It was raining. It was cold. I was at Marble Arch station and I was early. ‘If I get there too soon, they will make me wait outside till they open,’ I thought to myself. But there was nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, so I headed down Park Lane. My toes had become numb from the short walk between Marble Arch and the restaurant, but as soon as I turned left onto Upper Brook Street, my heart, and my belly, were warmed by the fond memories of my last meal here. Instinctively, I started smiling to myself and my gait quickened, footsteps shortened, my heart began to beat a little faster. I felt the cold no longer.
Its discreet door is distinguished only by the simple signage above. As one approaches, a symbolic fleur-de-lis, the Relais & Chateaux logo, and caricature coq gaulois, the arms of the Traditions & Qualité association, assure the diner they have arrived at one of Les Grandes Tables du Monde.
I rang the bell. Promptly one of Le Gavroche’s ginger gemini allowed me in. ‘Sorry, I am so early,’ I yelped, ‘is it alright if I wait inside, it is freezing out there?’ ‘Of course,’ the little lady assured me as she took my coat, ‘we couldn’t leave you in the cold now, could we?’ And to think of the countless times I have been forced to wait outside a restaurant…
I sat down on one of the plush couches in the cosy salon. Jumbo macadamias were set beside me and I requested the menu. I was pleased to have some time, before H came, to check le carte and I needed it; every dish read delicious. ‘You’re back’ a French baritone boomed in my direction. I looked up. It was Emmanuel. He had recognised me although he had not seen me since July and warmly welcomed me. I felt guilty I had waited so long to return.
Once ready, my greeter’s ringer escorted me to my table; one of the lovely big, banquetted booths from which one can watch all the action of the dining room unfold. H, who I had not met with since Roussillon, arrived on time. Graciously, he left most of the food selection to me and after checking he had brought with him a healthy appetite, Emmanuel and I set about organising our order. It is late autumn, which means ’tis the season for game – j’adore mon gibier – and the ALC and chef propose were brimming with mouth-watering wild birds. I put forward a few of my preferences and let Emmanuel decide the rest.
Amuse Bouche 1: Langoustine Beignet and Curried Smoked Bacon. A small, shimmering serving-tray supplied our starting amuses of crunchy-coated, juicy langoustines swollen with sea-sweet succulence. I had to handover my enticing, but illicit cup of curried pork to H, who was pretty pleased with the unexpected present.
Les Pains: Country Roll; Rye; Baguette; and Mixed Cereal & Raisin. Artisan bread is bought in from French master-bakers, Bagatelle, but bestowed baking hot – every time. Each variety was good and even better than before. Country roll was crisp and yeasty; the baguette, soft, crusty and proved an effective sponge. I liked most the mixed cereal and rye equally; the wholemeal, triangular raisin rolls were thick and rustic while the rye, deeply flavoured and moist. Butter is sourced from two different purveyors: the super-creamy salted is from Le Gall, in Breton Guérande and is made with the town’s famous fleur de sel; and the unsalted is from Sarl Ets Beillevaire, an organic producer in Machecoul in the Loire.
Amuse Bouche 2: Artichoke Beignet, Mixed Salad and Balsamic Vinaigrette. Another amuse of pork mousse quenelle arrived, but informing them I could not eat it, within minutes, this replacement was brought in its stead. Lightly battered, crispy artichoke leaf lay on a bed of micro greens, dressed with balsamic vinegar. The nutty vegetable and vinaigrette balanced the bitterness of the greens, leaving just their fresh bite.
Entrée 1: Soufflé Suissesse. Cheese soufflé Cooked on Double Cream. Although I had tried this already, I did not resist it sneaking onto our agenda again (plus, it means I can recycle my description from my first post: very lazy, I know). 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 Gruyère and cheddar 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 precious, almost prevents one from violating that gentle crust, but each ambrosial spoonful that follows brushes all regrets aside. Every moist, indulgent, buttery bite is a palpable step closer towards an early, but richly deserved, grave.
Entrée 2: Coquille St. Jacques Grillée, Compote d’Aubergine et Fleur de Fenouil. Grilled Diver Caught Scallop, Spicy Aubergine, Fennel Pollen and Parsley Coulis. A char grilled, sizeable scallop sat atop spiced aubergine compote and alongside pea shoot salad and beetroot crisp, all upon dark pastel green purls of parsley coulis peppered with fennel pollen. The shellfish, suffused with clean, smoky savour, was soft yet firm. The creamy aubergine, seasoned with mustard seed, had a gentle kick to it, which, together with the peppery, grassy parsley, freshened the whole dish. Sugary-spinach-like, so slightly earthy, crisp pea shoots added some texture while the beetroot, salty and sweet, contributed crunch. Fennel pollen, which I had heard rumours of but not yet tried, was strongly aromatic with a honey-like, flowery taste, smoother than anise. The new, interesting and expensive – similarly priced as saffron, though liberally applied – enhancer’s light liquorice essence worked well with the scallop.
Entrée 3: Petit Chausson de Canard Sauvage et Pistaches, Chicorée Rotie Minute et Sauce Rouennaise. Hot Wild Duck Pie with Pistachios and Roasted Endive Salad. Flaky pastry filled with wild duck and pistachio was accompanied by roast endive in sauce Rouennaise. The pie was perfect: short, buttery crust, lined with moist inner layer and stuffed with steaming, strong, tender duck. The nuts offered mild sweetness and creamy chewiness; whilst the sauce, a Bordelaise (dry red wine, bone marrow, shallots and demi-glace) with puréed duck foie gras, was deliciously deep. Caramelised endive was delicately bitter and thus a good counterpoint to the richer meat and gravy. The exemplary execution and serious savours made this a wow.
Plat Principal 1: Darne de Turbot Grillée et Beurre Blanc à la Ciboulette. Grilled ‘T’ Bone of Turbot, Chive Sauce, Chick Pea Chips and Courgette Cannelloni. Half a hunky chunk of T-bone Turbot, teamed with chive beurre blanc, came with thick-cut chickpea frites and ratatouille-packed courgette parcels. The charred fillet, flush with woody flavour, was great in texture and taste, its firm, white flesh falling off the fishy-spine in steak-like strips. The hot, buttery sauce, mildly onion and garlicky, was a superb condiment compliment. Ratatouille roll mops were filled with smoky, earthy eggplant, sweet red pepper, tomato and onions. The chips were well-made, but seemed maybe surplus to requirements.
Plat Principal 2: Le Lièvre à la Royale. Classic Braised Stuffed Saddle of Hare and Swiss Chard. Legendary Lièvre à la Royale is soaked in history and tradition and marked as the ‘most mythical meal in French cuisine’. Its actual recipe, however, is much disputed.
Original credit for the creation commonly lies with Senator Aristide Couteaux, who in November 1898, instead of his usual political column in Le Temps newspaper, published directions for a new dish. He reported of his week in Poitou hunting a special hare and, once catching it, taking the Paris train straight to his chef-friend, M. Spüller in Rue Favart, famous in his day. Couteaux’s instructions are retold in Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food: one requires (and I summarise) a hare, ‘cleanly killed…so not [to] have lost a drop of blood’; goose fat; bacon; good wine vinegar; red wine; 20 garlic cloves; 40 shallot cloves; carrot; onion; bouquet garni; plus optional cognac for the hare’s blood. The meat is stewed for hours in wine and sauce thickened with blood; if properly prepared, it is ‘needless to say, that to use a knife to serve the hare would be a sacrilege. A spoon alone is amply sufficient.’ As Spüller cooked this, its aroma alone, wafting from the restaurant, apparently had crowds of passers-by sniffing, straining and shoving their way to his door.
However, Henri Babinski, writing in his Gastronomie Pratique (1907) under the brilliant anonym Ali Baba, contested the technique, claiming the animal should be boned, stuffed with foie gras and truffle, simmered slowly in wine and hare stock, with the end result resembling a ballotine served in thick slices with brandy-and-blood-thickened gravy.
And, of course, there is a third way. Prosper Montagne, in Larousse Gastronomique (1938), states the hare be stuffed with a mixture including truffles, goose foie gras and hare blood and giblets, before being braised in white wine and briefly browned in the oven.
