The torment of a tasting menu: Hélène Darroze at the Connaught reviewed

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

The Connaught Hotel’s formal dining room was always, to me, a place of childish myth; more comforting for being mythical. I am certain it is the dining room in Judith Krantz’s novel Princess Daisy, to which a Russian prince takes his daughter in the 1970s. In this tableau you find Robert Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher and people willing to pay for newspapers.

I had, in a crowded field, my best ever celebrity encounter here, with the Netanyahus, in what used to be the breakfast room overlooking Carlos Place. ‘Shalom,’ I said, thrilling to the Waspy-ness we were subverting with our very presence. (I meant it. I meant it more than they did. I think that is clear.) ‘Shalom,’ Mrs Netanyahu said back. That was it.

But the Connaught has in recent years succumbed, like an illness, to renovation, and I do not recognise the hotel I once loved. The faded chintzes are gone. The American liberals have gone, possibly with the chintzes. Alec Guinness has gone, which, though lamentable, is not really the Connaught’s fault. They could hardly keep his corpse in the hallway; though they could at least have a hologram.

As part of this renovation without end we have a new ‘casual’ restaurant in Jean-Georges at the Connaught, which is a fine place to throw pink champagne down a mother. We have a new ice-pink Patisserie and a new Connaught Grill, which looks like a very sleek woodman’s hut filled with people who could not find an axe in a woodshop, and is now mysteriously closed, most likely from lack of staff (though of Brexit I will not speak here. It’s Christmas). There is nowhere to hide in this hotel now, and hotels need places to hide; at their best, they are nothing more than that. It seems, rather, to have become a very excitable food court.

And now we have a renovated Hélène Darroze at the Connaught too, the three-Michelin-star ‘flagship’ restaurant, if you like words like ‘flagship’: the depository of all food-themed dreams.

Hélène Darroze is a chef I admire. The one time I met her, she told me her favourite food was a boiled egg, and I believed her, so much so that I dream of a Hélène Darroze greasy spoon, like Piggy’s in Air Street, or even Little Chef by Darroze. But that future does not exist.

My last visit to this room was a decade ago, and what I remember most clearly is a pudding that resembled an haute cuisine Kit Kat, which was excellent, the dedication of the sommelier to my drunkenness, which was not, and an angry jelly. It was then a French restaurant for rich old men. Now it is a restaurant for rich young men, and it is barely French at all, for who can commit to one single kind of cuisine, even for a mere evening?

If the nation state is dead, so is anything as old–fashioned as native cuisine. It is too limiting. But there is a contradiction too, a caveat. What was once exotic — the rare, the faraway — is now unfashionable. This type of restaurant thrills to Welsh lamb and Cornish fish. I fully expect them to reinvent brown sauce one mad day; or to return next year to find a full farmers’ market operating within its walls.

This restaurant exists for photography. The walls are coral-coloured. The leather sofas and chairs are coral- and yellow-coloured. These colours only work in photographs, like a stick of rock, or a woman trapped in a Daily Mail picture story. If this restaurant could wear a wrap dress, it would.

I realise, as I read the menu, that I have erred. At some point between renovations, this restaurant, in which you could once whinge for potatoes dauphinoise and get them, essentially became a tasting-menu restaurant. I understand the need. If you give people too much choice, they go mad, and are useless as agents of capital; the chef must set a line somewhere, if only to prevent mass hospitalisation. But not for me. I avoid tasting-menu restaurants because they are bad sex with small food, and I hate them. I won’t be bullied by a chef’s mother. I have my own. Tasting menus taunt you with their possibilities, then leave you sundered; they are dreams that don’t come true. Now I have arrived at a tasting-menu restaurant by mistake and everything that follows is my fault. My Christmas review is It’s a Wonderful Life without wonder. It’s a life if not a living.

We begin with what is called a ballad around blue fish from Cornwall: a dish that is supposed to sing a sea shanty, I think, but doesn’t, being small, weird and dead. Then we have, from rustic tableware of course: crab; sea trout; foie gras; pigeon; and chocolate cake, ready for its Instagram close-up, with some willing stylists lingering out of shot. I wonder if I should describe each dish — or, to be accurate, perishable sculpture — separately and at length; but then I think, as with amateur pantomime, it only encourages them. It looks amazing, I give it that. Each looks like a still life and tastes like a frame. It is fish, pigeon and chocolate cake taken to its illogical conclusions; fish like you have never had — or wanted — before.

Even if you are credulous and seek somewhere to deposit your spurious wealth and your tinny memories, there is a problem with food like this. It isn’t really food: and if Instagram doesn’t know this, your stomach does. Your stomach doesn’t care that the chef has a perfectionism that crossed some time ago into lunacy, and met the lunacy of others there, and had an apogee of lunacy in a restaurant painted coral, because what else is there to do?

I should have gone to Rules, I think grimly, trying to swallow a self-important piece of fish without wincing or, worse, bringing it back into this world. I always think that, but I think it with a real intensity in a fish-themed tasting-menu restaurant whose closest seacoast is Southend. Or I should have listened to Hélène Darroze’s soul when it spoke freely to me that day. I should have eaten the boiled egg. But this is where we are as 2021 dies its small death: eating sculpture for £200 a head in a coral-coloured room. Merry Christmas.

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Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Carlos Place, W1, tel: 020 7499 7070.

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