Last Wednesday evening, I finally gave in to the temptation of accepting a restaurant’s “invitation to review.” I figured that if I accept only one freebie in my life, it might as well be a 3-Michelin-star one.
Four other bloggers (A Rather Unusual Chinaman, Cheese & Biscuits, Hollow Legs, Greedy Diva) and I were invited to eat or drink anything of our choice at Alain Ducasse, housed in the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane.
Greeted at the restaurant by Alain Ducasse’s internal PR person, we were definitely not anonymous diners. So that’s the end of my guilt-ridden full disclosure.
I’ll start with the high and low points of the evening, followed by all the pictures of the food and the blow-by-blow for the hard-core food nerds (myself included):
- The private “table lumiere,” which unlike other private tables, still benefits from the buzz of surrounding tables by cleverly using a wall of fiber optic strings to provide privacy without blocking out noise. When the fiber optic lights are on, it’s all very shimmery and pretty in a blingtastic sort of way. A nice contrast to the otherwise staid dining room. (Of course, the curtain does lure you into a sense of complacency, so it’s hard to remember that everyone around you can just as easily hear you as you can hear them).
- The service. As you’d expect at a 3-star resto when the service know you’re there to do a review, everyone (the restaurant director, Nicolas, the sommelier, Mathias, all the servers) was friendly, helpful and attentive in a discreet sort of way. No detail was overlooked, and no glass went empty. We got 3-star service, no ifs ands or buts.
- The kid-in-a-candy store feeling of ordering anything we wanted from the menu. The regular tasting menu is £115, and the seasonal one is £180. Wanting to see what the kitchen offered at such a lofty price point, we chose the seasonal menu.
- Desserts. I lack a sweet tooth, but the five of us tried all six desserts currently offered by the restaurant, and they were uniformly wonderful, ranging from merely delicious to geniusly-creative. Lime souffle with Sichuan peppercorn ice cream, I will remember you always.
- The subversive high of not paying the bill at the end of our meal.
- The feeling that most courses on our £180 tasting menu were a tick-box exercise in luxury. I probably won’t remember any of them a week from now. In contrast, six years on, I still crave the oysters and pearls, smoked salmon cornet, and golden, magically-translucent crispy bone marrow of Per Se.
- The lobster course. Overcooked and overwhelmed by the cinnamon-red-wine sauce. It makes me sad when lobsters die in vain, and even sadder when it dies at the hands of a kitchen that should know better.
- The beef fillet course. I’ll take partial responsibility for this one because I find filet mignon generally flavorless, so it wasn’t a surprise that I kept wishing the steak on my plate had more char and fat. I should have asked for a substitution here, but at this level of cooking, if the restaurant’s going to offer the dish on its menu, shouldn’t it appeal to even filet mignon skeptics?
Would I go back on my own dime?
- Not for the autumn tasting menu. For £180, the autumn menu offered a stunning variety and quantity of luxury ingredients. Caviar, foie gras (twice), lobster, filet mignon, truffles. But other than the desserts, the food just felt dutiful. Where were the moments of wonder? Like the ones I remember at 3-starred Per Se, or at the relatively-humble 1-starred La Grenouillere?
- Thinking about recent haute cuisine experiences in London, I recall the tasting menu at 2-starred The Square for £100. No question that the Square’s menu lacked the OTT luxury ingredients of what we tried at Alain Ducasse, but the Square’s menu seemed to achieve the elusive “value for money” designation because for £80 more per person, I wanted more “wow,” not pricier ingredients.
- In fairness to Alain Ducasse, I had a marvelous time at dinner that night, because undoubtedly the front-0f-the-house is more than half the battle in the 3-star world. I can say for sure that when the service at Alain Ducasse wants to be charming and helpful, you’ll feel like you’re the most special person on earth. But of course, because none of us were dining anonymously, I can’t tell you whether I would have felt this cared for if I’d been just a regular schmo with £400 per person to burn (because surely, with wine, champers, digestifs and service, that’s about what our bill would have totalled, at least).
- I’d be curious to hear what people think of Alain Ducasse’s £115 “regular” tasting menu. No question I would have been a lot more forgiving at that price point, and the amazing service and setting would have tipped the scales more in favor of “yes” when answering the above question.
Below is the full shebang on the food:
Caviar. Check. It may be farmed (“Kristal” – such clever marketing, no?), but we all have to do our part to help that wild sturgeon population recover. The important thing is that the caviar still tasted nutty, briney and creamy. The scallop was irrelevant.
Nice textures, and the foie gras did its meaty melt-in-your-mouth job, but instead of adding duck jus tableside, something sweet or acidic to break up the one-note meatiness of this course would have been nice.
Even if the lobster hadn’t been somewhat tough, I suspect the cinnamon-spiked apples and quince and red wine sauce would have overwhelmed the delicate sweetness we all know and love in fresh lobster. I can’t resist contrasting this disappointing course with the still-translucent succulence of the lobster roll at Daniel Rose’s Spring, as well with the delightfully delicious roast lobster tail at La Grenouillere (likely the best haute cuisine experience of 2010, by the way).
Very good. I never get my home-cooked turbot to turn out this beautiful or delicious. And look at those carved mushroom caps – charmant, no? The shrimps could have been more thoroughly-deveined, though (see e.g., the shrimp in the upper-left-hand corner of this photo). You expect better.
A slight play on a classic dish, the filet mignon “Rossini style” was memorable mostly because I wondered how I could recreate the charred-but-not-limp lettuce at home. The other reason the lettuce was a highlight is because it was dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette that went perfectly with the foie gras on toast. In case the other courses weren’t luxurious enough, this course doubled down with both filet mignon and foie (again).
Cheese course time. Sometimes you wonder if truffle is added just to make something more expensive. Not here, though. The floral-earthy scent of truffle melded right into the creamy brie and lifted the cheese out of boring land.
Reading off the menu, you could say “souffle? yawn.” But you’d be wrong. Not only was this souffle technically-perfect (light as air, yadda yadda) and intriguingly-flavored (sweet and tart, always a winner), but also the accompanying Sichuan pepper sorbet was genius. The peppercorn’s citrus scent matched the souffle perfectly.
I love the taste and crunch of praline, especially when married with bittersweet chocolate. What lifted this dessert beyond mere delicious status was the accompanying milk-salt flower ice cream, which, eaten alone, tasted horribly salty. But when taken with the biscuit, the salt ice cream heightened the flavors of the praline and chocolate.
At any other restaurant, a highlight. but here, merely very good and refreshing.
Same comment as applied to the raspberry rose thingy.
The famous Alain Ducasse rhum baba. You can tell it’s special because of the elaborate serving dish, no? I’ve never liked rhum baba, which, at its worst, is just soggy stale cake. So it’s no surprise that this one, while better than most, still tasted too much of rhum and too little of cream and cake.
And that’s it. There were tons of delicious mignardises and gourmandises (I wish I’d taken more than a single salted caramel), digestifs to choose from, and the fresh-herb tea options were dramatically wheeled out on a cart for our choosing.
- £55 for 2 courses (appetizer and fish or meat)
- £75 for 3 courses (appetizer, fish or meat and dessert)
- £95 for 4 courses (appetizer, fish and meat and dessert)
- £115 for the tasting menu
- £180 for the seasonal tasting menu
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester Hotel, 53 Park Lane, W1A 2HJ; 0207 629 8866; closest tube station: Hyde Park Corner or Green Park.