I live between Paris and London. So does Helene Darroze, who alternates between her two eponymous restaurants (she also has a third in Moscow); one in the 6th arrondissement, the other at the Connaught. When she first opened at the Connaught in 2008 the critics were savage. But the restaurant has since earned two Michelin stars and last year Darroze was named best female chef in the world by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. She is one of the scant handful of women in the upper echelons of chefdom and I have long wanted to taste her food. It turns out that the Connaught has a roast chicken special on weekends. £95 for two. So I took my Dad one Sunday for lunch.
Dad is eighty one, walks with a cane, and is a traditional sort of British gent. His heroes are Churchill and Napoleon, he carries a handkerchief and a gold pocket watch and he has never liked chicken.
‘Why not? Everyone loves roast chicken. It’s a universal.’ ‘I think it’s boring,’ said Dad, who nonetheless had agreed to come because he can never resist a really good restaurant. His father took him to La Pyramide near Lyon in 1948 when the legendary Fernand Point was still the chef there. The impression of serious French cooking on a twelve-year-old boy who had grown up in the Highlands of Scotland under rationing was indelible.
Helene Darroze at the Connaught is grand and quiet and supremely comfortable. Wood-panelled walls, curlicue plasterwork ceiling, deep armchairs, swathes of damask tablecloth. In the middle of summer the dining room was half empty; all the other tables, I noted, were also of adult children lunching with their parents.
A trio of amuse bouche arrived. A deep-fried rectangle of something, a glass tea pot of clear gazpacho to pour into tumblers with multicoloured mirepoix resting in the bottoms, a crispy filo cornet of smoked eel smush topped with a green dill foam. The deep-fried rectangle tasted of deep fried, the gazpacho was very pretty and vegetally insipid, the smoked eel was delicious.
I pressed Dad for the reasons behind his deeply held belief about the inferiority of chicken. ‘Maybe because in Perthshire when I was a boy, there was shooting and we ate grouse or pheasant as a treat. Chicken was the everyday bird.’ Childhood prejudice was then reinforced as chicken became reduced to a bland, industrially produced protein. On a business trip to Brazil in the 1980s Dad was taken on a tour of a chicken slaughterhouse in Novo Hamburgo with the German manager. ‘And ziss is where we cut off zeir heads’ Dad recounted the man explaining. He shuddered for years after the experience. Chicken for dinner? we would tease. ‘Nein!’
‘Do you ever remember eating a chicken you liked?’ I asked. Dad wistfully returned to France again. ‘The poulet de Bresse at the Restaurant Le Greuze in Tournus,’ he said, recalling a meal he had eaten thirty years ago with clarity, ‘that was the only time I have ever ordered chicken in a restaurant. They infused truffles under the skin to create something quite miraculous.’
A large ceramic egg-shaped cloche was placed before each of us.
‘Good heavens what is that?’ asked Dad. ‘L’ Oeuf coque directement sorti du cul de la poule’ I read from the menu. Boiled egg directly from the bottom of the hen. The dome was lifted with great theatre to reveal a golden egg in a nest of hay. I spooned a seam of confit yolk running through a parmesan cream topped with tiny cubes of Alsatian bacon. I’ve never met a creamy, eggy something that I didn’t like. But still, let’s pay attention. This is two Michelin stars, it is supposed to be cooking of the very highest order. Perhaps, I reflected, the parmesan was a little overpowering. But still I lapped it up very happily.
Next was ‘Le bouillon de la poule au pot comme le souhait Henri IV’. The broth of the chicken in the pot according to the wishes of King Henri IV. ‘Good chicken consommé is wonderful,’ said Dad. ‘Poor chicken consommé is dishwater.’ This consommé was as rich and clear and delicate as a good French chef should make it. I was less convinced by the miniature polka dots of violette potato, carrot and turnip floating about, or the very good, but very strongly salty flavourful ravioli of Biggore ham. Two ragged croutons, lightly toasted into crunchy lace so that the broth seeped into the lattice, made one of those perfect mouthfuls of simple elegance that poncey French palaver produces. And then, gloriously, the waiter appeared to pour a few drops of Armagnac into our bowls, according to the custom of pouring a little red wine into the dregs of your soup. It’s what they do in the southern region of Poitiers, where Helene Darroze grew up in her parents’ restaurant. ‘Strange to have brandy in the middle of a meal,’ said Dad as he lifted the bowl with both hands, drank it all down and smiled, quite satisfied. ‘Excellent.’
