The last thing I wish to do when I write about Three Star restaurants is appear ungrateful or exclusionary, but I’ve eaten in dozens of them in my many years, and while their luster hasn’t faded, there are times I long for something simpler.
In the case of Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, which is, without doubt, one of the world’s great restaurants, my appetite was somewhat muted when I arrived, a mood which I tried to analyze without success. But, as Freud opined, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And I got hungry the moment I was seated.
So it was that I came to this glorious, modern room, still relishing the taste of a tongue sandwich that I ate in the Food Hall at Selfridge’s department store a few hours earlier. The room is done in dreamy pastel greens, with touches of gold, in sharp contrast to a rather ornate, 19th century look to the long hotel lobby you pass through to enter.
My friend, Robert, completely thrilled to have such an opportunity, had no such doubts. M. Ducasse had invited us, after all, and his is not a restaurant for ordinary mortals; the prices are staggering. But the dining room was impressively full on a Thursday evening, not an empty chair in sight. The demise of fine dining, it appears, is still on hold.
For those of you who haven’t eaten at mIX at Mandalay Bay, Ducasse’s one Vegas outpost, it’s wonderful, but not as grand, or as accomplished as his London restaurant. Dinners at both begin with gougeres, cheese flavored puffs, and sometimes, at mIX, but always in London, with barbajuan, tiny, crisp ravioli filled with Swiss chard, served hot.
After the nibbles, though, the experience diverges. The dining room’s solicitous GM, a suave Frenchman called Nicolas, has the sort of polymorphous bedside manner you will experience at a Hollywood soiree. He’s chatty with parties that want company, but terse with the more serious clientele. A.A. Gill, the sharp tongued English food critic, says no one has a good time at these restaurants. That’s just not correct, but I will admit that the room isn’t abuzz with light conversation, like Brasserie Zedel in the West End might be.
Food came in waves. I started with chicken quenelles with lobster and homemade pasta, a light, feathery and flavorful dish with an impossibly rich sauce; Robert opted for Dorset crab two ways, what the French imperiously call a chaude-froide. Wines were de rigueur, in my case, flinty Gruner Veltliner from Austria, in Robert’s, a deliciously robust White Burgundy.
Then we had a main course-breast and confit leg of Challans duck for me, perhaps the best duck dish of my life, while Robert chose Limousin veal with girolle mushrooms. All the dishes here are impeccably plated, and look like museum pieces. Whether you call this art or artifice, this sort of attention to detail is the hallmark of Three Star restaurants. It’s a grand production worthy of DeMille or Guy LaLiberte, and if this ain’t your thing, an excellent Wolfgang Puck steak house, Cut, is just next door at 45 Park Lane.
The other components of the meal were hardly an afterthought. The bread was perfect, as were the butters, salted and sweet, from French farmers. The cheese course couldn’t have been better as well, a ripe Stilton representing England, and a truffled Comte from France, both accompanied by nut bread and a respective wine pairing.
And for dessert, Robert had the hazelnut soufflé, a cloud-like creation that could only have dropped in from the heavens, while I had the baba au rhum, that famous Ducasse creation where you get to choose the rum from a cart. (I made mine an old Methusalem, but there are many other compelling choices.)
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester Hotel, 53 Park Lane, London, United Kingdom. Dinner for two will run well over $500.
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