Now, that was either Q.I. or quite boring, so let me return to Le Gavroche, whose chefs follow, fittingly, Ali Baba’s ten-page preparation (probably because Couteaux’s civet demands seven days spent hunting and seven hours in the kitchen). The ballotine of boned, foie gras-stuffed saddle of hare, sitting in red wine and blood sauce strewn with wild mushrooms, was served with Swiss chard gratin. The hare was lusciously strong and gamey; its dark red meat, robust and dense, contrasted well with the sweeter, softer foie gras-filling. Sticky, potent, powerful bloody gravy was lip-smackingly good and added essential moisture to le lièvre. The nutty, creamy Gruyère gratin of earthy chard was savoury-sweet and cheesy-rich, complementing the similarly earthy and nutty, plump mushrooms.
Plat Principal 3: Perdreau Rôti en Cocotte à l’Alsacienne. Roast Partridge with Sauerkraut, Roast Potato and Alsace Bacon. Whole partridge, roasted then baked in a sealed pot with its accompanying vegetables, was presented en cocotte, then carved tableside. Half the bird, roasted potato pair, Chantenay carrot couple and sauerkraut serving were plated then dressed with brandy jus for each of us (normally Alsace bacon would also be included). The plump partridge had moist, tender flesh with delicate, subtly gaminess whilst the brandy, blended with jus roti, made for a lovely, not overpowering sauce. Carrots were crisp and honey-like; potatoes, roasted perfectly; and sour cabbage had nice smokiness. This delicious dish, in Alsatian style – which explains the Germanic influence – was soft yet satisfying; all the simple elements gelling gently and comfortably together.
Dessert 1: Petite Tarte Tatin aux Pommes et Glace à la Vanille de Madagascar. Classic Upside Down Caramelised Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream. Scrumptious apple tarte tatin, adorned with two fat quenelles of Madagascan vanilla ice cream and split sprig of vanilla pod, was encircled with aureoles of salted caramel. This salty-sweet sauce was as sticky as the crisp puff pastry that imprisoned soft, hot poached pommes. The heat from the tart slowly warmed the spoonfuls of thick ice cream, causing them to melt and mizzle over it, mingling with the caramel. The vanilla aroma and essence was felt instantly, the fragrant bouquet lingering pleasingly. Softness contrasted with crunch; hot with cold; sugary with salty; everything was just right, just rich enough; an irresistible dessert.
After gobbling down those yummy tartes tatin, Emmanuel surprised us with the offer to revisit the kitchen and watch the chef de patisserie prepare our second sweets, H’s Oeufs à la Neige and my Omelette Rothschild. Like giddy schoolgirls we leapt from our table and skipped after him into cette cuisine connu…
It was jolly good fun watching all those chefs at work, plus as it was getting late and dinner service was coming to an end, things were winding down and people were fairly at ease, joking with each other, joking with us. All made us welcome, from Head Chef Rachel Humphries – who was running the show superbly in Michel’s absence – down to the commis chefs.
The chef de patisserie took us under his wing whilst Emmanuel returned to the dining room. The chef then led us step by step through how to make my famous soufflé. He whipped the egg whites; mixed the Cointreau with crème patisserie; then whipped the two together. The fluffy, white meringue outcome was then scooped into a small pan; browned golden on the hob; then placed into the 180º oven for three/four minutes. Concurrently, we were able to see a millefeuille made and tarte tatin too. Once our desserts were done, Emmanuel came to fetch us and after thanking and saying goodbye to probably fifteen people, we finally sat down to enjoy the fruits of other’s labours.
Dessert 2: Omelette Rothschild. Apricot & Cointreau Soufflé. Not surprisingly, there are again two different stories of how this treat was invented. One relates that the omelette was originally made for the Baron (James Meyer) de Rothschild by Carême in the 1820s. The other tells us that it came about during the Rothschild family’s visit to a restaurant, when they demanded apricot soufflé desserts. The chef, lacking soufflé bowls, decided to prepare the mixture on the stove before covering and placing it in the oven and thus producing a thick pancake…whichever of these, if either, is true, the recipe was most certainly picked up by the senior Rouxs during their time as chefs to the Rothschild family after first arriving in London.
At this stage, I had already eaten seriously too much, but resisting was futile and I did not even want to try. Michel’s own words came to mind, ‘whatever you have been eating before, even if you feel you have no more room for dessert, there is always room for soufflé.’
