I first dined with Ducasse almost a year ago to the day; it was less than one month after it initially opened, but already the knives were out. Another week, another victim / villain (delete as appropriate), n’est-ce pas? Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, ADAD, was assumed to be another of the chef’s prestige restaurants, together with the two elite others that bear his name: Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse, Monaco and Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, Paris. Whether this assumption aligned with Alain’s intentions, is another issue.
First criticised were the prices: ‘more than Ramsay’…’£115 for the tasting menu’…’Ducasse is charging more than Ramsay’, rang the heart-wringing cries of the critics. Second, was the food: ‘cooking-by-numbers’…’disappointing’… ‘little originality or sense of adventure’…’immoral’ (AA Gill, that one), and there are more, plenty more. Most importantly however, and I know you’ll all agree with me in this respect, is that I agreed with them. Starters were forgettable; mains, better; desserts, distinctly dissatisfying: only one dish stood out – filets de sole à la florentine, crevettes et champignons de Paris, sauce Château Chalon.
A year on and slowly, but surely, some glowing reports from ADAD have started to trickle down the gastro grapevine. I read one inconnu claim it was now at the level of Louis XV and ADPA; this I took with a pinch of salt, preferring to trust the recommendation of my friend instead, who teasing me with Toptable’s 20% discount, left me without an excuse not to give ADAD another go.
I will start with the Executive Chef’s story, since his name sits above the door. Alain Ducasse, born in 1956 and raised in Castel-Sarrazin, Southwest France – country of confits and cassoulets, cèpes and foie gras – commenced his career at eighteen, earning his ‘first fifty francs’ at the Hôtel du Palais in neighbouring Biarritz (where he recently romantically returned to be wed), before apprenticing at Le Pavillon Landais, Soustons, and attending hotel school in Bordeaux. For two years after this, he worked at Michel Guérard’s Eugénie-les-Bains whilst spending the winter months with Gaston Lenôtre. 1977 was life-changing for him as he moved to Moulin de Mougins to learn under Roger Vergé, creator of Cuisine du Soleil and from whom Ducasse learned the Provençal cooking methods that later became the bedrock of his own signature style. His development continued with whom he describes as his spiritual mentor and master, Alain Chapel, during two years at Mionnay. In 1980, he returned to Mougins after Vergé offered him the chef’s position at l’Amandier though, a year later, he left to take charge of La Terrasse at Hotel Juana in Juan-Les-Pins – it was here Ducasse was first recognised by Michelin with two stars in 1984. That same year, a Lear jet he was travelling in crashed in the Alps, killing all others onboard; this fatal experience left him determined to ‘go forward, work hard, be healthy and be useful’.
In 1987, at Prince Rainier III’s request, Ducasse took the position of Chef des Cuisines at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo. The role included managing Le Louis XV along with a contractual obligation to earn it a troika of stars within four years. He did it in less than three. At 33 years old, he made the 33-month-old Louis XV the first hotel restaurant to hold 3 stars. Summer 1996 saw him go on to open Alain Ducasse in Le Parc Sofitel at 59 Avenue Raymond-Poincaré. Within just eight months, this too earned trois étoiles, making Ducasse the first ever six-Michelin-star man. Two years later, he moved his Parisian to its present place in the Hôtel Plaza Athénée on Avenue Montaigne. Ducasse then also became the first chef to hold three stars at three sites when Essex House, New York was thus-wise thrice decorated in 2000.
The grosse légume, as he is known at home – though ‘home’ maybe a sensitive subject after he recently relinquished his French nationality to become Monégasque – now spends his days, having stepped back from the stoves, as the ‘innkeeper and creator’, if not daily chef. In London, he leaves the cooking to Jocelyn Herland. This Auvergne native initially joined Ducasse’s empire in 1997, as chef de partie at 59 Avenue Poincaré (3*). Two years here were followed by a stint at Restaurant Opera (1*) at the Hotel Inter-Continental, then one as sous chef at Royal Monceau Hotel (1*). He rejoined his former boss’ business when in 2003 he became sous, then chef adjoint under Christophe Moret at Plaza Athénée. In London, he has been charged with ‘interpreting [Ducasse’s] cuisine in a modern and refined way’ with ‘carefully selected British and French suppliers’. He was therefore bestowed a brand new £1m kitchen and twenty-five man crew. Bruno Riou is his sous, whilst Angelo Ercolano (Spoon; Don Alphonso (2*), Naples; La Terrazza (1*), Rome) is chef de patisserie. FOH is led by Christian Laval, a fifteen-year Ducasse old boy, and seconded by Philippe Beaucourt, another of his veterans from Monaco and Tokyo.
