Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester shot to fame when it opened with two stars, to gain the coveted three stars in a year. I have to admit, having eaten at his flagship restaurant in Paris, I was somewhat frightened at the prospect of visiting.
Let’s begin with Paris.
A friend of mine had just moved to St Germain to take an academic post so I was excited to visit her and continue my tour of the gastronomic capital of the world. Given it was a bank holiday; I took the opportunity to make a reservation for Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athenee on the Friday night upon arrival.
“You require a jacket, sir.” That was my welcome. I was quickly ushered to a room where I was allowed to borrow one of the waiting staff’s. So, an over sized garment later, we were seated in the stunning but very formal dining room. We went for the tasting menu, as most first timers do. It was Autumnal themed with about ten courses.
Now, this was a while ago but I remember three distinct things from my experience: the jacket, the richness of the food and the service.
The food. It was, as our sommelier put it when ordering the wine, “challenging”. The richness was astronomical. We began with langoustine medallions topped with generous quantities of beluga caviar, followed by a seafood bisque that had a deep curried flavour, then the obligatory seared foie gras (accompanied with a pineapple compote which was excellent). Then came the main. We begged for something lighter and fresher and were relieved to be presented with a rather bland looking chicken breast. But the dish wasn’t complete. A rather dull grey liver sauce was generously poured all over it, followed by copious amounts of white truffle. It tasted great but it was an assault. My arteries clogged up at the thought of consuming all of it.
I do not remember what we had for dessert but the tea infusions remain stuck in my head. I’m not one to opt for non-caffeinated drinks. (I find myself consuming espressos like they are going out of fashion.) However, when presented with a mobile greenhouse of herbs and plants of which they prepare fresh teas, one cannot help but indulge. I had Pineapple Sage, something my guest and I had never heard of. It looked like sage but smelt of pineapple, apparently, it’s quintessentially French. We loved it. So much so that our host gave us the whole potted plant to take home as a gift. This brings me to my last point, the service was immaculate. Contrary to the formal atmosphere, they were friendly, relaxed, non-intrusive and bent over backwards to meet our requirements.
When I finally booked for Alain Ducasse in London, I had my doubts. Going through an ordeal in Paris that left me eating dry bread and water for a weak was not something that I wanted to repeat. But I did visit on the opening month and I have been back several times since.
The London venue is completely different. Set in a modern room with fibre optic curtains, modern art and background music (very unusual in high-end dining). The dress code is also relaxed; they encourage men to dress smart but do not require jackets.
The menu is also seasonal but very different to Paris. The ingredients are lighter, fresher and less, well, French. Don’t get me wrong, there are some classic Alain Ducasse dishes in there like the Rhum Baba but unlike L’Atelier de Joe Robuchon, Alain Ducasse firmly establishes himself as a group of restaurants and not a chain. And why? Because the Executive Chefs that run each outpost have almost full control. “A” people hire “A” people and as long as you appreciate your surroundings and what you’re setting yourself up for, you are seldom disappointed.
Paris was for the traditional French, London was for the Cosmopolitan drifters that find themselves living in our great capital at some point in their lives. I have also dined at his places in Mauritius, Monaco and New York and they are all highly in tune with their local knowledge and offer exceptionally well executed food (nothing too adventurous).
If you need my advice though, start with London. “Paris tells us you liked our Pineapple Sage, I am afraid it is not the season for it right now but we can offer a similar blend.” Best. Service. Ever.
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester (5 out of 5): The Dorchester, Park Lane, London, W1K 1QA, +44 (0)20 7629 8866.