A very belated review of dinner at the magnificent Le Gavroche to celebrate my Dad’s 60th birthday! Disclaimer: this is a LONG restaurant review. But it’s Le Gavroche, so 800 words just wouldn’t do….
The black cab made a right off Park Lane, turning onto Upper Brook Street where a pristine row of townhouses stood to attention, their façades adorned with blooming bouquets dappled with magentas and whites. Immaculate wrought iron railings guarded each building, overlooking the lean trees that lined the pavement.
Number 43 came into view, and the taxi slowed to a stop. An elegant awning sheltered a mahogany door, through which two figures bedecked in black and white uniforms could be made out. Emblazoned above the door were two words: “Le Gavroche”.
London, and indeed the UK, may be home to thousands of acclaimed restaurants, but there are few with quite so much allure as Le Gavroche. Established in 1967 by culinary royalty, Albert and Michel Roux, Le Gavroche has become one of the UK’s most acclaimed and influential restaurants, often credited with changing the face of UK fine dining. Synonymous with gastronomic excellence, it has been showered with countless awards and accolades, and its kitchen counts among its alumni some of today’s most revered and innovative chefs, such as the inimitable Gordon Ramsay. Indeed, Albert’s son and current proprietor, Michel Roux Jr, may now be a household name for his appearances on programmes such as Masterchef, but he’s a chef first and foremost, earning his celebrity status through the culinary skills in his blood.
Over 45 years its reputation has never faltered, and Le Gavroche remains a culinary giant renowned for being at the forefront of outstanding, classical French cuisine.
So amidst an almost deafening cacophony of hype, it was with enormous anticipation that I stepped out of that taxi on Upper Brook Street and through the front door of number 43, ready for what would undoubtedly be one of THE food experiences of my life.
A quick disclaimer…
Le Gavroche is not the sort of restaurant I frequent often. Ok, ever. As much as I’d love to, two Michelin star experiences don’t come cheap, and I usually settle for breathing them in through reviews, cookbooks and television programmes. But it’s not very often that your dear old pa turns 60, especially a dear old pa who’s equally as enamoured by the Roux dynasty and its pride and joy, Le Gavroche. No other birthday will ever be the same again…
So, first impressions of Le Gavroche after we’d stepped inside that formidable doorway? Fantastic. Perfecting opulent, classical splendour, the restaurant felt like a living, breathing relic of a lost era usually only depicted on the big screen. Rich shades of burgundy, jade and mahogany decorated the small bar where we enjoyed an aperitif, the walls festooned with beautiful works of art that I’ve since discovered included the likes of Picasso, Miro and Dali. My eyes darted around the room, absorbing every intricate detail of the scene. A waitress smoothly decanted a bottle of red, whilst her colleague waltzed from table to table, ensuring everyone was happy. Our waitress took our drinks orders, swiftly returning with champagne from Albert Roux’s own vineyard and a silver platter of dainty canapés. I can still taste those first morsels – crisp, salted pastillas spiralled around wild mushrooms, accompanied by an exquisitely turned artichoke heart topped with spicy tomato chutney. Not enough to spoil our appetites but just enough to whet them, ready for us to be led downstairs for our dining experience of a lifetime.
Into the Dining Room
Although just a stairwell separated the upstairs bar from the subterranean dining room, it was as if Le Gavroche had installed an invisible, soundproof wall, allowing your entry into the dining room to take you by surprise. A lavish, lively and surprisingly cavernous space was revealed, pulsating with the harmonised energy of a seemingly infinite team of waiter and waitresses. They floated around the room rotating glassware, serving courses and clearing plates in a well-practised performance that would be envied by even Olympic champion synchronised swimmers. Even our chairs were pulled out in unison as we approached our table, with white linen napkins fluttering across our laps the moment we met the chair.
Unsurprisingly, the room was beautiful, complementing the rich, classical décor of upstairs. Forest green walls were adorned with more impressive paintings, and the tables were a work of art in their own right – swathed in gleaming white linen and topped with wonderfully eccentric pieces inspired by Les Miserables, from which Le Gavroche’s name was inspired.
I’ve written for nearly 800 words now with barely a mention of the food, and this is deliberate. Our evening, from stepping out of the taxi to finishing our last bite, was more than just a meal. It felt like an acclaimed production, executed by a talented cast who skilfully played their individual roles until the performance reached its long-awaited climax – a spectacular symphony of some of the finest dishes we are ever likely to taste. OTT? Maybe. But this was why we were here, and we lapped up every single second.
The Menu Exceptionnel
Our trip to Le Gavroche was a very special family occasion, and one unlikely to be repeated again without the aid of a significant windfall. So we did it in style and chose the Menu Exceptionnel; Le Gavroche’s tasting menu of nine wine-matched courses. Between us we had three incarnations of the Menu Exceptionnel, which was adapted into a gluten free version for mum, and a vegetarian version for me. Now, I’m not always a big fan of restaurants that serve a vegetarian versions adapted from the ‘original’ meat version. The meat version will usually have been meticulously designed, so to try and adapt it to suit a vegetarian palate usually means that the vegetarian version is found wanting, and with little thought applied to make a vegetarian dish sing. However, Le Gavroche has some pretty high standards to maintain, and suitable adaptations were made without sacrificing on gastronomic excellence, as Michel himself would no doubt attest to. And where a suitable adaptation couldn’t be made, I was served an entirely different course, complete with a different wine selection. This was two Michelin star dining after all.
The Menu Exceptionnel is an intricately crafted succession of courses, flavours and sensations, intended to be enjoyed in their created order just as a musician crafts an album to be listened to track by track. So without further ado or shuffling, I present our Menu Exceptionnel.
Cheese Soufflé Cooked on Double Cream
The Soufflé Suissesse is a Le Gavroche institution, and it’s easy to see why. Rising from the dish like a triumphant, golden crown; it was light and airy, rich and decadent, with an intense depth from the cheese and cream that resulted in a mouthful that I can only describe as joyous. Absolutely faultless.
Terrine de Confit de Légumes aux Epices, Gelée au Madère et Croque aux Champignons
Spice Vegetable Terrine, Madeira Jelly and Mushroom Toast
The terrine comprised firm root vegetables, bound together by a warm, light spice. It was good, not sensational, but perhaps this was to allow the star of the plate to shine – the mushroom toast. If it hadn’t have been for the impending seven courses that would follow, I would have asked for seconds. And thirds. Moist, crumbly bread sandwiched a delicate spread of rich, earthy porcini mushrooms, finely chopped and deliciously oozy. A fantastic homage to that most decadent of mushroom.
Ragoût de Petit Épeautre, Asperges et Pecorino
Spelt and Asparagus with Pecorino Cheese and Almonds
I ADORED this course. A risotto of al dente spelt was caressed by a silken, pecorino blanket; its sharp, well-defined flavour dancing on my tongue with every bite. Crowning the risotto were impeccably turned out asparagus spears and delicate shavings; bright green and a perfect balance of soft and crunchy. Divine.
Champignons Sauvages Parfumés au Ras-el-Hanout Fenouil et Riz Rouge de Camargue
Wild mushrooms and Pastilla, Scented with Arabian Spices, Fennel, Red Rice and Butter Sauce
A mound of tan-coloured wild mushrooms was flavoured with Ras-el-Hanout, an unusual North African spice-mix that’s name translates as ‘head of the shop’, signifying the mix is ‘the best the seller has to offer’. Le Gavroche’s blend was subtle yet complex, clinging to the mushrooms and red rice to create a sumptuous Arabian mouthful. It was also accompanied by another mushroom-filled pastilla, a welcome return of my appetiser that set my tastebuds whirring into action at the start of the meal. That same spice-mix was used with a stonefish for the meat-eaters, who declared the dish as their absolute favourite of the entire meal. That good.
Salsifi Rôti, Oeuf Frit et Chutney de Tomate Epicée
Roast Salsify, Crumbed Egg, Salsify Crisp and Spicy Tomato Chutney
At this point in the meal, I got sniggers from my carnivorous counterparts. Where their plates had been jubilantly graced with a gluttonous pile of black pudding, my substitution seemed to be a jenga-like pile of parsnips. Not so. The ‘parsnips’ in question were actually roasted salsify, that very ‘masterchef’ variety of root vegetable that’s also known as an oyster vegetable,given the oyster-like taste it emits when cooked. Although well-cooked and tasty, it could only ever play a supporting role to the enchanting crumbed egg. Even with the flowery language present throughout Le Gavroche’s menu, this description in no way does this egg justice. A dainty quail egg was delicately rolled in light breadcrumbs and fried just enough to crisp up the breadcrumbs and lightly cook the egg, whilst allowing the yolk to run gloriously like molten gold. Without a doubt the most sensational egg I have ever tasted.
Tartelette de Champignons, Petits Pois et Tomate, Arc en Ciel de Purées
Mushroom, Pea and Tomato Tartlet, Carrot, Spinach, Lemon, Fennel and Pea Purées
As a vegetarian, dishes in restaurants usually go one of two ways. You’re an afterthought, deserving only of quorn or frozen veggie burgers and whatever else requires the least imagination. Or the lack of meat (aka flavour, according to some) is overcompensated with poncy vegetables and ingredients that you need a dictionary to decipher. But it doesn’t have to be like this, as Le Gavroche proved with this final exultant tartlet. Peas, porcini mushrooms and tomatoes. Carrot, spinach, lemon and fennel. The art of simplicity demonstrated at the very highest level, the chefs refrained from fussing with the ingredients to produce a dazzling plate of food. That’s right, dazzling. The sweetness of the shelled peas and tomatoes worked wonderfully with the intensity of the porcini mushrooms, a mixture which rested on as perfect a pastry base as I’ll ever eat. And yes, the purée adorned the plate in petite, cheffy splodges – but if ever it was ok for a bit of cheffyness, it was now. And although small, there was just enough of each distinct flavour of purée to complement the tart and its elements. Glorious.
