I take a very particular approach to detail my lunch at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught. The three-star restaurant in Mayfair offers a lengthy tasting menu that, when accompanied by rivers of brilliant wine, means that I run the risk of gobbling up my word count in the descriptions alone, and I want to hold your attention past the appetisers. So here are the facts, my broad strokes.
The Taste of Winter menu that I had (the current Taste of Spring is almost identical by the way) consists of a three-course option for £85.00, a five-course for £160, and an eight-course for £185. All include supplement costs for lobster, caviar, wagyu, and cheeses that could easily send things spiralling, so check the bracket prices. I was here for the long-afternoon sitting and, more importantly, someone else was picking up the bill, so naturally I made myself comfortable for eight-courses.
It’s important to note this because I want to shatter any allusions that this is a French restaurant
First, there’s bread. That might seem an obvious statement, but I’ve recently come to expect bread to make an appearance mid-meal, chefs believing themselves to be brilliant bakers – the wiser ones, actually hiring a qualified baker. Sourdough with rye flour is fluffy with a friable, crumbs-all-over-your-trousers crust. And let me explain the butter because it matters. There are two types, both malleable and mopable, forked into barbed designs. The first is spiked with Espelette pepper, produced by Bordier in Normandy, and cultivated in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques; the second from Cornish butter culture. This is the first of many appearances Cornwall makes, Hélène and her executive chef Marco Zampese leaning heavily on produce from the furthest reaches of the English southwest. It’s important to note this because I want to shatter any allusions that this is a French restaurant. Instead, there are global pickings from across Britain, Spain, Kenya, India, and the length and breadth of France.
Then, a smiley sommelier arrived: fun and welcoming and, crucially, empowered to serve wine. All the staff are amenable, demonstrating typical Connaught etiquette. The restaurant manager Mikor Benzo instils that fine balance between affable and ceremonious in his team. I’m not big on the getting-sloshed-at-lunch thing, which is a shame given that the restaurant stocks some of the finest wines in the world with a collection of over 3,000 bins and more than 20,000 bottles. Rather, I threw out a few pretentious characteristics, and the sommelier Lupo Thoenes did his sommelier-ly thing, honing in on a brilliant Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2020 (£20, 125ml) and David Duband’s Gevrey-Chambertin 2017 (£36, 125ml), part of The Connaught Selection. One of Burgundy’s rising stars, Duband’s wines are harvested entirely by hand. This vintage was perfect for lunch, with light, ripe red fruits.
Three mushroom appetisers are then presented on a thin, white curvature plate. It’s a seasonal amuse-bouche and a study of the mighty ‘shroom, demonstrating the champignon’s versatility. One raw, dried cèpe sliced thinly, another Black Trumpet and a Paris puffball, like the Calvatia gigautea. Each earthy morsel is expressive, subtly redolent of woody-sweet chestnuts. Then comes the first of my decisions, Sophie’s Choice between the Torbay Prawns or Amur River “venison tartare” with caviar, at a supplement cost of £75.00. I opt for the caviar because, well, someone else was paying. What arrives is a stunning assembly of Kristal caviar crowning a Carlingford oyster “tartare” with butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds. The other option has become somewhat of a signature dish, or certainly one of the most photographed, splashed across Instagram grids: a vibrant plate of Devon prawns that pop with sprinkles of red pomegranate seeds, green watercress, and Amalfi lemon. Not choosing it is a reason to return.
Minutes later, a bowl of Jerusalem artichokes arrives, concealed within a trio of tortellini in a stonking broth. Dancing on top, ribbons of thinly sliced guanciale from Benoit Quiviger in Brittany glisten. I should explain the dining room here, which the architect Pierre Yovanovitch revamped in late-2019; Damien Hirst’s work fitted amongst the ornate wood wall panelling. I’m seated at a corner table next to the window, and the view of Mayfair outside is bathed in early spring light. Sunbeams stream through and warm the soft pallet room, casting a spotlight over my guanciale, highlighting the adipose goodness. The tortellini has been dusted in fragrant Kenyan Estate Coffee before a cedrat is zested for that three-star theatre. It leaves a zingy succour, the scent of citrus lingering long after being removed. Cedrat is my first experience of what is to be a varied journey of differing acidity, Hélène applying small additions of cedrat, yuzu, lemon, mango and quince sparingly, helping balance or elevate a dish.
A weighty Cornish scallop is perfectly seared on top and raw and fleshy within. The accompanying Tandoori puree electrifies the already sweet scallop, as a circus of complexities runs amuck in my mouth. It’s a staple recipe, appearing on Hélène’s menus ever since she first visited India over 25 years ago. I hear from others who have visited that variations occur, the central ingredient flittering between scallop and lobster, both bringing their natural sweetness. Then, there’s an unexpected, off-menu crab dish inspired by the Basque Country and Txangurr a la Donostiarra, combining the white and brown meat of a Cornish Spider Crab with a dusting of green herb crumble. This version uses Koshihikari sushi rice and is served with a cracker decorated with dabs of lemon gel and coriander. It’s fishy and sweet and wonderfully comforting. It doesn’t feature on the menu but should do, for always and forever.
I opt for mallard over Highland wagyu, partly because the supplement cost is a whopping £115
Dover Sole is from Newlyn in Cornwall, home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the UK. It has all the muscular firmness of a good sole. French chefs love sole. Escoffier has more than 300 recipes for it. Puréed blobs of swede accompany, bringing earthiness, and splotches of yuzu help balance the saltiness from little pops of sea snails. Then comes a choice between duck or beef. I opt for mallard over Highland wagyu, partly because the supplement cost is a whopping £115, and I already took the piss with the caviar, but mostly because it’s the end of the season and the prospect of it intrigued me. The mallard comes from the Rhug Estate organic farm in North Wales and is prepared Wellington-style, wrapped in Hispi cabbage and a kind of brisée pastry with a foie gras gobbet in the centre. It’s served with Malaysian Sarawak pepper and a mallard gravy infused with fresh ginger. It is the best mallard I’ve ever eaten.
A snooker table-sized cheese trolley is wheeled to the table. At a £28.00 supplement, I want to order everything, all of the brilliantly rich, gooey, elegant Frenglish cheeses, however, I restrain myself to just three because then comes dessert proper. Pastry chef Benjamin Clement pairs Tahitian vanilla with corn, banana, and mango in a crisp shell, creating a series of differing textures. It’s odd to read and similarly when presented before me, but the results are utterly brilliant. Corn and banana make for a strident combination with a garrulous flavour, but the surprise was the tropical, tart-blasted effluence of the mango, a floral sourness that danced with the vanilla.
Everyone tells me that Hélène’s Baba is a necessity, so I had already removed my belt in anticipation. It comes with Armagnac Darroze rather than the traditional rum. The Darroze family have devoted themselves to Armagnac for three generations, their cellars managed by Hélène’s brother, Marc. They are considered some of the finest in the world, and I’m encouraged to choose from one of three vintages – 1995, 2000 or 2005 – which is then poured over the fluffy, booze-sodden cake. Chantilly cream is then spooned on top. It’s elegant and subtle and sacre bleu, brilliantly boozy; inebriating me within seconds.
The entire lunch is how three-star lunches should be: long and leisurely while celebrating the people behind the produce; the staff making me feel comfortable, like we’re pen-pals for life. Of course, they don’t mean it – and I’m almost certain that they’d never write back anyway – but their charm and training present a familiarity that puts one at instant ease in what is surely one of the most beautiful dining rooms in all of London. C
The Connaught Hotel, Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL