Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me…
It sounds odd doesn’t it, celebrating your birthday on your own? Don’t believe it for a second. Flying solo for a knock-out lunch is one of life’s great pleasures. Nothing may rival the fun and conviviality of a family meal, with its raucous and reflective flow, or the badinage that accompanies a meal with a well-chosen friend.
But eating alone remains a guiltless secret. A fair percentage of lone diners may be social misfits, but wouldn’t life be dull without misfits? (Excluding the serial killers, of course.)
I have learned, via the wife of an old friend and former colleague, that the solitary pursuit of dining is an important part of life, or of my life at least. I worked alongside Alex Hitchen at the now defunct Chatham News in Kent in the (very) early 1990s when local journalism still flourished. The professional skills of the humble hack – and old-fashioned virtues, such as verifying facts – were still valued in the quaint era before spamming, blogging and “citizen journalism.”
Alex, now earning a crust in New York, is married to Sabina Ptacin Hitchen, a “small biz evangelist” and co-founder of @TinShingle. I just watched a TV clip of Sabina explaining how to be “less busy and take control of your schedule.” Apparently, we all need to invest in “self-care.” I’ll drink to that.
Clearly, I am on the same wave length as Sabina. With “self-care” high on the McComb forward-planning list, I find myself at Carlos Place in Mayfair, looking at one of the most welcoming sights in London: The Connaught. It is just five days before my birthday and there is a spare pew at Hélène Darroze’s cathedral to modern French gastronomy.
It is the third time I have dined here since the restaurant reopened under Darroze’s leadership in 2008 and the food just gets better. As I sit down, facing the culinary regalia assembled in the centre of the dining room, I acknowledge that if this is the last meal I enjoy then I will count myself lucky, although I will be a bit gutted to miss out on a return visit.
I love the light, pretty space that has been created amid the clubby embrace of the room’s oak panelling. The place might be “posh,” not least because it is situated in one of the capital’s coolest five-star hotels, but I have rarely felt such calm in a well-heeled dining destination.
That is due in large part to the warm personality of the chef, which shines through with each course. Like they say, food is an expression of the soul. You know those messed up, over-arty plates and flavour combinations you see? That’s because the chef is a miserable screw up.
There is an age-old debate about which gender makes the best chef – is it men or is it women? But it’s not even a debate as far as I am concerned. There’s a female magic – call it a woman’s love – that men cannot replicate. Heston Blumenthal can do what he likes with a treacle tart – he can whiz it in test tubes, dehydrate it, rehydrate it, put it on a cushion of invisible lemon-scented air and say it was created in 1066 – but it is never going to match the treacle tart made by my granny, Eve. Ditto my mum’s roast lamb and runner beans and my wife’s birthday cakes. And ditto la cuisine Darroze.
Despite the groaning expectations sparked by holding two Michelin stars, the restaurant has a good value “lunch formula” – a choice of two “products”/courses is £30, three (including 1 dessert) is £38 and four is £45.
Or you can dive into the à la carte-style menu, which, with “self-care” at the forefront of my mind, is what I do. Here, the prices ranges from £52 (for three products/courses) to £125 for a magnificent seven (including 2 sweets).
Ordering begins with some fun. The waiter presents a circular wooden board, that looks like a 1930s’ game, with holes cut into it.
The holes are filled by white balls named after the dishes – for example, Salmon, Lobster, Pigeon etc. You discarded the balls you don’t fancy into the lip that runs around the board and arrange the rest in the order of your choice.
Think of it as a culinary game of bagatelle, except you always win. It’s very mad, very French. Darroze has two young daughters and I suspect they may have had a hand in the concept. Good for them.
Before the game commences in earnest, there is a nibble of deliciously light focaccia with confit tomatoes and noir de Bigorre ham from south west France. It’s an open-sarnie and very tasty too. Thank god for a pre-starter that isn’t called an amuse-bouche and that doesn’t come in a gold fish bowl with blobs and ferns.
