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.