The promenade of The Dorchester hotel is full of those having afternoon tea. It is a curious mix of ladies who lunch, those celebrating, and hotel guests. The class and the crass, if you like. There are pearls and gowns beside velour tracksuits. Cut glass English accents are interspersed by shouty American ones. It is a lovely space where new money meets old money with a shared interest in the most luxurious of hotels.
We walk through that promenade and turn left into the dining room of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. It is bigger than I expected, with washed grey walls, immaculate white linen, deep chairs, and an army of staff. The latter are everywhere, an orchestra of tailored suits and foreign accents who are trained into pouring wine simultaneously and expertly covering up stains with smaller sheets of linen. Each are aware of their individual roles in us leaving replete and suitably poorer than when we left.
After turning down the attention of a champagne trolley we are presented with a generous pyramid of gougeres – those lovely savoury choux buns flavoured with cheese. These are nice, a little light on the emmental cheese flavour, and not as good as those at Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road (an obvious comparison given it is London’s only other 3*). The less said about the amouse bouche the better – a curious blend of cured John Dory, lime and peanut that was never going to work. If 2017 serves up a more ill-conceived dish I shall be very unfortunate.
We tried much of the bread to mostly great success. A farmhouse bun was as light as a pillow and delicate with the back note of pork lard, whereas a black olive was a little muted on flavour. Best was a bacon fogasse that had us going back for seconds, thirds, and, in my case, fourths. Who said not to overfill on the bread course has never eaten this. It’s the ultimate breakfast of knotted bread and cubes of fatty bacon. We smear it inch thick with a lovely salted butter that has been shaped into an onion, whilst sneering at the aerated cream cheese option that looks and tastes like hair mousse.
Our first course hit the mark. A crumbed egg gave way to the brightest of yolks that served as a sauce for the smoked corn, chicken oysters and onion stuffed with chicken mousseline. A corn tuile was a superfluous addition that the dish did not need, but the rest was indulgent and cohesive.
And then, well, it all slumped for a while during mains. A lamb rump was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and rested, with chickpeas, a hummus like puree and pickled onions. It was nice. In the same way that Songs of Praise is nice, or making daisy chains. Impossible to fault, but equally hard to get excited over. The thrill of dining here is lost amongst the fear of being anything other than perfect, as if the weight of Michelin hangs more heavily here than anywhere else I have dined at it in the country. There are no risks being taken. A word on the sauce though, it was an incredible thing that only a classic French approach can result in.
The other main was a technically astute squid stuffed pasta, with various preparations of octopus hidden under a canopy of leaves. The overriding flavour is one of citrus that lifts and occasional dominates all it coats. The octopus was tender, the pasta silky, but three stars? Really? It’s all far too safe.
You get the mignardises here before dessert, why I simply could not tell you. What I can tell you is that they are all delicious, with some of the best macaroons I have eaten, cocoa coated almonds, nougat, and chocolates. A lot of work goes into these and it pays off, with a salted caramel toffee disappearing to a nothing on the tongue. Really lovely stuff.
Desserts were true three star calibre. An almond sponge has the lightest of textures, with poached apricot’s and almond granita. Like the savoury courses there is nothing to fault but this has character; it stands up and demands attention. Before I move onto my dessert, we were given an additional course because we were celebrating. Its strawberries and cream for the child at heart, one perfect quenelle of milk ice cream, another of strawberry. Little meringues of raspberry provide texture, with a singular fruit crowning it all. The depth of the ice creams are truly staggering. There is obvious skill in this part of the kitchen.
The best course of the lunch deserves a post of it’s own, but I have a liver to kill and only limited time to do so, so you’ll have to make do with this paragraph. Chocolate and passion fruit. It sounds simple enough. Wrong. Two tempered chocolate domes, one filled with a white chocolate mousse, the other a passion fruit mousse and topped with passion fruit seeds so that it resembles a halved fruit. Have a look for yourself. I couldn’t believe it as I cracked into it and I was 30cm away. More chocolate as a creme, tuile, and crispy covered puffed rice. Central to this was a vivid passion fruit ice cream that perfectly balanced it all out. I’m not a dessert man because they are too often an afterthought, but this is up there with the very best sweet courses I have ever had.
We finish with coffee and a tea trolley where you choose your own plant for an infusion. It’s a lovely concept, typical of a place where every thought has been considered for the consumer. Apart from the food that is. See, my biggest problem with Ducasse is a simple one: Exactly one week one after dining here I have to refer to notes to remember much of what we ate. I remember the splendid company and wonderful service. I remember how charming the restaurant manager was. I remember that the desserts were unquestionably three star level. But the savoury stuff was mostly forgettable safe cooking, hovering around the two star level if they were lucky. It’s nice. But then nice just doesn’t cut it when this sort of money and reputation is involved.