Pierre Koffmann is a culinary hero of mines. I don’t have many regrets in my life (as Beth Orton once sung: “What’s the use in regrets? they’re just things we haven’t done yet”), but one of my greatest culinary regrets was that I never got a chance to eat at La Tante Claire when I was given the opportunity to in a former life working as a chef before La Tante Claire closed forever and Koffmann retired. Even when he opened a pop-up restaurant in Selfridges as part of London Restaurant Week, I didn’t get to go as I fell ill a few days before I was due to go. Seriously, I began to think that I would never get to try *that* stuffed pig’s trotter dish..
That said, throughout his period of retirement, there were always rumblings that Koffmann was keen to return to the kitchen and possibly return back to London, but they were always nothing more than rumours. However, there seemed to be a bit more substance to the rumours after the popup at Selfridges – It would appear that the popup was the final push that was needed to resolve to actually find a site in London. It was always the case that it wouldn’t be another La Tante Claire, but rather a restaurant which would serve French bistro-style food that Koffmann was accustomed to eating whilst growing up in Gascony, with perhaps a few signature dishes from LTC. I tried not to get too excited, but once it was announced that he had found a site and was going to open at The Berkeley hotel, I knew I had to get a table. Perhaps I would finally get to try his cooking after all. As soon as bookings opened, I got a table for 5 of us (myself with some sisters and G, my niece) and I also got us tickets for a Proms concert in the evening so the whole day was planned out; nice leisurely lunch at Koffmann’s followed by an evening of high cultural pleasure at the BBC Proms.
Except, it didn’t turn out that way at all; At late notice, we had another family gathering in the evening back in Birmingham – And we had to be back 6.30pm. Again, I began to wonder if I would I would ever get to try the great man’s cooking. However, we all resolved that we could still do Koffmann’s and then head back to Birmingham for the small family banquet (if banquets can ever be small). The result was that whilst the food was good and I finally got to try signature dishes like the stuffed pig’s trotter, the pistachio soufflé and the Oeufs à la Niège, the overall experience was tainted by the fact that we all knew that it couldn’t be quite as leisurely a lunch as we all wanted because we needed to leave by 4pm.
That said, Q enjoyed it enough and as part of her Crimbo pressie, we decided to treat her to lunch at Koffmann’s. Yes that’s right, I said Crimbo pressie but hey – We’re busy people so it took a few months to finally get a date where we were all free, but we got there and a table for 2 was duly booked for lunch. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we headed to Londinium:
As we’d been before, we felt much more at ease, and we didn’t feel obliged to have a drink before being shown to our table. It was nice to see a few other tables so there was still love for Koffmann, even if some diners were guests in the hotel and saw Koffmann’s as a nondescript restaurant in the hotel. Looking at the menu, we both opted to go for the set lunch (an amazing bargain at 2 courses for £21.50 and 3 courses for £25.50), since I couldn’t have any of the desserts (cheese wasn’t offered on the set lunch) and I wasn’t allowed to have 2 starters and 1 main as a 3 course lunch (well, I had to ask..), I opted for a starter from the ALC menu for as an extra. I couldn’t justify going for the pig’s trotter an extra course because that dish alone was more expensive than the 3 course set lunch. If there were more of us dining, I would have gone for it. Alas, it will have to wait until the next time I go.
As a little amuse, we were offered a roasted butternut squash velouté with a cute little cheese twist/straw thingy which was nice, but in all honesty, I’ve had so many variations of butternut squash veloutés and lovely as they have been, this wasn’t anything better or worse than what I’ve had elsewhere.
For starters, Q ordered the Pressed pork and celeriac remoulade (Pressé de porc, rémoulade de celeri) and I went for the wild salmon tartare. I’m pretty sure that I had something very similar to Q’s dish last time we were here and it was still very good: earthy terrine full of porcine goodness lifted by the lightness of the remoulade. As for my wild salmon tartare; seasoned to perfection and I’m very pleased to say that this wild salmon was not killed in vain as it was utterly delicious
A few words now about the bread; last time we were here, the bread wasn’t baked on premises and it wasn’t anything special (IIRC). This visit though, the bread is now baked on site and how much better it is; A cute linen basket was brought out to us with a garlic brioche, olive bread and a plain white roll, underneath was a sun-dried tomato roll too. Q took the garlic brioche and the white roll and immediately started eulogising about the garlic brioche in particular. For my 2 bread rolls, they were indeed crisp on the outside and light and pillowy on the inside. If anything, the bases were a bit *too* crisp (OK, they were burnt) but the lightness of the inside of the bread and flavour-wise, they were top notch. Q actually went on about the bread so much that we had to ask for another basket of bread (*ahem*) just so I could try the garlic brioche for myself and she was absolutely right; rolled so that it’s almost like a croissant, with (again) a crisp exterior and a soft, pillowy interior studded with jewels of roasted garlic and chopped sage, it was an absolute joy to eat. Fortunately, the garlic rolls weren’t overdone like the olive and sun-dried tomato rolls, but seriously, I think Q and I could (and would) have eaten a whole tray of these garlic rolls just by themselves.. OK, perhaps with some wine.