This graceful gossamer gift, a bright alabaster bubble dotted with tiny dark dots of vanilla seed and tinged ochre in the oven, was tilted over a cluster of Cointreau-soaked dried apricots and drizzled in thick apricot-Cointreau sauce, then double cream, at the table. Emmanuel watched over as my serveuse poured; ‘non, non, you need more, you must have more, more is better, non?’ he winked as he took over the pourer’s post. The soufflé, at first trembling as I teased her with my spoon, willingly succumbed to my pleasure once I penetrated her subtly tanned skin. It was everything I could have asked for: consummate in consistency – feather-light, smooth and spongy – and tasty on the tongue – delicately fruity and vanilla-rich. The mellow marshmallow-like delight was doused in contrastingly strong, thick sauce that boasted warm, orange, apricot sweetness, cut through by double cream. Plump apricots, with velvety veneers, were soft, deep and when bit, burst forth intoxicating juice. Clearly, I liked it, but I will let Michel have the final words, ‘Oooh gosh!’
Petit Fours: Canelé, Macarons de Café, Groseilles Vertes Sucrées and Tuiles Poivre Noir et Sésame. A collection of macarons de café, canelés, groseilles vertes sucrées and tuiles pavot sésame accompanied our desserts. The macarons had good texture and taste. 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, black pepper and corn syrup, were crunchy, light and sticky; the pepper, replacing the previous poppy seeds, gave these a nicely spicy aftertaste. The best I saved till last: the canelés. Soft, tender custard centre; dark, thick caramelized crust; je les aime. Each breaking bite through that firm, crisp, tenné coat, into the golden, vanilla, 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.
It is clear I enjoyed it loved it. But how could I not? The menu is full of enticing choices and must-order dishes. These include both ones from Le Gavroche’s own stable of nigh-forty-year-old classics – Soufflé Suissesse, Omelette Rothschild, Mousseline de Homard au Champagne et Caviar are always there, plus Oeuf Carême in the summertime, and Daube de Boeuf too – as well as those from the wider French tradition; like La Lièvre à la Royale, which I have never seen on offer outside France. On top of this, the ingredients are simply the best that can be found and the cooking, faultless. It was even an improvement on my last visit when, for instance, desserts were the weakest part of a great meal, but that could not be said again; both sweets were sublime and tonight Michel was not even in the kitchen! The food, though, was only part of what made this meal so memorable. Even had the grub been half as good, I would still have had a terrific time thanks to the staff.
At Le Gavroche nothing ever changes. Normally. However, in my absence, after 37 constant and outstanding years in office, the legendary maître d’hôtel, Silvano Giraldin, had retired. Such a potentially disruptive event could have easily and seriously unsettled the FOH. It did not. But this is no discredit to Silvano, instead it is a compliment to his successor, Emmanuel Landré; and to be honest, though I loved the service before, it too was better this time round…
Dining here is an experience, an occasion, made thus by, above all, the staff who, I must say, in my opinion, offer the best service in London. At Le Gavroche, it is all about the guest and making sure that they feel comfortable and enjoy their meal. Making a quick penny, actually let’s not forget where we are, a quick ten-pound-note, is the last thing on their minds. For example, Emmanuel could have easily served us each full portions and thus doubled the restaurant’s money, but instead, he arranged for us to share almost every plate. This not only lightened our bill, but meant we could first, try every dish we wanted, and secondly, not become ill from over-eating! Such consideration I have seen in only one other place, Passard’s l’Arpège (3*) in Paris. And needless to say, the whole behind-the-scenes adventure speaks for itself, but was obviously much-appreciated and will be fondly remembered.
For me, dining at Le Gavroche is like coming home. It is not that I am a ‘regular’ – which makes it all the more remarkable – but rather the warm, welcome feeling I get being pampered and fed in my favourite restaurant in town.
I know not all will agree, not all have shared such a time, but, to be blunt, I do not care. I can only write of what I know and that is my experience and my opinion. And I think that Le Gavroche is so good, so very, very good.
43 Upper Brook Street, W1K 7QR
tel: 020 7408 0881
nearest tube: Marble Arch