Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester is one of only 2 restaurants in London to hold 3 Michelin stars (Gordon Ramsay at Old Hospital Road is the other). Although they come laden with expectations, in my experience, Michelin stars are no guarantee of perfection, nor that the chemistry will work for everyone every time.
While fine dining can be exhilarating and magnificent, committing to spend a significant portion of your pay cheque on a meal is always a gamble, if not entirely gut clenching and off putting for some. The food might show elements of perfection, but the atmosphere might leave you stone cold (hello Marea). But even if imperfections exist, when a restaurant charges a hefty price tag, you hope to be buying your own little piece of indulgence and luxury. As a queen for a night, you hope to be bestowed with an experience to remember, and one in which it all balances out in the end.
So when I was invited by Alain Ducasse's internal PR for a complimentary meal with 4 other bloggers, I was pretty quick to sign up.
Sure, with any free meal, you put yourself in an awkward position if you don't like it (and this issue is potentially magnified with the value of the freebie) but restaurants and PR know the deal - a freebie does not guarantee a good review, and I'm entirely comfortable with that. Be confident about your product before you expose yourself to potential critics - and on that note, I must say, Alain Ducasse did generously open the floor. They allowed us anything we wanted on the menu, when they could have limited us to a smaller, carefully planned selection, suggesting a certain enthusiastic spirit and confidence. And I firmly believe that bloggers should put their integrity before the next free lunch to produce an honest and objective review, from which the thrill of leaving without paying has been carefully distilled. Enough said.
While some aspects fall short of perfection, the overwhelming impression when dining at Alain Ducasse is one of decadence and luxury. Service is faultless - relentlessly good but discreet, and so much friendlier, easier and warmer than I had expected. I was in a group which had been invited to review, so effort in this respect was a given. However, while all restaurants may try to put on great service for blogger doos, it is not the case that all succeed so well. And my impression was that this was not faked - although I can't, of course, guarantee it, it seems more likely than not that everyone is treated with the same genuine care, enthusiasm, attentiveness and charm of what is clearly 3 star service.
And the luxury. We dined at the private Table Lumiere - a table for 6 surrounded by a curtain of 4,500 bedazzling fibre optic strands falling like a shimmering waterfall from the ceiling. Guests dine off Hermes china, sleek silverware and a choice of glassware and crystal. There's a huge, shiny candelabra in the centre of the table. The area has the advantage of bestowing a sense of cloud-like privacy while not completely cutting off your party from the quiet buzz of the restaurant.
The biggest faults for me came in the imperfect execution of some aspects of the menu. The food is there to impress as much as it is to be eaten. While the overall impression is one of over the top decadence and luxury, not every dish hits the mark perfectly.
We tried the seasonal Autumn Menu comprising 7 courses for £180 per head (plus extra for matching wines and service).
An impressive bread basket comes with both butter and a fluffy cream cheese mousse. The only failure here was a bacon and onion fougasse which tasted lardy to me - not my thing.
Marinated scallops were sliced thinly over "a rich nage" (a creamy sauce) and topped with Kristal caviar - salty, creamy bursts of opulence cut through the silky goodness of the scallops and blended well with the mellow nage beneath. A promising start.
A generous serving of seared duck foie gras was rich and melt in the mouth indulgent. The accompanying potato gnocchi was excellent, coming with cep mushrooms and fresh almonds - an uncluttered, earthy compliment and I liked the drizzle of rich duck jus.
The roasted Scottish lobster was a disappointment. The lobster was overcooked, chewy and lacked sweetness and flavour. It was overwhelmed by a strong red wine sauce with heavily spiced apple and quince cooked in salted butter. All sense of delicacy was lost. This dish seems wrong both in concept and execution.
A meaty fillet of turbot was, on the other hand, executed perfectly. Served "florentine" style with shrimps, walnuts and Arbois wine, a lovely combination of flavours rich, sweet and boozy was matched with pretty presentation (like the delicately cut mushrooms).
A hefty fillet of beef was served with a yet more plentiful slab of seared foie gras Rossini with "sacristain" potatoes and Perigueux style sauce. Yes, this was a second serving of foie gras, and you won't hear a complaint from me on that score. The black truffle and madeira jus in the sauce was sweet and sticky, and went some way to holding a life line to a piece of beef which was otherwise fairly bland and slightly overcooked. The fillets around the table were all (surprisingly) cooked to varying levels of pink, despite all being ordered to medium rare.
A wedge of delicious, crunchy lettuce dressed with balsamic vinaigrette was a highlight in its own right, but also helped cut through the indulgently rich and caramelised foie gras, lazing atop a long brioche crouton. The long, twirly crisp-like sacristain potatoes on the side didn't do much more than add to the decor for me. However, this was the ultimate indulgence course that, had I adored the beef, could have had me weak at the knees.
A truffled Brie de Meaux came with a small simply dressed salad on the side. The earthy truffle gave depth to the creamy cheese and this was a thoroughly enjoyable end to the savoury courses.
|The gorgeous rose and raspberry pleasure|
We were treated to each of the 6 desserts on offer. The highlight was a deliciously light lime souffle with Sichuan pepper sorbet. Alain Ducasse's famous rhum baba was fun and boozy - if not earth shattering - served elaborately in a silver dish, before being split, drenched in your choice of rum and slam dunked with vanilla cream. The other puds pictured were also very good, even for someone losing her sweet tooth more on a daily basis. Delicate little macaroons and chocolate truffles were gorgeous.
|Praline-chocolate biscuit with |
very salty milk-salt flower ice cream
|Lime souffle with Sichuan pepper sorbet|
|Coco caramel delight with lemon-vanilla sorbet|
|Chocolates & macaroons|
As is often the case at restaurants of this ilk, it's often the small finishing touches that stay with you. We showed an interest in tea to finish, and out rolled a trolley laden with foliage - your chocolate mint tea is nipped fresh from the plant, followed by another trolley with big lolly shop jars of salted caramels, nougat, chocolates and marshmallow.
|The tea trolley|
|And just when you thought |
you couldn't eat another bite...
Each of our wines along the way was well chosen, but my favourite was the 2009 Saint-Joseph (Ro-Ree, Domaine L. Cheze), which was paired with our scallops at the start. Creamy, some oak, full but well balanced - this was the wine that most blew me away.
Given the price of this meal, the noted imperfections in execution are of course disappointing. However, while it's easy to isolate the shortfalls in execution, it is more difficult to articulate how the meal as a whole was still more than the sum of its parts. How the mood, the service, the frivolously indulgent touches combined to make a chemistry that will either win you over or it won't.
For me, this was, overall, a beautiful experience - and a fun and memorable one. If spending in excess of £200 on a meal which has some glaring faults makes you baulk, you can obtain a piece of the luxury for a lower price over lunch - a £45 lunch menu buys you 3 courses with 2 glasses of wine, coffee and a half bottle of water. The 2 course lunch menu offers the same extras for £39.50, or you can try an a la carte lunch at 2 courses for £55 and 3 courses for £75. At dinner, the standard tasting menu is £115 or a la carte dinner packages come at 3 courses for £75 and 4 courses for £95.
On these less financially extravagant options, the Michelin stars might still carry a heavy burden of expectation, but your wallet might be slightly more forgiving of the shortfalls, allowing you to loosen up and let the charm and the opulence work its magic.
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Dorchester Hotel, 53 Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1QA (Tel: 020 7629 8866)
Greedy Diva was a guest of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester