To the manager's credit, when the bill arrived, he had entirely removed food costs and service. We said that we would like to contribute for service but the maitre d' suggested we have no more arguments, that seemed his best suggestion of the day and we acquiesced. We left the restaurant thoroughly miserable, barely speaking to each other even, there's no joy in getting a bad meal, even when comped; this is not the day we had wanted or expected.
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Most readers will be aware that Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester has not been received without issue. AA Gill for example marked it just one star out of five in 2008. We ate there in 2009 when it had two (Michelin) stars and the meal was fine enough but far from memorable. There's been talk that the restaurant has more confidently entered its stride since then and we were keen to try again.
We thought we should give the kitchen full opportunity to express itself and so opted for the tasting menu. A pyramid of Gougeres arrived at the table first and was arguably the most tasty food of the day. A fair selection of bread followed but it was disappointing that it was cold and generally had little merit.
Opening the menu was 'Warm Scottish crab, delicate royale'. Strangely it is served in a porcelain eggshell. We asked the waiter why crab was being served in an eggshell. He said he didn't know, he suggested that Mr Ducasse might have just been fond of this particular piece of china and thought it looked nice. While described on the menu as 'warm', it was in fact room temperature which added to a broader sense of insipidness with the dish. Crab foam sat on top of a watery crab bisque with some brown crab in or around the area. The extent to which it had a 'delicate royale' was confined to a small number of small cubes of custard at the bottom of the dish that for all purposes might not have been there. Too delicate perhaps. We're underwhelmed but it's early.
After that, we return to 'Saute gourmand of lobster, and truffled chicken quenelles' which came with a Cognac sauce. The lobster was cooked well and the truffles came through in the quenelles, but they were otherwise quite watery; the sauce too was bland rather than rich. And having already been served crab, the return to lobster seemed unnecessary and lacked imagination in our view.
At best, I might describe the lobster dish as being 'quite nice' but then you think, this is one of only four 3 Michelin starred restaurants in the UK, every dish should be brilliant, not 'quite nice' and not at these prices. One can make comparisons too: at 3 star The Waterside Inn, their dish of 'pan fried lobster medallion with a white port sauce and ginger flavoured vegetable julienne' is a simply remarkable expression of food, bordering on perfect. As a dish, it is everything that today's offering isn't. For a picture of The Waterside's lobster click here.
When we think too of the depth of flavour's in the jus and sauces of Osteria Francescana, the blandness of flavours here is mind numbing by contrast.
Nothing yet has also been seasoned properly in our opinion, flavours are shallow, not deep and the essence of ingredients seems to be lost. Then there's texture, or rather, absence thereof. Crab, foie, lobster, there's no contrasts here on or between dishes.
The next course does nothing to change this, seared sea scallops, peas and asparagus, light green jus. The scallop was absent of all flavour, not even caramelised on top and the only real flavour to come through the dish is raw pea. Single Michelin starred Martin Wishart in Edinburgh delivers a scallop dish that from sight alone excites ten times the passion in us than this limp offering.
We must also note at this point that dishes are being returned to the kitchen with half the food left on them (and these are tasting sized plates) but no one has yet enquired if there is a problem.
It also left the question, if it's not crispy crackling, what is it? Just part of the skin apparently. We wonder what it's doing on the plate and what we're supposed to do with this greasy chewy piece of skin. Leave it strikes us as the obvious answer.
We talk to the maitre d' about the rest of the meal. We're not happy and the conversation isn't going well. He suggests a replacement course, we ask him to suggest a plate of excellence from the kitchen: we agree to the turbot ('matelote', potato gnocchi and country bacon). This is Ducasse's upmarket version of matelote, a French fish stew made with red or white wine, but in this case, with the traditional eel or pike replaced with turbot on the bone. The turbot again lacked any flavour. King of all sea fish? It wasn't even the king of this plate. The gnocchi was gummy and the bacon, while tasty, has only a cameo role and could never salvage anything by itself.
At this moment the disappointed maitre d' suggested we didn't understand Ducasse's cooking so making it our fault. What we didn't understand was how Ducasse had managed to get three stars at The Dorchester.
The maitre d' asked us if we wanted to carry on or just go home. With cheese next we thought we couldn't go too far wrong and the restaurant is 'famous' for desserts so we thought we'd see it through. Cheese was fine while the dessert (exotic fruits contemporary vacherin) was terribly unbalanced, at times both over sweet and overly tart depending which element you had on your spoon. The petits fours were excellent though we wouldn't advise going through so much for so little in this respect.
And given the price point that this restaurant charges, it should be amongst the very best, but in our view, it's nowhere near: the plates have no interesting textures, are not essentially visual delights, ingredients are underseasoned and dishes overall have little impact or flavour. And as for service, while they technically did mostly the right things (though failed to enquire about left food and lacked at times knowledge of what they were serving), in our view there was also no joy, waiters going through the motions because they had to, not because they wanted to.
The Waterside Inn in Bray is, as the crow flies, only 24 miles from Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester but in every other respect, it is a million miles away. It is our view that if you want to know how brilliant a 3 star French restaurant can be, you'll need to make the journey to Bray because on the basis of our experience today, you'll leave The Dorchester not just disappointed, but downright miserable.
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Related posts: The Waterside Inn