In defence of the tasting menu. But not necessarily *this* tasting menu.
There’s an unspoken rule that reviewers shouldn’t openly criticise each other’s work. This isn’t a conspiracy – we’re too competitive and too inept for such a concerted undertaking – but an acknowledgement that half-arsed writing and lapses in judgement can affect us all. To put it another way, don’t throw stones when you live in a glasshouse.
Having said all that, I will be breaking this rule – just this once. Even though I really, really shouldn’t. I can’t help but pick holes in a line of reasoning recently expressed on another blog (which I won’t name or link to out of a residual sense of politeness even though it breaks the chain of conversation) due to its aggravatingly woolly and incomplete thinking. The author expressed his/her dislike of all expensive restaurants, especially those with tasting menus, in favour of more moderately priced places with ‘casual’ atmospheres and a la carte menus.
This could be a defensible position if it had a rationale that wasn’t as shallow as a paddling pool. Expensive tasting menus may have fallen out of fashion for some, but, at their best, can represent eating out in one of its most exciting, innovative forms. I will thus defend the genre as a whole till the cows come home.
High pricing gives kitchens the ability to experiment with new techniques and/or unusual ingredients that wouldn’t be practicable or scalable at the higher volumes that inevitably come with lower prices and thus more diners. Predetermined menus with a carefully set serving order can ensure that subtle, nuanced ingredients and dishes aren’t overwhelmed by more strident ones, while also presenting a narrative whether it’s based around seasonality, a chef’s inspirations, culinary history or any number of themes. Plus, the tasting menu can now be found in atmospheres beyond the stereotypically hushed and formal.
All of that brings us to Le Dame de Pic, a restaurant that the aforementioned blogger wouldn’t like out of hand. The tasting menu, devised by French haute chef royalty used to picking up Michelin stars, costs £95. It’s situated inside the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel near Tower Hill with its imposing neo-classical colonnade. None of this is a guarantor of success, but nor is it an automatic sign of failure either. Something so obvious shouldn’t need stating and emphasising, but apparently it does.
Le Dame de Pic’s tasting menu kicked off with a tea-coloured consommé that had a meaty moreishness with fruity, herby undertones. It proved to be a far more tantalising amuse bouche than the visually arresting, but arguably inferior trio of amuse bouche that followed.
A squidgy, but ultimately forgettable marshmallow came perched atop a bowlful of tenderised cashews. This visual motif/gag repeated itself, with a crisp, sweet and lightly chewy leaf made out of candied fruit nestled on top of a heap of actual leaves.
There was at least a practical reason for the bed of ice sitting underneath the final amuse bouche – it kept the crisp candy sphere, filled with a zesty, citrusy liquid, refreshingly cool. Even so, this amuse bouche threesome felt like a joke with a punch line that I’m not privy to.
I’ve never seen the appeal of cauliflower cheese, but I can definitely get on board with the deconstructed, reimagined version here. With a texture somewhere in between a cream and a foam, the cauliflower concoction was nonetheless gently sharp then stridently creamy and topped with crisp, caramelish fried cheese morsels. Unlike its more traditional namesake, it was distinctly flavoursome without being heavy.
Although not the best sourdough even served in a perpetually replenished bread basket, Le Dame de Pic’s sourdough was still pleasing with its crunchy crust and hint of chewiness. Lightly creamy butter was tinged with a coffee flavour of the kind that you only ever find in a tin of Quality Street rather than in actual coffee. Still, it worked well enough as a distraction between courses.
Flakes of oddly green-coloured crab had a sweet herbiness emphasised by blobs of dill-flavoured gel, with the crustacean mound hidden underneath radish-esque slices of crisp celeriac and a distinctly sweet and sharp clementine jelly. Although there was joy to be had in this dish, mainly in the clementine jelly and the radishes, the general sense of overwrought fussiness in the crab meat itself was distracting and unsatisfying.
Although the matcha flavouring of the pasta used in the skins of the pyramid-shaped tortellinis were neither here nor there, that was only the real flaw of this dish. The filling of gently funky and fluffy French goat’s cheese was neatly offset by the earthy umami of the foamy sauce and mushrooms, while an occasional hint of floral pepperiness added nuanced depth. I’m green with envy at the skills of someone capable of making tortellini this good.
Langoustines have never been more lobster-like than they were here, with the plump, springy and pearlescent fists of crustacean tinged with a gentle sea saltiness. The mild bisque-like qualities of the sauce were easily overwhelmed by the the sweetness of the firm carrot shavings though. Even if this wasn’t the case, it was too subdued to be an effective accompaniment to the well-sourced and expertly cooked langoustines.
Beef with an imperial purple-pink hue was remarkably consistent in its tenderness, evenly textured from tip to tip. This made the lack of character in both the beef itself and its peppery crust all the more disappointing. This couldn’t be remedied by the mildly umami jus or the creamy, firm and turnipy celeriac despite the excellence of the latter. This was far from a bad beef dish, just one with an overdeveloped sense of shyness.
The dessert of millefeuille was not only satisfying, but wonderfully light and refreshing too. A squidgy vanilla coating gave way to reveal gently crisp layers of pastry tinged with jasmine which meshed seamlessly with the gently floral pepperiness of the foam blobs.
Petit fours were, as expected, less complex than the main dessert but weren’t the hasty afterthoughts they often are elsewhere. Light coconut snowballs contrasted neatly with the distinctly sweet and sharp passion fruit jelly suspended in crisp spherical candy shells.
Given my introductory paragraphs, which were intemperate as they were considered in their defence of the haute tasting menu, I dearly wish that Le Dame de Pic’s tasting menu was better than it turned out to be. It was far from a disaster, with some dishes that were both thoughtful and delightfully inventive in their unusual pairings of ingredients. But these were interspersed far too often with dishes that were either too fussy and overwrought or too subdued and lacking in focus. Overall, the kitchen isn’t doing enough to push the culinary state of the art forwards.
The pacing was also a little off, with an occasional long wait between courses. The staff, meanwhile, could be friendly and charmingly Gallic or awkward and stiff enough to be in danger of snapping a vertebrae. And the less said about the odd soundtrack, which veered between elevator muzak and Europop-lite, the better.
Still, there’s immense promise at the London version of Le Dame de Pic. Let’s hope the capital has enough patience while the kitchen strives to live up to it.
Name: Le Dame de Pic at Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square
Address: Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square, ground floor, 10 Trinity Square, London EC3N 4AJ
Phone: 0203 297 9200
there’s also a French-language website at http://www.anne-sophie-pic.com/content/la-dame-de-pic-londres-0
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 18.30-22.30; Sunday noon-14.30.
Reservations: highly recommended
Average cost including soft drinks and service charge: £120 approx.