10 December 2010

Alba Truffle Menu at Hélène Darroze, London – Restaurant Review

Oh, mighty tuber magnatum! Sensual and elusive Alba madonna, where do I begin? For you are one of the most enigmatic and hedonistic tastes around. You spend your life underground, to be unearthed by passing dog and his trifolau master. For centuries you have been fêted and fawned over. Legend has it that that you are formed where lightning hits the ground. You are sold for tens of thousands of dollars, ending up at some of the finest restaurants in the world. I am, of course, talking about the exquisite white truffle.

The finest white truffles grow in Alba, a small town in Piedmont in Italy, and their main season runs from early October to late November. Yes, you can find white truffles in other parts of Italy, as well as in Croatia, but none of these have the extraordinarily perfumed pungency of Alba's finest. These truffles are quite possibly one of the most sought after foods in history, commanding a commensurate price; in November 2010, Chinese businessman Stanley Ho, paid a whopping $330,000 for just two Alba truffles – five times the value of their weight in gold.
I am a (sadly infrequent) worshipper at the altar of the white truffle. There are few things that can't be improved by the liberal addition of gossamer thin slices of white truffle. OK, I exaggerate a touch, but the aroma. Oh, the AROMA! A heady and complex mix of wet earth and musk, with notes of toasted nuts, straw and even honey. No two Alba truffles are quite the same, but all possess that intoxicating, almost erotic perfume, and most of the taste of white truffles comes from this bewitching aroma.

So on a recent trip to London, I found myself at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught Hotel on a mission to try their Alba truffle tasting menu, which they offer for lunch and dinner during the peak of the truffle season. Darroze's pedigree is impeccable. She worked as Alain Ducasse's right hand lady at his legendary three-Michelin starred Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo before opening her own eponymous restaurant on Paris's Left Bank in 1999. In 2001 she gained her first star, with a second coming in 2003. She subsequently lost one of her two stars in the 2010 version of the famous guide. The Connaught is her second venture and opened in 2008, gaining a Michelin star just one year later (Update: In the 2011 edition of the Michelin guide it was awarded a second star). Obviously she can't be in two places at once, so the restaurant at the Connaught is overseen by the very capable Raphael François, former head chef of Darroze's Parisian restaurant.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Nibbler does not share my enthusiasm for truffles. So on this occasion she made it clear that if I wanted truffles I was on my own. So it was that I arrived for lunch, reading material in hand, at my table for one in the opulent Connaught dining room, resplendent in dark wood panelled walls, heavy starched white tablecloths, and lushly upholstered chairs. I needn't have worried about dining alone, as I struck up a friendly conversation with two delightful ladies at the neighbouring table after they asked to take a photo of the whole truffle that was being presented to me. It turned out they were food bloggers from Japan (Cinq Etoiles and Flyrobin), so we had fun discussing all things food.

I waved away the à la carte menu and went straight for the seven-course Alba truffle tasting menu. Almost instantly a waiter appeared with a plate, lifting its cloche to reveal a beautiful white truffle specimen sitting on a mound of Arborio rice. This was to be my truffle for the afternoon, and I was pleased to meet its acquaintance. Its miraculous aroma hit me instantly and, yes, I did inhale. Deeply. Sadly it was swiftly whisked away into the kitchen where it remained for the entirety of the lunch; there would be no table-side truffle slicing here. All the dishes would be completed in the kitchen which, while ensuring a visually appealing finished product, does rob you of some of the magic in eating white truffles.

