Saturday, October 5, 2013

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

There are plenty of options for 'event dining' in London, but one of the best currently available, without doubt, is Alain Ducasse's offering in the Dorchester Hotel, on Park Lane. A previous visit, which took advantage of a lunchtime deal, had already persuaded my partner and I that this was a genuinely exceptional restaurant so when the time came to choose a venue for a birthday celebration it was at the top of a very short list.

The restaurant entrance lies in the ground floor Promenade, The Dorchester's afternoon tea lounge and the experience starts from the moment you are met and greeted by the staff on the door. The dining room is large and airy, tables are far enough apart for privacy while still allowing it to be busy enough to feel inconspicuous. Aside from the rather strange obsession with ceramic vegetables decorating each table, and the custom built handbag stools (I kid you not), the room is elegant and stylish without feeling overbearing, stuffy or pretentious. The views of Hyde Park are pleasant though sadly viewed through the filter of Park Lane traffic (though not much the restaurant can do about that).

Two set menus were available, as well as an à la carte option, and we opted for the seven-course seasonal 'Menu d'Automne', accompanied by the 'Wine Pairing' wine flight (one of three wine flights available).

The opening course of langoustines was an exquisite little dish - perfectly cooked portions of shelled langoustine, served with caviar and a light, creamy and zesty sauce. In general, I'm not a fan of caviar - the few occasions I've eaten it have left me unimpressed - but this combination worked well and left me feeling that in this instance at least it really did add something special to the dish. It was beautiful to look at and was an exceptionally elegant little dish. This was a prelude to a complicated second course: foie gras stuffed ravioli (strangely reminiscent of Chinese-style wantons), served with chopped herbs, girolles and then drowned in a light duck broth. The broth was comforting and deeply savory, but not so strong that the flavour of the foie gras was suppressed. The mixture of textures was slightly odd, with the combination of smooth pate, pasta and soup, but the dish as a whole worked surprisingly well and brought an unexpected oriental twist to what was otherwise a very modern French menu.

Course three brought us back to shellfish and a beautifully cooked selection of lobster, including both tail and claw meat, served with a rich dressing of peas and bacon. The peas seemed slightly out of place in an autumnal menu (I always associate them with Spring), but again the complimentary flavours of the ingredients merged seamlessly into a very satisfying whole. More shellfish was to follow, but in a supporting role, in the next course, which was turbot served with crayfish and a champagne sabayon. Again, the cooking was superb - the fish was moist and meaty and made a rapid disappearance from the plate.

The main course was a perfectly cooked beef fillet served with a strong jus - probably the highlight of my meal (though the starter and turbot would vied for a close second place). Sadly, the accompaniment, a pretty little sandwich made of braised ox-cheek, cheese and chard was bland and flavourless and added little to the meal. Luckily the fillet was good, the rather superfluous nature of the 'gratin' was easy to overlook. The savoury part of the meal concluded with an aged Comte cheese and trimmings. Although pleasant, I've never been excited by Comte (which is either very acidic or just dull in my opinion), and it always amuses me that some serious foodies really treat with a reverence I'd rather reserve for a cheese with a much more interesting flavour or texture (there must be hundreds of them in France alone).

For desert, the only course in the set menu with a choice available, I opted for a rum baba, which is one of the house signature dishes. It was served with an exceptional degree of ceremony in a rather ostentatious silver-lidded dish. Still, the ceremony was worth it - a really perfect desert, soaked in rum (I was asked to choose my own rum from a selection of five on offer) and served with a huge dollop of chantilly cream - a rich and appropriate ending to what was an unctuous and deeply satisfying meal. The experience didn't end here - the few remaining spare gaps were filled out with a variety of exquisite little macaroons and truffles. Even my partner, who lacks any hint of a sweet tooth, effused about these for a while afterward.

The wine flight was potentially the best we've had anywhere - all of the wines were excellent and each worked well with all of the courses that the were paired with. The languoustines were accompanied by a NV champagne (Terroirs Agrapart), while a crisp sancerre (2011, Denisottes, C. Riffault) partnered the foie gras. A Puligny-Montrachet (2011, B. Moreau) made a refreshing pair with the lobster and a premier cru Chassagne-Montrachet (2007, B. Moreau) was an excellent choice for the turbot. The beef complimented the strong, deep flavours of a classic Haut-Medoc (2004, Chateau La Lagune), while a rather young but surprisingly good port (2007, Niepoort LBV) helped give even the Comte a hint of interest.

The excellence of the food was matched by the efficiency and charm of the staff - all of whom offered seamless service throughout the evening and completed the whole experience. In terms of price, the experience was comparable with several other top restaurants we've visited (cheaper than our last visit to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, but more expensive than The Fat Duck): nevertheless, this isn't the kind of dining you'd indulge in more than a couple of times a year and we thought it was worth every penny. Definitely my top recommendation for fine dining in London this year so far.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kenyan safai lodges and camps - Loisaba Lodge

In September my partner and I decided to grab a holiday in Kenya - our first trip to East Africa. Both being safari fans we opted for a holiday that we hoped would let us see some of the country's amazing variety, choosing one lodge in Kenya's northern Laikipia region, with a mixture of plains and rugged wooded landscapes, and on adjacent to the Maasai Mara, famed more for its open spaces. Our trip was arranged by Africa Exclusive (, who had done a stunning job with an earlier trip to Botswana in 2010.

