I had to wait until February this year for my first visit to Le Gavroche. Descending the staircase into the dining room was like travelling back in time and the second empire décor distinctly put me in mind of A.Beauvillier* in Paris, of which more later.
The doors of Le Gavroche were first opened in Chelsea in 1967 by the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, moving to its current Mayfair location in 1981. It featured in the inaugural UK Michelin guide in 1974, gaining a second star in 1977, and a third in 1982, which under Albert Roux it retained until 1993. At this point Albert’s son Michel Roux Jr took over the kitchens, and it transitioned to the two Michelin stars that it has retained ever since.
The ground floor consists of a bar area where you can read the menu and enjoy a drink and a private dining room for six was added at the beginning of 2014 for guests seeking extra privacy. The ‘Chef’s Library’ is an intimate space decorated with some of the huge variety of cookery books collected by Michel Roux Jr over many years, and a collection of photographs of famous patrons of the restaurant since its opening.
While it may bear the name of the street urchin from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, that's where any connection with the overcrowded slums of post revolutionary Paris ends. Offering unapologetic old-school fine dining Le Gavroche continues to be the go to haute cuisine establishment for an extremely wealthy crowd
Our eight course ‘Menu Exceptionnel’ started with soufflé suissesse, an exquisitely light and fluffy gruyère soufflé cooked on double cream: an old recipe from the original restaurant.
The carpaccio of marinated venison, rye-bread toast, horseradish cream and pickled beetroot that followed provided a perfect contrast. For me, though, the star of the menu was the roast scallops, Chartreuse velouté with a scattering of coral crumbs which emphasised the sea-fresh flavour.
Continuing the marine textures with stone bass with a delicate dusting of Ras el Hanout (translated as "top of the shop" a spice mix from Morocco that contains anywhere from 10-100 different spices; the obvious ones here being coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric), red rice and a superb fennel coulis.
Boudin noir, quail’s egg poached in red wine, and crispy mushroom ravioli, accompanied by red cabbage relish was for me the least convincing of the dishes of the evening. The humble black pudding has been named as one of this year's superfoods, however, black pudding is very high in fat, especially saturated fat and the result here was just too greasy and lacking in flavour.
The main course of beef cheek braised in red wine on the other hand was excellent, tender, full of taste and texture, parsnip purée and the sweetness of the miniature Chantenay carrots provided ideal companions.
Le Plateau de Fromages was extensive and presented from the abundant cheese trolley by a waiter whose product knowledge was excellent. My personal formula of a soft cheese, a hard cheese and a blue cheese was amply satisfied by, Comté, a goat’s cheese rolled in ash and Shropshire blue.
Dessert of spiced pistachio and chocolate cake, rum soaked dried fruits and rich bitter chocolate sorbet provided a suitable finale.
The best of the cooking here is very fine indeed. All the ingredients were of high quality and have impressive provenance as one would expect. There is a strong element to Le Gavroche of a performance conducted day in, day out, especially in the well-choreographed and immensely dignified service rituals of cloches being lifted, trolleys being wheeled and wine being decanted by staff who have had years of practise.
Service is extremely precise, with waiters paying careful attention to every detail of the meal. Service is the efficient execution of a series of actions. It is procedural. It's important, yes, but quite frankly for me its not enough. What's needed is interactive; an exchange of energy at some level between staff and guests; a genuine human connection. It is something that is intensely personal which is what makes it impossible to standardise it into a process and sadly this was missing.
Full marks to Michel Roux Jr. who toured the tables in a relaxed, pleasant, self effacing way as he does most nights I'm told. How many restaurants have you visited where there is a celebrity chef connection and the celebrity has never even visited the building let alone worked in the kitchen?
A highlight of this visit for me was a trip to the kitchen, we were granted full access. State of the art equipment was to be expected. The design of the kitchen was as close to perfect as I have seen enabling the shortest possible journey from stove to guest and full benefit to be gained from a "Brigade system" developed well over a century ago by Georges Auguste Escoffier delegating responsibilities to different individuals who specialise in certain tasks.
43 Upper Brook Street
London W1K 7QR
Tel: 020 7408 0881 / 020 7499 1826
NB You can have the lunchtime prix fixe for £56 (one reason why lunch is always fully booked). It includes three courses plus canapés, petits-fours, half a bottle of wine, water and coffee. It’s one of the best deals in town and a good reason to return again soon, if one were needed.
*Back to A.Beauvillier. Jacques Chirac, Charles Bronson, Edith Piaf, The Monaco Royals, The Mitterrands, a sprinkling of Rothschilds, Liza Minelli, Elton John and the great Frank Sinatra are just a few celebrity guests you might have been seen in the restaurant Beauvilliers. Owner Eduoard Carlier (left Montmartre in 2003 for that great restaurant in the sky) was a grumpy perfectionist who lived for his restaurant and his celebrity clients. Carlier named Beauvilliers (a former brothel) after Antoine Beauvilliers, not only Marie Antoinette’s chef, but also creator of the first restaurant in Paris, at Palais Royale, circa 1782. He was the first chef to have an elegant dining room, handsome trained waiters, a fine cellar and superb kitchen. Sadly the restaurant is no more.
Restaurants don’t work on their own, they have to be part of a culture, they must not be intimidated by grandeur and history, they must be part of today, not yesterday. However, especially in London there is still room for the style, the theatre, the dignified haute cuisine that is Le Gavroche.