Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Le Gavroche, Mayfair

Well, who'd have thought it? After 8 years of public votes, and 7 trips to restaurants varying in quality between dreadful and downright dangerous, for whatever reason in 2019 you lot picked as a review subject not an all-you-can-eat buffet in Croydon or a Piccadilly Circus themed tourist trap but a famous old dame of Mayfair dining. Le Gavroche has been doing its thing since 1967 and has remained under the stewardship of the same family - the Rouxs, first Albert now Michel Jr - the entire time. In a city where chefs are lucky to last a couple of years in a particular location, it's quite the feat.

So, it's old, and it's traditional, and it's expensive. These things I knew about Le Gavroche before setting foot in the place, and were expected - in fact, I'd have been disappointed if it hadn't have been these things. As to the quality of the food served, that was more of an unknown. I had detected more than a hint of archness, of knowing smiles and raised-eyebrows, from a section those who had cast their vote for the place. After 7 years of dreadful meals inflicted by those who wanted to see me suffer for my art, had a majority of my readership really had a change of heart and starting dabbling in altruism? Something seemed... fishy.

It all started well enough, though. It's impossible not to be charmed by the welcome at Le Gavroche. Staff are clearly well-practised and while the style is slick and professional, it's also friendly and personable - a tricky balance to pull off. The menus, at least the A La Carte, was somewhat less friendly - overwhelmingly French and ludicrously priced (£68 for a starter of stuffed artichoke, anyone?), it seemed the only way of spending anything less than a crippling amount was to confine yourself to the "Business Lunch", served weekday lunchtimes only and the reason I'd have to take a half day off from work (did I mention I suffer for my art?). For your £74 you get three courses, a half bottle of wine per person, plus a few bits and pieces. If the food had been decent, it could have been, well, if not exactly a bargain then at least A Good Lunch In Mayfair.

I said "if". First to arrive were canapés, one a little pastry casing containing curried cabbage topped with bresaola, which tasted of wet vegetables, and another which if it wasn't Philadelphia on toast, they've wasted some effort in the kitchen to end up with something tasting exactly like Philadelphia on toast. Sure, canapés aren't everything, and it's not like anyone's going to sit down to these and then head home, but seriously, guys. Seriously? As an introduction to 2-Michelin-starred Mayfair dining, I've had more impressive nibbles at my nan's.

There was another extra, apparently "salted veal with herb mayonnaise". I say "apparently" because, much like the canapés, it was so completely unremarkable more or less any trace of the taste of it had been wiped from my brain before I hit the tube home, and a couple of days later after staring at the photo for a good few minutes and grilling the person I went to lunch with - who also had no clue what it was - I ended up emailing Le Gav bookings to see if they could help out. So yeah, "salted veal with herb mayonnaise". Ham on toast, basically. Something else my nan used to do quite well.

This is pumpkin soup with pumpkin biscuits, or rather "Velouté de Potimarron et petit sable", which was fine as pumpkin soups go but hardly earth-shattering and not even able to boast the super-fluffy texture of the finest veloutés I've been served by other top French restaurants. If I had been served this in a local pub I'd have been quite happy, but here?

Beef tartare was solid, perhaps a bit mayonnaise-y but easily enjoyed, except I really don't understand why they decided to confit the egg yolk. Part of the joy of a beef tartare is smushing the runny yolk into the mince and making it all even more rich and silky. Here, the yolk was the texture of spreadable cheese and didn't really combine very well.

As I'd heard so much about the Gavroche triple-cheese soufflé beforehand, we'd asked if we could add it in as an extra course. We were happy to pay for this privilege, but the staff (did I mention how lovely the FOH are?) decided not to charge us in the end, which was a very kind gesture. And happily, the soufflé itself was my favourite course of all, some very clever cheffy techniques creating what can best be described as a cheese-flavoured cloud, albeit a cloud so deceptively rich and filling it gave the impression if you threw it into water it would sink. Still, great fun.

My main course was herb-roast chicken with potato and asparagus. Much like the soup, if you'd have been served it in a gastropub for about £20 you couldn't complain much - the potatoes were a bit chewy and the sauce could have been a bit more substantial - but this is surely some way short of what you might expect to be served anywhere showered in Michelin stars. It's some way short of what I expected to be served, at the very least. Meat and two veg, chicken and gravy.

I'm being snarky, I know - but how much of the above would you place in the repertoire of a £100/head Mayfair fine dining establishment, and how much would look right at home on the menu of a mid-range London gastropub? Picking an example completely at random, the Drapers Arms in Islington has served a very good beef tartare in the past, know how to knock up a good soup and I'm fairly sure would consider cream cheese on toast far too common for their elegant local audience. And there's probably an argument to be made that they deserve a Michelin star on a good day but they'd be the first to tell you they're not exactly playing the same game as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal or the Ledbury.