ADAD’s décor, designed by long-time Ducasse creative collaborator (Plaza Athénée, Mix Las Vegas, Le Jules Verne) and former protégé of Philippe Starck’s, Patrick Jouin, was one thing that critics were actually, on average, more positive than negative about. Jouin’s wish for a ‘play on British culture as seen through the eyes of a French chef’ has been realised with a garden theme, most keenly felt in the private dining rooms that border both the front and back of the dining room. Either side of the entrance are the salon privé and cave du jour; these feature lime green lacquered walls pinned with green and yellow silk buttons that form a pointillist portrayal of Hyde Park; and mid-height alcoves in the walls holding small gas fireplaces evocative of the English hearth. The Salon Park Lane, on the far side, has high ceilings coupled with tall windows that offer lots of natural light and views of the Park; it is separated from the main room by large oak-framed French doors. The central area is understated and more conservative, coloured with creams, coffees and beiges; encircled with soft, textured wooden walls with ovoid portholes; and layered with light brown carpet. A curve of brushed metal stands near the kitchen, whilst another ovoid, oversized on this occasion, is balanced before the passageway to the central space. Round tables, surrounded with cappuccino armchairs, are finely laid with Ercuis cutlery in silver scabbards, curved bread plates, JL Coquet cover plates and individual ceramic vegetables; I had artichokes and saw others with asparagus and garlic. Low lighting is very good, coming from recessed panels in the ceiling. The room’s most talked about feature is the table lumière: an (ovoid) voile, composed of cotton and 4,500 sparkling fibre optic strands, secludes six diners who are served a menu surprise upon Hermès china with Puiforcat silverware and Saint-Louis crystal. Ducasse says it has ‘the wow factor’ and Jouin that it is ‘like walking into a cloud’. A £1,350 cloud.
Amuse Bouche 1: Gougères de Gruyère, Paprika et Poivre. First served was a scrumptious stack of small pastry puffs in three flavours: paprika, pepper and gruyére. Each bite-size morsel melted in the mouth immediately; the black peppered and paprika-pepped ones had mild piquancy, whilst the cheesy ones, extra creaminess. Personally, I would have preferred a little stronger spicing, but all were unexpectedly feather-light and the execution of the choux was consummate. These had improved immensely since my previous visit.
Les Pains: Hay Baguette; Sourdough; Black Olive Bread; Hazelnut & Raisin; and Scottish Brioche with Bacon. Bread is a debatable business with Ducasse who, unlike many compeers, refuses to serve it hot: ‘I do not serve my bread warm but I do not do this for a good reason. If I do, people eat too much of it!’ spoil sport. Thus his (cold) collection consisted of highly-wrought hay baguette that was crispy and wholesome; subtly tangy sourdough with hard, crunchy crust and open crumb. Moist-middled black olive bread was really very good, the olive coming though gently yet cleanly while dense, brown hazelnut and raisin log had juicy fruit and delicate nut pieces. Together came a block of British butter from Neal’s Yard and a bitsy barrel of Fontainebleau – a very light, somewhat sweet, unsalted fresh cream cheese made from curd and whipped cream…it was different.
Amuse Bouche 2: Délicate royale de foie gras et potirons, émulsion fumée. Delicate soft royale of Foie Gras and butternut squash, smoked emulsion. Encased within a leaf-embossed, ceramic crockery egg (its design coordinating with the cover plate) came butternut squash purée and consommé of foie immersed beneath an emulsion of Lapsang Souchong. The smoked foam offered very little, but this fact was quickly forgotten once the foie gras and gourd were tasted. The subtle sweetness of each complemented the other nicely and together, the textures combined delightfully: the foie, thick and creamy and the squash, dense and grainy. A very good start.
Entrée 1: Grosses langoustines d’Ecosse en salade tiède, jus coraillé. Salad of Scottish Langoustines, coral jus. A reworking of classic Caesar salad saw a threesome of succulent, steamed scampi and chicken stick trio partnered with peeled tomato quarters, parmesan cheese, rocket, romaine lettuce, French beans and croutons; the plate was scattered with colourful comets of langoustine coral and anchovy jus. The thin cuts of roasted chicken breast were surprisingly juicy yet still had a very thin, very crisp tranche of skin. Croutons had delightful crunch, contrary to the general soft, delicate nature of the dish. The replacement of Caesar Cardini’s original (anchovy-accented) Worcestershire sauce with coral jus spiked with anchovy was well considered; this sauce providing a powerful, salty stimulus. However, maybe the quantity was insufficient as the other elements, though excellently cooked, needed more to bring them together. The tomato, another traditional element of this salad, also seemed a little crude and plain beside the refined prawns.
Entrée 2: Volaille, homard et ris de veau en sauté gourmand, sauce poulette. Roasted Chicken & Lobster, sweetbread, creamy juice. Chicken stick triplet, medallions of steamed scarlet-skinned lobster tail, sweetbread squares, baby boudins blanc and slices of cèpes all swam in sauce poulette laced with lobster coral jus. The firm lobster, again excellent chicken, soft sweetbread and smooth chicken mousse quenelles were all well-cooked. The sauce – stock, egg yolk, crème fraîche, lemon, parsley – had good body, but had to rely heavily on the coral jus to inspirit it. Unfortunately, the cèpes did not leave much memory, maybe as their season is near its end. Another minor niggle, which really does not relate to this plate particularly, was the reuse of the same chicken segments from the first starter – in their defence, they were perfectly prepared and, though no real concern of mine, they probably had a lot of breast left over from the last course, but I always feel that the kitchen should never need to repeat itself. That said, this was quite decent.
Plat Principal 1: Pavé de turbot en matelote, quelques gnocchis tendres. Fillet of Turbot “Matelote“, potato gnocchi. Currently to be found on the menu at Plaza Athénée also, next was braised turbot, semi-circled with clusters of potato gnocchi and crisp, croutons and Paris mushroom matchsticks, with a mizzle of Matelote sauce. The turbot was firm and juicy, but did not have as strong a flavour as I wanted; I must be wary here as Monsieur Ducasse is sensitive about how feral his fish are, as others have already found out: ‘What do you think, mmm? That I came to London to do this? Believe me, I did not come to London to cook farmed fish. All my fish are wild…After your review I am going to go back to the kitchen to learn how to cook. How to cook fish properly! Hmm. Ha ha!’ Anyway…the sauce Matelote, of reduced red wine and Paris mushrooms, was good, deep and tasty – the campignon’s sweetness picking up on the fish’s. Potato crisps and croutons had a contrasting crunch; but again the appearance of these same toasted elements that featured in the initial entrée disappointed, but did perform pleasingly.
Plat Principal 2: Tournedos de boeuf et foie gras “Rossini”, pommes de terre sacristain, sauce Périgueux. Fillet of Beef and seared Foie Gras Rossini, ‘sacristain’ potatoes, ‘Périgueux’ sauce. The meat course comprised Angus beef fillet, foie gras lobe atop thick toast, sucrine lettuce sprinkled with vinaigrette and a drizzling of Périgueux sauce; alongside, sat a napkin pouch of pommes sacristain. This is a classic, controversially created by either Carême or Escoffier, but by whomever, unarguably as a tribute to Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. The steak, rare like requested, was very tender and flavourful, whilst the foie had caramelised crust and creamy centre. The lettuce – this sucrine variety is so in vogue in New York restaurants this autumn – contributed crispiness, saltiness and subtle bitterness that helped cut through the richness of the foie. Toast was a simple, but efficient addition, soaking up the juices nicely. Périgueux’ sauce, made from Madeira, beef jus and black truffle, was potent and deep, though the truffles themselves were unnoticed. The sacristain side-sack of potato spirals was actually a revelation; these substitutes for the much-derided pont neufs that they succeeded, were ultra-crunchy, peppery and infused with a sublimely strong smokiness. A big, hearty dish.
Pre-dessert: Chocolats; et Macarons de pistache, de ‘Bounty’ et de chocolat ganache blanc. Homemade chocolates;, ‘Bounty’, pistachio and white chocolate ganache Macarons. A thrilling twist to traditional mousse or sorbet pre-dessert saw pairs of milk praline and dark Valrhona 70% Guanaja atop a solid block of 60% milk chocolate presented with a bowlful of ‘Bounty’, pistachio and white cocoa ganache macarons. The chocolates were good: the pralines, grainy, crunchy and nutty; darks, velvety and bitter. The coco-coconuts and pistachios were both a little denser and chewier, but the ganaches were divine. These – deep, full, soft-centred, crisp – were the best macarons I have had in London. Soon after letting the staff know exactly what I thought of them, they surprised me with another bowl brimming with just whites. Jackpot!
Dessert 1: Chocolat long, triangulaire. Long, triangular Chocolate. The kitchen was kind enough to make me this special dessert: chocolate mousse, topped with a wafer-like layer of coco givré, itself sitting below chocolaty ice cream, crowned with a thin choc tuile. Each element had individual and distinct consistency and taste. The Valrhona 70% Guanaja mousse was bitter with long lingering finish; its pailleté feuilletine foundation, crusty and flaky. Givré of baked cocoa and sugar was deep and smoky with roasted richness whilst milk and praline ice cream was smooth and clean. Every piece played its part in this textural performance.
