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The cooking is tremendous but we've heard a few reports that the service is of the haughty French variety. When will they learn?
Fancy joining a riotous dinner party of twelve foodies in the heart of Claridge's kitchens?
Our genial host was John Williams, the hotel's Maitre Chef des Cuisines who undertook several distinct roles throughout the evening. One minute he was the perfect host telling all sorts of entertaining and amusing stories, the next minute the TV chef doing slick demonstrations, then the orchestrator of his brigade turning out the most intricate classic haute cuisine dishes.
Williams is a self confessed traditionalist, although perhaps conservationist would be a better word. He is dedicated to keeping alive the great traditions of classical haute-cuisine by following in the footsteps of the classical masters like Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier. But he understands the need to be forward looking as well, and he expects his brigade to be at the cutting edge of new ideas and is quick to encourage their inventiveness and creativity. His trick is to incorporate new ideas without losing sight of the sheer detail and technique that is central to classical haute cuisine - ideals which are hard to achieve outside the resources of a grand hotel kitchen like that of Claridge's. (All this has changed now Gordon Ramsey has taken over- see the box, right)
After Champagne and excellent East-West fusion style canapés, we were ushered through the dining room servery doors directly into the restaurant kitchen which is on the floor above the main complex. I've been round the kitchens before on my own (rather more incognito), and what struck me both then and now was the relative calm. The chefs were certainly busy enough, but with a deep sense of purpose and care. Apart from all the batterie de cuisine and the huge ranges, the thing that impressed me most was the organisation of the cold stores and refrigerators; nothing is left to chance where food quality and hygiene are concerned.
One of the kitchens had been cleared and a large table beautifully set for us with a cornucopia of fresh, raw vegetables and flowers as its decorative centrepiece. The dinner was billed as having three courses, but we sat down to an amuse bouche which was generous enough as a starter: Plum tomatoes are skinned and circumcised and the middles hollowed out. They are then stuffed with white crab meat and set in a nage made from the brown meat.
This is a brilliant idea, the brilliant red tomatoes standing up on their cut ends like guardsmen. I tried it out earlier today, but I made the stuffing out of crumbled feta cheese and chopped mint from the garden, bound with a reduction made from the strained insides and juices of the tomatoes, with a little sherry vinegar glazed with some butter. I hope John Williams will approve - I think his philosophy is that one dish should inspire another.
Next we had a demonstration of the main starter. What impressed the keen amateur cooks among us was the detailed mis en place - every ingredient immaculately prepared and set out in suitable sized containers. The result was an ultra fresh salad of Scottish lobster with a lime and mango fondue. We drank a crisp Chablis, the 1er Cru "Fourchaume" 1996 from Durup, chosen carefully by sommelier Zeljko Stasevic to support and enhance rather than to attempt to steal the show. (Zeljko is known to regulars at Claridge's as "Staff", or more phonetically, "Staph")
The piece de resistance was the main course: Canard a la presse, using a huge silver duck press similar to the one used by Escoffier which reposes in John Williams' office. Most people have the idea that a duck press creates a sort of pressed terrine of duck. The ducks (you need a few to make it all worthwhile!) are partly roasted, and the legs and breasts removed. The carcasses are roughly chopped and put into the press and the screw handle is turned crushing the remains and producing the clearest essence of duck with a quack factor of 10 out of 10. The sauce is made from a reduction of a couple of bottles of red wine, almost down to a syrup, the quack quack juice, a dash of port, some green peppercorns and, wait for it, a plentiful amount of finely sliced fresh black truffles which were first subjected to a quality control test tasting by the assembled company.
Then, after this remarkable demonstration, and with equally remarkable alacrity, the plates of duck breast reappeared to be drenched with this amazing sauce, garnished with very pretty vegetable creations, too detailed and intricate to begin to describe. The legs come out later, all crispy of skin, as a second helping - deuxieme service it's called in such elevated establishments.
With this we were refreshed by liberal pourings of Chateau Vieux Sarpe, St Emilion 1992, whose earthy flavours were selected by "Staff" to contrast and offset the natural sweet richness of the duck and its delectable sauce.
We ended with a refreshing assemblage of melon and wild strawberries decorating a vanilla bavarois dressed with cinnamon spiced wine sauce.
I very nearly regretted travelling home backwards in the jump seat of a taxi at what seemed like breakneck speed. Fortunately all my memories of the evening are happy ones!
For further details and reservations, please contact the Food and Beverage Office on 020 7409 6307
Claridge's is part of The Savoy Group, England's most distinguished and individual hotels and restaurants. Recently celebrating its centenary, Claridge's has undergone an extensive £42 million restoration over the past two years, using a team of specially chosen designers to offer guests a choice of luxurious accommodation combined with some of the most up-to-date technology and facilities to be found in London.
Claridge's won our Restaurant of the year award 1997/8.
Claridge's Restaurant, Brook Street, London W1A 2JQ
Tel: 020 7629 8860 Web site: http://www.savoy-group.co.uk
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