Two meals, five stars, worth them?

In the last week I have been lucky to dine twice in high-end London restaurants, boasting five Michelin stars between them. How did they rate?

The first was lunch at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. (This was with Champagne Bruno Paillard – I have written up the wine part here.) Boasting three Michelin stars, this is fine dining at its finest and most exclusive. The dining room is modern, white, stylish but a little soulless and heavy. In fact, it’s exactly what you’d expect in an international luxury hotel. This will be reassuringly familiar to many of the clientele here: they want things expensive, but as soon as you put in too much personality into the design, you will alienate as many as you appeal too. And the super-rich are a fussy set.

The staff are everywhere. They are very attentive, but appropriately attentive. Professional not obsequious. The food? It’s amazingly luxurious, beautifully presented, and highly reliant on sauces. Each course is presented, then the sauce is applied at the table in an extra step. Even for the dessert.

IMG_1072-001The first course, sauté gourmand of lobster with truffled chicken quenelles and homemade pasta, was a masterpiece: expensive comfort food with lovely rich flavours. Maybe a little too rich? Rich ingredients with a rich sauce.

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The fish course, a big chunk of halibut, was like a piece of plate art. Beautifully presented, and perfectly cooked, but this time perhaps lacking a little flavour?

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Then, the main course. Veal loin. Nothing too world-shaking here, but very nicely executed, and beautifully sauced. The dessert, likewise. Very pretty, very tidy, very tasty, but not anything terribly imaginative.

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Conclusions? A very impressive meal, but not a memorable experience. Perfectly pitched for a clientele who have money to spend, want the best, but who aren’t curious about food, and don’t want any nasty surprises. It’s classic French cooking with a hat tip to modernity, and it will set you back about £150 per head if you are easy on the wine list. Would I go back if I was paying? No. Would I be keen to go back if someone else was paying? No. There are just too many interesting places to eat in London for Alain Ducasse’s over-heavily starred restaurant to be top of the list. But it is certainly a very good restaurant, meeting the needs of its customers.

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So to meal number two, and we are dropping a star to visit Le Gavroche, the famed Mayfair establishment, opened the year I was born, and which was London’s first to be awarded three-stars. It now has two. I was here as a guest of Credit Agricole’s wine division.

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Visiting Le Gavroche is like getting in a time machine and going back to 1982, when it was awarded three stars for the first time. The bar is all Burgundy velvet, creaky floorboards and red carpets. The dining room is dimly lit, chintzily over-decorated, and patrolled by an army of staff. There’s also a dress code that insists that gentlemen keep their jackets on at all times. (A refurbishment is planned in January 2014, apparently.)

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The food is classic French, and heavily sauce dominated. We began with a richly flavoured crab dish, which was nicely done but perhaps a little over-salted. The meat – beautifully tender veal fillet – was quite superbly done. Again, though, there were no surprises  here. Richly flavoured, intricate, delicate French cooking. Technically superb, but staying on the safe territory of the familiar.

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As you can see from a shot of the menu, this is a fabulously expensive place to eat in the evenings. You would be looking at £200 a head. While I admire the technical ability of the kitchen, it’s just not a very enjoyable place to eat out. The atmosphere is old fashioned and suffocating, and it’s catering for a safe, older clientele with a lot of money to spend.

1 comment to Two meals, five stars, worth them?

  • MichaelB

    Agree completely with what you said about Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester – quite a hollow dining experience. Technically excellent but ultimately disappointing (I was paying).
    Disagree about Le Gavroche though, I think the old-fashioned (I’m sure they prefer the term ‘Timeless’) atmosphere adds to the sense of occasion, and the food I’ve had there has always been incredible. I can also see that if I were there as a corporate guest, I wouldn’t enjoy it in the same way as I would for a special personal occasion. The Dorchester would be better for this.
    Who pays for a meal, and the way that affects our dining experience, is an interesting point; after having freebie wine/work dinners I have rarely wanted to return to that restaurant as a paying guest. I wonder whether this is common, or just a coincidence (or just me).
    Good comparison though, which also highlights the whole Michelin nonsense.

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