Le Plateau de Fromages Affinés
Selection of French and British Farmhouse Cheese
The arrival of our cheese trolley was an emotional experience. I love cheese in a big way, proudly attending a cheese club each month and hunter-gathering as many fine cheeses as I can get my hands on from the various fine cheese pureyors around Leeds and beyond. But in all of my cheese-loving life, I have never experienced anything like Le Gavroche’s cheese trolley. At least 50 distinct cheeses basked on the trolley, pierced with flags baring names I’d never even heard of. It was my turn first and I just stared agog – how to choose?! Fortunately, behind the cheese trolley was a waiter who hypnotised us with his cheese knowledge, guiding me across the trolley to pick me four special cheeses – a hard, a blue, a goat’s and a soft. Forgive me – by this stage I just can’t remember their names, but they were very special indeed.
Millefeuille aux Framboises et Gianduja
Crispy Filo Layers with Raspberries and Milk Chocolate and Hazelnut Cream
The end was nigh, but our penultimate course refused to slope off quietly. Wispy, crispy filo was filled with fresh, acidic raspberries, the sharpness of which was the perfect match for the Gianduja. A souped-up version of my ultimate vice, Nutella, even after eight courses I still could have devoured spoon after spoon of this velvet treasure. Magical.
Café et Petits Fours
I often shun coffee and petits fours, presented at a point when I’ve succumbed to that inconsolable feeling of fullness. But this time I refused to succumb, and ordered an espresso, which emerged to be the best espresso I have ever tasted. I should have guessed. It was rich, intense but very smooth, without that bitter, burning sensation that can sometimes give espresso a bad name. It was so good, I ordered a second – who needed sleep, anyway? The espresso was served with our last morsel of Le Gavroche wizardry – ganache chocolates coated in milk chocolate, exquisite pastel macarons and an assortment of jellied treats. And that’s how it’s done.
Wine to match
As I wrote earlier, matching every course was a decadent and expertly selected wine, introduced to us by our own personal sommelier. I’ve never experienced matched wine to this extent before and we went through the full spectrum, starting with light white and ending with rich desert wine. What was interesting was that whilst every wine tasted good on its own, when it was drank with each dish its characteristics metamorphosed to create a completely different, and far superior wine. And this was the magic of Le Gavroche’s menu. In its entirety, from the construction of individual dishes to the succession of courses and wines; every component, flavour and taste worked together perfectly. Of course, this is what you’d expect from this level of fine dining, but it was impossible not to be impressed by such an intelligently and creatively crafted menu.
From the taste of our first canapé, to that reluctant last bite of chocolate, we dined continuously for four hours. FOUR HOURS. And during this time, we were served by a cast of waiters and waitresses, gliding to and from our table to clear plates, replenish butters and breads, change our glasses and present our food and matching wine. Even excusing ourselves to go to the bathroom was a well-rehearsed interlude for the staff, who escorted us personally and had both chairs laid out ready for us to sit back down the second we arrived back. Too much for some? Maybe. But this was interactive food theatre, and we were only too happy to be part of the show.
And, of course, every theatre has its own Artistic Director, who creates and oversees each performance to ensure their vision is translated into a five star experience for the audience. And for Le Gavroche, that Director is Executive Chef and proprietor, Michel Roux Jr. Michel was omnipresent throughout our meal, dividing his time between overseeing the pass to ensure every meal was meticulously turned out, and visiting every individual table to chat with each restaurant patron, making sure they were happy. Although the allure of ‘celebrity’ doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Michel Roux Jr is different. He’s earned his status, his celebrity the result of carving a successful career from the Roux dynasty, and excelling at that career. You don’t retain two Michel stars by accident. So when he came to talk to us, I must admit that for once, I was speechless, leaving my mum to do all the talking – and take this picture of an unforgettable moment.
As I expected it would be, Le Gavroche was the most majestic dining experience of my life. Yes it’s ridiculously expensive, some may think it’s poncy and men, be warned, try and take your dinner jacket off and you will be immediately reprimanded (ahem, Rob). But for classic, intelligently-crafted fine dining, in wonderfully traditional surroundings with faultless service, I can’t recall another dining experience that could come close to replicating Le Gavroche.