The Le Gavroche. That is not an error that is emphasis. Londoners owe It a debt of gratitude. A huge debt. Before Its arrival, fine dining did not exist in the city. Eating well was not a priority/desire/care; ‘we knew nothing of the British indifference to food because we had only ever cooked for the rich,’ Albert Roux has admitted. It was the sixties and Albert and younger brother Michel, already in London as personal chefs to the Cazelet and Rothschild families respectively, saw their opportunity. With their former employers turned patrons, Le Gavroche was established in 1967 and It changed everything.
Today such rudimentary ingredients as foie gras are taken for granted by luxury diners. However, when Le Gavroche first opened such foods were simply not available in England: Madame Roux herself would drive to France and smuggle foie gras and poulet de Bresse across the Channel and through customs. In fact, these selfsame diners should also be grateful to Le Gavroche for even having the choice to dine à la Michelin. It was the first English restaurant to be awarded a star, two stars and of course, the first to win three. Before Le Gavroche, London had no stars. Now, it has 45.
Although not London’s oldest, nor most expensive, no longer even the most starred – It only (only?) has two at the moment – Le Gavroche is a hallowed name; a little ironic given that gavroche’s literal translation is urchin (delightful French faux-modesty). It is arguably the single most influential, most monumental, most revolutionary restaurant to have ever graced London’s dining scene. To appreciate this, one has only to consider the many chefs who have worked their way through Its kitchen: Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Phillip Howard, the list goes on and on and on. Le Gavroche symbolises the best of the best, the finest of the fine, la crème de la crème – just the thought of It makes me smile – and it is for me, one of the greatest gastro-experiences London has to offer.
Understandably therefore, for a long time, I was almost too worried to dine here; too worried that I might waste such a precious experience. I was simply unable to bring myself to spontaneously dine at Le Gavroche; that would be disrespectful. Over time however, my timidity naturally cowered to my curiosity – so much for self-discipline and control – and I decided to make reservations for the soonest special occasion available: Mumsy’s birthday. Calling a week in advance, I booked dinner for three the following Friday. Nonetheless, just in case, I also rang Gordon Ramsay @ RHR and Pétrus, but only made it onto their waiting lists: at least this way, should one of these become available, I could still ‘save’ Le Gavroche.
As bad luck would have it, the day before dinner and her birthday (subconscious ordering of priorities here – I am a bad, bad person), Mumsy fell ill and though it was nothing too serious (so no need for well-wishing comments etc, she will be fine), it was enough to prevent her going to dinner. Dilemma: confirm for one or cancel? Give in or hold out? I am weak, I am selfish, I am a gourmand: I didn’t just bite the solid gold bullet, I ate the whole damn thing and confirmed. I shall not deny it, it felt good. (For the record, sneaky Pétrus did try and test me, offering me a table last minute, but taking Pétrus’ someone’s anyone’s sloppy seconds over Le Gavroche would be insolence personified. I declined).
All Friday, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. It was like Christmas Eve: I was full of nervous energy and had no way to expend it. Needless to say, the seconds past slower, the minutes lasted longer and the hours never ended: it was a long day.
Patience paid off and eventually I found myself outside 43 Upper Brook Street, a nondescript town house: humble, discreet, unpretentious, just like Its orphan tramp namesake and perfect for Le Gavroche. Scaffolding even hid the ‘Le Gavroche’ name and only the symbolic fleur-de-lis, the Relais & Chateaux logo, was visible.
Once through the fey portal, one is transported into a small, posh salon where one can order an aperitif, enjoy some canapés and peruse the menu. When ready, one is escorted downstairs into the main dining room. The atmosphere is very gentleman’s club; furnishings are very soft; lights are very dim; the ceiling is very low; it is all very French. As Spartan as the exterior is, the interior is Croesian. Between plush green walls, low-backed claret-fabric chairs surround generously-spaced tables, each draped in heavy, pristine-white napery upon which polished silver glistens. Tables are garnished with a sterling salt-holder offering both sel gris and regular salt, a brass candle-holder, a small wooden pepper grinder and even a sterling sculpture of some creature unique to each table (mine was a lovely big fish). The silverware is monogrammed with a little chef figure and the crockery carries a caricature of the young Michel Roux Jr. The room has not changed with the times, permitting critics to label it out-dated, faded, even run down (the nerve!). However, fashion is something Le Gavroche is supremely indifferent to. In today’s times, when restaurants are designed by architects and minimalism is celebrated, It revels in being too decorated, too indulgent, too flowery and instead of posturing to fashions, It prefers to allow fashions to return to It, as they probably will, eventually.
