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Restaurant review: Pierre Koffmann at the Berkeley

Gordo falls in love with classic French in The Smoke in two chapters

Written by . Published on December 10th 2010.

Restaurant review: Pierre Koffmann at the Berkeley

Chapter One - in which our chubby friend ponders

YOU aren’t going to see Pierre Koffmann on Saturday Morning Kitchen any time soon. You may have never heard of him.

A meal out is part of a whole; it’s a time for conversation, for seduction. It’s something to do with your gran and granddad, it transcends generations; it celebrates a birthday or a birth. It is to cheer yourself up with, to try that once a year bottle of great Burgundy

You will, however, have heard of Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Bruno Lubet, Michel Roux Junior and Tom Aitkins.

These lads have heard of Koffmann, mind you, because he trained them. He trained them at the legendary La Tante Claire on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea.

At the time, it was one of only two restaurants in the UK that held three Michelin stars. France had 32 and Gordo had eaten in 26 of them, many with his daughter, Georgina, eight at the time and an expert on fois gras, rabbit and oeufs a la neige. Nowadays she is expert on pints of Stella.

The legend has it that Mick Jagger moved in next door because he wanted to be close to the restaurant. Property prices then rose over 300 percent over five years, roughly in line with the time scale of La Tante Claire’s bagging of Michelin stars and Jagger's pals piling into the neighbourhood, which included two Beatles and Clapton who used to go to the restaurant to cry in his soup every time one of the boys pinched his girlfriends.

The La Tante Claire experience was one of ultra-subtle good taste, a few stripes here, a touch of apricot there; cool grey carpets that you glided on and chairs that you sank into but had just the right support to keep you comfortably upright and awake during an experience that could only be bettered by completely battering Manchester Grammar at backstroke, aged fifteen.

The last time Gordo ate here was over 20 years ago when he lived in Knightsbridge. The dish that made Koffmann's name was his Pied de Cochon aux Morilles; It was so good it stayed with you for a long time; in Gordo’s case it hasn’t gone away.

Koffmann has been retired for a number of years. He just seemed to have got up one day and thought, well, sod it. Whatever that is in French. Adrian Gill, the Sunday Times reality TV and soap critic had a rare lucid moment when he surmised that Koffmann retired with a Gallic shrug.

“It’s not me; it’s the portions that got small.”

Koffmann, like Gordo, appears to have become a little tired of watching chefs trying to become ever more refined with their cooking; basically forgetting that meal out is part of a whole; it’s a time for conversation, for seduction. It’s something to do with your gran and granddad, it transcends generations; it celebrates a birthday or a birth. It is to cheer yourself up with, to try that once a year bottle of great Burgundy.

It is certainly not to be patronised by.

It isn’t about nitrogen and listening to waves crashing on the shore on an iPod whilst eating a seafood dish. Or indeed a ‘taster’ menu that’s impossible to match a bottle of wine to as it has 11 mucked-about with courses.

So, what is it about?

Walking into Koffmann’s, off Knightsbridge, you are greeted by a lady who smiles, organises your coat and passes you over to a waiter with a bon appétit. He guides Gordo into a room with a number of covers bathed in natural light, then bears him left and down eight steps into a bar area where Gordo decides to have a straightener, a very good, correctly-mucked about with Bloody Mary. Sitting in this pleasant holding area, you look down another eight steps into the second part of the dining room.

Some of the current London critics have complained that the décor is too bland. These are the fellers that don’t understand the whole. The purpose of the room is to be a backdrop to amplify the food, develop the bouquet on the Domain Dujac Bonnes Mares and make the ladies sparkle. This room does that in spades. It’s called refined class.

The restaurant is about a third full on this Saturday lunch. Walking down the steps to be shown a table in the middle section, Gordo refuses the one offered and points to a corner where he can take cheeky snaps of the food and do that other thing which is so much a part of eating out: people watching. Not gazing at a two-million pound refit. A gorgeous brunette is infinitely more agreeable on Gordo’s eye than a gold plated light fitting.

“Well, Monsieur Gordo, we did have the special table ready for you with the view of the kitchen, but you are, as ever, correct. The one you have chosen is that leeeeetle bit better.”

That is French for “Bugger, I am going to have to station someone on that side of the room to keep an eye out for him."

Back up north, Gordo has been refused this courtesy at a very good restaurant recently with “Sorry Sir, that part of the restaurant is shut.” That’s Manc for “I just couldn’t give a shit”.

Gordo’s commercial director is with him, known in the office as Rambo. Sinking into her banquette she releases a sigh. “Oooh, it’s like sitting up in bed this.”

Koffmann has another part of the experience right. It’s dead comfy.

Chapter Two: in which our hero stuffs his face

The bread arrives. This brigade, none of whom are over 25, includes a baker. What a baker! Among doughy, sticky, juicy rolls, Gordo discovers a ‘bun’ made with croissant-like dough but not that flaky. A good pulling apart releases heavenly aromas of garlic and rosemary.

“That’s a new one this week, Sir,” says the young lady who had been stationed to just look after Fatty. “What do you think of it?”

“That’s why you, luv, will be getting a bloody GREAT BIG TIP,” thinks Gordo. “You are at the top of your game and I FUCKING LOVE YOU.”

