Nick nibbles at the hand that fed him at The Dorchester.
It was an invitation that I had to accept.
It came from a friend in the PR world, not an oxymoron, whom I had come to know over several years. She has specialised in representing top-of-the range restaurants and chefs and was in touch because she is currently representing yet another. But on this occasion not an upcoming talent – instead probably the best known French chef in the world today, Alain Ducasse.
Her invitation was quite straightforward. Would I like to join her, another writer and another member of her team for dinner at the highly regarded restaurant, simply called Alain Ducasse, in the ultra-smart hotel The Dorchester on Tuesday evening of the following week? I said yes pretty quickly.
The entrance to the restaurant is off The Promenade, the central ‘avenue’ that leads from the hotel reception to the newly appointed Artists’ Bar at the far end which, in turn, is just beyond the piano covered in mirror glass that had once been the personal property of Liberace in his California home. Also off The Promenade is the Vesper Bar and, on the other side, the entrance to The Grill.
There were no fewer than three young ladies waiting for me by some closed doors. ‘Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil’, I joked as I gave my name and that of my host. They obligingly laughed, took my hat and coat, and led me to our table.
Before I go into the details of the slightly disappointing food; the first-class, highly solicitous service on offer; and the exceptional array of wines offered by the engaging team of sommeliers led by Naples-born Vincenzo Arnese, let me begin with an explanation. We go to restaurants of this ilk, and I am talking about the top of the tree, those that have earned three stars in Michelin or the equivalent, primarily to experience something new and exciting.
It could be the location, as at Noma, El Bulli or at Troisgros, but it has to be the food as well. There has to be a performance, something that will wow the customer, a magical transformation of ingredients. Something memorable.
This is even more the case when the venue is in a city centre. In the case of The Dorchester’s Alain Ducasse restaurant the entrance is off a space serving cups of tea and cakes. On the other side is a busy road, Park Lane, on which cars and London’s famous red double-decker buses go hurtling by. There is no view over the sea or a fabulous garden. I believe that your location, what you see from the table, are important factors and here they are unimpressive, however expensive the wooden finish of the walls may be. And if these factors are lacking, then the quality of the cooking has to be even better – truly exceptional. But, sadly, in this meal it was not.
Our dinner could not have begun more impressively however. When one of our group mentioned to the waiter enquiring about any allergies that she was salt-intolerant, the kitchen responded magnificently and, as at our meal at the three-star Lameloise in 2021, dishes appeared specifically tailored for her: lobster rolls, the ‘bag’ of cheese-filled ravioli, the butter, and all the ensuing dishes were delivered with less salt than those for the rest of the table.
Only a set menu is on offer at Alain Ducasse and, while some variation for dietary concerns is accepted, the menu displayed on a piece of paper on a stand that is left on the table throughout the meal, is it. For £210 per person, this read on the night we ate there: a hand-dived scallop, citrus beurre blanc and Kristal caviar; beetroot, mackerel and wasabi; lobster medallion, chicken quenelles, Périgord truffles and homemade semolina pasta; Cornish turbot, Kalibos purple cabbage, chestnut and clementine; a saddle of Denbighshire venison, butternut squash and kombu; assortment of French cheeses; and, finally, a Vassout pear, curd and citron. And, I suppose, a plethora of petits fours.
I can only imagine the quality of the last three dishes because I didn’t stay to see them. We had sat down at just after 7 pm and were served the cheese course at 10.30 pm by which time I had in every sense had enough. That is too long a meal in my opinion. In any case a cheese course highlights only the kitchen’s buying capabilities – as well of course as the pastry section’s baguette-making skills. It’s an additional course that reflects the French approach rather than the restaurant’s very English location. It also came at the end of a run of four rich dishes.
The scallop (above) was delightfully presented in its shell and then just as elegantly topped with rich caviar slightly cut with the addition of a citrus beurre blanc. The next course showed obvious mastery in the kitchen with just the right balance between the heat of the wasabi and the depth of flavour of the mackerel and the beetroot. This was a lovely dish.
It was followed by a completely contrasting dish (below) that was presented with great aplomb by the waiting staff who proudly claimed that it had been on the menu since the restaurant opened here in 2007. It felt as though it was 16 years old, too. It was as heavy as the list of ingredients suggests: lobster, chicken, pasta and truffles. This was then followed by another rich dish, of turbot with a sauce that combined clementines and chestnuts, followed by a largeish piece of the richest meat, venison. It was all too much.
These five courses presented no issues for Arnese who selected the five wines, whites as usual outnumbering the reds, four to one in this case. We began with what for me was the surprise of the evening, a 2019 Roussette de Savoie from Domaine Giachino that was pure and elegant and full of charm. It was a lovely counterweight to the next wine, an old favourite, Trimbach’s Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile, a 2013 that was powerful, charming and full of expression of Alsace. I could have done without the glass of champagne that followed, Thiénot’s 2008, but Arnese was really back on track with the next two wines, the 2013 Leirana Albariño in which Raúl Pérez has a hand and a delightful glass of a warming 2018 Côte Rôtie from Guigal’s Ch d’Ampuis. These were selected from a long, thick list which has all of the great and the good but also, as Arnese astutely showed, some producers from less well-known regions. This selection of wines, plus a glass of the dessert wine, a 2018 Coteaux de l’Aubance which I left too soon to enjoy, costs £250 per person.
Together that would have made a bill of over £500 including service, of which I paid not a penny, but that does not deprive me of the right to criticise. I believe that the service was too slow, that almost four hours at the table is too long. That the menu was too rich; that the lobster course followed by turbot was bordering on an overdose; and that there was not enough of a ‘wow’ factor in the presentation. Perhaps this is just me. Perhaps the current prevalence of open kitchens has simply spoiled me for more formal service. It was occasionally encouraging to hear the shouts from the kitchen brigade as they joined in unison from behind the swing doors. But this was simply not enough for me on my night chez Alain Ducasse.
Photo of dining room and of Vincenzo Arnese courtesy Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.
Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester Park Lane, London W1K 1QA; tel: +44 (0)20 7629 8866