Friday, 22 October 2010

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Park Lane


This is not going to be an easy post to write. Don't think for a second I don't know how lucky I am to have been treated to a free meal at London's most expensive restaurant, with matching wines, a phalanx of attentive staff, tour of the kitchens, and goodie bag. Don't think I don't realise there are people dying of hunger in the world and that the news of an overfed, jumped-up food blogger whingeing that his free meal at the fanciest hotel in town wasn't quite up to scratch won't turn some stomachs. Don't also think I haven't been fretting about coming across as ungrateful and churlish, or conversely looking like I'm deliberately picking fault to deflect accusations of bias. I can only hope you're here because, regardless of whatever else is happening in the world or your stance on food bloggers accepting invites like this, you just want to know what a meal at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester is like. So, all that said, let's see how I do.

The truth is, of course, and this may be at the root of many of my problems on Wednesday, that I was going into the Dorchester expecting one of the greatest meals of my life. But then, that's not really my fault - that's Michelin's fault for giving them three stars, their very highest accolade and therefore putting it on a par with the Fat Duck or Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road or (ahem) El Bulli. And then it's also the restaurant's fault for having (and allowing us to order) a 7-course Autumn Menu priced at £180 for the food alone, which in itself makes as bold a statement on the standard of food I might expect as any award from a fat Frenchman made of tyres. Let's have another look at that price - £180. Just for food. Not even including service. If I had saved up for this meal out of my own pocket, and sat down on Wednesday thinking "well, it's this or a holiday", I think I'd have every right to expect one of the greatest meals of my life. And this just wasn't.


Ducasse make all their own bread on site, and in the most part it shows. A sourdough bun was perfectly seasoned (surprisingly rare in my experience), with a nice solid crust and fluffy inside. What was described as a "Scottish bun" was also great, having a pleasant savoury flavour (it's made using lard) and ethereally light texture. But a bacon "fougasse" wasn't right at all - slightly dry and with a horrible lingering aftertaste of stale bacon fat. I liked the unpasteurised salted butter and the mousse-like clotted cream was alright, but none of the bread was even slightly warm - is that nitpicking? We were amongst the earliest diners in the restaurant that evening. How long had it all been sitting around?


First course was scallops "in a rich nage" with Kristal caviar. Now, I'm told a nage is some kind of method of poaching in stock, so you would expect the scallops to have a more complex flavour than had they just been sliced raw. In reality, the poaching seems to have had the opposite effect, as these had none of the sweetly aromatic flavours of raw scallops and tasted rather bland. Only the salty caviar on top provided any interest, and the thick cream under the seafood just made you wish you were eating the Ledbury's super ceviche with horseradish snow instead, an altogether more star-worthy dish.


The best thing about this foie gras dish was the potato gnocchi, which had a lovely gummy texture and decent potato taste. And the foie itself wasn't bad either - perhaps it could have done with a bit more of a crispy coating, perhaps the flesh was a bit mealy, but the overall flavour was good. It was just nothing spectacular, and I'm afraid, for better or for worse, that's what I was expecting.


Scottish lobster was another frustrating dish. First of all, the lobster tail was chewy and overcooked; it still had a good sweet flavour and the claws were fine, but surely the knowhow to cook lobster tail to a decent consistency shouldn't be beyond a 3 Michelin star restaurant? I wasn't at all sure of the sauce either, which was very oniony and beefy and rather overpowered the sweet seafood. I shovelled it all down, of course, after all none of it was disgusting, it just wasn't particularly memorable.


Of all the savoury courses, only this plate of turbot with prawns, walnuts and a sauce made from Arbois wine came close to reaching the heights of world-class gastronomy. Beautifully cooked and seasoned turbot, with a nicely crispy skin, was artfully surrounded by a selection of intricately crafted vegetables and drizzled with a heady alcoholic cream which was powerful enough to be interesting but not too much so as to smother the other flavours. Clever stuff, but four courses in we were well overdue a "wow" moment.


My main was breast of grouse with a few bits of veg and some grouse giblets made into some kind of coarse paté. The flesh of the breast was tender but it really needed a crisper skin, and although well presented the beetroot and squash were very ordinary. The paté was very good - rustic and densely offally, but even so, I preferred the grouse at Racine a few weeks previously, and that cost £27. The other main course served to some of my companions was fillet of beef, rather inconsistently cooked from comparing different plates, served with another big slab of mealy foie. I've never been completely on board with the way the French cook beef, but I've definitely had better fillet at Galvin - here it was quite dry and bland.