The wine list is French, with many regional gems at good prices representing the fight back against the New World wines being made by third generation wine makers coming out of the hugely improved UFR d'Oenologie at Bordeaux University.

It’s split into two: classics, at classic prices, whilse more than half are the gems at prices from twenty to eighty-odd quid.

Gordo is looking at a riesling as a white, but sometimes he trips up and gets one that is too sweet. The one he’s asking about is £89. The sommelier guides him to a Kritt Pinot Blanc ‘Les Charmes’, Domain Kreydenweiss 2008. This is on at £42. Now that hasn’t happened before. Down selling. Gordo has never heard of Kritt before; it’s fantastic, sharp and flinty with a smear of good butter.

Run rabbit run

On that basis the Sommelier is allowed to change Gordo’s choice of red burgundy to a Pinot Noir Réserve, F.E. Trimbach, 2008, which is singing with new season’s cherries not quite having lost their sharpness. Bloody wonderful, especially as at £39 it’s half the £80 Marsanny. Outstanding.

Then the food begins to arrive.

Coquilles St Jacques á L’Encre (£16) scallops with squid ink; Poireaux Vinaigrettes et Anguille Fumée (£8), tender leeks with smoked eel and Boudin Gascon aux Pommes Caramelisées (£10), black pudding with sautéed apples.

Scallops creamy, on a parsnip purée, lightly coloured top and bottom, the squid ink building up layers of the sea; no iPod required here. This is one of Koffmann’s signature dishes; it’s banging. The leeks took Gordo back to a brasserie in Lyon where Paul Bocuse, one of the greatest French chefs of the last 100 years used to eat on his night off. The eel is meaty with a backdrop of smokiness. Someone should come up with a more user-friendly moniker for this fish.

The black pudding is made in the French style, smooth and clean, then studded with small cubes of unctuous fat with similar sized tart apples to clean the palate. Sat atop a crisp rosti, with a chunk of caramelised apple wedge and a jaunty finish of crispy bacon. Best starter for two years.

Middle course of Homard Écossais Thermidor (£38), Scottish Lobster Thermidor. In small letters underneath the fish menu: "All our fish are wild." Which says it all folks. Koffmann wouldn’t dream of buying farmed and he clearly doesn’t need to splash it all over the place. You should know better. Even so, the pan fried skate is only £20. Gordo thought the lobster was cooked to the correct point, just going chewy, releasing the lobster flavour with a masterful saucing.

Pied de Cochon aux Morilles (£28), pig’s trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels; Lapin Rotie A La Moutarde (£24), roasted rabbit with Dijon mustard.

The pig’s trotter is, as previously stated, Koffman’s Let It Be. Gordo does not have a clue how he finishes up with a work of art like this, sitting on top of a jus that is the jus of jus… with an intensity of flavour that lingers for decades. Potato purée sits there as a mop, with something piggy, rindey and crispy presenting itself as begging to be eaten.

The rabbit looks like where it came from, a vegetable patch somewhere in Gascony, colourful and cheeky. Gordo is so hypnotised with the trotter he nearly misses the opportunity to try it. And good it is too.

A gratin of greens arrives with just-perfect fries and a bowl of broccoli with toasted almonds. They are all heavenly.

We have to have a dabble at the cheese,(£13) to finish off the Trimbach Pinot Noir. I mean, look at that trolley in the picture.

Three puddings.

Oeufs A La Neige Caramélisé (£8), caramelised floating island, Mousse aux Chocolate Noir (£8), extra bitter chocolate mousse and finally Croustade aux Pommes et Armagnac (£9), Gascon apple pie with Armagnac.

Gordo hasn’t come across any restaurant in the UK that can make the classic that is Floating Islands: poached, fluffy meringues which, in this case, come with a cape of caramelised sugar and sit on a perfect crème Anglaise. The apple pie has a shallow short crust pastry, again sitting on a custard, with apple segments that have been poached in butter and sugar till soft, then, as a masterstroke, had several sheets of the thinnest, crispest pastry laid on top. The chocolate had one or two surprises, not least the spoonful of marmalade at the bottom.

That little experience is helped along with a Castelnau de Suduiraut Sauternes, 2003. A classic pudding Bordeaux, unbeatable. Spend the extra couple of quid folks.

Koffmann’s is pure joy, the team are cooking up classic food stunningly well in a manner that is not in the least bit stuffy.

If you, dear reader, want to try this restaurant, you can do it with a couple of ultra cheap train tickets on a Saturday on Virgin Rail. You can be in that there London in a couple of hours, do a bit of shopping then eat in a restaurant that will undoubtedly be given a Michelin star early next year, if not two. This is the future.

A two course menu will set you back £21.50. Three courses £25.50. Or you can go mental like Gordo.

Either way, you will see the reason why we haven’t got a Michelin star in Manchester yet. We’re still not good enough.*

*(Editor's note: Merseyside has one Michelin starred restaurant, Fraiche in Oxton. Not rubbing it in or anything.)

Rating: 21/20
Breakdown: 10.5/10 food
5/5 ambience
5.5/5 service
Address: Koffmann’s
The Berkeley Hotel
London 020 72351010

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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