The restaurant at the Connaught, like the hotel itself, used to be a stuffy clubby little place, a bit little like eating dinner in a library, with a heavy air of masculine pulchritude hanging over everything. The food, though, was excellent, under the hotel's in-house chef, a French-British melange of choices printed on a confusing, overstuffed menu. Their signature was the second tablecloth, unrolled ceremoniously just before dessert.
Now all that has changed. I haven't stayed at the Connaught since its renovation, but the rooms are supposedly larger and brighter. The lack of a lobby is made up for by a new gallery that runs along the outside, facing Carlos Place: nothing like the see and be seen drama of Claridge's, its sister hotel, but cosy and intimate. And the restaurant is now Helene Darroze at the Connaught. Was it coincidence that they chose one of the very few female Michelin chefs to take over the most masculine of dining-rooms in London?
The room itself, incidentally, has been lightened a little, with brighter lights, softer furnishings, and less of a sense of enclosure, but the wood-panelling is still there. We went there on the evening after it opened so we expected some faults in the service but attentiveness in the kitchen; and, most of all, the assurance that the chef would be present, as, indeed, she was. She prowled about the restaurant dominated by a long table on which were piled two huge wedding cake-sized mounds of butter, and various cheeses. A bright red ham slicer glided around the restaurant, dispensing paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham.
It seemed a shame not to have anything but the degustation menu, which comes out to about £100 per person, without wine and incidentals. There is a point at which haute cuisine goes beyond a line of competence, and enters a sacred realm of expected excellence where you're not supposed to worry if the scallops are overcooked or the oysters are slightly off. All that is taken for granted: cuisine becomes a language, the meal a kind of poetry, and like poems or paintings or music, something is being said. Helen Darroze, if she were a writer, would be post-modernist masquerading as a classicist, with a wry sense of humour under a facade of po-faced seriousness. Her flavours are bold, but measured; the combinations of textures unexpected and occasionally transcendental. The standout memory of the meal was the tartare of oysters on which was poured an unctuous sauce of pureed haricots blancs: you have the wildness of the sea and the grit of the earth in a single mouthful. Other combinations jarred like a bad couplet: the ballotine of foie gras was encrusted with nutmeg and cloves, which was completely unnecessary and just wrong; it made you feel as though you were having very good food while having your teeth drilled at the dentist. Even the finale of the second dessert, 100 per cent chocolate, went one step too far with a chalky, bitter cacao base, clogging the smoothness of the other perfumes. An impressive tea menu that even good Chinese restaurants in London fail to offer was presented alongside tisanes made from fresh stalks snipped off a few plants in pots that had miraculously appeared at the centre table.
The service, which we expected to be spotty, was absolutely flawless, in that telepathic French way that kicks Mr Ramsay's out of the game. The food was intelligent and thoughtful, but when one pays that much for a meal sometimes you just want it to be damn good, and there was only a single moment (two for my date) when you close your eyes and experience an explosion of pleasure in the mouth; of the sexual kind, almost. I was wondering as we waited for our taxi in the blossom-scented lobby (we had begun at seven and it was now almost midnight) whether we had set the bar too high for Ms Darroze. I believe now that it is she who has set the bar high for herself, and in the ocean of mediocrity that is the French restaurant scene in London, this can only be a good thing.