It was my wife’s birthday last week and every year I look around to see where I can take her. The first week in January is always a more difficult place to find somewhere to eat as many places are still closed after Christmas. This year I decided on somewhere that combines a traditional British hotel with high-end French cuisine, the two-Michelin starred Hélène Darroze at The Connaught.
Located 5-10 minutes walk from the chaos that is London’s Oxford Street (Bond Street Station is the closest underground station) in the significantly more tranquil Mayfair. The Connaught is “perfectly blends a discreet English ambience with the contemporary 5-star touches expected by the modern traveller” according to it’s website. It’s much smaller and more boutique than many of the other well-known five-star hotels in the area – but still manages to pack in the high-end restaurant we visited.
On arrival we were greeted by a traditionally doorman, elegantly dressed in green and brown. We asked him where the restaurant was, but needn’t have worried as the lobby floor of the hotel really only contains reception, the concierge desk, the bar and then the restaurant.
Inside the lobby we were then greeted by the cloakroom lady who took our coats and asked if we were celebrating anything today (a really nice touch!). A really interesting personal touch was that we weren’t given the normal cloakroom token – they were assigned to our table and made ready for us on departure without having to ask!
After being seated at our table we admired the traditional, yet modern dining room. The room felt very traditional, with dark wood panelling, but had been brought right up-to-date with modern fabrics, lamps and accessories – the best of both worlds! I didn’t manage to take any internal pictures as I didn’t want to disturb others, but the website gives a good example of what to expect (albeit it felt a little darker on our dull January lunchtime).
After being seated we were offered a drink and then left for what seemed like a little too long (the only time this happened, but it felt a little like we had been forgotten). Eventually it became clearer why this was the case as our canapés arrived along with the ‘game’ of a menu.
There is really only one menu, with the choice being exactly how many courses you want to eat. For lunch there is a 3-course option, along with 5 and 7 courses, plus a Prestige menu (although this wasn’t really explained, but probably just consisted of more courses). We had booked a lunch menu that along with the 3-courses, also contained 2 glasses of wine, water and tea / coffee to finish (along with the normal extra courses a high-end restaurant produces). For savoury courses the menu isn’t split into starters and mains, you can order whichever dishes you would prefer – the only stipulation is how many savoury or sweet courses you can select (2 savoury, 1 sweet on the lunch menu).
The other interesting feature is that for any menu aside from lunch you use a wooden board with marbles to select what you would like to eat. Leave the ball in the middle to order it, on the outside to not. It did feel novel and fun, although I’m not really sure why the lunch menu was handled differently, this just felt a little like an afterthought.
As mentioned earlier our canapés arrived with the menu to give us something to enjoy while we decided what to eat. Three canapés arrived in total; ice-cream cones containing beef-tartare with a cream topping, a ‘pillow’ filled with a smoked fish centre and finally fresh oysters served with a flavoured foam.
My favourite of the three was probably the beef-tartare ice-cream cones, followed by the smoked fish ‘pillows’. I’ve never really been too much of a fan of oysters, but complete with the flavoured foam it was a really nice experience. All three were a great start to our meal!
Following our canapés and after our order was taken we were presented with some bread and two kinds of butter. The bread was a wholemeal cob, served warm, crusty on the outside and soft in the middle – just the way it should be. This was served with an unsalted butter and also a butter infused with chilli flakes, both of which complemented the bread. My wife loves bread and she definitely wasn’t disappointed! Note: We did get offered some more bread later in the meal, but once it had gone cold it wasn’t quite as good, eat it while it’s hot!
For our first courses I ordered foie gras with Clara ordering a dish based around Pink Garlic. I know that foie gras is a controversial topic, but to me its a key ingredient of French cooking and a taste I enjoy. The dish was served with beetroot and offset with sweet red currants giving the dish a kick. It was served with toasted bread (similar to the one served earlier). The lunch menu came with a matched wine with each of the savoury courses and the foie gras came with a white wine, made with red grapes with the skins left in. This is the first time I’ve had a wine like this and did complement the dish well, although I’m not sure I would drink this without food. The foie gras was a lovely dish, although I did feel that perhaps it could have done with a little more kick than provided by the red currants.
