19 Oct 2008

Closh Couture

‘Who are Michelin? -They don't pay the bills, the customers do…’
[Maitre’d, Silvano Giraldin, who retired last month after serving 33 years. A fair man, apparently, although not one to cross. To upset him was to quash dreams of working in London’s better restaurants]
WHEN I collapsed into bed a few hours following a long lunch at ‘Le Gavroche’ I was greeted by an ominous snap. Apparently a slat under the mattress had committed suicide under my heavy bones. The latest casualty to my tabletop adventures? -Nothing an RSJ cannot fix, I suppose…
This immensely enjoyable vault of gastronomy, begun in the ‘60’s and relocated in the early ‘80’s (without losing a day’s trading) is unanimously credited with introducing fine French fare into the mash and SPAM-strewn capital. Before it, the Michelin scoreboard read ‘London: nul points’; today there are nearly 50 stars, two of which belong to ‘Gavroche’ (as Michel Roux Jnr. puts it). Even if you have not been, you will have digested its influence, which percolates like haute couture. The revered incubator has inspired a myriad of inspiring chefs. Alumni include: Rowley Leigh, Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay.
Elegance is ingrained within these walls. However whilst the public facing areas are as calm as a Gallic cucumber, the experience of working in the engine room would petrify mere mortals. In his first autobiography, ‘Humble Pie’, Ramsay wrote: ‘I know of at least one chef who used to sleep in the kitchen, Sunday nights, so he was ready for the next morning. That’s how the regime affected you if you weren’t on top of things…’
Unfortunately, I was not firing on all cyclinders when I met my friend, Will, in the upstairs clubby tartan nook cum holding pen. Having stretched the previous evening into morning with a gaggle of bloggers, where booze flowed undammed, alas not a millilitre of ABV would pass my lips this lunchtime. A shame considering Gavroche’s cellar features no fewer than 50,000 bottles (with more bins in bond).
We sat at the reflective brass counter facing the painting of Gavroche, the little urchin from ‘Les Miserables’ who lent the restaurant his name. The story goes that the child needed a warm haven free from the prostitute peppered streets. Le Gavroche is meant to be that place. The ragamuffin’s story was not one of rags to riches, however...
A silver tray featuring a lightly curried quail’s egg convoyed our drinks. Dehydrated, I gulped an instantly replenished sparkling water.
As a direct threat to my bank account, we chose the ‘Menu Exceptionnel’, which extends to eight courses excluding the fripperies which topped and tailed. Once planted in the very softly lit forest green dining room, amidst scentless orchids, deep pile carpet and eclectic art relevant to the restaurant’s autobiography, I became mesmerised by our centrepiece. The outstandingly repellent frog was formed of recycled silver cutlery (yours for £1,500). Our forks had chef figures set into their handles. In the kitchen, eighteen real ones toiled to engage 65 diners. In the dining room, the ratio was one waiter to three guests. A sheer payroll, yes, but essential should you want to play 'drop the napkin'.
After under-seasoned, boring bread from Bagatelle, we were under starters orders. A lettuce trireme of Lobster with Mango, very ripe Avocado, Basil and Lime was mildly invigorating. The closing taste was sweet mango. This was partnered with what I know to be a classily packaged but unbalanced South African Chenin Blanc/Viognier from Vondeling. I know that Roux occasionally feeds artisan beers into his menu, matching, for example, Liefman’s cherry with spicy seared tuna. Every liquid collaborator was vinous today, however, including at least three mature vintages. Temporarily tee-total, I relied on Will to relay the conversation between the matches.
Soufflé Suisses is a signature starter which, rather like ‘The Archers’, fanatics will not allow to die. It is certainly no beauty, resembling scrambled brains. Cooked on double cream, this lactic extravaganza consisted of “about a 1000 calories a spoonful”. It was surprisingly ‘open plan’ on the palate, however, aerated in fact, with the puffed Gruyere and cheddar dissolving like candyfloss.
