Some years back, I was in Paris and had picked up Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for some travel reading. Part of the book is set there, and in the course of following some of the story’s clues around the Left Bank, Joanne and were led to the SAINT-SULPICE CATHEDRAL, home of the Rose Line, a central element in the story.
It was lunchtime and since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to try HELENE DARROZE, the famed second floor restaurant on Rue d’Assas that opened in 2001 and promptly won two Michelin stars. More about that later.
Hélène Darroze is an Alain Ducasse alum from Gascony in southwest France, home of the fat LANDES CHICKENS that actually rival the world renowned BRESSE CHICKENS from Burgundy.
In 2008 she opened her second restaurant at the prestigious CONNAUGHT HOTEL in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. Her menus in Paris and in London, while not identical, are very similar in tone and attitude, with several signature dishes featured at both restaurants. But the décor is quite different at each location. Both dining rooms are warm and comfortable, but the Paris location has a decidedly more contemporary flavor, whereas the London outpost exudes a sporting and “old-money” British vibe.
If you have kids and remember Pixar’s animated studio film, Ratatouille, the character Colette was modeled after Hélène Darroze.
One thing that I like about Darroze is that while exercising serious cooking skill, she brings wit and whimsy to the table. For example, the “menu” arrives in the convoluted form of a Chinese Checkers board, with 16 bright white balls, all labeled with food possibilities – scallops…lamb…caviar…
You pick a ball or two or three that interest you and place them in the indented ring that surrounds the board. Your server records them, then proceeds to explain and romance your selections. It’s a unique give-and-take that sets the stage for a playful rapport between staff and guest.
Is it necessary? Hell, no. Is it fun? Damn right.
Cheesy gougeres appear on your table, followed by a dark, dense and chewy bread with two butters, one a flaky, salted, incredibly rich golden slab; the second a 4-inch-high cone of swirled chili butter. Both are nice counterpoints to the slight sweetness of the molasses in the bread.
Let the show begin…
Seemingly out of nowhere a trolley shows up tableside, bearing a classic Berkel slicer (not the Williams Sonoma iteration, but the “real deal” $25,000 version), invented in 1898 by Wilhelm van Berkel in Rotterdam (The London location sports a red Berkel; in Paris it’s cream colored). Without a word, your server spins the handle and pink, paper-thin slices of cured Gascon ham settle into an airy pile served alongside a miniature loaf of buttery pull-aparts.
It was a hot summer day in Paris when we first dined at Hélène Darroze and Joanne had Gaspacho as a starter. Even though it was refreshingly chilled, the flavor was absolutely intense. Adding to the theater, the soup was poured from a glass teapot right at the table.
Considering Darroze’s Gascony heritage, it came as no surprise that of the fifteen starters, five involved foie gras – some duck, some goose. I don’t know if the goose is any better than the duck, or if the price is higher because they just don’t know what to do with the rest of the goose (I’ve heard it’s often donated to prisons), but in the world of foie gras, goose liver ranks higher on the fanciness scale – so expect to pay a premium for it.
At any rate, I certainly was not able to try ‘em all, and Joanne will not even taste foie gras, so I was forced to consume an ethereally creamy slab of it all by myself. I still remember: The preparation included cocoa beans and smoked eel. In a tribute to spring (and to the snout-to-tail movement), another standout appetizer of sweetbreads comes with morel mushrooms.
Mains have included Beef Wellington (perfect in London on a damp and dreary November evening). Milk-Fed Lamb Chops from the Pyrenees were fork-tender. And surprisingly I also liked the Pigeon in Mole Sauce. (The lesson here: In the hands of a master, anything can be made delicious.)
But here’s the deal……
Darroze cites that she fondly remembers her Sunday dinners while growing up in Gascony. It was always ROAST CHICKEN and always chicken from Landes.
Consequently, we are blessed that she has added Saturday and Sunday ROAST CHICKEN FOR TWO to her menus in both Paris and London. This is no casual Sunday supper, though. Each menu consists of five courses and will set you back about $140 for two. Not cheap, but a bargain compared to a meal assembled à la carte.
Perhaps Daniel Humm of NYC’s ELEVEN MADISON PARK took inspiration from Hélène Darroze when he introduced what food writer Dan Meyers has called “the best roast chicken in America” – an Amish variety, stuffed with truffles, foie gras and brioche.
Darroze stuffs foie gras under the skin in the winter, and in the summer the chicken gets morel mushrooms and truffles.
The parade begins with a gilded eggshell filled with egg yolk confit, chicken liver mousse, bacon, crispy skin and parmesan foam – decadence on a spoon. That’s followed by a second course of “gin-clear” chicken consommé with tiny ravioli and a splash of Armagnac. A generous glossy and juicy nut-brown breast comes next with a side of perfectly prepared, butter-loaded seasonal vegetables.
But now comes a real surprise and delight: a taco of boldly seasoned chicken leg and thigh meat on a corn tortilla with a squeeze of fresh lime.
Dessert arrives in three separate steps. Staying true to the chicken theme, there is ALWAYS Ile Flottante (whipped egg whites with crème anglaise, caramel and sliced toasted almonds), and sometimes strawberry ice cream (unlike any you have ever seen or tasted).
Not included, but definitely a worthwhile extra indulgence is a sampling from the Cheese Trolley, which features huge wedges of unpasteurized varieties (which aren’t imported to the U.S.) from both England and France, displayed under enormous glass bell jars. Selections come with an assortment of fruits, nuts and chutneys.
And finally a complimentary “tree” of chocolate truffles arrives to enjoy with your coffee. But….we ain’t done yet, folks. As you leave, you are given a box of cookies, pastries, macarons and sweets to take home. NICE!
The PRIX FIXE menu at lunch is a relative bargain in Paris. The London location serves dinner only.
My advice? Book a table for two on Saturday or Sunday night. Have the ROAST CHICKEN FOR TWO…..DO IT!