After taking my seat along the comfy banquette, my senses swelled with the smell of sweet flowers; gladiola, pussy willows, orchids and rubrum lilies, whose large, fresh, (more) green, (more) red bouquets adorned the walls and intoxicated diners, were the first flavours of my dinner. There is no music – it is almost too serious for that – instead there is the gentle clinking of cutlery upon crockery. The staff, possibly outnumbering the guests, were formally dressed and French. Emmanuel, my serveur en chef, welcomed me. He was refined, slick, obliging; I felt in good hands. I warned him that I came to enjoy an obscenely indulgent meal, but needed help constructing a carte sur mesure. At once he set to work and after a lengthy discussion, wherein he demonstrated great patience and consideration, we settled upon a three-entrée-one-plat-principal-two-dessert menu. After dispatching my order (and probably as it was still early and quiet), I was offered a chance to see the kitchen which, after feigning only a polite curiosity for the staffs’ benefit (I was totally tickled on the inside), I accepted.
Nervous and eager, I followed Emmanuel into the inner sanctum: I was about to pop my restaurant-kitchen cherry with the Casanova-Don-Juan-Romeo-all-rolled-into-one of restaurants. This was, after all, the Roux kitchen; a name that is the natural heir to Escoffier and Carême and run by the very dauphin of the family, Michel Roux Jr. Michel is a real chef’s chef, preferring to lead his kitchen instead of running a business empire or making television programmes. He approached. He greeted me. I tried to act suave and cool. I barely managed to mumble something about what a pleasure it was to meet him. He continued asking me questions. I continued gushing barely coherent responses. However, his super-friendly, relaxed, easy manner meant this did not last long. He showed off his kitchen as we discussed topics from dining to football; it was all quite charming. Even his accent was disarming: he speaks like a typical Londoner, which coming from a man whose food is more French than most of that found in France, was unexpected. However, Michel was brought up an Englishmen; something that has not manifested itself in his cookery. Along with the cooking gene, he also inherited a love of and allegiance to classic French cuisine from his father, Albert. In fact, the food, probably a little lighter than it was, is now even more French. Anyhow, (gently refocusing the narrative on me) after Michel wished me bon appétit, I was returned to my table and the adventure was allowed to continue…
Amuse Bouche 1: Millefeuille de Foie Gras. Two squares of foie came enrobed in wafer-thin layers of pastry (above top). The very delicate, slightly sweet foie melted in the mouth, whilst une feuille simple ou deux of pastry teased the palate with a flaky, crunchy texture. As mentioned in previous posts, I am not overly keen on pâtés, terrines, rillettes and the like, but this was not at all bad.
Amuse Bouche 2: Fromage Bleu sur de Pain de Gingembre. A whip of blue cheese studied with candied fruit was served atop a thick gingerbread cracker (above bottom). The formidable cheese, fridge-firm initially, yielded quickly enough, but the sticky cracker proved rather resistant, finally betraying only a weak taste of ginger. The mousse/crunch contradiction was brought into play once more.
Amuse Bouche 3: Rouleau de Printemps de Canard. A translucent spring roll of coarsely shredded duck, flavoured with oriental spices, was accompanied by compote of aubergine. The duck, springy almost in texture, was uncompromising in taste: the bird’s natural savour combined with the Chinese sauce to make it spicy, rich and sweet. The earthy aubergine complemented the spring roll well. This dish hinted at Chef Roux’s proclivity for Oriental cuisine, surely picked up whilst working in Hong Kong in his earlier days.
Les Pains: After les amuses came and went, the bread basket arrived, offering four choices: country, cereal, brown and white baguette. Each was warm, each beautifully bucolic in appearance but, though decent tasting, lacked an essential lightness and fluffiness. I probably preferred the brown, which was rather dense and had a very organic taste. Both salted and unsalted butters supplemented the bread.
Entrée 1: Soufflé Suissesse. Cheese soufflé cooked on double cream. The menu’s translation does not do this justice. Arguably Le Gavroche’s most famous dish, certainly its oldest, this has been on the menu since day one. An ethereal island of rich Gruyere cheese arrived floating upon a deep lake of béchamel and cream sauces. The initial savoury aroma of the baked cheese confection tantalised the taste buds. The appearance, grandiose and striking yet so delicate, almost prevents one from violating that gentle crust, but each ambrosial spoonful that follows brushes all regrets aside. Each moist, indulgent, buttery bite is a palpable step closer towards an early, but richly deserved, grave.