Dessert 2: Soufflé au pamplemousse rose au goût légèrement amer. Slightly bitter pink grapefruit soufflé. A sizeable sugar-dusted soufflé, tinged tangerine-orange, was partnered with pink grapefruit sorbet garnished with preserved grapefruit gelée. The soufflé had an astounding consistency; it was ethereally light and each spoonful like caramelised air. It tasted sweet, but bitter and there was a secret surprise secreted within – more preserved pamplemousse, which had now melted into a sugary jam. The sorbet was invitingly ice cold and again, boasted sublime smoothness. However, as full on as the soufflé was, the sorbet was ten times tarter. I was unable to finish it, though left impressed by the concentrated flavour infused into it. Such sour savours are a personal preference of Alain’s, apparently.
Mignardises & Gourmandises: Le chariot de bonbons. The Bonbon Trolley. How I revel in such excess. Sweet pastries, caramels, nougats, cakes…
Given unconstrained choice by Ahmad, I finally opted for salted chocolate hazelnuts; shortbread with praline; chocolate cake; religieuse; tête de choco; and canelé. For the record, I left behind nougat, passion fruit caramel, raspberry tart, madeleine and exotic fruit tart. The coco-nuts and shortbread sandwich were both decent; dense choc sponge dissolved into thick, creamy cocoa on the tongue. The religieuse, of pâtes à choux crammed full of orange blossom flavoured confectioner’s custard, was soft, light and exploded with delicate citrus crème. The tête de choco (or teacake/Mohrenkopf/Schokoküsse/whippet, you pick) had super-skinny chocolate skin that began to melt on touch, the marshmallow middle was airy and sweet whilst the base, replete with rice crispies that snapped, crackled and popped to excellent effect. For the final treat I had put aside, my favourite, the canelé. It was worth the wait: thick, caramelised crust encased soft, tender custard centre vivified with vanilla. Yummy.
Did I mention the little gift they give guests? More macarons and chocolates….well, it is true that one can never have enough macarons.
Straightaway, I must state that the food has come along way: it is now more consistent, more polished and maybe even more interesting. Today’s meal was a real crescendo for me; the starters were the weakest aspect, simply as they seemed to me the least attention-grabbing and harmonious of the dishes. The mains improved on this, showcasing classic combinations and recipes with minor modern modifications. As dinner’s end approached, the more exciting things became. Ducasse is notoriously good when it comes to desserts, but that was exactly where my last meal here descended into decided disappointment; this time, the opposite occurred. Great pre-dessert (chocolates and bowls of macarons) were followed by toothsome coco treat. It is a shame that I found the soufflé and sorbet more than ‘slightly’ sour, but I was still able to appreciate the technique that went into them and their quality. All the accoutrements that accompanied dinner – gougères, breads, amuses, bonbons – were very tasty too. Another point is the presentation; previously, this was much disparaged, however I would have to say, on today’s evidence, this too is better: plates were vibrant, colourful and appetising.
Service was friendly, polished and efficient; it seems to have relaxed, in a good way, since my last visit. I was first met by Philippe (Beaucourt), who was welcoming and engaging; the considerate and attentive Ahmad then took care of me over dinner. There was a marked generosity and easiness in the FOH that made the entire experience much more enjoyable. Discussing ADAD, Ducasse has asserted that ‘this one will be elegant but not too formal, with dynamic service…I wanted a young, ambitious team with everyone smiling. We will do our job but first we will give hospitality and we will make our guests feel welcome. I really want to change the image of French restaurants…things have to be more relaxed.’ The Chef has his wish; the smiles never ceased and I, for one, was very comfy.
In the hyperbole before the launch of this venture, Ducasse declared that ADAD ‘will have the modernity of Beige [Tokyo], the seriousness of La Plaza Athénée and the flavours of Louis XV meeting the energy of London.’ No wonder then that expectations were enormous. I think today the truest pointer to where this outpost stands in the Chef’s grand strategy is to be found on his website’s footer that features the links to all his empire. Under ‘restaurants’, Louis XV and ADPA take pride of place…and ADAD? Look at the ‘not forgetting’ list and there it is, after Le Jules Verne (but, at least, before both NYC spots).
Diners ought to adjust their hopes accordingly. Now that it has had time to settle, I would say the restaurant is somewhere one can have an enjoyable meal, peppered with a little luxury, in an elegant setting.
‘We want our clients to give us three stars in their hearts’ – I don’t know about my three, monsieur, but I suspect you will get one on your door soon.
53 Park Lane, Dorchester Hotel, W1A 2HJ
tel: 020 7629 8866
nearest tube: Marble Arch