At Hélène Darroze's London restaurant I learned the true meaning of the verb to feast. Seven courses supplemented by outstanding add-ons including amuses, palate cleansers, petits fours and libations running the gamut from classic cocktails to the purest green tea. It's really a wonder that my stomach can still function properly. And that I didn't spontaneously combust.
The restaurant is housed in the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, opened in the 19th century as the Prince of Saxe Coburg Hotel and renamed during World War I in an effort to diminish any Germanic connotations. The history of the place is palpable throughout the building - though beautifully restored and kept, it has an incredibly old-world atmosphere - all wooden panelling and well-spoken, courteous staff, extending even to the bathroom, where an attendant patiently turns the taps to the perfect temperature and discreetly passes you a hand towel when you've finished washing your hands. The restaurant itself finds a harmonious balance between tradition and modernity: two specially commissioned Damien Hirst stained-glass window-like butterfly pieces slot perfectly into panelled spaces (one above our heads, to my delight).
Upon arrival we were presented with the menu, in the form of a solitaire board. Each sphere indicated a single key ingredient (discernible under cloches upon entering the restaurant, as above). My kind of game. I thought this was such an original, playful way to choose dishes, and that central to this was that wonderful element of surprise. After all, there was no way to know which ball represented a starter, main or dessert until the waiter arranged our choices on our boards.
We decided on the seven course menu - at £98 per head plus extra charges for ordering dishes like the caviar and Wagyu beef, Hélène Darroze is not the place to go on a budget. Naturellement. However, for celebrations - in our case a birthday and a significant promotion - it really is the perfect place.
Amuses arrived to tide us over as we continued to ponder our solitaire boards: cold meats, ham and cheese croquettes and a deliciously creamy shot of soup.
We were offered endless rounds of bread to be spread lavishly with the most delicious chilli butter.
My final choices: coco bean, cep, calamari, sea bass, grouse, pineapple and chocolate.
'Caviar' with crab, radish and an avocado velouté, looked beautiful and struck a high note with my mother. 'How does she manage to get that level of flavour and sweetness into a cold dish?! I'm so impressed.' For her, this was the undoubted highlight of the meal. It's a good thing it was eaten on an empty stomach!
'Coco bean'. A silky smooth velouté with eel. Heartwarming with wonderfully refined flavours.
'Cep'. Delicious cuisses de grenouilles (frogs' legs - funnily the first time I'd ever tried them and I can now firmly say that these are not like chicken, with a smoother texture), salty persillade, walnuts, cep mushrooms and the cutest little tortellini with a perfect bite. Simply splendid, and overall my favourite dish.
'Calamari'. While this was unarguably an aesthetically stunning dish, it lacked excitement and flavour for me, perhaps because I was so taken with the first two dishes. Stuffed squid is always tricky for me too, as I've been lucky/unlucky enough to have tasted what I'd unequivocably call the best stuffed squid in the world (in a small harbourside restaurant in Fethiye).
'Scallop' with Indian flavours - tandoori, coriander, carrot and citrus.
'Sea bass'. I'm always a fan of sea bass but it was the unique presentation that instantly won me over here - specifically the way in which the scales had been roasted so they stood up. I also loved the idea that the fish might have beached on an exotic island shore, made foamy by the crashing surf and accompanied by clams.
A perfectly marbled block of Wagyu beef brought to the table before the meal commenced had induced two of our party to push the boat out and order a portion each. A bite of this left me as full and satisfied as if I'd enjoyed an entire steak.
'Grouse'. A Scottish bird with the creamiest foie gras which went very well with several types of beetroot and plum.
In advance of the signature 'Savarin', a trolley bearing bottles of Armagnac from Hélène's family estate in south-west France trundled up to the table. Choose wisely, as your Baba Armagnac will be absolutely drenched in the brandy of your choice...
Doused liberally in the brandy, the baba naturally packed a punch - I had a mouthful and it took me a full minute to recover (#lightweight).
For B - blackberry meringue, presented in a glass that brought me back to my days at university, where my favourite formal desserts were possets, fools and syllabubs (still not quite sure what any of those really are...)
'Pineapple' - a cloud capturing the essence of a summer holiday. Malibu flavoured foam, fresh chunks of pineapple, crunchy biscuit, a perfectly smooth and sweet vanilla icecream beneath. Simple, but I loved it.
'Chocolate'. Essentially, the most elegant tiramisu that is ever likely to pass my lips. A wonderful marriage of architecture and food: a wonderfully bitter coffee ice cream packed into a chocolate roundel, supporting a geometrically perfect rectangle of sponge and coffee mousse walled in by tempered chocolate.
And to finish, a palate-cleansing sorbet followed by gyokuro green tea, earl grey, jasmine silver needles white tea and that all-important espresso. All together now: it's the full stop at the end of the meal.
That full stop turned out to be more of an ellipsis...as petits fours and cannelés arrived for us to take home. We were groaningly, bursting-at-the-seams full by this point...but we weren't complaining.
Exactly what I expected of a double Michelin-starred restaurant: absolutely flawless service that goes way beyond what you'd expect of waiters - attentive, sparking up conversations, even taking a sweet Polaroid for us (sadly left behind). Oh, and gorgeously crafted, indulgent food. Of course. You can only really eat like this once a year, or once every few years...but I'd still return in a heartbeat.