Entrée 2: Gratin de Langoustines et Escargots au Persil et Pimet d’Espelette. Three plump escargots lay with six lazy langoustines curled up in a heavenly waterbed of hollandaise sauce enlivened with Basque pepper and parsley. Each element came together perfectly, complementing and contrasting different flavours and textures, to seduce the eater. This inspired and original reinvention of the ‘classic’ surf-’n’-turf combined deep, earthy, mushroom-like snails and their smooth, sweet, seafaring cousins, the candy-like langoustines. The introduction of pimet d’Espelette gave the dish a lovely Pyrenean-peppery heat and the sour lemon zest and unctuous eggy creaminess of the hollandaise provided a cooling balance. Each drowning petite précieux, once rescued from the amber emulsion, oozed bubbling-warm buttery goodness from every orifice. This dish was a delicious wow.
Entrée 3: Escalope de Foie Gras Chaud et Pastilla à la Cannelle. A thick, generous lobe of foie gras and open pancake fat with thinly shredded duck came resting atop a berry coulis; this was another example of Roux’s affection for the Orient. The exotic, sweet smell of warm cinnamon from the pancake was the first flavour hit; it enticed the eater in. My second taste was the pancake itself whose perfectly crafted, crisp pastry cracked to uncover rich, intensely-spiced, densely-packed canard laqué. My attention and my knife then turned on the foie; upon piercing the lacquered burgundy seared skin, the blade literally fell through the milky, melting middle. The sour sweet berry coulis tempered the luscious meats. This was the best foie gras I have ever had and another wow.
Plat Principal: Côte de Veau Rôtie aux Morilles, Chartreuse de Légumes et Pommes Mousseline. A whole rib of roasted French veal was carved tableside (above) and plated with a carrot and haricot vert chartreuse and a helping of mashed potato, over which a creamy morel sauce was generously poured (below left). The liberal rib cut, cooked until chocolate auburn outside, concealed a tender rosy pink core. Slicing open the cleverly constructed chartreuse revealed the lightest, airiest spinach puree. The pommes had great consistency; creamy and buttery with just a touch of palate-clinging stickiness to allow the serious savouring of any lingering sapour.
The star of the dish, however, was the magnificently ugly mushrooms (close up above right). Each morel morsel was a taste explosion; a taste so distinct, yet so difficult to articulate. A mottled mix of earthy, nutty, smoky and sweet tones only offers a hint to their genuine flavour. These spongy, honeycomb enigmas swam in a thick bitter sweet jus that proved an excellent foil.
Dessert 1: Soufflé aux Fruits de la Passion et Glace Ivoire. A perfect passion fruit soufflé came served with luxurious white chocolate ice cream. The precisely and adeptly executed delicacy would not be confined to its white porcelain prison, rising to expose its crisp, but fragile lemon chiffon sugar-dusted skin. Upon presentation, this delicate skin was ruptured and warm passion fruit sauce was poured into the open wound, on top of which a thick scoop of ivory ice cream was nestled. The soufflé had impeccable consistency; smooth, fluffy and mellow. The passion fruit gave a strong citric sweetness, which was cooled by the incredibly flavourful, balsamic ice cream; no small feat given that white chocolate is one of the harder flavours to instil and is so often lost. Passion fruit seeds, hidden like buried gems at the ramekin’s base, added an unexpected crunch. The soufflé, as to be expected with passion fruit, was very rich and very intense, forcing me to enjoy second (and third) helpings of ice cream.
Dessert 2: La Dégustation aux Framboises. This marathon meal was concluded in mini-epic manner with a raspberry-themed collection of mini-gourmandises: Beignet au Coulis; Soufflé; Sorbet; and Millefeuille (from left to right above). The arrangement was delightful; a veritable feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, the one error in execution (that I observed anyway) happened during the final course: the beignet (‘raspberry coulis with warm sugar-coated jam doughnut’), instead of light and fluffy, was heavy and hard. However, this is but a niggling point and can easily be overlooked. Next, I enjoyed another excellent mini soufflé, followed by a refreshing sorbet, which rested upon a bed of dark chocolate embers. The shift from hot, soft, sweet soufflé to cool, hard, sour sorbet manipulated textures, temperatures and tastes. Finally, I progressed to the refined and dainty millefeuille, crafted from thin dark chocolate wafers, ripe raspberries and scrumptious crème Chantilly.
