Le Gavroche is named for ‘the urchin’ in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and lives in a basement on Upper Brook Street, Mayfair. It is the most famous French restaurant in London, and the first to win three Michelin stars. It was opened by Albert and Michel Roux in 1967 in Lower Sloane Street, moved in 1981, and was taken over by Michel Roux Jr., Albert’s son, in 1991. It has nurtured — or the opposite — Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay in its kitchens.
The website is a garland of awards, self-worship and the minutiae of the dress code. The involvement of lawyers, at some time, is hinted at. No reservation may be given as a prize in a competition and you may be refused entry, even if you comply with the dress code.
It appears in the Guinness Book of World Records as serving the most expensive meal per head in history in 1997 ($20,945 including wine, but that record has been broken, most likely in Las Vegas or Dubai. The rich are more reticent these days: they should be). It is, at least partly, a myth, and to dine in this part-myth, it is usual to book three months in advance. You do not visit The Urchin on a whim.
I decided to visit after a small scandal, in which Michel Roux Jr admitted that the restaurant kept the 13 per cent service charge, treated it as ‘revenue’ and distributed none to staff. This was confusion about who, precisely, the urchin was, but that is timely. Who is the true victim is the cry of the age. Chefs were also paid less than the minimum wage, but, despite a scream from Albert that he, as a tiny chef, never looked at his payslip for making swans out of sugar, it has since been repaid.
So, what now for The Urchin? It is, to my eyes, deeply unfashionable. That is not, by itself, a criticism. It looks nothing like the rest of Mayfair, which is glassy and black, a pool with no reflection or a district in Fendi skin. It is, rather, luxury in the minds of Jeffrey Archer and Shirley Conran, prompted by their daydreams, which all belong to the 1980s: a door, a staircase descending, and a red and green dining room so hushed and windowless that of course I think: cruise ship, and it is worse than that. I can hear the theme tune to Lace in my head.
So, the food. The Urchin is all about the food, the most grandiose type of food, which comes heavy with history and provenance, each dish a wet painting for a child to stick its fingers in: French food.
The menu has a drawing of a chef with a fish, a lemon, a sauce boat, and cherries. He looks transported, and why wouldn’t he be? This food is heavy, serious and beloved; it is old-fashioned. I say that with appreciation that slides, as we eat, to awe. It comes from Rachel Humphrey’s kitchen. Her face is not on the menu with the lemons, and there are no prices on my menu, a phenomenon which I thought was an urban myth. But I will not write myself as victim here.
We eat roasted sweetbreads which melt into skin; Davidstow cheddar ravioli, with a perfect bite; roasted crown of guinea fowl, arranged like a Vermeer by some young chef, but edible; rack of lamb with apricots; glorious crème brûlée; bitter chocolate cake with golden leaves; something that looks like a doughnut but isn’t, spouting cream onto a plate.
As I eat I forgive The Urchin for the 13 per cent service charge treated as revenue — it is now abolished — and for reminding me, very slightly, of Alan Clark eating a soufflé post-betrayal. This is the most serious French restaurant in London, and it is worth waiting a season for.
Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 7QR, tel: 020 7408 0881.