First, I was presented with a couple of amuse bouches. A butternut squash velouté was deliciously creamy, although the mint foam it was topped with didn't go with it all. A bread roll of Piedmont peppers was warm, but very dry, like something you'd expect to be served on an airplane. A somewhat inauspicious start then.
Bread was served next and I chose fig bread, which was dense, chewy and everything the Piedmont pepper roll wasn't. It was served with utterly delicious salted and unsalted Normandy butter. I could have happily eaten only these for lunch.
The first course proper was next and with it came my first taste of the Alba madonna. An egg yolk, topped with Lardo di Colonnata (fragrant cured pork fat from Tuscany), and white truffle slices lay in a bowl. The waiter then poured over a country bread velouté with beurre noisette. I pierced the yolk with my spoon, releasing the golden goodness, and took a bite. It was amazing and packed with wonderful flavours of bread and toasted nuts, with the white truffle transforming the dish into something extraordinary.
Next, a dish that I was initially sceptical of – white truffle with seafood. Could this combination of flavours really work? In a word, yes. Tartare of Scottish langoustine was served with hazelnuts from Piedmont, rocket jus, and an intense Alba truffle ice cream. This was an electrifying dish, although maybe the ice cream was a touch too overpowering for the delicate langoustine. I was delighted to see a flash of pink in the tranche of truffle that topped the dish, indicating that it perhaps grew near a poplar tree instead of the typical oak – one of the very best kinds of Alba truffle.
Darroze hails from the Landes region of South West France, which has a heavy influence in her cooking. The next course was escaoutoun, a polenta-like dish made with cornmeal that is native to the Landes. This peasant staple was elevated to haute cuisine by the addition of chicken stock, rich and unctuous Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese, and of course by more slivers of those 'white diamonds'. This dish was so rich and so filling that a little of it went a very long way indeed. But those wonderful flavours of corn, cheese and truffle were as comforting as a great big hug.
Another seafood dish next. This time a Jurassic sized Scottish scallop was served roasted in its shell, with Parmesan 'cappuccino', and white truffle shavings. Again, it was sensational, the salty parmesan acting as a perfect foil to the sweet, succulent scallop, while the white truffles did their ambrosial thing.
The next course left me speechless. Roasted veal sweetbreads were served with Sardinian artichoke, potato gnocchi, and Alba truffle shavings. The whole thing was doused in a foie gras velouté. Oh. My. God. I find that restaurants so often disappoint with sweetbreads, but these were a revelation. A salty, crisp exterior yielded to soft, bouncy, bone-white flesh, its silky texture providing a mild bacon-like flavour. The artichoke was perfectly al dente with a lovely grassy and nutty taste, while the gnocchi was satisfyingly chewy. And the foie gras velouté? Well let's just say that it took every ounce of willpower not to lick the plate clean. This was one dish where the white truffle was definitely playing second fiddle.
On to the cheese course, and probably the most 'ordinary' dish of the meal. A thick slice of double Coulommiers cheese (a creamy cow's milk cheese, not dissimilar to brie) that was stuffed with white truffles from Alba was accompanied by a simple green salad. The potent truffle aroma had permeated the cheese nicely, giving it a wonderful flavour.
The last course was quite possibly one of the finest desserts I've ever had. Layers of mascarpone cream, sponge pudding, Alba truffle, sliced almonds, and almond foam were served in a clear glass. It was jaw-droppingly good. The cool, sweetened mascarpone was juxtaposed nicely by a warm, eggy, vanilla sponge pudding. The residual warmth of the rich sponge was just enough to bring out the flavour of the truffle, so that those wonderful aromas enveloped everything. The almonds and oh-so-light almond foam added a touch of perfumed nuttiness and a variation in texture. When combined, the flavours were nothing short of breathtaking – think of it as 'trifle of the gods'. Amazing.
I finished the meal with a jolting espresso and a selection of petit fours from a trolley containing vast sweet shop-style jars. Salted butter caramel and milk chocolate truffle were fine, but no match for the previous theatrics, while a chocolate and raspberry macaron was unfortunately tough and leaden.
In many ways, this is a somewhat strange restaurant review to write. The real star of this meal was, of course, the Alba truffle. It needs no cooking or elaborate preparation. It just needs to be sliced thinly and served. The accompanying food, therefore, plays a mere supporting role; a blank canvas that can showcase the flavour of the truffle. But, of course, it's not as though the food doesn't matter at all. Matching and balancing the pungent aroma and flavour of the white truffle to create something truly special takes supreme skill. While I could happily have white truffles served simply with scrambled eggs, risotto, or plain buttered pasta, I was so impressed with the skill of the cooking shown at Hélène Darroze. Every dish from the menu was perfectly in balance, every bite heavenly. The truffle aromas shone through boldly, but not to the extent that they drowned out the other flavours. In fact, quite the contrary – it was almost as if the truffle flavours were enhanced by the matching food. At £200 without wine, the Alba truffle menu at Hélène Darroze is almost recklessly extravagant, but it is a real culinary tour de force. This is one meal I will reminisce about for a very long time indeed.

Food:         9 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  8 / 10

Carlos Place
London. W1K 2AL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7499 7070

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught on Urbanspoon
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