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"I dined The Connaught  in Bourdin's day"

Clifford Mould pays tribute to Michel Bourdin, one of the truly great chefs of our era
M.Bourdin retired at the end of 2001

There's a plaque fixed to the bulkhead of every British warship that proclaims Remember Nelson, not a bad reminder if you happen to be a sailor. But in all walks of life a simple reminder of the essentials can be useful. When the going gets tough in the kitchens of London's Connaught Hotel, maitre-chef Michel Bourdin's precept, Good cooking is the accumulation of small details done to perfection, reminds the brigade of their principal focus and duty. I watched a commis chef painstakingly whittling artichoke hearts to the required shape with careful precision, then I saw the notice and thought yes, that's so true. In this kitchen there's no room for short cuts masquerading as creativity, or indiscipline pretending to be spontaneity. Here the word craft is not demeaning: it implies care, great skill and consistency.

Bourdin loves music and likes to use a musical metaphor, comparing his kitchen brigade to an orchestra with its various sections, where all the diverse skills and details are directed and melded into one by the conductor, the chef d'orchestre.  In a sense, the end products are similar in that they are ephemeral - performances that can be savoured and remembered only in the memory. People often ask me: What is your most memorable meal? I trawl through the creaking memory bank of my brain, trying to recollect flavours, to conjure aromas out of dark corners of my head. 

This is what we ate!

As you might expect, the menu is long and comprehensive, so there was lot of agonising on our part. Ideally, we would have liked to have gone to the kitchen and watched everything as it emerged - or better still, to have lifted the lids of the famous copper pots and smelled and tasted! 

Since one of Bourdin's own criteria for judging a kitchen is by its terrines, we decided to try both the meat and the fish terrines.

The meat terrine is rather like a fine wine in that it achieves a balance of flavours that lingers on the palate after you have swallowed each mouthful. It takes five days to prepare and the principal meats are duck and pork, and the texture is liberally shot through with batons of foie gras and flecked with black truffles. 

The fish terrine, contained turbot and lobster and came with a delicate if not altogether modest Sauce Pudeur  Both terrines were superbly presented on a plate en gelee, the crystal clear jellied consomme was embedded with tiny fronds of herb and finely cut vegetable decorations looking like the most beautifully pressed flowers. 

After this we tried the consomme 'Prince of Wales' which is served en croute. We didn't intend to eat the crust, as this course was bordering on sheer piggery. Fran said this was a classic and not to be missed. When you breach the pastry crust, the wafting aroma of truffles and concentrated stock fair knocks you off your perch. Of course we ate the crust!

The Mignon de Veau Orloff was superbly tender and pink within, coated with a gratinée that sealed in the flavours as well as adding its own  distinctive mark. My venison noisettes were also very good, though perhaps not quite gamey enough for my own countrified taste!

Chef Patissier William Hamelin's chariot des entrements (sounds better than dessert trolley!) is a sight to behold. We particularly enjoyed his chocolate delice, with masterly couverture holding together a light mousse like interior. Most other diners around us seemed unable to resist the bread and butter pudding!

At the moment, my recent dinner at The Connaught is fresh in the mind, but I doubt if it will ever really fade - it will be one of those bench-marks by which I will judge establishments that claim to follow the great traditions of French culinary art. However, it would be wrong and stupid to compare Michel Bourdin's cuisine with certain other styles which may have their own norms and standards, and in any case, food is a matter of individual preference. You  can't tell people what they should and shouldn't like, otherwise you end up with one of those sterile debates of the "which is better, Bach or the Beatles?" variety. One has to accept that, for some folk, a meal at the Connaught is not their thing . Indeed, even some restaurant critics just can't bear to be told they have to wear a tie, after submitting gracelessly, everything seems to turn to ashes in their mouths. Like the gluttons in Dante's Inferno, their purgatory will be an eternal diet of the choicest dishes all tasting of overcooked cabbage. Serve them right I say.

I made sure that my current dining companion, Chef Fran McFadden, was acceptably attired, and we sat down in "The Restaurant", one of the hotel's two quite intimate dining rooms. The other is The Grill Room which, with its rather feminine Louis XV style, I would have supposed was 'the restaurant'. Perversely enough, The Restaurant's warm dark panelling put me more in mind of a grill room, but as the head waiter replied when I taxed him with this, "this is The Connaught, sir". I had the feeling that he had heard this before.

Both rooms serve exactly the same menu, but Michel Bourdin wants to change this, perhaps it will be the last of his great legacy to the hotel. He would like to differentiate the two rooms, serving his specialities of classical French haute-cuisine in the more suitable Louis Quinze setting The panelled room would be ideal to showcase the range of authentic grand hotel and traditional British cuisine, (especially seasonal game) of which he feels equally proud to be the exponent and custodian. Bourdin is an unashamed patriot, but he is equally proud of the traditions of his adopted country as he is those of France. If you are privileged to enter his office or his chef's library and training room, you will see cherished photographs of members of the British royal family visiting his kitchen. There is a unique picture of Queen Elizabeth II, radiantly happy, surrounded by the whole beaming brigade of  Connaught chefs. Bourdin's delight, as he shows you these treasures, is charming and infectious. Another equally important part of his legacy is the training and the opportunities afforded to his apprentices and subordinates. Bourdin is fiercely proud of his alumni, who have spread his gospel of culinary art world wide, even back to France, notably the  Troisgros brothers, and Phillipe Braun who holds two M-stars at Laurant in Paris.

The service at The Connaught is faultless. Not only is it correct - formal when needed, friendly when appropriate - but it is also skilful. There is plenty of opportunity for tableside service; the carving of soles and so on is taken for granted. Our meat courses were reheated in copper chafing pans quickly and deftly at the table, and the resulting presentation was excellent. The wine list is comprehensive and we enjoyed my favourite Durney Vineyard Chardonnay from Carmel Valley California - glad to see that old friend on the list. We partnered our meats with an Aloxe-Corton from the Domaine Tollet-Beaut.  After a struggle, it started to come alive wonderfully, in spite of having no help at all from the glasses. They are beautiful lead crystal cut glasses and they are brilliant for water and utterly useless for wine - which is the worst thing I have to say about the Connaught dining room! (I found out later that there are proper Burgundy glasses available, so make sure you ask for them!)

I suppose the main criticism that detractors will aim at any apologist for the grand hotel dining experience is going to be that of expense. How can you justify paying over £100 a head for a mere meal, they will cavil. Let me add up the cost of the cheapest - no, less expensive items on the menu. Then remember that nothing on this menu will be less than a perfect attempt to render that particular dish. So there's absolutely no way in which you would be slumming it.  Okay, so how about Consomme en Gelee 'Cole Porter' £7.00, followed by Paillard de Saumon 'Jean Troisgros' £25.50 (not the cheapest main course item). Then you might want an additional vegetable dish £5.00, and your choice of puddings for another £10.00. So far we're up to £49.50 including the £2 cover charge (why?); this leaves scope for a fair whack of drinks before hitting the £100 mark. Incidentally the set dinner menu costs £58.00 and features M. Bourdin's special selections from the carte.

Save, beg, borrow, whatever, but don't miss out on this experience. Every gourmet worthy of the name should be able to say; 
I dined at The Connaught in Bourdin's day...

Chef Jerome Ponchelle will take over as the sixth Maitre Chef - all of them French - since the hotel was built in 1897. He is the ideal candidate to continue the Bourdin tradition. After initial training in Rouen, he joined the Connaught in 1988, becoming executive sous chef in 1998.

Clifford Mould April 2001

The Connaught Hotel
Carlos Place, Mayfair 
London W1
020 7499 7070



UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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