Several waiters hovered. They scooted away imaginary crumbs from the table cloth with a silver blade, replaced our napkins, poured more water. I asked what kind of chicken we were eating and one waiter went to ask another waiter who came to tell me and then returned with a printed out description. It was a Yellow Chicken of Landes, which had been raised in pine forests and slaughtered at three-months old. (Note: The best chicken I ever ate, my highest standard chicken to which all other chickens will forever be compared, was a Cou-Nu (naked neck), fat and yellow, grown up in a field in Bresse and killed at four months. Michel, the farmer who sold him to me, said he thought the most important factor determining the flavour of a chicken was the age of the slaughter; he believed four months was the best.)
‘Does it bug you sometimes?’ I asked Dad, ‘the obsequious formality of French waiters. The fuss and pomp?’ ‘No,’ said Dad sitting back in his chair and allowing the waiter to adjust his clean napkin, ‘I rather like all that.’
The chicken arrived. It was presented whole on a silver platter, mahogany breasted, legs in the air, a sprig of lavender and bay stuffed where the sun never shone. They carved it table side, a part of the fancy French restaurant show I always love to watch, and served the breast napped with glossy jus.
‘Dad what are you thinking? You’ve gone silent.’ ‘I’m trying to analyse the essential dullness of the chicken,’ he replied with a quizzical look on his face. ‘She’s done all these magical things—’ he pointed the tines of his fork to the accompanying garnis, a semicircle of green puree decorated with tweensy cylinders of boudin blanc wrapped in overlapping stripes of courgette, girolle mushrooms and a demisphere of scotch quails egg — ‘And shining through is the dull chicken. I’m actually genuinely disappointed.’
I was not. It was a good chicken breast, firm, squeaky, lean. Ms Darroze had applied several tricks and techniques to amp the flavour. The skin was lacquered into a marmite hue, but not as crispy as it might have been. A delicious stuffing of girolle and tarragon had been placed under the skin. The sauce was a fine thick demi-glace reduction that clung to my fingertip like molten meaty gummy bears. The dish was rich and chickeny. Dad however, remained unconvinced. ‘Eating in a two-star restaurant and ordering chicken is like getting Placido Domingo to sing the Gondoliers.’
Some of the leg meat arrived next, disguised as an Asian-influenced Mexican taco. While very tasty, it was one of those non sequiturs which made you wish the French chef had stayed in France. It was pleasantly refreshing with avocado and lime and painted with a good slick of salty teriyaki glaze, but it lacked the fire of a good chilli hit. I admit I missed the rest of the chicken. Because the best bit about a roast chicken is picking it apart: excavating crispy crevices with your fingers, pulling the slippery dark meat nuggets from under the wings, prising the oysters out of their sockets, the fatty globule of parson’s nose.
When you are in a Michelin-starred French restaurant it is always advisable to save space for desserts. Plural. Three arrived all at the same time. The ile flottante was ethereal angel wings beating through a mousseline cloud of crème anglaise with a kiss of sharp sweet passion fruit hidden in its heart. The crème caramel was perfectly set, nutty brown and smooth on the tongue. A bowl of piled up madeleines were just out of the oven and gave off a Proustian waft of happiness when we broke them open and nibbled the warm, crispy edges. I finally realised, after years of indifferent scallop-shaped sponge blobs, what all the fuss was about.
I was still only half way through my pillowy poached meringue when I looked up to see Dad with a giant grin on his face and two empty bowls in front of him. He had already hoovered up two desserts and was reaching for another madeleine.
‘At last!’ he said, finally.