Tuesday, 30 August 2016
Dimanche Poulet at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Mayfair
The idea for the Dimanche Poulet at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught came out of one of the side-effects of having your fine dining restaurant hosted inside a 5-star hotel. If you're a standalone operation like Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road or Five Fields, then you have the freedom to open Monday-Friday only and give yourselves a couple of days of well-needed rest on the weekend. And nobody at all will blame you for doing so. But hotel guests need feeding on weekends too, and refusing to do anything as ordinary (or, let's face it, English) as a usual Sunday roast, Darroze decided what she'd do is introduce Londoners to the joys of Landes chicken from her homeland of south west France.
The roast chicken itself, then, is the centrepiece of the meal and we'll get to that soon. What makes Dimanche Poulet a real experience is the dozen or so elements - canapés, consommés and various bitesize bits of loveliness - that utilise the other parts of the bird and also showcase other ingredients from France. First to arrive was Bigorre ham, moist slivers of top-quality pig sliced dramatically tableside using a very shiny and expensive-looking contraption, draped seductively over sticks of breadcrumbed cheese, and a few pea shoots.
Alongside the ham, a cute teapot of "gazpacho", tomato consommé poured into ceramic shot glasses containing tiny cubes of summer veg. A good clean flavour from the consommé and a marvellous presentational flair (inside the teapot were floating red and yellow cherry tomatoes, very pretty) meant this was great fun to eat.
And finally in the trilogy of amuses (bear in mind we haven't even got to course one of the lunch menu yet) these cones of smoked mackerel paté topped with dill purée. As the only bit of seafood in the whole menu they stood up very well, a rich savoury mackerel flavour balanced with a metallic, bright-green herb, a delicate pastry cone giving way to soft seafood filling.
House bread was described as "French country" and was pretty much perfect in its own right, moist crumb bound by a good solid crust. But with it was this tower of flavoured butter - chilli as well as various other spices I believe - and made a pretty much perfect bread even better. Which was as much of a relief as a delight as I have to say the colour of it reminded me of a tikka-flavoured cheddar I was unfortunate enough to suffer a few years back.
Next the first named course, and I have a feeling "L'oeuf coque directement sorti du cul de la poule" means something a bit rude in French so I'll leave it untranslated. All you really need to know was that it was a golden hen's egg filled with a surprisingly powerful Parmesan mousse - an almost blue-cheese taste - bits of smoky Alsace bacon and a good amount of lovely smooth yolk. Unlike so many of the egg yolk dishes you'll see in London these days, there was no silly slow-cooking going on to get a strange fudgy texture; this was commendably un-messed-about with.
My favourite bit of the whole meal came next - a wonderfully deep and complex chicken consommé, poured over teeny ravioli containing more of that Bigorre ham, some cutely balled vegetables and - the killer ingredient - toasted chunks of that country bread which soaked up the consommé brilliantly and meant every bite released a mouthful of rich chicken soup. And this would all have been lovely enough but we were instructed to leave a bit of the consommé at the bottom of our bowls and soon a waiter added to it a shot of armagnac, turning it into a kind of hot chicken cocktail, heady and decadent.
So yes, my favourite course wasn't the showpiece roast chicken. It was very nice, don't get me wrong, but perhaps the World's Best Roast Chicken I'd invented in my head could never hope to live up to anything that actually is able to exist in the real world. Carved expertly tableside and presented alongside a selection of geometric nibbles including a "boudin blanc" of white mousse and Scotch quail's egg surrounded by herby chicken meat, it certainly looked the part. But the breast meat was unfortunately a tad dry, and the skin a little too flaky and insubstantial (and verging on burned) for it to really steal the show.
A taco made with the confit leg meat had an interesting Hoi-sin-style sauce, topped with pickled veg. Again, it was fairly enjoyable but stood out as being rather homestyle and clunky amidst the gastronomic fireworks that preceded it. Or maybe I'm just a taco snob, which is probably more likely.
Desserts were very French. Ille Flottante took me back to childhood memories of holidays on the continent, with a good light ille topped with silver leaf, looking very pretty. However I did think the flottante (yes I know it doesn't really work but you know what I mean) was less like crème Anglaise and more like single cream, which was weird. Crème caramel was just the right side of eggy, with an even consistency and subtle caramel topping. I completely forgot to take a picture of it though, sorry.
And, after a Madeleine or two each, we were done. Reading the last few paragraphs you may feel like I'm winding up towards a fairly low score so it's worth stressing that plenty enough went right in the meal to ensure we felt like we'd got our money's worth and then some. Yes, I wasn't quite as bowled over by the chicken breast as I hoped I'd be and the desserts were more satisfying than spectacular, but in the context of things like the consommé with Armagnac and the parmesan golden egg and the incredible house bread and butter, not to mention literally perfect service and one of London's most luxuriously comfortable dining rooms, £95 for two people is an absolute steal.
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