Café et Petit Fours: A collection of canelés, macarons de noix de coco, groseilles vertes sucrées and tuiles pavot sésame (from outside inwards above) accompanied my strong, creamy smooth espresso. The macarons had good texture and taste; coconut essence is also difficult to capture well. The groseilles (physalis), caramel-dipped and coconut-laced, had been transformed from soft fruit to hard-husked, molten-cored flavour grenades. The tuiles, made simply of sesame, poppy and corn syrup, were crunchy, light and sticky, but did not have me picking seeds indelicately out of my teeth (surprisingly and pleasingly). The best I saved till last: the canelés. Soft, tender custard centre; dark, thick caramelized crust; je les adore. Each breaking bite through that firm, crisp, tenné coat, into the golden, mushy egg mush in the middle, made me happier and the more I ate, the better they tasted. These are possibly my very favourite pastry.
Friandises: One feature of fine dining that especially delights me is the superfluity of little surprises that make the meal replete; amuses bouche, amuses gueule, pré-desserts, petit fours, migniardises, friandises. They do not have to be spectacular nor substantial, but I want them all, I need them all. Le Gavroche did not disappoint my greed; the serveur, having placed a small wooden circular casket on the table, proceeded to swivel out different compartments filled with nougat and abricot gelées aplenty. The gelées were intensely sweet and similar to Turkish delight, whilst the nougat, delicate and nutty, was not unpleasantly sticky or chewy.
At this point, my belly brimming, I sat in serene and sleepy satisfaction; it was that idyllic interlude between finishing one’s meal and before the pain that such gluttony begets sets in. In this interval, I was able to muse over what a lovely experience my dinner turned out to be. I felt particularly obliged to Emmanuel, who, after taking such exquisite care of me, I really cannot praise enough. I know full well what a little terror I was, torturing him with requests and questions. However, whatever I asked for, whatever I wanted, he suffered smiling and I was indulged without question, without hesitation. ‘Which dishes would you recommend?…what are the ingredients in this?…can I order this as a half-portion?…and this too?…may I say merci et au revoir to the chef?…can I take a copy of the menu home?’ Emmanuel was the model of good hospitality: ‘Oui, monsieur,’ ‘bien sûr, sir.’ I was won over by his Gallic charm: a knowing smile here, a mischievous wink there, he knew what he was doing.
Such splendid service begged the question, ‘why do French waiters have such a bad reputation?’ I am constantly confronted with countless critiques complaining of condescending, supercilious service from surly (French) waiters at fancy restaurants, yet I have never had the misfortune to endure any such behaviour myself. In fact, time and again, I have found service at good restaurants, especially Michelin starred ones, to be quite immaculate. I would even have to say that my ‘service experiences’ are actually getting better and better; Ambassade de l’Ile and Le Gavroche being cases in point. Dining at Le Gavroche, I was not made to feel embarrassed refusing wine or ashamed asking for tap water (although I could not bear to use those actual words, instead requesting une carafe d’eau de robinet). There was no whispering français, no over-eager refilling of my glass, no rudeness; if anything, some of the junior staff, far from arrogant, seemed a little shy. Service was smart too; staff were quick to note my preferences and habits (salted over unsalted butter, bread, more bread, petit fours, more petit fours, etc) and adapted to them. Then again, nothing less can be expected from a front of house led by legendary maître d’hôtel, Silvano Giraldin. Widely acknowledged as the best in the business, there are plenty of amusing anecdotes attributed to him; one I particularly like is the famous story of a lady who disappeared into the bathroom, followed soon after, into the same cubicle, by her male dining companion. Silvano proceeded to redirect women to another set of toilets until the couple returned 45 minutes later.
Opinions differ and critics exist – ‘standards are slipping…the kitchen has become complacent…it’s cooking by Michelin numbers’ – but all I know for certain is that my taste of Le Gavroche defied them all; I was left enchanted and palpably happy. If one enjoys eating excellent, satisfying food, whilst being pampered and spoilt in a charming setting, then Le Gavroche will not disappoint. It does not do disappointing. It can be trusted; can be depended on to deliver. It may not dazzle, shock or overwhelm, but it will delight, comfort and gratify.
As I left the restaurant and waddled up Park Lane, I was reminded of an old joke. It is usually told about Harrods, but is equally apt here: Where should one go in the event of nuclear attack? Le Gavroche; because nothing awful ever happens there.
tel: 020 7408 0881
nearest tube: Marble Arch