It was also, said all sorts of articles, weeks in advance, the hottest reservation in London dining for the month of October at very least. It was booked up weeks in advance. When I heard back from reservations, a month ago, they only had a few slots left for lunch. Before I went, I read reviews: rich, French, traditional, the sort of sumptuous heavy food which would apparently never fly in today's high-end dining. (Clearly, there are some exceptions to this.)
So that's how J and I came to meet just outside the handbags section on the ground floor of Selfridges on Tuesday morning for a decadent lunch at the recreation of a highly-rated restaurant. We were checked off a list by the lift manager and then whisked up to the rooftop level where a corridor covered in white gauze, gold-sun-framed mirrors, and soothing lighting welcomed us. Coat check, bar/lounge area - all the serves you'd expect from a good restaurant.
The main restaurant area was spacious, white walls, high ceiling, a structurally-stable and draft-free tent buttressed by the stone railing edging the department store's roof. We could glimpse views over London through the blinds lowered against the brightness of south-facing windows on a clear day. Our white tableclothes overflowed the table; I tripped on a corner getting up. A row of men's black hats, bowler hats among them, marched irregularly down one long wall, some doubling as light fixtures. The chandeliers were pieced together from deer's horns. "Typical Selfridge's", declared J.
Service was delightful, attentive, friendly, and the waitstaff numerous. The one we talked to the most hadn't had a chance to try the food yet, she'd been too busy. She worked in events, traveling the world to organize and manage entertainment. She was having fun, name-dropping about the chefs in the enormous tent where we were eating; the name-dropping was, after all, part of the point. (If only I were better with names, I could now recount more of them, thanks to her. She did say that Eric Chavot was cooking that day.)
Our amuse bouche was a decadent little teacup of langoustine bisque with herbed chantilly cream, rich, creamy, multi-dimensionally-flavored, intense, and utterly smooth. J and I then went our separate ways, food-wise, the better to try a little more of a menu which consisted of about six choices per course, plus that day's specials from the chef-of-the day. I lived dangerously, choosing dishes I might not normally experiment with, not without a high-level chef to blindly trust.
My Fricasse of Wild Mushrooms and Snails with Bone Marrow was rewarding, a robust salad of comfort flavors, give or take the indifferent flavor and chewy texture of what might be my first snails. The bone marrow was delicate and tender, tiny roundels of warm, luscious, meaty fat to melt on my tongue and over the leafy greens and mushrooms with personalities of their own. The sticky meat juices were the dish's crowning glory. I used up the last of my walnut-fig bread to scrape them off the place. Meltingly tender is also how I would describe J's excellent Pan Fried Foie Gras with a Potato Galatte and Sauternes Jus. The foie gras was beautiful and substantial, with a sturdy, lacy waver of potato representing the galette; the sauternes were bubbled foam on top. The accompanying green, smooth purée of tart apples was a refreshing counterpoint to the sweetness of meat and sauce.
Despite having read that it was too heavy for lunch, I went with Le Tante Claire's signature dish for my main, Pig's Trotter stuffed with Veal Sweetbreads and Morel Mushrooms. It wasn't nearly has heavy - flavor-wise - as I had anticipated. It really was an old-fashioned dish though, in its complex, but comprehensible, taste range. It was accompanied, delightfully, by a generous helping of pink mashed potatoes topped by the most elegantly-presented crackling I have ever seen. The pink of the potatoes was innate to the Burgundy potato variety, said our waiter. The crackling was cut into fine strips which were then tangled flat into a wafer before being slow-baked into fatty crispness.
J had the Challan Duck Roasted with Herbs and Spices. The duck was good; the herbs and spices were even better. Her vegetables were cooked to tenderness in a creamy sauce infused with an appealing variety of those herbs and spices - nutmeg and sage, clearly, but all sorts of others as well which came together to give it body and ongoing interest.
The meal's one weak point was dessert. Both of ours looked good, were interesting for a few bites, and then grew boring, just more of the same. Mine was the overly-eggy Pistachio Soufflé with Pistachio Ice Cream; hers was that day's special, a warm chocolate pudding with a brownie-line finish and crowned in rather more thought-provoking malt ice cream. Once the ice cream had melted into the pudding, which it did with fair rapidity, it too lost its depth and distinction.
We still finished on a strong note though, with fresh mint tea and a gorgeous selection of petit fours. An intensely raspberry jelly. A perfect little truffle. Smooth cylinders of intense cocoa-dusted ganache. (William Curley was one of the event's returnees.) A mini alcohol-soaked fruity cake. Soft, house-made torroni.
It was a very good meal, even with the eventual dullness of the desserts, and the service was excellent. The superb sauces were, consistently, the best part of each dish. It was advertised as a reunion tour, but it's intriguing to think of it as an exercise in culinary history too, seeing how much further British cuisine was progressed in the past seven years, when it had already come so far. I have the identity of another chef down and have sampled one of his signature dishes; I'll know what people are talking about when they mention him or it; so it was educational as well.
Lastly, J is leaving us soon. She's lived in this country for several years, but is moving on. It was good to have appreciative company for the meal, for one of the final few times I'll see her while she's still based in London.