Truffled Brie de Meaux was actually very good. Rather than simply coating the rind in dried truffles or mixing it evenly throughout the flesh, it had a layer of gloriously truffly paste running in between the two layers of soft brie. Based on this example, I'd like to try more of the cheese at the Dorchester - they obviously have a very good supplier - but something tells me it's rather unlikely I ever will.


Before the desserts arrived a bowl of decent miniature macaroons - the lime flavour was particularly nice - and a tray of unremarkable chocolate truffles.


I won't go into too much detail on the desserts as between us we ordered one of each of the six options and a full breakdown would be tiresome, but highlights were a near-perfect lime soufflé with a very clever Sichuan pepper sorbet; the famous Ducasse Rhum Baba, which was good alright but not quite the life-changing experience I had been led to expect; and a rose and raspberry "pleasure", a delicious and very attractive "sod you" to seasonality. As for the savoury courses, the best bits were very nice, and the worst bits were never inedible, and all the time the staff were pleasant and knowledgeable and, like seasoned stage actors, pitch-perfect in timing and delivery.


It felt odd, though, sitting amongst the splendour and theatrics of this grand old hotel, with all the superficial trimmings of A World Class Meal, choosing from a menu designed to excite any discerning fan of haute cuisine (caviar, lobster, turbot) and yet still somehow being underwhelmed with the results. It was almost as if the brains behind Ducasse decided that as long as they tried hard enough on the idea of a three star meal, and they could convince enough people that this is what a three star meal was, the rest would inevitably flow. I don't begrudge at all restaurants that deliberately gun for Michelin stars - after all, such accolades can make the difference between making money and going out of business - but much of this meal seemed so nakedly tailored towards Red Guide inspectors that, just like a pathetically grateful food blogger given a free £180 tasting menu and matching wine then told to go off and write about it, Michelin could have possibly decided that to flatter the place with awards was just the least-worst option.


I'm not sorry I went along on Wednesday - as hobby-related perks go, you can definitely do worse than being a food blogger - but I can't pretend I won't be glad to put the whole episode behind me. If this is the last time I get any such invitations, then perhaps that's not a bad thing, and I'll live with the fact that it was fun while it lasted and AA Gill said far worse, infinitely more eloquently, to far more people, than I ever could. But more importantly, I know with absolute certainty that had I paid for all this from my own pocket, my emotion wouldn't be one of acute, ear-burning guilt, it would be impotent and furious rage. And perhaps that tells you all you need to know. So, genuine thanks to all who helped organise this meal - I'm sorry this probably wasn't what you wanted to read, and sometimes I think PR people have the hardest job in the world - and to anyone else who's wondering when all this bloody navel gazing will end and just get to the point already, then I can only say there are much better ways of spending this amount of money on food in London. Table for 20 at Mien Tay, anyone?

5/10

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester on Urbanspoon

33 comments:

Michelle @ Roasted said...

Absolutely fascinating. I can understand your dilemma and guilt, but you do a service to us all with the unbiased truth. It makes me sad to think there are folks that are going to go there tonight and shell out 180 pounds for mediocrity.

Krista said...

Hi Chris,

I really enjoyed reading this and you should not be worried about reviewing honestly.

Speaking with my PR hat on of course we hope that coverage is complimentary to increase profile and custom but it is unrealistic to assume becuase of name and accolade compliments will be taken as given.

Food blogging is an amazing (and hopefully) impartial resource for the public to read a true and honest account of somewhere before spending their money, for £180 I'd rather know now it would be more wisely spent elsewhere.

Gavin said...

Sorry Chris, no other comment other than...Fuck me, 180 notes!

Caitlin @ Roaming Tales said...

Thank you for posting such an honest review. £180 is no small change, just for food alone, and readers deserve to know what they'll get for it.

On the other hand, I have to say that the lunch I had at Gordon Ramsay's at Hospital Road in 2006 (paid for by my father and stepmother) was one of the most memorable meals of my life (in a good way).

Gregory said...

Great post. I must confess, I am not surprised having read your review at El Bulli.

But tell me, do you personally ever really enjoy these restaurants.... ?

They just don't seem to float your boat and you seem to prefer more wholesome "real" food places.

p.s. I rarely read "sponsored" posts because I will always question the writer's objectivity. Unlike many others, you have proved me wrong.

