Pierre Koffmann at Selfridges – the great chef returns to the stove

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Time Out magazine’s 1998 review of the restaurant La Tante Claire – run by the chef who at the time epitomised haute cuisine, Pierre Koffmann – offered few surprises. ‘Three Michelin stars don’t come cheap,’ our reviewer gasped, ‘and the prices here [starters £24; mains £26-32; desserts £12] are breathtaking.’ But the chef from Gascony was on top form, impressing with his ‘unshowy dishes’ based on provincial French cooking – hearty terrines, a halibut main with sauerkraut, slivers of rare venison with a meaty jus. ‘Koffmann cooks great food,’ the review concluded, ‘but the absurdly high prices and formality of this hotel dining room seem likely to keep it the preserve of … toffs with more money than sense in the evenings.’

The things that mattered then still matter now. There are discreet nods to the original La Tante Claire via the colour scheme (‘reminiscent of abalone shells or peacock feathers’), but more importantly, many of Koffmann’s signature dishes reappear in their original form. Instead of trying to woo a new generation of diners with obtuse new dishes, there seems to be a desire to fulfil the nostalgic cravings of old fans while giving newcomers a taste of the past.

For many, the chance to once again eat Koffman’s stuffed pig’s trotters was unmissable. And for those who - be it because of age, ignorance, lack of funds or whatever reason - never had the Koffmann experience before, this was a rare opportunity to dine at the hands of a master.

© Charmaine Mok
The bar area at Restaurant on the Roof The bar area at Restaurant on the Roof - © Charmaine Mok

Four years later, after 25 years devoted to his kitchen, Koffmann hung up his apron. Never has a chef been so sorely missed. He was a legend, not least because he never courted publicity, and was focused purely on the kitchen, quite unlike many of today’s ‘superchefs’. His (temporary) return has therefore become one of the most anticipated comebacks in recent years. And yes, Koffman’s sojourn on the roof of Selfridges could well be filled with ‘toffs with more money than sense’ (we certainly spotted plenty of uninhibited quaffing of very expensive wines), but this is no carbon copy of his seminal restaurant.

The glorious marquee erected on the roof of Selfridges is a beautiful space. The journey begins via a dedicated lift located in the midst of the perfume department, leading diners up to the fifth floor. You progress through a corridor ablaze with white chiffon and starburst mirrors, arriving at reception. A holding area-cum-bar is the last room before the long dining area itself, resplendent with equal parts elegance (crisp white tablecloths, art deco chairs) and quirkiness (floating Magritte-esque bowler hat lamps and antler chandeliers). If you’re arriving for dinner, the last of the sunset can be seen through the floor to ‘ceiling’ windows that are placed precariously close to the great stone balcony of the famous department store.

© Charmaine Mok

Service, for the most part, was a delight – the staff sweet and accommodating, and bemused rather than irritated by the legion of food bloggers wielding large DSLR cameras. Claire Harrison, Koffmann’s partner, was the most extraordinary and benevolent of hosts – giving equal attention to ‘unknowns’, such as ourselves, and the recognised.  The atmosphere, instead of hushed and reverential, was altogether more convivial – the excited murmurs as diners perused the three-course, six choices (plus a day’s special) in each course, £75 menu (and that’s excluding wine and service) mingling with banter between front of house and guests. A far cry, then, from the formality of The Berkeley’s La Tante Claire.

Pig's head and celeriac remoulade Pig's head and celeriac remoulade - © Charmaine Mok

Our amuse bouche masterfully combined slivers of pig’s head with shavings of truffle atop a textbook-perfect celeriac remoulade; a substantial serving for what should be a one-bite preview of the meal to come.

Foie gras with potato galette and sauternes jus Foie gras with potato galette and sauternes jus - © Charmaine Mok

A blast from the past, foie gras with potato galette and sauternes jus, faltered slightly. The rich liver had lost most of its luscious silkiness by perhaps a few seconds too long in the pan, crowning the crisp, golden galette the star of the dish. A slick of tart green apple purée was the surprise element, but not at all unwelcome.

Langoustines with a terrine of pressed leeks and a creamy truffle vinaigrette, another classic (described as ‘flawless and memorable’ in the Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide 2000), was a highlight, the shellfish pert and juicy with the desired bounce against the teeth. Meanwhile, guest chef Bruno Loubet’s special of langoustine bisque was the most rounded of starters, the natural sweetness of the langoustines shining through in each intense mouthful flecked with micro herbs and a swirl of cream.

A substantial wait between starters and mains was dealt with courteously.

Stuffed pig's trotter with sweetbreads and morels Stuffed pig's trotter with sweetbreads and morels - © Charmaine Mok

The famous pig’s trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels was competent rather than superlative, perhaps overwrought with expectation. The same malaise that had inflected the foie gras seemed to have reared its head with the sweetbreads – just slightly overcooked. There was no denying, however, that the unctuous softness of the slow-cooked trotter was impressive – bringing to mind the braised trotter dishes popular in Chinese cookery, with the rich, sticky jus an intense reduction of porcine flavours. A buttery mash with delightfully thin potato crisps looked an unsightly taramasalata-pink under the low lighting, but went down a treat.

