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Le Gavroche** by Michel Roux Jr. [Restaurant Review]

Friday, 4 September 2009

Reviewed by The Wild Boar

Michel Roux is one of the most influential and famous French chefs in the modern era, alongside other luminaries such as Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon. Under the guidance of both Michel and Albert Roux (brothers), Le Gavroche was born in 1967 and was the first restaurant in Britain to gain first two, then three Michelin stars. Albert’s son, Michel Roux Jr (confusingly), became head chef in 1991 and although he lost a star in 1993, he remains philosophical about it stating that he believes in his own style of food (I interpret that as him flicking an ‘up yours’ to the Michelin guide).

To put things in perspective, Alain Roux (Albert’s son) is head chef of Waterside Inn, proud owner of three Michelin stars (out of three restaurants in the UK); meanwhile Le Gavroche is one of eight restaurants in London (14 in England) to hold two Michelin stars (so far I’ve reviewed The Square and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon). My point is simply that the Roux clan is a big player in the London gastronomy scene.

Le Gavroche is located on a quiet street in Mayfair (the one worth £400 on the Monopoly board) and the entrance was quite nondescript. Upon entering, we were briskly shown to our table downstairs, bypassing the ground floor parlour which contained several comfortable looking armchairs. We weren’t the first guests to arrive at 7.30pm, but it didn’t start to fill up till about 9pm, still pretty impressive for a weekday in credit crunch times.

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Looking around the restaurant, the atmosphere spoke: hey buddy, this is a seriously posh traditional French restaurant, so don’t slouch, sit straight and be prepared to pay through your nose tonight. Best example I can give is the menu – there aren’t any prices listed on the ones given to the ladies. Other smaller hints: men are obliged to wear jackets, the artwork decorating the walls (apparently there’s a genuine Picasso around somewhere), and almost every piece of cutlery and dishware had their logo (Gavroche = the little boy from Les Misérables) imprinted; I was highly impressed by that, a lot of effort had obviously gone into this.

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Anyway, we opted for the degustation, known as the Menu Exceptionnel here. Our waitress seemed a bit taken aback when my two friends wanted to swap the lamb course but was quick to check with chef, and came back offering alternatives.

Special mention has to be made for the wine list – correction: it’s a book, not a list. My friend was choosing the wine, so I didn’t have a thorough read, but it appeared to be predominantly French wines (unsurprisingly) with a price range that far exceeds my monthly (and nearly yearly) income; some of the bottles had five digits for their pricetag. We ended up choosing a red Pauillac that was pretty good once we let it breathe a bit in the decanter.

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The canapés appeared promptly, one half being an egg mayo mix on cracker with chorizo slice (the waitress said something far more elegant, but I forgot) which was not bad, but nothing too special. The lobster salad on the other hand was really nice, the slight tangy sauce providing a nice foil to the distinct lobster meat.

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A waiter came throughout the meal to provide us with never ending supply of bread. I quite liked their white baguette whilst the PigPig liked their brown bun. There wasn’t anything particularly special about it, but most importantly, it felt/tasted fresh and it was warm.

Rare Seared Salmon with Paprika, Asparagus and Truffle Dressing”. Even before I saw the salmon, I could smell the beautiful aroma of truffle wafting into my nostrils. Indeed, I’ve never been served such a big slice of truffle before. Oh the salmon itself was not bad, very tender, pretty much raw in the middle with just a hint of the cooking being done.

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Rare Seared Salmon with Paprika, Asparagus and Truffle Dressing

Cheese Souffle Cooked on Double Cream”. This is apparently one of the house’s signature dishes; no wonder either as it was a true work of art, suitable to be framed alongside the Mona Lisa to be enjoyed for all posterity. It sounds a bit weird, the delicate egg white mixing with the rich cream at the bottom and topped with grilled cheese, but much like Blumenthal’s famous Egg & Bacon Ice Cream, once it enters your mouth, it just works together so well and you stop thinking that you’re eating a rather weird concoction. The PigPig said she could eat ten portions of that and leave the restaurant happy.

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Cheese Souffle Cooked on Double Cream

Scallop Baked in the Shell, Flavoured with Ginger”. The edges were lined with puff pastry (sadly not for us to eat but merely to seal the shells shut) and sliced open by the table for us to reveal four large slices of scallop with finely sliced ginger. The sweet juicy fresh scallops were cooked perfectly and the taste was heightened further with the sweetened ginger pieces. I think it would have been nice for a little puff pastry to be provided though.

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Scallop Baked in the Shell, Flavoured with Ginger

Seared Sea Bass on a Soft Polenta, Roasted Red Pepper Coulis, Olive and Garlic Croutons”. I felt this dish didn’t have a proper direction and the various bits didn’t gel together well. The fish itself was decent enough, but nothing special. I hate polenta, but the rest of the table said it was very nice, cheesy and smooth. The red pepper coulis didn’t really go well with the fish and lacked proper taste whilst the crouton was a bit bitter from the olives. On the other hand, the PigPig quite liked the croutons.

