Most hotel restaurants blend into their hospitable surroundings but at The Connaught everything evokes the style, life and character of the restaurant’s leading lady, Hélène Darroze. Proud and passionate about her roots in south west France, her cooking shows a clear influence of this area’s produce and culinary traditions.
Darroze was born into the industry, her family owned a renowned restaurant in the Landes region just north of the Pyrenees, to which she made a vital contribution. A disciple of the great Alain Ducasse, she learnt her craft while cooking as a crucial member of his team at prestigious restaurant Louis XV in Monaco. Darroze now runs two restaurants, both named after her, one in Paris and the other, conveniently close to where I work, in London.
My first understanding of her restaurant at the iconic Connaught Hotel was from my grandparents. They are the best food critics I know, and I trust their opinion on food above all else. It helps too that my grandmother is French and a superb cook herself, so she knows what to look out for. They often refer to Hélène’s cooking as the best in London, so I was extremely excited to be trying it at last.
Through the beautifully British lobby, we were led to the quietly sophisticated dining room and seated at a lovely window table with maximum natural light. The lunch began with a whimsical board game that challenged us to think about what ingredients we prioritise, and brought a sense of fun to the civilised restaurant. Extravagant items such as lobster, black truffle, foie gras and venison suggest that the meal ahead will be rich and heavy, but the culinary journey that followed was quite the opposite, light and magical.
Every meal at this restaurant begins with light focaccia with confit tomatoes and thin ruffles of noir de Bigorre ham from south west France which is carved authentically at the table. Immediately we were transported to France with its fresh and vibrant flavours simply presented before us. Next freshly baked artisan bread and espelette butter arrived, smelling as irresistible as it tasted… once again my resolution to resist bread was broken.
My three dishes were a vision of elegant indulgence and subtle, artistic precision. For once I was satisfied that I had chosen well, though observing other plates as they passed, I think I would have been delighted with any menu choice. Black truffle with onion, barley, and lardo di Colonnata is a delicate arrangement of floating ravioli triangles with black truffle, sprigs of lively greenery and translucent cylindrical onion pieces. Each element had its purpose; for texture, to add moisture or colour, and put together it was divine, both visually and to taste. I later discovered it is a new dish on the menu, and I think perhaps my favourite of the day. Those who enjoy fish should opt for the scallop with radish and shiso, it was an immaculately constructed work of art.
For main course the Pigeon with foie gras, spelt, dried fruits, peppermint, and “Sultan” consommé is a striking option. It tasted Moroccan inspired with dried fruit and peppermint but with a hint of French with the rich foie gras and delicious consommé. The meat was cooked to perfection and seasoned carefully. I had a slight twinge of food envy after trying the Venison with celeriac, pear, stilton and Mexican molle. The velvety intense flavours of the luxurious cut of meat and creamy blue cheese were combined in a wonderfully balanced dish – next time I’ll be ordering a plate for myself. For a little extra indulgence try the Lobster with calamari, clams, chorizo and “black rice”, a speciality of Hélène’s and a dish that was enthusiastically consumed by my colleague (you may have noticed this dish recently on Masterchef, The Professionals).
Pineapple with black pepper, coconut and lemongrass was a substantial but airy dessert, and an ideal palate cleanser to conclude a feast. Concealed beneath the soft light cream was a layer of crunchiness and humble chunks of sunshine yellow pineapple. It conjured up memories of Thailand for me, the combination of exotic, punchy flavours reminding me of the vast beaches and fresh fruit readily on offer. The pinch of pepper adds a kick of spice, a clever contrasting component with the other sweet and citrusy tastes. For chocolate addicts the sculpturally impressive chocolate sweet with glowing ruby grapefruit is a must.
Decorative Hermès porcelain cups and saucers arrived filled with dark, rich espressos, accompanied by dazzling glittery dark chocolate truffles, rich red macarons, and cream filled choux mouthfuls, a starring moment for the Connaught’s talented pastry chef. I savoured every mouthful and anticipating my cold walk home allowed myself one more of the devilishly good truffles.
More information and book a table at the restaurant here.