The other day I spotted on my twitter feed a menu from an Alain Ducasse restaurant. It was postedby Nottingham-based chef Sat Bains, without much comment other than to indicate he was very much looking forward to trying it (and who can blame him with turbot and lobster on offer), but there was something about this menu that I couldn’t quite work out. Where in the world was this place? Were those prices in Japanese yen? No, far too cheap. Hong Kong dollars, making the starters between £13-£20? Possibly, though none of the ingredients looked particularly Far Eastern. I googled “Le Meurice”.
You’re probably ahead of me. Turns out, Le Meurice is a hotel in Paris. Those prices are in euros. At the current exchange rates (thank you Brexit) the average British holidaymaker (though I imagine there’s nothing average about the kind of British holidaymaker that makes a reservation at Le Meurice) would expect to receive a l’addition of about £1000 per head – and I’m sorry, I don’t care how much better Brittany lobsters are than Brixham, or if the Ducasse pasta is that much better than Bancone (though it seems unlikely), this is an obscene amount of money. By way of contrast, Sat Bains’ own restaurant, which currently also holds two Michelin stars, will serve you a seven-course tasting menu, including drinks and service, for less than the price of a single starter at Le Meurice. And I’m pretty sure eating in a 5-star hotel in the 1st arrondissement as opposed to an industrial estate under a motorway flyover in the East Midlands can’t account for very much of that discrepancy.
The fact is, for as long as Brexit hasn’t tipped the whole chessboard up, we have it pretty good here in London. The cheapest way to enjoy Anne-Sophie Pic’s food in her home country is the €120 lunch menu – very nice I’m sure, but no choice, and only three courses. At La Dame de Pic in the very grand Four Seasons Trinity Square in London, a lunch menu is £60 for four courses with plenty of interesting choices, and you can make all sorts of claims about the quality of ingredients in Valence as compared to the UK if you like, but you must at least concede that the techniques and ability in the kitchen, and the levels of service from the front of house, are going to match up pretty well.
Of course, this being a fancypants restaurant in a 5-star hotel, even the lesser menus are embellished with plenty of extra bits and pieces. Leading the charge was a stunning langoustine-yuzu consommé, the kind of thing only a tiny handful of the world’s top chefs could produce with such an incredibly delicate balance between seafood richness and citrus perfume. It was absolutely wonderful, and I could have downed a bucketload of the stuff.
There was also a seaweed corn puff thing wedged into a piece of (hopefully sustainably obtained) coral…
…a paste of I think they said was fish roe, inside a delicate wrap made out of vegetables, presented inside a (hopefully also sustainably obtained) tropical murex shell…
…two pretty little tartlets containing salmon roe…
…and finally a huge crab shell containing two balls of some kind of citrusy liquid that exploded quite amus(bouch)ingly in the mouth. My only slightly criticism is that when something is presented in a crab shell, I’d quite like the edible portion to contain some crab. Ditto the whelk (though perhaps not the coral). Still, all very impressive nonetheless.
And this is stout butter, cleverly arranged into the shape of a flower. Perhaps the shape of a mini pint of Guinness may have been more appropriate, if somewhat less attractive. It came with a superb sourdough (not pictured sorry) which had an interesting slightly sweet note, which worked incredibly well.
Then one final off-menu appetiser – cute little curls of gently pickled carrot, set in a kind of jasmine and carrot jelly. Perhaps a little fridge-fresh for my liking, but that could have been a deliberate tactic to keep the jelly together. The flavours were nice though – floral and heady.
Finally, the menu itself began with the Pic signature dish. “Berlingots” are apparently little pasta parcels stuffed with seasonal cheese (at this time of year, Gruyere and Vacherin) and wild mushrooms. Tesselated neatly on the plate, they were then dressed with what the menu said was “Woodruff, barley and roasted hazelnut consommé” but I’m pretty sure there was some umami-spiked, earthy mushroom stock in there as well. The dumplings – sorry, Berlingots – themselves were exquisitely constructed things, the casings al-dente but still delicate enough to burst with gentle pressure in the mouth to release a smooth, rich cheese sauce. Together with the consommé they made one of those perfect seasonal dishes, where every element is a hymn to the bounty of the land and for as long as this dish was available you’d be happy if winter lasted twelve months.
Unbelievably, the main course was even more impressive. I can hear the words “game pithivier” at the best of times and my heart skips a beat – the version made with grouse at the Holborn Dining Rooms is always worth spending time on – but here, with tender chunks of funky venison and buttery foie wrapped in a coarse, offaly paste and encased in golden flaky pastry, it was even more gasp-inducingly decadent, a true masterclass. Sat in another beautifully constructed game sauce, the kind you find yourself scraping up with your fork once it cools and lapping up like Marmite. Or maybe that’s just me.
I was also lucky enough to sample a bit of the turbot main, which was as densely-flavoured and meaty as only the best (or rather biggest) turbot can be, dressed in yet another wonderful seafood sauce.
For dessert, we had the famous Pic millefuille, and I must have been really enjoying myself and the matching French wines by this point because I completely forgot to take a photo of it with my good camera. Anyway apologies for the murky shot above, but it’s a lot better than I’ve made it look – the layers inside included vanilla ice cream, pastry and cream, all encased in a white chocolate cube. Quite a striking thing, and that I thought it was perhaps a teeny bit style over substance is probably just due to the fact I’m not much of a pastry person. I do appreciate the effort, though.
I didn’t see a bill, this being a PR-led exercise, but as ever you’re more likely to get better value on a weekday lunchtime than going full tasting menu of an evening. Of course food like this isn’t cheap, and neither should it be, but I can tell you I’ve had much worse food at a similar price point, not least Anne-Sophie Pic’s fellow countryman Alain Ducasse – yes, he of the €180 starter – whose London outpost at the Dorchester left me completely baffled.
So yes, for as long as it lasts, we do have it pretty good here in London. True, occasionally international chefs treat the city as a bit of a cash cow, opening half-hearted branding exercises with little of the style or effort of the original (I’m looking at you as well, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction) but on the rare occasions where continental operators have their heart in the right place and put the hours in, you can eat berlingots and game pithivier for as much as a 5-star hotel in Paris would charge you for an extra shaving of black truffle. At least, for now you can. Better get your reservation in before March 29th, eh?
I was invited to La Dame de Pic and didn’t see a bill.