Anonymous said...

Good post but such a shame. I wouldn't feel guilty though, criticising a free meal isn't a bad thing any more than accepting it in the first place. I can't imagine many people would turn down the offer!

Caroline said...

There's no such thing as bad publicity, at least you'll get people talking about the place and there might be lots of people dying to prove you wrong.

Anonymous said...

So cool! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this post with us.

Anonymous said...

thank you so much.

Kavey said...

Really good post. £180 is a FECK of a lot and yes, you really ought to expect to be blown away for that much.
I can completely understand how hard it must be to write critically when it's this kind of money and you're not paying for it.
But you have done so successfully for cheaper places, when invited to review, so just have to remember to treat it the same, and you have done so.
I have found my visits to Michelin starred places hit and miss. I have loved some but really been completey mystified by others, so not surprised to learn that this 3 star experience didn't remotely live up.
For a better value blow out, I'm just finishing a post on my birthday lunch at Launceston Place, where the tasting menu is £58 and was a wonderful experience, both food and service wise. It'll go up in a week or so.
x

May said...

Great review. The whole point of blogging is expressing your point of view, good or bad. I heard some other similar experiences as yours but not sure if they will write about them the same way.

A good read before you spend £180!

slicktony3000 said...

I think that in some ways the most astonishing thing in your review is the revelation that this restaurant feels able to charge £180 solely for food. Even with the finest ingredients prepared by an incredible kitchen that requires some brass neck. The tasting menu I had at the Sportsman the other week was £55. I appreciate that these are altogether different dining experiences, but for so much extra money you really should get something more special than a few truffles and fois gras...

The people who eat in these restaurants fall in to two types: those for whom money is not a consideration and those for whom it is a rare treat and an experience to be savoured. If the restaurant gets the balance between these two sets of customers right then they will make money and send everyone home happy. On the basis of your review and others that I have read about Ducasse's restaurant they seem concerned solely with pleasing the former audience, which must make for a very dispiriting dining experience indeed.

Chiara said...

Fascinating reading! I find it really disappointing when you get excited about going somewhere with a sterling reputation, which then falls short of its accolades. It has happened to me a couple of times, and always leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

Jen said...

Hey Chris,

Really good post. It seems you had a similar experience to me, almost two years ago. I re-read my post (the days when I used to blog!) and it seems the only savoury dish I liked was exactly the same one you did. I did like the chocolates though :) It was such a crazy volume of food!

A real shame.

Catch up soon xx

TomEats said...

Interesting post - I was glad a long time ago when Helen pointed me in the way of your honest appraisal of El Bulli and this stands on a par with that.

I will be curious to see where sponsored blogging goes in the future. Will PR people start asking for a cut of the review or just reimburse the cost of the meal after the meal - all as a way to try and keep control.

Who knows.

Becky said...

Fair review and sure they would expect nothing else. I love the pretty plate designs.

federilli said...

Wow, 180£. And I thought Fat Duck was expensive. No way id pay that anywhere other than Heston's place...

And the plates look horrid. Not that I was considering going, but not im definitely not even thinking about it.

Alex C said...

Hooray for me than, that at the beginning of this year I plumped for Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, with it's measly 2 Michelin stars. T'was nommy despite the almost identical name.

Thanks for your review - it's important not to sell out. If the restaurant believes its food good enough to court your praise, then they should stand by what they serve you. Your meal didn't cost them £180 upwards, probably 1/5 of that at worst, and most of that wages.

Anonymous said...

Chris,
First of all I have to say that your blog was recently recommended by a friend and I have even tried Polpetto which I thought was great, so thanks for that.
But I have to disagree with you on the Ducasse. I was there a couple of weeks ago for a business lunch and actually thought it was exceptional value @ £45/head including wine - where else do you get that? Set and service were to a high standard and my client loved it! So did I.
I would agree with Gregory's comments and ask whether you are really knowledgeable about 3 star restaurant experience - the comments you are making about price, what you deem to be uncooked, what should be more crispy or bread that is not warm (which actually fills you up more than anything) seem to me, in the light of my own experience, completely unjustified.
So yes, £180 is a lot of money for dinner by many standards, but it is to be expected when you are having a tasting menu in a 3 star restaurant in a 5 star hotel that happens to be on Park Lane...
So when you can have a great lunch in the same place for under £50 per head, I call it incredible value!

