Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in Mayfair: Sublime fine dining that never bores
Behind the doors of one of London’s most exclusive hotels – The Connaught – is Hélène Darroze’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant. We are in Mayfair, where everything is not only expensive but also often overpriced and not particularly inspiring. This neighbourhood is the battleground for major international chefs to win over the richer crowd and the greater accolades: fame and money rule. Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, Jason Atherton, Michel Roux Jr and Gordon Ramsay are some of the names who run high-end operations within walking distance.
Darroze spent half of 2019 revamping her Paris and London restaurants, giving a completely new look and energy to the Connaught’s dining room. Balancing classic and modern, the space is dominated by a hand-blown blue glass chandelier as well as two Damien Hirst paintings created for the hotel – one of which is behind my seat. It’s a completely new atmosphere; the heaviness of its dark panelled walls has turned light and comforting thanks to an elegant shade of coral. The white tablecloths have disappeared, contrary to their comeback at Davies & Brook, the new restaurant at sister hotel Claridge’s, paving the way for a more informal experience. Tonight’s varied clientele reflects this new approach.
The menu is a one-page list of dishes (15), without the classic separation between starters, mains and desserts (although it’s quite easy to work out the nature and weight of each course). There’s a choice of five (£120) or seven (£170), with the option of going also for either a standard or premium wine pairing.
A selection of amuse-bouches – a mushroom consommé; nori-dusted macarons; trout pâté tartlets; pine buckwheat crackers – reveal the finesse of a cuisine that is still firmly centred around flavours. The restaurant’s most basic champagne by the glass is – for once – not the usual glass of non-vintage Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier or Moët & Chandon; it’s actually a wine I drink regularly, L’Overture by Savart, the producer’s non-vintage blanc de noirs: sharp, mineral, complex yet refreshing. If you are into champagne the wine list is impressive, but you’ll need deep pockets to enjoy it. Among the Grand Maisons, the number of Krug vintages alone exceeds 30. But there are some of the best producers – big and small – from Egly-Ouriet to Jacques Selosse and even Jacques Lassaigne.
The dish we begin with is Caviar, where the Iranian sturgeon’s roe is combined with oyster, dashi gel and sea urchin. And gold on top, because why not? The result is a balanced triumph of sapid flavours, which the wine pairing perfectly matches: a Nikolaihof Wachau Gruner Veltliner Cabinet Trocken 1985. We continue with Black Truffle, one of Harroze’s most iconic creations. This French polenta called escaoutoun rose to fame in 2003 after being featured in the New York Times; it’s velvety, creamy (she adds a hard Basque sheep’s cheese called Ardi Gasna), setting the stage for the main produce: the black truffle from Périgord, with an egg yolk in the middle. The glass of Riesling Cuvée Fédéric Emile 2008 from Trimbach is yet another proof of wise matching.
In my experience, 2019 was the year of the lobster, and it seems like we are on the right track again. Darroze and her team clearly know how to treat this prime crustacean, enriching it with tandoori spices and citrus. They take pride in naming the Cornish fisherman who supplies them, a public supporter of Brexit who probably hasn’t understood the implications of what he does and the fact that pretty much every person who works on this floor and downstairs in the kitchen comes from the EU, as well as your reviewer of course. Still on the fish side, Brill with caviar and dill is another delightful course.
The best dish is yet to come: Welsh venison en croûte – Wellington style, foie gras inside – with turnip, honey and whisky. It’s delectable and wonderfully cooked. The pairing with Brunello di Montalcino from Il Marroneto works very well. We also try the delicious Guinea Fowl, which comes from Tousin in France.
Pear is the first of our desserts, but Darroze’s Signature Baba is the must have. The chef’s family produces armagnac and you’ll be given the option to pick your preferred vintage – 1995, 2000 or 2005 – before they pour it over the cake (instead of the classic rum). It simply works wonders. As if it wasn’t enough, we taste the Chocolate – of Brazilian origin – pudding, made with Earl Grey tea and bergamot. It’s complex and mouth-filling. And because it’s galette de rois season, instead of the petits-fours we have a nice slice of this, cut in front of us, fresh from the oven.
Instead of using an espresso machine, the staff employs a manual press – very theatrical – of the same kind as the one used at restaurant Geranium in Copenaghen. It takes a lot of physical effort but I have to say that the coffee coming out of it – and served in beautiful Hermes china Bleu D’Ailleurs – is very good.
Hélène Darroze at The Connaught is a fantastic restaurant, boasting easily London’s best front-of-house team. Unless you have a six-figure salary, it clearly cannot be your usual place for dinner. However, for special occasions it’s a great destination. And for an extra special evening, you can also dine at the chef’s table, right in front of the action – the table is a large piece of pink marble that can sit up to ten, placed opposite the kitchen, under a cobalt blue fresco by French artist Rochegaussen – or at the sommelier’s table, next to the impressive wine cellar.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
To book a table at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, Carlos Place London W1K 2AL, call 020 3147 7200 or visit their website here.