A swish but surprisingly comforting addition to the Ã¼ber-chef’s international empire, this very Gallic Mayfair dining room offers a surprisingly unintimidating haute-cuisine experience, that’s highly enjoyable (if, of course, extremely expensive).
Other early reviews of this Mayfair chamber have been so mixed that we approached this latest outpost of Alain Ducasse’s global empire with some apprehension. As it turned out, needlessly, as the meal we enjoyed was really very enjoyable in a money-no-object sort of way – presumably the niche the place is designed to serve. And the other thing you really need to know? – this place is very French.
The setting is a lofty dining chamber with the odd glimpse of park, but nothing that could be described as a view. There are various design flourishes – curvy screens, a funny green wall with bobbly bits, but the most eye-catching feature is a circular area, screened off by sparkly fibre optic cables, Ã la Star Trek? The flourishes, however, do not distract from the fact that this is a true foodie temple, conscientiously designed for eating. How many other dining rooms in London have been planned so meticulously that the downlighters – recessed into large mouldings in the ceiling – sit directly over each of the well-spaced tables? (At lunchtime, there’s also a good amount of natural light.)
The staff, as confirmed by the only staff member who appeared to be English, are ‘99% French’, and of the more charming variety. Even the sommelier is not at all supercilious. Some reviews have made much of the wine prices here – fairly, in a sense, as many of the prices do indeed run into four figures – but our suggestion of a £40 bottle was happily endorsed. In fact, we’d readily recommend the Austrian red concerned (Zweiberg) to anyone not in search of great weight or complexity.
The table settings are perhaps a touch fussy – do silver-plated mini-salvers really beat china in the side plate department? – but you soon get into the swing of the place, and the general impression after a while is just very comfortable and harmonious. And there was nothing in the dishes presented to disturb such feelings. The food tends to the mildly adventurous, with a good underpinning of Gallic tradition, which is probably as most diners would want it to be.
First out was a small basket of puffed cheese puffs – not especially exciting – followed in quick succession by a plate of vegetable slivers with a couple of options for dipping and dunking them (in the shape of an intense olive-based sauce – like a creamy tapanade – and a creamy, whipped concoction). It couldn’t be described as earth-shattering but it makes a pleasing, light warm-up for your tastebuds. A selection of four breads had also arrived, all of them worth a try.
We mixed and matched from the lunch deal (£35) and a la carte (£70). But the former doesn’t feel like the poor relation – seared tuna, in particular, came beautifully presented. From the same menu, a plate of winter vegetables made an attractive main course which lost nothing by the absence of protein. In fact, at lunchtime, it’s not really evident why you’d ever really need to choose the Ã la carte.
If you do eat more grandly (from the carte, which has more supplements than you might hope for), the dishes are really not so very different – which is to say they’re very good. Squid dumplings were oriental-ish, dense, complex-tasting parcels of flavour, while a more traditional fillet of venison came simply but elegantly adorned.
As is often remarked, however, it’s as the meal moves towards its closing phases that the Ducasse experience comes into its own, with a crescendo of dishes reminiscent of the final rockets to make sure you go home wowed by a fireworks display. Having declined cheese, our succession of sweet things included some best-ever macarons (eat your heart out, Ladurée) some beautiful chocolates, and a plate of calorific treats including a gooey, sticky chocolate marshmallow. But we get ahead of ourselves – the actual desserts such as Rum Baba and a health-conscious granita with sorbet and poached fruits (the latter from the tempting lunch menu) started to climb firmly into ‘Hall of Greats’ territory. And not to forget the final “banger”, of course – the little marmalade buns you get presented with at the end of the meal as you wait for your coat for you to enjoy over breakfast the next day.
So, what’s not to like about this place? For the most part, the joy of it is that, to a surprising extent – and in spite of its high prices and luxuriousness – it manages to avoid going over the top.