A dull Gallic re-launch of the Mayfair dining room until recently tenanted by Angela Hartnett; the food on our early-days visit impressed only by its enormous prices.
ore mature readers may recall that the dining room at the Connaught used to be considered a truly great restaurant, with an unbroken tradition going back to the era of Escoffier. (It was a US magazine that, within living memory, described it as the last great French restaurant in the world.)
In 1998, the Connaught was acquired (as part of the Savoy Group) by US investors Blackstone, who – to clinch the purchase – promised to uphold the group’s traditions. Those who had noted at that time that ‘Blackstone’ and ‘barbarians’ alliterated rather nicely, turned out to be right: the investors quickly set about trashing the restaurant, and leased the space to the Gordon Ramsay group, who turned it into an humdrum Italian affair, under Angela Hartnett.
And now the caravan has moved on. The new owners of the hotel no longer avail themselves of Ms Hartnett’s services, and have instead installed a cartoon figure as the new French chef. No disrespect to Ms Darroze, mind: she was the model for Colette in the excellent Pixar animation Ratatouille, which just goes to show she's considered quite a figure in the Parisian cheffy world.
The return of the French signifies no restoration of the ancien régime (more’s the pity). This is most apparent in the look of the dining room. À la Hartnett, efforts are made to pretty up its Edwardian sobriety in a way that just doesn’t work, and which just make the room look like a pretentious boutique hotel anywhere. The result is neither imposing nor romantic.
On the service front, similarly, there is no return to former days. Gone for ever are the wonderful staff, who demonstrated that wearing a wing collar didn’t necessarily make you stuffy (and who did an absolutely wonderful party trick of rolling out a new table cloth for dessert, without disturbing anything). Nowadays we have cool, youngish Frenchmen (mainly): perfectly pleasant, but one somehow senses not here for the long haul.
Our food started off well. The amuse-bouche – foie gras crème brûlée, apple sorbet and peanut emulsion – was an absolute corker, and the other pre-meal folderols were all pretty good too, as was the bread.
During the meal proper, however, dishes came and went, largely without comment, except how there was nothing really to say about them. This was quite an achievement, considering the elaboration of the descriptions. "Les chipirons de ligne sautéed with chorizo and confit tomatoes black and creamy ‘2006 Vintage' Carnaroli Acquarello rice, Reggiano parmesan foam", for example, might have been rendered in Anglo-Saxon as "OK risotto with chewy squid, and quite nice cheesy foam".
"Turbot de ligne roasted in foie gras oil, fennel, compote and confit, green apple reduction with Taggiasca olives" might more pithily be rendered as "an insult to the fish" - dry and uninteresting, its richness had been all but destroyed. Salmon – presented, as if a peasant dish, in a bowl – was really just rather horrible.
Then came cheese. A groaning tray, with intriguing selections of the best of the 365 selections that La Belle France can allegedly offer? Not a bit of it, but rather a pre-plated selection of three cheeses. How basic an absurdity is that? This is simply not the sort of thing you go to Mayfair for to spend, most likely, £125+ a head on. And the quince jelly offered with it – a bizarre accompaniment to the mainly soft cheeses served – tasted of almost nothing.
And then a fruit 'n' sorbet pudding. (Do not adjust your monitor. We thought that was the sort of thing you went to to an ice cream parlour for too.) And this particular effort – described as “La Fraise (yes, just one) Mara des Bois on a bay leaf pannacotta, lemon jelly, fresh strawberry sorbet, almond crumble” – was a truly pathetic conclusion to a supposedly memorable meal; a total non-event. (It was absolutely trounced, incidentally, by a rather similar creation recently consumed at the excellent new City spot, L'Anima, which has the excuse of being Italian, and where prices are about half what they are here.)
Some fine coffee came accompanied by some horrible great chunks of chocolate which would gladden the hearts of lorry-drivers everywhere. Can ace Parisian pâtissier/chocolatier Pierre Hermé really have been responsible?
So – one of our most expensive meals ever in London, and one of the worst. Come back the ancien régime.
Ah no, it was destroyed for ever.