Next came our extra starter of snails, bone marrow and wild mushrooms. Knowing that I had ordered it as an extra starter, out came 2 plates for both Q and myself. Q immediately said that she didn’t order an extra starter but the waiter told us that the kitchen had kindly portioned it out across 2 plates so we wouldn’t have to divvy it up by ourselves. A nice touch from them and an example of the great service we received; service last time wasn’t bad per se, but it was a lot friendlier this time. We later learned that this was a new service team and this was only their third week together, so there were still a few issues here and there, but I have great hopes for the service team there. As for the extra starter, the mushrooms were over-seasoned, which was an absolute shame as the rest of the dish was delicious. Then again, bone marrow is one of my favourite things in the world to eat and the jus it came with was absolutely divine, so good that I took advantage of the extra bread basket we got just so I could mop up all the juices and not let a single drop go to waste. Oh, and the bone it was served in was a proper hollowed out bone – None of this synthetic bone nonsense like you get at Dinner.
Mains-wise, Q opted for the roasted plaice with beetroot salad which she thought was amazing: the fish skin was crisp and the flesh was cooked just right so that it’s just about lifting from the bone. It was seasoned perfectly and the warm (roasted) beetroot was a great accompaniment, there was also a nice textural crunch added by some crushed pistachio nuts.
I opted for the veal kidneys in mustard sauce, partly because I still think of devilled kidneys from St John Hotel, but mainly because it was the only dish that really caught my fancy. The kidneys were perfectly cooked – still pink in the centre – and it was nestled with the mustard sauce within a circle of pommes purée. Truth be known, it was a very rich and heavy dish and I began to struggle a bit to finish it (Q was very happy to help me out in that respect). However, all mains come with some frites and cauliflower gratin which lightened everything and was absolutely delicious when combined together. As I mentioned earlier, Q was more than happy to eat the pommes purée and they went nicely with her fish, but these frites we got were positively the best frites I’ve ever eaten; crisp on the outside, light and fluffy potato on the inside and seasoned perfectly, served in a newspaper cone from the pages of Le Monde, no less. Even though I had potato in my mains, I couldn’t stop eating the frites, it just felt wrong to let them go to waste. Thank goodness for the extras we were given, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish my mains. Oh, with my mains was a potato crisp (very nice) and what I thought was a crispy onion ring so I popped thing whole into my mouth, only to discover that it was a round of crackling – And what tasty crackling it was. At the same time I was very pleasantly surprised and loved it, then felt guilty and slightly ashamed at shoving the whole thing into my gob so Q didn’t get a chance to try it too..
I skipped dessert, but Q went for the Chocolate Cake with Coffee Cream which certainly looked and smelled very nice, and judging by the fact she went silent for about 4 minutes whilst trying not to inhale the whole thing in one go, I’d say she enjoyed it.
Overall, a very nice meal; I think the fact that we got to enjoy ourselves as we weren’t rushed like last time helped a lot and we got to appreciate the food and surroundings a lot more. Was the food better than last time? I’d hazard to say that it was marginally better – Apart from the over-seasoned mushrooms in the extra starter. Them baking their own breads now could push it to be considered better than last year. However, last year I got to try the pistachio soufflé which is forever embedded as a great culinary memory for me and I didn’t have any desserts this time round. But overall, the standard of food here is still exceedingly high. I’ve already mentioned how bargainous the set lunch prices are, but even the ALC prices I think are quite reasonable – Especially when you consider how you have a bona fide culinary legend in the kitchen cooking for you. I only hope it’s not another year before I go back.
You can view the full set of photos at my Flickr page.