Le Gavroche. Gorgeousness.
I’ve got history with Le Gavroche. Not only the setting for my first grown-up lunch as a newly-qualified lawyer it has also been a concluding dinner to a rather torrid but doomed romance; a poignant post-wedding dinner, with my late father (who had soufflé for starter and dessert), a slightly disappointing meal out with C and most recently, an evening out with my firm’s insurance broker.
You would think that evening with an insurance broker would be a rather staid affair. You would be wrong. By way of illustration, I suspect that the other diners were not treated to pictures of a heavily-pregnant stomach, with a drawing of a face on it, the bellybutton acting as the mouth and the stomach moving, to create different expressions. I am sure that the broker’s partner will be delighted that I have seen this.
But that was much, much later. As the guest and in the unusual role of client, I was given the run of the menu. Obviously I love this. There is no point pretending otherwise. I have no idea what everything cost though, as I was given the no-prices menu. Anachronistic and presumptuous, this out-of-the-ark practice is the only duff note of the evening.
Although the broker would have liked the Menu Exceptionnel, I did not relish the prospect of a seemingly endless parade of little dishes, stretching across the evening, so that by dessert I would be channelling Mr Creosote and wishing for the magic carpet home. Confession: I once fell asleep at the table at Le Manoir.
So I thought that we would create our own Speedy Gonzales version of a tasting menu from the à la carte, by splitting everything that we ordered, so effectively we had multiple dishes, if not multiple courses.
It would have been rude not to order the legendary Soufflé Suissesse as the broker hadn’t tried it. Bless the maître d’, she overheard our projected piggery and suggested that they make two smaller soufflés so that we wouldn’t have to actually use the same plate. Too vulgar for a two-star. I was gratified that she did not bat an eyelid at the idea of an additional starter.
We started with a drink in the upstairs bar. A strange little room, it gives no clue as to what awaits downstairs. It’s a little like a Harley Street waiting room, albeit one with a bar attached, although I do suspect it livens up later on, when the young ones come out to play. We arrived at pensioner-friendly 6:15.
It appears not to have changed from the first time I visited, in 1986. All deep, dark reds, greens and plush, this is not modern. You will not find an exposed filament or an exposed brick wall. It is also not glitzy.
There are, I grant, a few older gentlemen accompanied by stick-thin young women wearing not very much at all, but it is mostly untrendy grown-ups, eating out in a place of quiet luxury.
We are seated at one of the oval tables, on a curved banquette. This means we can gawp at the other customers, not that there is much time to do that, what with all the food. I love this configuration, because it means that I am not close to anyone at all other than my dining companion. Pet hate : being squashed between a long line of tables.
I am also allowed to choose the wine. I tend to inflict Gewürztraminer on unsuspecting companions. The baby-faced sommelier recommended a rather splendid Italian version at the not horrendous price of £62. Had the alcohol level been less than 15%, I might have remembered the name.
We started with a little leg of guineafowl and truffle. Delicious. Some excellent baguettes and a little dark roll, possibly rye. As it is the first piece of bread I have allowed myself in three weeks, I savour every mouthful. It is possibly the best bread I have ever tasted in my life, possibly because I have not tasted any for three weeks.
Next is the soufflé. Gruyère and double cream, this is every bit as rich and light as I remember, it practically floats down the throat. To follow, a superb dish of fat juicy scallops, caramelised on the outside, dotted around with truffle slices, on a bed of oniony crunchy creamy deliciousness with a dark truffle purée on the side. I am very glad that we have agreed to do the sharing thing because this dish was not actually my choice. There was nothing wrong with the plump little langoustines and chorizo I’d picked, but I was pleased that the broker preferred it.
Then a T-bone of turbot in a chive butter sauce, with heritage carrots and radishes, this was a great slab of excellent fish, perfectly cooked; classical French cuisine, done to perfection.
I had ordered the slightly less than classical stone bass, pastilla and fennel, with Ras-El-Hanout and Camargue rice. Ras-El-Hanout means, literally, “head of the shop” and is a Moroccan spice which can contain up to 30 different ingredients. Pastilla is a meat pie, another Moroccan dish, wrapped in filo pastry. I loved this. I also love the fact that kitchen can step away from the classic to embrace modern food trends. Ras El-Hanout. Get you Mr Roux. Also available at Waitrose.
It was at this point Michel Roux was doing the going round the tables thing. I am afraid that the broker forced me to capture the moment on his iPhone. Of course I hesitated but the 15% got me over the line. M. Roux was nothing if not gracious. I’m not sure he quite took in my personal tasting menu concept but his rictus grin spoke for itself.
We ended with a shared dessert, caramelised apple sponge with vanilla ice-cream and buttery salted caramel sauce. I showed restraint in leaving the plate unlicked. There were petit fours. And then chocolates and nougat. Because by that point we really needed.
Le Gavroche. Plying its trade since 1967, it is one of the brightest fixtures of the London fine dining scene. It has gone in and out of fashion and been rediscovered by each generation. A family business and a superb operation, headed by a celebrity chef but one who hasn’t forgotten the way to the kitchen.