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?