Other dishes pleased rather than impressed – expertly cooked duck breast was of a seductive pink rareness, while hare with a simple lemony angel hair pasta and red cabbage was rustic in appearance but refined in flavour. Roasted cod flaked nicely but lacked piscine sweetness – and the all important wow factor.

Pain perdu with pineapple and coconut ice cream Pain perdu with pineapple and coconut ice cream - © Charmaine Mok

Desserts were a strong point, with Koffmann’s signature pistachio soufflé with pistachio ice cream being the best choice by far. But a pain perdu with sweet pineapple and coconut ice cream was also a good contender, with bold tropical flavours coming together not unlike a playful pina colada cocktail.

Gascon apple pie Gascon apple pie - © Charmaine Mok

Gascon apple pie was quite the showpiece, though disarmingly sweet – the crème fraîche served alongside a useful foil for the intense toffee flavours.

Pear and chocolate mille feuille Pear and chocolate mille feuille - © Charmaine Mok

Loubet’s own offering of the night, a spectacular millefeuille with a milky chocolate mousse and juicy pears (with a quenelle of dark chocolate ice cream) was decidedly more rustic than its Koffmann counterparts – but well layered (pun intended) in flavour, with the bitter chocolate notes bringing the sweetness of the pears and flaky pastry into sharp relief.

THE BIG QUESTION

At well over £100 per head, was it worth it? It’s a tough question, as there are so many factors in this equation. The lack of real wow-factor in terms of the food was disappointing. Of course, every morsel was delicious – we could expect no less – but little seemed to truly transcend the name behind the dish. The pig’s head, langoustines and soufflé will stick in our minds, but more than anything it will be the evening of hospitality, bonhomie and laughter  – not to mention the thought of Pierre Koffmann smiling behind the stove, back in his element – that will give us fond memories of Restaurant on the Roof for years to come.

Pierre Koffmann at Restaurant on the Roof, Selfridges London, 400 Oxford Street (020 7318 7778/www.selfridges.com).

NB: Restaurant on the Roof is now fully booked to the end of its run; however interested parties are welcome to place their names on the waiting list by calling the restaurant on 020 7318 7778.

WHAT THE BLOGGERS SAY

"From start to finish, and without exception, the food was exquisite. If I had to pick my personal highlight, my epiphany, then I’d single out the pig’s trotter. Why? Because it was infinitely more pleasurable than I could ever have imagined." - A Forkful of Spaghetti

"...here you're paying for the chance to sample Pierre Koffmann's cooking again, for the chance to experience the food of a "guest" chef and for an amazing view over London from the roof of one of the worlds oldest and most recognised department stores." - A Rather Unusual Chinaman

"This pop-up restaurant is more than a flash in the pan; Koffmann is back where he belongs, in a kitchen, and one can only hope that this is just the beginning of his comeback." - Caterer & Hotelkeeper Menuwatch

"And that was that, a thoroughly accomplished and enjoyable meal and a rather magical evening. We experienced none of the service issues that seemed to have plagued others, and yes, we even received a pretty tray of petits fours in a timely fashion." - Cheese and Biscuits

"The head staff were as excited to be there as the guests, there was a bustling, Christmas morning feeling to the experience; a slightly crazy, not-sure-where-to-look-next zinging with the thrill of anticipation of tastiness to come." - Chocolate Tours

"The food was elegant and flavoursome, rich but not overwhelming and perfectly executed. The space was pretty and bright and very unusual. I am only sorry that I can’t go again." - Eat Like a Girl

"The food was excellent, the atmosphere fun and convivial, the service absolutely spot on - no complaints at all. I had a fantastic evening, departing full and extremely happy that I had perhaps one of the only chances I'll ever get to sample a legendary chef's food." - Essex Eating

"I feel that by the sense of occasion, bringing a retired master chef out of retirement, and perhaps exclusivity by temporary nature of the event that this is in fact justifies the price." - Food by Mark

"All in all, it's the foodie destination of the year - maybe the decade - and anyone who's booked a table won't regret it.  We just hope that Koffman won't leave it so long before entertaining us again!" - Hot Dinners

"I was quite nervous about Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Veal Sweetbreads and Morel Mushrooms...Luckily, I liked it! Not a dish for the diet-conscious, the sweetbreads and mushrooms were wrapped in the thick, gelatinous fat of the trotter." - Kavey Eats

"For me, the food was hit and miss and, if I’m honest, a bit of a let-down. But I was grateful to be able to sample some of the flavours from this culinary legend’s repertoire and one has to admire the significant and constructive influence he’s had on the UK restaurant industry." - Laissez Fare

"In the end, my experience was a good one, Claire – Pierre’s partner – and the rest of the staff made us all feel right at home. Food was mostly believable but I hardly think that it was three stars blow-your-mind-up great, nothing made me weep or sing." - London Eater

"Shakespeare and Moliere have found their grounds for understanding. It’s not on the stage, though, it’s in our plates, and the spectacle is a dream come true. Hats off to our magiciens suprême, Pierre, Eric and Bruno for the happiest restaurant I have ever been to." - Mathilde's Cuisine

"Sometimes we forget the dining is about pleasure and therefore fun.  Koffman's got it right at Selfridges.  There's little doubt he's looking to return to a full time kitchen after the hiccups at Brasserie St Jacques and guest spots elsewhere.  If he can bottle the pleasure factor and food of this quality, he's on to a winner." - Silverbrow on Food

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