I thought I could smell this dish minutes before it arrived. It transpired that the well-endowed cheese cart was garaged next to us; our pungent neighbour for the duration. To gently paraphrase Will, he said that the oak matured, dense ten year-old Champagne dominated by raspberry and white truffles, echoed the richness of the dish, whilst also tensely scything through.
To follow, Grilled Scallops were adorned with Spicy Aubergine, Parsley Coulis the colour of the walls and Fennel Pollen, which looked like crushed pistachio. This was my first time with Fennel Pollen. It reminded me of the ‘Omnivore’s 100, a list circulated to various bloggers, inviting them to mark which of the variously bizarre foodstuffs they had eaten. However nattily devised, it did not feature wild fennel pollen. The author is probably sucker for a nip of ‘Piritol’. Anyway, the ‘spice of Angels’ can be as expensive and potent as saffron – not that you would know that considering Gavroche’s easy hand. The best comes from coastal California. One writer describes it as a magic powder which ‘transforms ordinary dishes into extraordinary ones’. There are copious chefs who could argue that to so fuss a singularly sublime scallop is heretic and conceited. Perhaps, although I encountered a mesmerising semblance of astonishingly complementary, vibrant flavours all tufted around the firm marshmallow textured scallop. This was matched with a bravely mature, herb scented Provençal pink.
Apart from the cost of them, tasting menus raise two further concerns. Considering the hiatus required to deliver numerous courses of food and wine and to explain them in often impenetrable accents, conversation halts. Secondly, it becomes hard to plan a loo break. And leaving midway through a dish is bad behaviour.
A properly sized, spectacular slab of succulent, tender, buttery Foie Gras was warm. This was not cursorily moussed giblets from the back of the battery barn, but the cream of a precise process originating from the Egyptians. On top, a wittily alcoholically saturated green grape (my hair of the dog), and alongside, a cinnamon scented crisp pancake filled with thinly torn duck. The sommelier recited details of the vinous match, a flaxen coloured, broad, rose and talc scented Alsatian Gewurtztraminer, with the elan of a candidate sitting an exam.
Lustrous, tenderly braised ox cheek, liberated and divided from its pot at table initially looked intimidating. Surely this would be too hearty, too stodgy? It was actually uplifting. Its fronds parted at the gentlest of pats. Parsnip purée retained a little nutty texture and a brisk flavour. I could taste the damp forest in the ceps. Minutely cubed bacon was vigorously smoked. More of the beef juices were soused. Will and I took an almost embarrassingly long time to inhale the collage. A smart Hermitage accompanied.
Minervois in magnum eased the passage of the requisite cheese course. Driven by the deputised big cheese, the trolley covered the couple of feet to our side. The pressed, rolled and ripened specimens looked ravishing. Each was named (in fact the labels were one of the few items in Gavroche not to bear the ‘Gavroche’ insignia). The assortment of slender biscuits made the bread at the beginning look ever more tedious.
A Tuscan truffle scented with rum was complimented by one of the few reds to heighten the sublime, spreading, melting texture of chocolate: lush, chilled red Banyuls.
Gloriously sticky, puff pastry, caramel circled Apple Tarte Tatin was punkily skewered by a baked Madagascan vanilla pod. This had been masochistically split several times most likely by a lackie tacked to his station. A lozenge of vanilla ice cream slowly dissolved alongside. Le Gavroche’s own sticky from the legendary Klein Constantia region smelt like drying mangoes.
With good coffee which curdled filmically when cream was introduced, we were cluster bombed by two courses of petits fours (“just in case”).
I felt excitement entering the restaurant. On leaving it I felt full (but fully contented too). Despite wholesome rather than artistic presentation, the cooking had been tender. The atmosphere, smart, but never hushed.
Incidentally, Will bought a signed book of Michel Roux’s food and wine matching tome for his girlfriend. Such is the respect that the Roux's have acquired, I am told that she almost fainted when she saw it was signed.
If she had seen our bill, she would have needed smelling salts...
'Le Gavroche' - 43 Upper Brook Street W1K 7QR. T. 020 7499 1826
Nearest Tube: Marble Arch
Le Gavroche on Urbanspoon
FURTHER LINK: Interview with Silvio Girardin (Caterer Search)