It was going to be a hard act to follow last week’s Corner Room, but if anywhere could stand up to its brilliance, it would be Gauthier. If Michelin-pomp isn’t for you, it’s somewhere to avoid, but previously I’d found the converted West End townhouse to be a welcome indulgence, serving consistently high-quality French cuisine with finesse. Once a year, the restaurant serves a two-for-one tasting menu, “to experience the full creativity of Alexis and his team the way he would want you to, but for a very special price”, said their email. And £35 each is a very special price for eight courses. You’ve heard the old adage that if something seems to good to be true, it probably is? This was no exception.
With its doorbell, Gauthier still feels like a private house; the restaurant is split over three floors, with two main salons and a number of private rooms. It’s charming, but things can feel a little cramped as you squeeze past tray-bearers in the corridor and on the stairs. Decoration is tasteful, if a little bland. We began with canapés. Usually good here, these were tasteless, overly-chilled, and stale. Paying £10 for a gin and tonic, I’d expect some better nibbles. We chose the eight matching wines (£60/person) to go with our tasting menu. I rarely indulge in wine-pairings, but due to the excellent sommelier, Roberto della Pietra, if you’re going to go all out, this is place to do it. And so began our meal of three acts.
Act 1: Betrayal. I can see the idea behind pan fried duck foie gras with apricot & ginger marmalade and a Saint Mont 2009, Les Vignes Retrouvées. However, the end result was too sweet, almost dessert-like, and the foie gras was totally lost on me. A slightly drier wine may have helped. Scottish scallops with girolles, garlic & parsley came next with a suitable pairing of Chateau Haut Peyruget 2011, Vignobles Jolivet. Just the one scallop (ahem!) was cooked to an ideal milky translucency, but an abundance of garlic and (I thought) cumin ruined it. Such a simple dish to get wrong. The Summer Truffle Risotto could have been great: rich, creamy, and perfectly cooked grains, but where was the truffle? Spying their a la carte menu, I saw Summer Ceps Risotto, which we had evidently received. Either an honest mistake, or some cunning deception, I’m not sure. Whatever it was, I knew the villain in this plot.
Act 2: Respite. Things improved with the thoughtful combination of sea bass & baby squid with courgette tempura, and the lightly battered vegetable with black ink & fish sauce brought an interesting Asian element to the dish. The only slight oddity was the wine, but I suppose Roberto had cheekily wanted to put a rosé on the list. A better choice was the perfumed Minervois Petit Arthur 2008 with the soft piglet belly, glazed baby carrot and leek & cherry jam, a dreamy pork jus holding it together. Meat and two veg this was not. Well, it was, but so much more. Feeling slightly let down by the excellent, but small portion of 22 month aged Comté and pepper relish, we decided to enjoy cheese as God intended. From the trolley. I can’t recall what we chose, but it was certainly worth the supplement (£8).
Act 3: Endurance. Desserts are not all they’re cracked up: fresh raspberry with soft blanc manger and crispy milk was uninteresting and one-dimensional – a palate cleanser of sorts, I suppose. And the famed Louis XV dark chocolate praline, adored all over the blogosphere as ‘the best chocolate dessert out there’, was nothing special. It looked pretty with its gold-leaf and cocoa shine, but after eight courses and feeling full it was too rich to be appreciated. It’s sweet red pairing, Banyuls Rimage Rouge 2008, was another misjudged choice for me. So as the curtain fell, our bill came to £262. We did not applaud. Service tries to be as charming as possible, but came across overly-rehearsed and somewhat insincere. I’m guessing the stars of the show – Alexis and Roberto – were absent; instead we had to put up with understudies who have some way to go in learning their lines.
Usually outstanding, this was a weak performance. Take it from me, there’s no such thing as a free lunch…nor a half-price tasting menu.
Addendum: I had dinner here with three friends on 22nd September 2012 in the intimate, four seat wine room. A new menu, fantastic wine, and some incredibly attentive service meant that, for me, Gauthier was back on its old form. As previously noted, the experience above seems to have been a blip. I would still thoroughly recommend it.
Gauthier, Romilly Street, Soho
17th August 2012, £262 for two (with service)
Food: 6, Service: 5, Ambience: 7