Our first destination was Loisaba Lodge ( a small camp set in a private 150 km square wilderness area that forms part of a large working cattle ranch. The wilderness area is unfenced and contiguous with other parts of the Laikipia wilderness area. Many of the species you'd expect to see on an African safari are found in the area, including elephant, lion, numerous species of antelope, etc., as well as number of specialities for the region (such as the rather elegant gerenuk - a long-necked antelope - and the beautiful Grevy's zebra) and the birding in the area is also excellent.

The main lodge, communal areas, offices, and guest rooms are all situated at the top of an escarpment, with the main lodge and guest lodges having spectacular views over the valley towards Mount Kenya (though this sadly wasn't visible when we visited as the weather was too hazy). Wildlife was usually on the move along the valley floor, easily visible, and also in the individual gardens for each guest room (we had regular visits from dik-diks, ground squirrels and numerous birds). The main lodge offers fast WiFi (surprisingly good) and a comfortable lounge and dining area (most of the meals are communal, though private dining was also available). Nearby were a spa, small shop (souvenirs mainly), pool (lunch was served here), and tennis court. We were there primarily for the game drives, but for the more adventurous, horse safaris, quad biking, and river rafting were also available. One reason we chose Loisaba was because it offered night drives (not usually available in more strongly regulated national parks), which gave the option of seeing some behaviours and wildlife not often seen during the day.

Individual guest rooms were quite small and lacked some of the space and facilities that might be expected at this price point (especially in comparison with other lodges in southern Africa we've stayed at), but they were comfortable and reasonably well-appointed with mini-bars, fully netted beds, an outside day bed and chairs, and free laundry. Service in general was very good, with staff that were exceptionally friendly, hospitable and ready to deal with all requests. Breakfasts and dinners were solid affairs, being well prepared and executed comfort food (all food and drinks were included in the tariff). Lunches were based largely around a variety of salads and snack dishes, which were perfectly adequate, but not particularly satisfying. The catering in general was competent and filling, rather than particularly adventurous or inspiring.

Although a relaxing experience, however, several aspects of our stay were disappointing. The overall experience didn't compare well with our previous experiences in Botswana, South Africa, and India (or with our later experience at Ol Seki Mara Camp) in terms of the levels of facilities/comfort found in guest rooms or in terms of the food available, especially given the similarity in cost. Perhaps most disappointing was the standard of the game drives, however. As we were there primarily to view game, this was probably the single factor that most marred our stay. Our guide was obviously reasonably knowledgeable about the mammals in the area, but had little interest in communicating much with us on the drives: most of the time was spent driving around looking for some of the more charismatic game, whereas we would have been happier to have spent time looking for other animals as well as the ones many tourists would prefer to see. In particular, it was clear our guide had no real knowledge or interest in the rather amazing bird fauna and it was almost impossible to get him to stop and do any real birdwatching until we had several discussions with him and the camp manager. This also became apparent when we asked to do a bush walk - we spent nearly 1.5 hours in silence with him pointing out almost nothing of interest until asked pointed questions on what we were looking at. The game in the area can be quite difficult to see due to the terrain and it is not as high density as elsewhere in Kenya - however, it is interesting and some of the more spectacular animals for the region are abundant. Big cats are especially elusive - this is the first place in Africa I've not seen big cats. They are in the region (and they have a radio tracker on a lioness, though this didn't help us find her), but very tricky to see. (I should note that other guests were lucky enough to see leopard and lion while we were there). We may have just been unfortunate with our particular guide - other guests with other guides seemed to have few complaints, though most of these were not safari veterans or particular wildlife enthusiasts.

This probably explains some our disappointment - we left with the impression that Loisaba didn't really know what it wanted to be. As some other guests were on weekend trips from Nairobi, rather than doing more extended trips, it could be that they see themselves mainly as a get-away - hence the options for other activities and the spa, with some wildlife thrown in. However, they do heavily market the safari aspect of their offer, so I would expect this to taken more seriously.

One unique thing about Loisaba is their 'star beds' - a partnership with the local Maasai, in which they have several purpose built wooden platforms, at a couple of sites several kilometres from the main camp. These overlook some of the more remote areas and offer the opportunity to sleep under the stars. Each platform has a toilet and camp shower, and is private, accessed by a ladder, and has a covered area at the back and an open area for the bed at the front. This was a nice idea and an evening spent around an open fire on a platform above the bush listening to the sounds of the wildlife was very pleasant. The idea of a night under the stars was appealing and gave some of the romance of earlier safaris, if a bit nerve-wracking (there are lions, leopards and other things to worry about after all). When the sun set the star beds did live up to their name, with gorgeous views of the Milky Way and a pleasant evening of chatting with the guides and other guests on the communal platform nearby. However, the experience was badly let down by two major factors - the catering was poor in comparison with the main lodge (yes, difficult to set up a kitchen in such an area, but there were fixed buildings for this) to the point of being almost inedible in part, and the maintenance of the beds (imagine a mobile cart with a mattress on top covered in mosquito proof nets, quite imaginative) was poor, with old very badly stained pillows and sheets, which just looked dirty.

So, would I recommend it? On the positive side, there is a lot to do, the game is interesting, and the staff are welcoming and efficient. Negatively, there needs to be some more investment in the guest rooms, star beds, and especially in the wildlife offer. I'd unhestitatingly recommend this to someone with only a minor interest in wildlife, who'd enjoy the mix of activities available on a short break, or to a weekender from Nairobi. Sadly, however, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone interested in a specialist wildlife holiday, or for a long stay, although it certainly has potential for these aspects to improve.

Second installment will deal with our camp close to the Maasai Mara.