Clara’s pink garlic dish turned out to be a garlic soup served with egg, walnut and Italian sausage. This was served with a light rose wine. Clara enjoyed both the wine and food. As you might expect given the dish is based around garlic, it was very garlicky and left a taste for 12-18 hours afterwards.
Our next dishes came out shortly afterwards and I’d ordered a venison dish served with pumpkin and chanterelle. As you’d expect the venison was cooked to perfection and melted in the mouth and was perfectly offset with a deep rich gravy sauce (probably the best part of my whole meal). I happily used bread to mop up the sauce at the end it was that good! The dish was served with a lovely red wine – not too heavy and a nice accompaniment. You’ll have probably guessed by now that my knowledge of wine is much less than food – but I know what tastes good!
Clara ordered a dish based around cod and served with oyster, dill and potato. The dish came beautifully presented, the cod cooked to perfection and served with a very light white wine (served out of an absolutely massive bottle!).
We both opted for the chocolate based dessert and it was every chocaholics dream. A chocolate mousse, chocolate biscuit base with chocolate biscuit decorations. It was a lovely final course, not to sweet and not too bitter!
We’d told the restaurant that we were celebrating Clara’s birthday before we arrived and just as we were enjoying dessert the maitre d’ came over to ask Clara if she was enjoying the meal. As he stepped away he had distracted her long enough for a small lemon cake, complete with candle appeared on the shelf behind her. It must have been delivered by a ninja waiter, as we really had no idea. This was well handled by the restaurant and probably one of the most memorable ways to deliver a cake I’ve seen.
Service throughout the meal was professional, but also very friendly. A number of the waiters towards the start of the meal were erring on the professional side, but when the maitre d’ came over to chat with us, you could tell that he really wanted us to have a great meal and to visit them again. The welcome we received from all the staff made it really feel like a special occasion and was really appreciated by us both.
The birthday surprises continued as the maitre d’ came over after dessert and asked to take a picture of us using his polaroid camera and returned a few minutes later with a card onto which he’d attached the photo. This was a lovely thing for the restaurant to do and really added to our experience.
As we ordered our tea and coffee we were also presented with a slice of the cake of the day to enjoy with it. The lemon and almond cake was decadent yet felt very homely – something that’s fairly unusual in a Michelin starred restaurant. The cake was very nice, although it was a little strange eating it with our hands as no cutlery was supplied. Again, very homely and felt like eating cake in the comfort of your own home.
As we paid the bill the only slight niggle came into the meal. As we’d had the lunch menu which included tea and coffee I’d ordered a green tea, which it turned out was not included in the menu. At no stage did anyone decide to tell me this and it just appeared on the bill. Being British, and not wanting to make a fuss I didn’t challenge them, but it did feel a little like someone should have said it wasn’t included as part of the deal when ordering (to stop any embarrassment later).
Finally, just as we were about to leave, we stood up and a final dish was presented to us (so we quickly sat down). A small pot of sorbet nicely ended the meal. By this point we were well and truly stuffed. 3 courses might have looked small, but with the extras included we definitely didn’t need to eat a large meal again that day.
As we left we were given with a small gift to take home. Presented in a small branded box was a sponge cake covered in sugar. I’m not sure of the exact name of the cake, but it was delicious later that day and further brought back memories of our visit.
Overall, our trip to Hélène Darroze was a lovely experience. The food was of a great quality, looked amazing and was pretty good value when you consider the level of skill involved for our meal. I would definitely recommend a visit and if the price of the main menu feels out of reach, consider taking up the lunch deal at £52 all in (including wine). We were left feeling really at home, and while definitely a very upmarket destination were never left feeling out of place (the only place this happened was on a visit to the gents where the attendant was a little off-putting!).
Myself and Clara discussed Michelin stars on the way home and would definitely struggle to tell the difference between a one and two star venue. We didn’t see anything that obviously marked Hélène Darroze above the others we had visited, but then again there was also nothing to stop us visiting again!