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Alain Ducasse

It has always been possible to make social and historical generalisations about the arrival of great French chefs in England. Generalisations are usually wrong, but they often seem right at the time, and historians make them because if they come off they can make a chap look awfully clever.

For example, I think it is fair to say that the beginnings of modern British cuisine can be traced back to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when our aristocrats returned from exile in France, bringing with them French chefs to cater for the exotic new tastes they had acquired during the interregnum.

Is that true? Who knows? Its true the toffs went to France, and its true that some of them brought back chefs. But did that really mean anything in terms of our culinary evolution? I recently made a television programme about food in Restoration England and everything we ate just tasted of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and clove. Food in the late 17th century was not so much roasted, boiled or baked, as mulled. That doesnt seem very French to me.

And then there is Alexis Soyer, the great chef of the Reform Club, who, after inventing water-cooled fridges and adjustable gas ovens, left in 1850 to open his Gastronomic Symposium of all Nations opposite the site of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park demonstrating how the socio-economic clout of Empire is a greater consolidator of international cuisines than any recipe book. Except that if you look closer, you discover that tickets for the exhibition did not allow holders re-entry, so most people just ate one of the cold mutton pies available inside for tuppence and the Symposium closed early with massive losses.

And then, of course, came Escoffier, who arrived at the Savoy in 1890 and immediately invented the a la carte menu, the peach melba, bread tongs, reservation lines that play lift music while you hold for an hour, pretty receptionists who cant spell Jones, crappy little hand-dryers that blow water on to your trousers, and mille-feuille tarts that look nice but when you prong the top with your fork the creamy stuff all hoons out into your lap. All of which, of course, demonstrates how fin-de-si cle gluttony and British laissez-faire economics led to the decline of teatime, the failure of the corn market and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

And so what are we to make of the arrival of Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester within 12 months of Joel Robuchon appearance next door to the Ivy? Well, personally, I think if it tells us anything, then it is that there is too much money washing around in London at the moment, and the Frenchies want a piece of it.

I mean, listen to this mission statement from Ducasse, issued in advance of his opening on November 17 last year: London is such an energetic, dynamic city, and now is definitely the right time to open here.

Right time for whom? Not for us. The right time for us would have been 25 years ago, when there was sod all else here. Right time to open, indeed. Does that sound to you like a chef talking, or the CEO of a major international catering brand?

Energetic, dynamic city. Its the kind of gushing crud you get from botoxed American actors on Parkinson hoping to resurrect their career by taking their clothes off at the Donmar Warehouse. Are we meant to be flattered that London is so awash with foreign cash that Alain Ducasse is at last prepared to risk rolling out a restaurant here? Its enough to make you long for a recession.

As it happens and this in no way mitigates my position the starter of chicken pithiviers, truffled and braised sweetbreads which I had there the other day was the tastiest plateful of food I have been served anywhere in ages. Indeed, it reminded me of how exciting I thought posh restaurants were, in the days before I ate in them all the time. Served beautifully hot, all sorts of miraculous textures abounded: plump slices of chicken breast had an eerie firmness when set against the moussey little quenelles which are de rigueur in any sauce a la financire (a description given only in the menus French translation, offered, rather modestly, beneath the English); and then there were punchy little nuggets of sweetbread and the snap of quite generous slices of black truffle. The golden, creamy sauce held fire and fungus and woody herbs. It was both an eye-roller and (since it added a £10 supplement to the £75 three-course lunch) a high-roller of a dish. A dish that makes you long to eat more of it, and at the same time buzz with excitement for what will come next.

Alas, nothing else came close. My mum had a CHESTNUT VELOUTE, royale of foie gras, which was like something out of a cardboard cup from the high street just a clumsy nut soup with some chunks of the fat the foie gras was packed in and a (yawn) pale grey foam. Maybe she was not bold enough. Maybe shed have been happier with the SQUID bonbons coco chutney, PUMPKIN RAVIOLI, parmesan emulsion, or the AUTUMN VEGETABLES, raw and cooked, mushroom marmalade. Maybe.

The capitals, by the way, are theirs, not mine, and are employed, I guess, to help lazy readers get to the point without wasting time reading superfluous adjectives (they should try it with Proust). Or perhaps its to do with the current fashion for single word dish descriptions, except that Alain couldnt quite bear not to explain how his man had gone about preparing each dish. Either way, it comes out looking like a weird kind of typographical Tourette syndrome.

My Roasted PIGEON, Tuscan crostini, salmis jus was rich, fine, uninspiring. No, but fine. My mothers YOUNG HEN and crayfish fricasse, lightly creamed jus was strangely unpleasant it went back to the kitchen with three of its four shellfish perched on the side of the plate like toddlers daunted by their first sight of a paddling pool. We didnt have pudding. All sugary things taste the same.

By way of a preliminary freebie, there had been some nice little crudits, including those purple heritage carrots that are such a useful objet de conversation, with a thin ancholade and (oddly) a little pot of chantilly. Its all meant to be very 2008, I guess. Raw veg in a posh restaurant cooool.

The room is all a bit fussy without being interesting. Theres a wonky oval porthole in a big, fat upholstered screen by the door. There are porcelain vegetables on the tables (we had asparagus not even in season). Blatantly offbeat cutlery sits in little bespoke holders. Perfectly designed lighting (I admit) picks up the faint silvery pinkness of everything: glassware, menus, napiery. Its dully pretty, like, I dont know, Billie Piper. But eating here doesnt feel like much of an occasion the only person who seemed even mildly excited was the editor-in-chief of The Independent, and he was eating in a secluded corner with celebrity pole dancer Dita Von Teese, who was down to her hat and shoes before wed had our starters.

Service was supremely competent, occasionally charming. There were some free chocolates. Wines suggested by the glass were well chosen but unexpectedly pricey (two glasses of good Riesling turned out to be £36). Oh, and there is a ridiculous, shimmering, beaded entity in the middle of the room like some cosmic shower-cubicle or the beam-me-up deck of the Starship Enterprise in which, apparently, six people can, for £1,350 not including booze, eat in a small space even less fun than the one outside.

I dont know that Ducasses arrival necessarily has meaning, but if this place is a roaring success, in its current form, with this little oomph, this little originality or sense of adventure, then it will rather suggest that London is losing its soul.

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
Park Lane, London W1
020-7629 8866

Meat/fish: 7
Cooking: 7
Excitement: 1
Score: 5
Water: 2 (no jugs of tap, glasses filled reluctantly)
Price: I lost my bill, annoyingly, but for two courses and three glasses of wine each my mum and I paid something like �250.

Scotts Bistro
Loch Achray, Callander, Perthshire
01877 376389


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