The Berkeley, Wilton Place, SW1X 7RL
020 7235 1010, www.the-berkeley.co.uk
Cost per person without wine: £45
PIERRE Koffmann closed his famous London restaurant, La Tante Claire, back in 2003, and promptly vanished from the restaurant scene. Rather than dissipate, the reverential awe that people attached to Koffmann and his cooking – La Tante Claire was one of very few London restaurants to garner three Michelin stars – grew into a kind of mystique. Like a rock band that had split up at the height of their fame, he left the crowd wanting more and those who’d never seen him – like me – wondering what they’d missed.
Then, as it were, he reformed. Late last year he suddenly popped up on the Selfridges rooftop with a temporary restaurant that had people falling over themselves to get a table. The response was ecstatic, and now the good ship Koffmann has sailed back into the harbour permanently, docking at The Berkeley hotel, original home of La Tante Claire.
Unfortunately, that means being in the Berkely’s basement, in the space occupied until April this year by Gordon Ramsey’s brasserie, the Boxwood Café. I can’t say I like it. A dour, windowless cave of a place, its muted greens and browns carry little charm or character. You should aim to sit at one of the discrete, comfy-looking banquette tables round the sides of the room. We were plonked in the central portion near the entrance to the kitchen, which felt like sitting on the middle of a runway, with the risk of being run over by a careening waiter at any moment.
much for the room, but of course that’s not why we’re here. We’re visiting Koffmann’s to pay homage, to find out where the mystique meets the man. That may be our aim; the aim of the man himself is to celebrate the most rustic wonders of French food and drink. Both the wine list and the cheese selection carry only French options; local tipples from Koffmann’s native Gascony, like pousse rapiere and floc de gascogne, occupy the list of aperitifs; the menu is in French capitals (with little English translations).
My friend decided, therefore, that it was only appropriate to start with snails. A pretty mini casserole pot arrived containing snails and girolle mushrooms on a dollop of velvety mashed potato and under a foamy sauce of garlic and herbs. This was faultless – as light as anything, but earthy and homely and nostalgic too. I went for mackerel terrine – a cross-cut of marinated fish, served chilled and tasting so fresh it practically sparkled. Tiny bits of dill secreted themselves in the terrine jelly, and a dab of cranberry jus and caramelised croutons made this terrifically enlivening. I’d love to have it for breakfast.
Koffmann’s signature dish is pig’s trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels, which my friend had as his main, while I went for braised beef cheeks. Both were marvellous. The trotter was rich, fulsome and complex, the soft pork meat and its stuffing suffusing into a glorious mulch. The beef cheeks melted tenderly at the gentlest prod of a fork, and the red wine gravy they swam in was magnificent. Both came with mash, and we were also given a cone of frites to share, wrapped in a copy of that day’s Le Monde. Hardly necessary, but we wolfed them down anyway. Carb counts be damned.
For deserts I went for chocolate mousse and my friend had a selection from the knock-out range of cheeses. The mousse, made with bitter dark chocolate, was deep and silky, with a layer of orange puree lurking at the bottom.
There’s little that’s ostentatious about Koffmann’s cooking – this isn’t about trying to impress you or win you over with needless flourishes. It’s fun, celebratory, and hearty – everything the room is not, in fact.