I promise I won't go too down the Michelin rant path, but there's a point worth making here. Time and time again, Michelin have demonstrated that the one thing they seem to value above all other aspects of a restaurant experience is not the food on the plate or value for money, but fancy surroundings and a name they recognise above the door. I can't knock any contribution the Roux family have made to the culinary progress of our nation, but Le Gavroche is just not comparable to the best of the rest London has to offer, and in fact is barely better than most 1 stars. And though I've never been there myself, I'm reliably informed that the idea Michel Roux Sr's Waterside Inn deserves the top 3 stars is, in a word, laughable. At the risk of repeating myself, it frustrates me no end how much these accolades mean to chefs and restaurateurs when the criteria for handing them out is so backward.

Anyway back to Mayfair. A friend's beef shin (I think) looked the part and was declared "very nice", so let's assume everything was OK there. Not exactly a scintillating presentation, but fine.

The Le Gavroche cheese board is rightly famous, and I can only imagine the kind of waves it would have made back in the day when the only product you could pick up from an English cheese shop was Red Leicester and Cheddar. These days of course, there are many boards that will give it a run for its money, not least Medlar in Chelsea and of course my beloved Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, but this was still an excellent selection, all kept perfectly and, in keeping with the excellent service, offered in generous amounts.

The main thing I remember about this rhubarb-based dessert was that the choux bun on the left there tasted of absolutely nothing - not sugar, not fruit, not pastry, not anything. Which is quite an achievement for an item presumably containing at least some of those things. I think the sorbet on the right was better, but I mean by this point I'd just completely lost interest - I'd decided around the point of the canapés that Le Gavroche wasn't for me, and nothing since had convinced me otherwise.

The bill came to £91/head. Yes, you can pay more in Mayfair - and you can pay a lot more at Le Gavroche - but I could hardly hold much of the above as an incentive to take out a second mortgage and go crazy on the full A La Carte. Perhaps, out of everything, the soufflé hinted most towards the kind of thing those early Michelin inspectors fell for, and I'm more than happy for even the most religiously traditional French food to be held up alongside the best of Modern British, at whatever the price point. I just don't think, in 2019, that Le Gavroche is where you should start.

Anyway, I should end this post on a high note. Despite its flaws, lunch at Le Gavroche is by far the most pleasant public vote outing I've experienced, and I wish to extend a big "thank you" to everyone who voted for it above anywhere else touristy, terrible or seedy. In the end, it was a more a lesson in how messed up the Michelin award system is than anything else, but none the less interesting for that, and hey, no regrets. I doubt I'll be back, and I can't exactly enthusiastically suggest anyone else does either, but as a reminder of London's culinary journey, and for that sterling service, perhaps there should remain a place in the world for the old girl. The past, as they say, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.


Sorry about the terrible photos - it was incredibly dark in there, and after a couple of attempts with my big camera, I realised it wasn't working and switched to my iPhone.


Carlovski said...

Pretty much as expected, which is why everyone voted for it I expect!
I do remember the Gavroche lunch deal used to be considered one of London's great bargains, back in the early 2000s. But then it was about 30 quid, the food was better (And Michel Roux Jr wasn't on the telly...)

Donald Twain said...

I was underwhelmed about 8 years ago at L G. My wife ordered that stuffed artichoke starter (it didn't cost GBP 68.00 then, I assure you - price seems to have gone up alarmingly) and didn't like it. We had to swap starters. Can't remember the mains at all. Cheese board was fun. We didn't stay for dessert. Like you, I thought the staff were good. It was all rather hushed, rather odd, and with an abiding sense of not being as good as it should have been. The tone of this review brings it all back!

Anonymous said...

All i need do is post my comment from the 2019 poll post

"Enjoy your disappointing "rest on their laurels" meal from the Roux (much like I hear Waterside Inn is now). Stick to the classics."

Alex C said...

Sorry to hear it - it was once really great food but has fallen downhill sadly since he started doing a lot of TV. Silvio (no longer there) made the front of house world class and it was once the go to venue for any big celebrations, like Tante Clair before it.
My sister, running a small business, used to take clients there for lunch because for £45 per head (including everything) and you could have it for much of the afternoon, it was cheaper than renting Regis meeting room space in the centre of town.

My (not very) recent experiences agree that it should have been docked a Michelin star several years ago.

Wiewelt said...

Great content. I love your reviews and act upon them whenever I can, which isn't very often but hey...

Alan Spedding (cumbriafoodie) said...

Not one course is worthy of a Michelin star and as for those Canapes , they should be hanging their heads in shame. The grand institution of Le Gavroche is long gone and a major rethink is required.
A good start would be opening papa Roux`s cookbook and learning how to cook proper food again.

Kim said...

Wish I'd read this before taking my sister and brother-in-law there last month when they came to visit me. We did the full tasting menu but ordered our own wine since the pairing was unacceptably expensive. We still managed to pay over £500/couple. One thing that really bothered me was the bread service. The waiter offered it from a little basket and recommended we take all three if we wanted but we had to pick the pieces out of the basket with our hands and hope that some other guest hadn't accidentally touched our piece when they took theirs. The server should have used tongs and placed the choices on the bread plate. I was really alarmed by this. Our food was good and there were a couple stand outs (the cheese souffle and lamb tortelli) but overall not worth it. So many better restaurants in London, with and without the stars.