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Food: Eat me! I’m French!

17 December 2011

10:00 PM

17 December 2011

10:00 PM

I am very fond of the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, because I once saw Mr and Mrs Bibi Netanyahu breakfasting there, and they had a moody teenage son who skulked, and Bibi was powerless over the skulking. It is not brown like the Savoy and, unlike the Dorchester, it has never mistaken me for a prostitute. This is one of the drawbacks of being a restaurant critic. You are constantly mistaken for a prostitute, although I suppose it is better than being a gossip columnist, where you are sometimes mistaken for a fan. Bill Clinton thought I was a fan, probably because I dropped my notebook and bent down to pick it up.

And so to Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, to celebrate my impending marriage, and to admire the Christmas tree. I may not care for the theology, but I adore the tree. It is Christmas, beloved readers, and you need a proper restaurant to drool on, not the Hamas Chicken Shack, which my friend Patrick wants me to review. It is Friday night and the lobby is full of the International Rich, who are very good-looking and wear a lot of cashmere. I sneak down to see Darroze before service; she is tiny and round, all in white like a bird. She says her favourite food is a boiled egg, turns back to haute cuisine.

First, it is grand. It is not as grand as Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo, but they had 13 types of bread roll in a room designed by Charles Garnier. It is wood panelled and softly lit, to disguise the physical symptoms of wealth in older humans — big jowls on men, surgical scars on women.

The menu is complicated, expensive and long. It is French, which is why I did not bring my fiancée. He hates the French. He wants a book called 1000 Years of Annoying the French for Christmas and he says he will sail me there in a boat, as long as he does not have to get off. So I am with Uncle Raymond, a solicitor with a fine hat, who has known me since I was a very intelligent baby. He makes me order foie gras, then le chevreuil and le poulet jaune. These dishes are edited for brevity; if not, this review would simply be a list of what you can do to food if you have enough time, money and will. He examines the wine list, which looks like a fundamentalist’s Bible — thick, black, angry — orders claret. Why don’t I want a drink, asks the sommelier. I don’t drink, I say, it’s bad for my health. (My name’s Tanya and I am an alcoholic. Yawn. Scream. Yawn.) Have a drink, he says. No, I say. ‘Tell him,’ says Uncle Raymond, who knows me very well, ‘if you have a drink you will smash up his restaurant.’ So I do the inevitable. I drink the bread — and a red berry cocktail, Ribena For Plutocrats.

The staff keep bringing us things we did not order. Do they think I am Michael Winner? I eventually realise they are secretly feeding us the tasting menu. So we are served ceps ravioli, seafood foam, and caviar in a glass with piles of gold. That is what I love about French cuisine — not the food particularly, because I have a peasant’s taste — but its ambition and snobbery. Eat me! I’m French! It gives the meal a sense of theatre, maybe Phantom of the Opera, sung by snails and the Disney Pantheon. You do not eat French cuisine. It eats you.

The foie gras arrives, with ceremony, in a pot. It is not exactly like the Bucharest restaurant where my meal came in a parade — torchbearer, food bearer, violinist, ballroom dancer — but it is set down with an undertaker’s solemnity. The waiters here are fantastic show-offs. Between courses they are jolly and teasing, like Redcoats; when the food arrives, they become snail-themed priests. The foie gras is pale pink and creamy, and more intense than the bastard child of Woody Allen and Laurie Penny. It is served with banana puree and gingerbread. This is not normal food. It is beyond food. It is anti-food, wonderful to behold. They bring me an entire truffle — not to eat, but to admire, as if it is a baby.

The minutes between courses makes the meal feel like a great event, such as the Congress of Vienna. It feels drowsy and eternal, W.H. Auden’s narcotic dream, full of bread rolls. The chicken is stuffed with wild mushrooms and its own willing flesh. It is supposed to come with macaroni, but I demanded gratin dauphinoise potatoes, because potatoes and cream belong together, and the food allowed it. They are divine. Did I ever tell you I sometimes dream about potatoes? The venison, says Uncle Raymond, is wonderful. He is a solicitor and so he believes that if he tells a lie, even a small one, all his money will be taken away. So the venison is lovely.

And so, after four hours, to pudding. A pear is set before Uncle Raymond. It contains jelly. Uncle Raymond scowls. He is not a jelly person. Jelly does not fit his idea of himself; his imago shrugs it off. He tells me a childhood memory, involving jelly and a birthday party that went down in flames. He rarely reveals this much about himself. It is the claret and — a dread marketing word — the ambience. This room could be a psychiatrist. I eat a perfect chocolate cake, although my fiancée, who arrives for coffee, thinks it is a Kit-Kat. But he hates the French. This is an excellent restaurant and it knows it — the bill is £300. Merry Christmas, Spectator readers.

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Carlos Place, Mayfair, W1K 2AL; tel: 020 7107 8880.

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