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Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Pierre Koffmann opened his first restaurant, La Tante Claire, in 1977 on Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, gaining his 3rd Michelin star six years later in 1984. I was a child then, on a diet of popcorn, ice cream and pork scratchings. Writing this now while reminiscing about my recent dinner at Koffmann’s, I can't help but reflect on his breadth of gastronomic experience and accolades while I was still in short trousers.
In 1998, during my college days, Pierre Koffmann sold his restaurant premises to his former employee Gordon Ramsay, and moved La Tante Claire to The Berkeley, where he remained until it closed in 2003. Like most of my peers, I had no money and was pulling pints to get through university, so La Tante Claire or any kind of fine-dining restaurant was a distant dream.
Fast forward to 2009, and by then in gainful employment, I had the opportunity to experience Pierre Koffmann's cooking at his pop-up restaurant on the roof of Selfridges (reviewed here). This was my first glimpse of Pierre Koffmann's Gascon cuisine - a chef who can make something as rustic as pigs trotters taste delectable, he opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities of French cooking at its best.
His latest, much awaited venture, Koffmann's, opened in 2010 also at The Berkeley. I was intrigued to visit it recently when meeting friends for dinner, and was pleasantly surprised to find a space that is rather casual and unstuffy, but elegant. I liked the warmth of the rooms, the carpeted floor, the simple but tasteful fresh-cut flowers and the French cookbooks dotted around the book shelves.
The beauty of being a table of four was that we could try out different dishes. The menu lists some of Pierre Koffmann's most popular dishes including pig trotters stuffed with sweetbreads and morel mushrooms, duck à l'orange and pistachio soufflé. There are also some enticing plat du jours (daily specials), but like the décor, overall the menu is unfussy, comforting and reassuringly simple.
I started with "Snails, Bone Marrow and Wild Mushrooms" @ £12. Having thoroughly enjoyed it two years ago at Pierre Koffmann's pop-up, I could not resist and ordered it again. And again it was wonderful - meaty snails and girolle mushrooms in an intensely concentrated reduction filled a large marrow bone. Accompanying the snails was a delicious garlic and parsley foam, the marrow cleverly sitting on paper-thin toast on a bed of truffle-infused creamy mash.
Claire opted for "Hand Dived Scallops, Ink Sauce, & Cauliflower Puree" @ £16. This was another magnificent dish - the scallops were meltingly tender and sweet, with an intense flavour of the sea imparted by the glossy black ink sauce.
Simon's "Squid Bolognese-Style" @ £10 was a fun dish, with strands of squid perfectly shaped as pasta and topped with a rich and flavoursome ragout sauce.
For the main course, I had one of the plat du jours "Tournedos Rossini" @ £37, a French classic and a rather extravagant dish of fillet mignon, topped with a slice of whole foie gras garnished with slices of black truffle. The fillet was unctuous, as was the buttery liver. The demi-glace sauce was lip-smackingly good, bringing all these components perfectly together.
Other main dishes ordered at the table were "Angus Scottish Sirloin Steak with Shallot Sauce and Bone Marrow" @ £28, "Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce" @ £26 (of which I had a mouthful that tasted divine), and "Roasted Monkfish with Shellfish Paella" @ £24.
Following the mains, we had a selection of La Fromagerie cheeses @ £15 including a deliciously pungent and creamy Pont l' Evêque, a Comté, and several other fine unpasteurised French farmhouse cheeses.
The "Pistachio Soufflé with Pistachio Ice Cream" @ £14 was as delicious and iconic as I remember from my previous experience (reviewed here). I loved the intense pistachio flavour in both the warm soufflé and the ice cream - a familiar, unifying taste in contrasting textures and temperatures.
The two other desserts were "Black Cherries with Yoghurt Sorbet" @ £9 and "Lemon Tart with Lemon Sorbet" @ £9. These were both good but the black cherries had the edge in my opinion. I enjoyed the combination of fruit and sorbet - light and refreshing.
The "Crème Brulée" @ £8 was an additional dessert for all to share. It was magnificently creamy - richly infused with vanilla, it had just the right amount of bitterness from the caramelised sugar top.
The open plan kitchen offered me glimpses of Pierre Koffmann and his team working away on a surprisingly busy Monday evening; he was very welcoming when I popped over to talk to him in the kitchen.
From what I saw on the evening I was there, and judging by the quality and value of his menus - 2/3 course Prix Fixe lunch menus at £21 and £25.5 or Pre and Post Theatre menus for £24 and £28 - you will not need to be minting it to afford a meal there. Who knows, if Koffmann's had been around when I was a student, my fine-dining debut might have been a decade or two earlier!
Cost: The London Foodie was a guest of Koffmann's. I estimate that a 3-course meal will cost around £45 per person (excluding drinks). I believe this to be very good value for cooking of this quality.
Likes: my starter of snails, bone marrow and wild mushrooms was excellent as were the scallops in black ink sauce and the Tournedos Rossini. I enjoyed the casual atmosphere, the open plan kitchen and the delicious desserts.
Verdict: At 63 years old, and with 3-Michelin stars to his name, Pierre Koffmann is at the height of his technical and creative skill, yet has little need to prove his culinary credentials to anyone. From this rare vantage point, at Koffmann's, he is aiming for a more informal, affordable and youthful restaurant, where he is cooking the food he treasures from his native Gascony. I loved it. Very highly recommended.