For me, the prospect of fine dining at lunchtime usually follows the same pattern. I make the booking with the intention of choosing a conservatively sized option – there is, after all, the rest of the day to get through – and perhaps allowing myself two glasses of wine, at most. Inevitably, I change my mind on the way to the restaurant, having reorganised my schedule to allow for an afternoon of gourmandising, and think about ordering a full three courses. I start to wonder about how my dining partner will respond if, after an aperitif, I recommend that we share a bottle. Once the menu appears, all remaining good intentions evaporate and, hours later, we emerge onto the street, blinking, replete and carefree. I have never regretted giving in to temptation.
Before my lunch at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, one of only two restaurants in London that currently hold three Michelin stars, I had no such preconceptions. I knew that I would quickly succumb to the offers of immaculately presented and exquisitely flavoured French cuisine, put together by Executive Chef Jocelyn Harland.
I met Charlotte, my companion on many an epicurean odyssey, in The Dorchester’s The Promenade lounge, but our table in the restaurant was available almost immediately. We were shown a table in the centre of the calm, silvery restaurant, where sleek lines and high windows create an atmosphere of effortless class. The private dining table, the ‘Table Lumière’, screened from the rest of the room by a column of glittering waterfall lights, provides a striking centrepiece. Restaurant manager Nicolas and sommelier Vincent were friendly and constantly on hand to discuss our choices if we wished, but my overall sense of the service was that it was expertly unobtrusive and efficient.
Once we had ordered, a stack of worryingly moreish gougères arrived, flavoured with black pepper, paprika and cheese. Charlotte raved about the appetisers served in Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, spinach and ricotta in little parcels of crisp pastry, and suddenly these appeared too, wrapped in a serviette. The breads on offer were also very good, our particular favourite being the Scottish bread with pork fat, and we were hard pushed not to fill up on these before the first course! The amuse bouche was a juicy sea scallop, served with lettuce cream in a scallop shell, and topped with caviar. We also enjoyed a crisp glass of NV Selection Alain Ducasse, made up of mostly Pinot Noir for the restaurants by champagne giant Lanson.
The first courses arrived. Charlotte’s ‘Sauté gourmand’ of lobster was barely cooked and its delicate sweetness combined perfectly with the earthiness of the truffled chicken quenelles and the full-flavoured bisque. This was paired with an unusually cloudy Burgenland Timotheus Guy Oggau 2011, which had a mead-like aroma and a little charcoal on the palate. I had been encouraged to try the raw and cooked vegetables, with Taggiasca olive and tomato syrup which, despite my misgivings turned out to be a vividly colourful combination that seemed to have been imbued with the most intense flavours of each vegetable. My wine was a Sancerre Denisottes C. Riffault 2012, which was pretty and floral, the fresh minerality emphasising the vegetables in the dish.
Charlotte continued with a wild sea bass fillet with very sharp citrus sauce and Swiss chards, and a 2008 Puligny-Montrachet Trézin that had a fine acidity from growing high in a colder climate. My fish was halibut, with robustly flavoured Irish sea urchins (an acquired taste but definitely one I enjoy) and sautéed baby squid. My wine was buttery but elegant, a 2008 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Morgeot by Bernard Moreau.
As I have already explained, lunch can quickly become a rather excessive affair, but in such a restaurant as this, I think excess is entirely justified. There was a very gentle but pleasant rhythm to the introduction of each wine prior to the dish arriving and this continued with the main course.
Charlotte’s wine was a Château Gruard-Laroze 2004 Saint-Julien that had a summer grass, possibly hay-ish, nose, and a little peat flavour. This was an excellent accompaniment to Charlotte’s main, the rib and saddle of Denbighshire venison, which was very tender from two weeks of hanging, and was served with suitably wintery pumpkin and cranberries.
My first red wine was a Morey-Saint-Denis 2009 Dujac Fils et Pere, a lovely garnet coloured wine full of berry flavours and red fruit, that was expertly paired with my roasted farmhouse veal fillet, which had been perfectly trimmed of all fat but looked succulent and substantial. The veal was served with tender potatoes, spinach and exquisite nuggets of fried sweetbreads, as well as a rich jus.
You cannot eat at a French restaurant without sampling the cheese. Good cheese – our favourite on this occasion being the creamy and nutty Mont D’Or – adds a dimension to a meal that results in a gentle slide towards the sweet courses, rather than an abrupt change. The assortment of four French cheeses that we tasted were each served with a different condiment and were paired with another excellent wine, this time a 2011 Arbois Fleur de Savagnin from Tournelle, that was pale coloured, young and a little salty.
Charlotte and I were also served the same wine to finish, a Jurançon 2011 Marie Kattlin, which was reminiscent of tropical fruits and caramel, but wasn’t too sweet overall. I had “Moka our way”, which was a feast of dark coffee and chocolate flavours, and Charlotte had a lime soufflé, served with tangy confit kumquats. Both desserts were delicious. We have quite different taste when it comes to sweet dishes, but there is something sweet for everyone on the menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.
In fact, I can personally attest to this, as we were not permitted to leave until we had also tasted (in rather smaller quanities) the fabulously sweet and tropical ‘Exotic fruit’ dessert and the baba with our choice of rum (dark and spicy) and lightly whipped cream. These were then, naturally, followed by mignardises!
Once more, I was very happy that I had been so quickly able to give in to the temptations of the fine dining lunch menu. Lunching at a three Michelin star restaurant is an occasion to enjoy and remember and, since you can never quite tell what will appeal to you at the time, you should make sure that the occasion is not going to be rushed or marred by prior commitments. Lunch is not a time to deny yourself because you feel that you should, particularly if you choose to have lunch somewhere where the food and the service is faultless. If, like me, you’re easily persuaded to throw those silly notions aside and you believe that lunch can be every bit as indulgent as dinner, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester will be happy to oblige.