Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester has held three Michelin stars for a remarkable 15 years. Julian de Féral discovers the decision is entirely justified.
Just across the road from the whirling chaos of Winter Wonderland, The Dorchester in all its resplendence remains uncharacteristically quiet for this time of the year. The main entrance is temporarily fenced off, The Promenade and the bar are having a grand redesign, but for the jewel in the hotel’s crown – Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester – it is business as usual, quietly having had a subtle design refresh during lockdowns.
Natural hues and textures; the striking Table Lumière featuring a cascade of 4,500 optics; and elliptical banquets generously designed as if to pre-empt the additional space one might need after the 7-pronged attack of the tasting menu: the lauded dining room still retains a sophisticated air of restraint.
The difference between Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and other similarly starred-up fine dining restaurants becomes immediately apparent upon being seated. Although the three Michelin stars have no doubt been retained for an impressive 15 years since opening due to executive chef Jean-Philippe Blondet and his kitchen staff bearing the flag for the visionary Ducasse, the finely honed – almost transcendent – level of service given by general manager Christopher Charraudeau and his front of house team is not to be overlooked. Many will have experienced service in restaurants with legendary figureheads at the helm that can be stilted, staid, precious or overbearing. Even those attuned to such environs can come away with the impression that, as diners, we are somehow lucky to have been chosen to worship at such a gastronomical alter.
Not so at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. Whilst relentlessly attentive, we did not feel overcrowded. A flicker in the corner of one’s eye the only indication that something on the table has been refilled, changed or transformed. Everyone a natural conversationalist, the front of house engaged without overexplaining, answering our myriad of excited questions, and even gamely indulging us whilst we pretended to steal the staff’s ‘lucky pen’, all with the relaxed charm that can only come with years of experience.
Of course, the minimalism of the room and the placating service ensure that when it begins, there is no distraction from the carefully considered journey of the food itself.
Today it is almost impossible to imagine that any menu – whether gastropub, fine dining restaurant or even hip burger joint – would not shout about the provenance of their ingredients. During the final quarter of the 20th Century, whilst ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was arguably lurching into a final hurrah, Ducasse points out in interviews that the focus of this style relied on developing modern techniques and artistic presentation. It did not necessarily champion the quality or regionality of the produce itself. Inspired by his own “master” Alain Chapel, the core mantra of Ducasse’s 34 restaurants has been refined: “The produce is the only truth… Without it, a chef is nothing.”
This might explain why of the countless tasting menus I have had over the years the central red meat dish somehow tends to be anticlimactic, with a tendency to rely on the fact that a premium cut is being served, rather than a complete understanding of why it is the way it is: a true understanding of terroir and animal welfare. The saddle of Denbighshire venison was the best red meat dish my dining partner and I have tried in recent memory: impossibly cooked beyond perfection, with great texture yet somehow also melt in the mouth. The slight gaminess was offset by sweet butternut squash, and in an unusual but atypical manner of Ducasse, served with a crunchy kombu and pops of salty fingers, giving the dish a subtle but unobtrusive salinity; seamlessly merging the sea with the forest.
This dish also highlights something of a less-discussed aspect of the Ducasse-style of cooking: the vegetable accompaniments are not so much supporting actors in the play, but co-stars, or even in some cases the star of the plate itself.
Mackerel, often associated with dominant smoky-oiliness is put firmly in its place by a thin blanket and broth of shocking red beetroot, that we are told is inspired by chef Blondet’s visit to Poland – the home country of his wife – where he consumed copious amounts of obligatory borscht and other dishes that champion the humble vegetable. With a hint of wasabi and a sprinkling of marigold petals, this is washed down with a cold glass of Château Lamothe-Bouscaut Pessac-Léognan Bordeaux Blanc 2019, completing the symphony of flavours with good hit of citric acidity and a touch of earthiness to compliment the beetroot.
With most ingredients painstakingly sourced over the years directly from British and French suppliers, chef Blondet and his team exude confidence in this fresh produce. Naturally there are flourishes and theatre, but unlike many restaurants of such stature, none of these feels remotely superfluous, ineffective or unoriginal. Whilst there is no sense of complacency, having the history of the Ducasse name behind them, the simple core philosophy, consistently earning the highest of plaudits, and a genuinely passionate team with a wealth of experience is enough for the dishes to drop the frills.
The surprising tangy pop of tiny pearls of finger lime hidden within the Kristal caviar and beurre blanc is such a simple but effective touch my partner and I were kicking ourselves that we had never thought of it ourselves. Spooned on top of a huge scallop – again cooked flawlessly and scored in such a way that it had sucked up all of its juices – it is served in a shell dotted with barnacles atop a bed of smoking seaweed. One might imagine this visual coupe to be a step too far in showmanship, however the effect of inhaling the evocative aroma of marine life transports one to the seafront of some Scottish archipelago, contrasting the tender sweetness of the scallop without overpowering the delicate nutty notes of the caviar.
Past influences have not been forgotten, with a complete mastery of sauces, such as the blend of a bisque and a truffled creamy concoction poured over the ‘sauté gourmand’, a dish we are told has been so in favour that it hasn’t left the menu since day one: consisting of hunks of lobster, chicken quenelles spiked with yet more Perigord truffle, and – as if to contrast of all this opulence – a couple of pieces of semolina pasta, cooked just the right side of al dente and served with a fruity glass of Louis Roederer rosé Champagne.
After having our palettes cleared by a fragrant sorbet and golden kiwi adorned with a string of sea grapes – another simple flourish using the best of nature, elevating the simple serve to something extraordinary – we realised we had been glued to our seats for almost four hours and were somewhat apprehensive of a heavy dessert finally putting us to sleep.
Our concern was, of course, maligned. The artfully sliced pear from the Vassout family (the oldest arborists in Île-de-France) served with a delightfully comforting bowl of curd on the side was in fact light and refreshing, so much so that our servers had decided we could not leave without trying the legendary Ducasse ‘baba au rhum comme à Monte-Carlo. This three-hundred-year-old dessert has been so perfectly executed at Ducasse’s Le Louis XV Hotel de Paris, that many chefs have given up attempting to compete with it and refuse to list it all together.
Intrinsically a very simple dish, the Ducasse version is highly theatrical yet forgoes any unnecessary fruit embellishments. The polished silver bowl reveals the epitome of a perfectly glazed sponge which is dramatically split down the middle. Liberally doused with the wonderful Eminente Reserva Cuban rum by the head sommelier Vincenzo Arnese, the rum is packed with rich tropical fruit flavours, a slight florality and hints of coffee; all the complexity that the delicate sponge needs. Another hand appears and adds the final touch: a dollop of Chantilly cream that is so light we are surprised it doesn’t float off.
This isn’t just a pudding; this is perhaps one of the greatest puddings in the world. Enough to convert someone such as I – who would normally be more than sated with the fine selection of cheese and perfectly formed warm miniature baguettes – into a patron of desserts. And this isn’t just another wonderful meal, this is perhaps one of the greatest restaurant experiences of our lives.
The seven-course tasting menu is £210 with a supplement of £125 for the wine pairing.