The Connaught hasn’t put a foot wrong with its recent revamp: a stunning new fine dining restaurant from acclaimed French chef Hélène Darroze, which we awarded five stars when we reviewed it in the summer; two hot new bars, including the Coburg, which was runner up in the Best Bar category in the Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards 2008. So the okay-ness of this latest opening is quite a surprise. Named after the town in Aquitaine, south-west France, known for its fiery red pepper piment d’Espelette, this is Darroze’s take on a ‘relaxed, informal, bistro-style restaurant’. Don’t for a second think that means wooden chairs, banquettes and brass rails – it’s all plush gold and cream fabrics in the Connaught’s new Portland stone conservatory extension that curves around Carlos Place to Mount Street. It looks like the place for a swish hotel tea, which it is as well, and the spectacular display of cakes, tarts and fruity things in glasses easily persuaded us to think about returning another time. You can also go for breakfast. But if a relaxed and informal bistro or brasserie is what’s on order, this doesn’t fit the bill. The menu is flecked with a tedious collection of dishes that hotels throughout the world seem to think compulsory: Caesar salad with chicken or tiger prawns; smoked salmon; club sandwich; grilled tuna; beef with rocket and parmesan; French fries. It’s The Connaught, so they serve Allen’s of Mayfair sausages with mash and onion sauce (£21). But there’s also a very appealing selection of dishes reflecting Darroze’s link to the Basque region and her acclaimed talent for flavour combining. Her take on croque monsieur is made with Basque goats’ cheese and top-grade ibérico ham – but wit is otherwise sadly lacking at Espelette and our set menu was a joke. You don’t need two Mchelin stars to know that three soft, creamily textured dishes in a row is poor menu combining – first-year catering students learn that. Yet Friday’s menu du jour was quiche Lorraine with salad leaves, followed by salt cod brandade with salad leaves (‘three little scoops of baby food’, my guest giggled), followed by two thin slices of crème caramel with whipped cream and a few berries. Are The Connaught’s customers so Old Money that they haven’t got any teeth? We don’t think so, and can’t help but wonder who wrote the menu; there are better ways to spend £24.50 in the capital. What was good? Macaronade with duck foie gras and girolles – a rich, glistening plate of penne with luxurious morsels of sweet, pink-centred liver. Lobster and free-range chicken pie with salsify and shellfish sauce was a majestic creation, though at £26 it should be. Easily large enough for two gluttons (just as well given the mean proportions of the set menu), it came in a Staub casserole from which we were invited to serve ourselves after an initial spot of dissection from the friendly waiter. The moist, buttery pastry base, soaked with sauce, was something of a prize, like the ‘tahdig’ (the tasty layer of crusty rice) from a pot of Persian rice. More of this sort of classy informality is exactly what we want from a place like Espelette – not a second-rate set menu that cynically aims at credit-crunched ladies who still like to lunch. If you want a terrific set meal for less than £30 a head, you’re better off at Maze, Texture or Tom Aikens.
|Cross street:||The Connaught|
|Opening hours:||Meals served 7am-10.15pm Mon-Fri, 7.30am-10.15pm Sat-Sun.|
|Transport:||Tube: Bond St tube|
|Price:||Meal for two with wine and service: around £120. Set meal from £19.50 (two courses), £24.50 (three)|