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Seared Sea Bass on a Soft Polenta, Roasted Red Pepper Coulis, Olive and Garlic Croutons

Hot Duck Foie Gras and Crispy Duck Pancake Flavoured with Cinnamon”. The foie gras I was fortunate enough to eat in two and three starred restaurants (The Square, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, The Fat Duck) were simply the best I ever had. As such, I was looking forward to this course only to be disappointed by the overcooked piece delivered. I also suspect the base quality of the liver wasn’t particularly good to begin with. However, it was nearly made up by the brilliantly done pancake, which resembled a samosa more, being wrapped in filo pastry. The powdered sugar was a stroke of genius in my view.

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Hot Duck Foie Gras and Crispy Duck Pancake Flavoured with Cinnamon

Roasted Rack of Lamb, Courgette Flower Fritter and Tarragon Scented Jus”. After the previous two slightly disappointing dishes, this was a step back in the right direction. It revels in its simplicity, the lamb itself being wonderfully pink in the inside. However the key player in the dish for me was the sauce; the moment the waitress poured the jus onto the plate, I could smell the jus enticing me. I was quite tempted to lick the plate clean to savour it all.

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Roasted Rack of Lamb, Courgette Flower Fritter and Tarragon Scented Jus

My friend had a rabbit leg instead of the lamb, which was surprisingly meaty without any gameyness (tasted like chicken), tender on the inside with a suitably complimentary sauce according to him.

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Another alternative chosen was a turbot fillet. From the small sample I had, it was a very good piece of fish with very creamy and juicy meat. The charred surface added an extra taste and aroma but the large number of bones in the fish was a major turn off.

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Selection of French and British Farmhouse Cheese”. I have the misfortune of not being particularly keen on smelly cheese and being forced to smell the cheese trolley for most of dinner as it was placed near our table. To me, it smelled like my shoes after a week’s jogging, in the rain, and the dog drooled over it. On the other hand, my other three dining companions enjoyed the variety on offer and our waitress was very helpful in giving advice to us novices. They felt the almond crackers and prune chutney provided went brilliantly with the cheese.

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As I didn’t want a cheese option, I was offered a choice of home made ice cream and sorbets instead; the flavours were vanilla, white chocolate, coconut, lemon balm, summer fruits, mirabelle. Naturally, I asked for one of each. They were all very good, exceedingly rich and creamy, but hardly the thing one looks for in a degustation menu.

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Shortbread Biscuits with Strawberries, Banana and Rum Ice Cream”. I just had all the possible ice cream available on their trolley, but they saved the best for this dish; the banana and rum ice cream is just out of this world, nothing else describes it. The shortbread biscuit beside it was made to look ordinary.

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Shortbread Biscuits with Strawberries, Banana and Rum Ice Cream

Café et Petits Fours”. My friend and I opted for filtered coffee, which was duly obliged by a pot, kept on a side table and constantly topping up our cups. The petits fours were overall pretty good, but at this stage we were all reaching maximum capacity. We struggled to polish them off only for the waiter to bring yet more goodies – a box containing pistachio nougat (bottom) and caramelised almonds (top). I myself loved the almonds and ate half the box while sipping the coffee.

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Café et Petits Fours

We were seated next to a rather large portrait of Michel Roux Jr (the head chef, in case you weren’t paying attention) and by this point, the PigPig had spotted him flitting in and out of the kitchen. Feeling a bit cheeky, we asked our waitress if she could ask chef for an autograph on the menu. To our surprise, she returned bearing the man himself, who had a brief friendly chat with us, signed two copies of the tasting menu and happily posed for pictures. Talk about customer satisfaction.

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Flatmate, the PigPig & Michel Roux Jr

Speaking of which, I found the entire meal a very pleasant and enjoyable experience. The level of service provided was top notch and very attentive. The view amongst my social circle (those I’ve spoken to about this anyway), French restaurants have a reputation for being rather ‘stuck-up’ and snobby. But au contraire, for despite our waitress looking like a stern headmistress (reminded me a lot of Prof McGonagall from Harry Potter), she was actually very nice and pleasant.

Altogether, the bill came to £135 each for the degustation, a bottle of red wine and three bottles of Evian.

Food – 9.0
Service – 9.5
Atmosphere – 8.5
Value – 6.0

This meal reminded me of the true gulf in class and quality between one and two starred restaurants and this is probably the best French meal I’ve ever had in my life (Fat Duck doesn’t count as French). Barring the sea bass, I felt all the dishes were delicious and well thought out. Also, the flavours were very strong and doesn’t pull any punches, which is more my style. The only negative aspect of the dishes is that plate presentation is rather poor, but this is probably a result of the chef’s emphasis on flavour, not appearance, which is something a bit hard to criticize really.

Would I eat here again? I would love to, but my wallet is crying.

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Le Gavroche
43 Upper Brook St
Official website
Le Gavroche on Urbanspoon

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