb dish, with three cuts of baby lamb from the Basque country sharing the plate with small, particularly delicious -- and not floury -- chickpeas and grapes with an almost heady perfume, except... Well, here I am crossing into the territory of preferences, but I am surely not alone in feeling that lamb of such a young age is not pleasant to eat when left rare to the point of flaccidity, as the rib chop was on this plate. Connective tissue becomes a real challenge too with such brief exposure to fire. On the other hand, the nugget of saddle wrapped around kidney, though also very rare, was tighter and cleaner, and the piece of glazed braised shoulder (it was shoulder, wasn't it?) was a sweet, meaty mouthful. But, unfortunately, what I will remember is the barely-warm, hard to enjoy flesh of the rib chop. I will also remember the harsh and poorly balanced mix of tandoori spices that got in the way of enchantment in a scallop dish that preceded the lamb.
But those darker memories fade in the glorious sunshine of dessert, specifically of the restaurant's signature baba: not a rum baba, but an Armagnac baba, which arrives well soaked in lightly vanilla-ed syrup and then gets doused at the table with Armagnac poured from magnums. On the evening we were there, two years were offered, both from Ms. Darroze's brother, who operates the family distillery. We happily accepted the suggestion that the baba be halved and a different year be drizzled onto each half: a great show. The menu is very clearly driven by seasonal produce, so how do you make a seasonal baba without getting silly? By serving it with cream whipped up with chestnut puree -- clear of flavor and light of texture -- and a green-apple sorbet that tasted of nothing much but fresh apple. And by garnishing the plate with a marron glacé. The only restaurant baba I've eaten that compared with this one was at Alain Ducasse's Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Unless you don't consume alcohol, order no other dessert: it did attain that perfection I was hoping for.
So, am I in love with Hélène Darroze at The Connaught? Not in love; not yet. But I'm certainly feeling the pull of its seductive powers.
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On this trip, Jackie and I had the additional pleasure of staying at The Connaught for the first time in quite a while. A few months earlier, we had spent a couple of hours at the hotel's pool/spa, and that whetted our appetite for a return to what was always a favorite hotel, even before its renovation (which, truth to tell, it needed).
Far chicer than it used to be (as are many of its clients, who seem younger and more international too), The Connaught has retained its cozy and embracing nature. Staff members somehow know your name -- at least enough of them to give the impression that they all do -- and the level of hospitality is unsurpassed. A little example: When I set up my notebook computer on the desk in our room, it was with the usual unsightly tangle of adapters and charging cables for phones, cameras and all the other electrified junk I can no longer help carrying. The people who glided in and out to keep our surroundings gorgeous took this tangle in hand and neatly coiled each cord, leaving the desk looking as if a tidy person were using it. Yes, that's a small thing but it is one that reflects thoughtful training and conscientious performance.
If being in love with a place is the criterion, The Connaught has always met it.
Hélène Darroze at The Connaught. Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL; +44 (0)20 7107 8880; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.the-connaught.co.uk/mayfair-restaurants/helene-darroze/; closed Sunday and Monday. Prix fixe dinner £88 ($145) and up, depending on the number of courses you choose; wine can get expensive, but there are interesting bottles on the list for £40 or less, and the sommelier identified a delicious Bergerac at £29. Prix fixe lunch £35 ($57) or £42 ($68) including two glasses of wine.
The Connaught. Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL; +44 (0)20 7499 7070; email@example.com; http://www.the-connaught.co.uk/. Depending on date and availability, doubles can be had for as little as £300 ($490), but you can usually expect to pay more.