The sommelier, Jon, delivers the first slurp of the day courtesy of the Champagne trolley. I go for the complex, red-fruit aroma and complexity of Eric Rodez Rosé, which is the product of organic and biodynamic grape cultivation. It’s a great drink to set up the meal. Merci, Jon.
The first starter is green asparagus from Pertuis. For those of us who fear missing out on a warm summer break, the dish is a lovely invocation of Provence – light pasta, rich morels, ricotta and a light dousing of divine Manni olive oil. (Divinity has a cost – a 100ml bottle of Manni costs about £20.)
Two fish courses burst with flavours and look terrific in an unselfconscious pretty way: lobster, from Northern Ireland, with more asparagus, white this time, royal botargo (fish roe) and seaweed; and succulent, meaty hake from Saint-Jean de Luz with those lovely morels, morel purée, pommel soufflés, rich parsley and a beautiful wild garlic foam.
By now, I am having ball. Jon has come up trumps again with a new one on me: a Hungarian pinot blanc, Fehérburgundi, redolent of almonds and a spicy, light herbaceous quality. It is great with the lobster and hake.
Faultless Pyrenean lamb forms the centrepiece of the meat course: two cuts of the saddle and a hunk of slow-cooked shoulder – a refined, haute cuisine take of a hearty farmhouse roast. The dish is, as you might expect, a picture but the produce and the timing of the cooking are the real stars here. There are rootsy notes courtesy of beetroot, a delicate carrot and citrus mousseline, roasted carrots and splurges of Greek yoghurt.
A glass of lovely, deep Spanish Fuentenarro (100% tempranillo) accentuates the earthy origins of the dish. Red fruits – blueberry and plum – bounce off a dash of background coffee and vanilla. Another great match.
The cheese course comprises le Stichelton from le Nottingshire and gets a French kiss courtesy of an elderflower emulsion, a port wine reduction and blackberry.
Instinctively, I should dislike this fancy-pants play with a traditional English blue cheese but it’s wonderful. As is the glass of Sauternes that my new best friend proffers.
There are so many tempting possibilities for dessert but I cannot resist the Baba Armagnac, not least because I know the sponge will be doused in Francis Darroze’s Bas Armagnac.
The peerless, light baba comes with a combo of rhubarb and galangal, of the ginger family. The dish must be a creative drain to knock out every day but it comes across as simplicity itself, just beautifully defined flavours that come together with a soul-enriching ooze of 1987 Armagnac.
Some exquisite sweeties are brought with the baba but I’m starting to hit saturation point. (Dear Connaught: can I pop back and finish them?)
Coffee comes in the coolest cups I have seen for a while – Hermès porcelain. I am now officially in love with the Balcon du Guadalquivir design, so much so that I thought I’d buy myself a cup and saucer from the Art de la Table collection. But then I research the price. Next year maybe.
I mention to Jon at the start of the meal that I am particularly looking forward to the lunch as my birthday is approaching. Like anyone cares it’s my birthday. I am thinking about stuff like this, and wondering what it’s going to be like to be 30, when a waiter appears with an extra from the chef – a little birthday cake with a little candle for a very happy boy.
Everything is now going so swimmingly that I suggest to Jon that it might be an idea to reprise the essence of the baba… with another Armagnac. And is there one from the year I was born?
Jon rummages among the litre-and-half grand bottles. And there it is: the 1967. (Yes, I lied – I am a little over 30.) Remarkably, there is a measure (and a bit) left. It’s fate, n’est pas?
The 1967 is superb, plummy, leather-tinged. But best of all, it shares something, albeit something tangential, with the man sipping it and wondering how the hell he had the good fortune to walk into restaurant Hélène Darroze. The chef splits her time between her restaurants in Paris and Moscow but she is at Carlos Place today. Perfect.
So happy birthday to me – and merci, Hélène Darroze. I won’t have a better lunch this year. No one will. Frankly, I feel a bit sorry for all of you.
- Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1K 2AL
T: +44 (0)20 7107 8880