Chris said...

Gregory/Anonymous: Two of my absolute favourite restaurants in the world are the Square and the Ledbury, so I do like multi-Michelin starred food, but only when it's worth the money I'm paying for it, or (ahem) not, as the case may be.

Anon: I'm glad you enjoyed your lunch. But I'm sure you'd also agree that if you'd paid £200 instead of £50 then you have every right to expect something a bit out of the ordinary. The lobster was chewy, that bacon bread was disgusting, the scallops were tasteless. These aren't really even subjective things, they were mistakes.

As for being "knowledgeable" enough about 3* restaurants, all I can say is I've been to a few of them. Whilst I didn't enjoy every dish at El Bulli, you could clearly see where your money (a similar amount to Ducasse by the way) had gone. And the Fat Duck was worth every penny. This wasn't.

An American in London said...

I just read the AA Gill review you linked to and feel less guilty about my post now, lol.

Anyway, I was also just reading through the comments on your post (particularly the ones questioning your experience with 3-starred restos), and I thought I'd add that I, too, have eaten at a reasonably-high number of Michelin-starred restos, and I completely agree with the opinions you expressed in this post.

Thanks for the RT, by the way. I'm sure that by the time I decide to get on Twitter, everyone will have moved onto something else.

LexEat! said...

Such a disappointment! Makes you really feel for the poor plebs who have saved up for the experience, only to be let down.

tori said...

A great write up- there is nothing worse that saving up, dressing up and feeling like you're being mugged at the same time. Have had a couple of experiences like that and it just leaves such a sour taste in your mouth...

Anonymous said...

I have to say one thing about Ducasse: I invited my parents for a lunch there (birthday gift) and we thought it was a great experience. And when you think it is £45 per pers. That's pretty good considering the food was really good and the wines very well chosen. The service was impeccable. Enough attention, but not too pushy/in your face.... I recommended to al lot of my colleagues indeed.

Gav said...

Maybe it's just me but I find it funny that people picking at your review are anonymous ...

Personally speaking I think if you read a blog and trust the person's reviews on the majority of restaurants they visit then there's no need to doubt their ability to write up a 3* restaurant.

Glad to see a PR backing this review - all PRs know that, whatever sector they work in, inviting someone to try a product runs a risk. No one is owed a great write up otherwise how could you ever trus the journalist / blogger.

Blogging has to be subjective, people are not paid for their time and effort, the majority of bloggers pay for the meals they blog about so have every right to say what they want.

In the case the meal was comped but Chris still gave his honest opinion ... I for one am grateful as if I decided to spend nearly £200 on that I would have been crushed.

If you feel this blogger doesn't have the capability to criticise Ducasse then why read the blog or indeed the review. I question why someone would be compelled to leave certain comments on here ...

Personally speaking pretty much everywhere I have tried on Cheese n Biscuits recommendation has been spot on. That's why I read this blog aong with a handful of others. They help me spend my budget for eating out well and for that I am thankful.

gastrogeek said...

brilliant write up - shonky food at that price in this climate is just taking the piss really isn't it?

Gregory said...

Hi Chris,

In light of the comments from Anon, I can clarify that I was not questioning your knoweldge of 3 star cuisine, I was simply questioning your affection for it.

I had forgotten about the fact you rated the Square and Ledbury. Thanks for setting me straight.

cheers
g

Anonymous said...

I think that an ignorant person like you can not afford to criticize any kitchen, the place for you is certainly mc donald!

Tuck said...

We were just lamenting today the seemingly mechanical transaction by which a blogger is invited by an owner or a PR for a (free) meal at an establishment and given 'the treatment'.
Said blogger, enamoured by such an experience, goes home happy as larry and writes positive review. Much positive coverage ensures.

At the end of the day readers want honest insights and that is exactly what you have given here.

L

Laura Nickoll said...

This very eloquently reflects the experience I had a couple of years ago when it first opened. Did the PR team see your write-up? I'd be fascinated to know how they reacted, as I understand Ducasse gets very few diners through the door and they're desperate for some high praise. If that's the case, they certainly need to pull their socks up, and check out their competition.

Robert Giorgione said...

Wow! Looks like you had a fabulous time. Apparently though from what I've heard it's very over rated and shouldn't have been awarded their 3rd star. Anyways, I still haven't been yet to check it out for myself.
www.robertgiorgione.com

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel