Unfortunately for John Lewis, Monty the penguin – this year’s insufferable advent of the festive season and the repugnant herald of Christmas – didn’t, as he has with many, whip me into stiff, frenzied peaks of excitement for the big day. It did, however, remind me that this year is going to be as big and as expensive as ever and so for that reason, I went for lunch at Le Gavroche.

At this time of year Le Gavroche is far from miserable. It’s jolly festive, a portal to a cheery Christmas past (a ghostless one in a Dickensian sense but in no way lacking spirit) as warm and welcoming as your grandparents’ living room following their annual Winter Fuel Payment.

But that’s where the similarities end, unless your grandparents are one of two couples that popped in through a side door and are probably residing in equal splendour in an apartment upstairs. Le Gavroche has a distinct aura. Largely unchanged since its opening in the late Sixties, the traditional elegance of its interior has survived the restaurant’s move to its current Mayfair site. The place’s history is palpable, its prestige persisting, it’s a timeless homage to all things haut cuisine. In short, it’s pure class.

The red walls of the bar, womb-like in their maternal comfort, were the first signs of the restaurant’s synonymy with the Christmas palette. Gold baubles decked the garlands of spruce and pine that nestled in every corner forming something in between Santa’s grotto and a stately Scottish cigar lounge.

Huw and I came late, finding our dining companion on a tartan couch among the decoration. Our very own Sri Lankan Saint Nick. Out came canapés with a seasonal nod. Gravlax with cream cheese was nice enough, daintier than my parents do at home but not much better, alongside mushroom croquettes.

Orders were taken, and so were our half-drunk apéritifs (it’s the sort of place where carrying your own G&T downstairs to the table is considered unbearably strenuous). But as it turned out you needed two hands fight your way past the Christmas tree on the staircase. In true C. S. Lewis fashion, the other side of the wintery foliage presented a different world altogether.

The restaurant itself is unfashionable in a deep-green, low-ceilinged, patterned-carpet, tropical-shrub, starched-linen kind of way. It’s inviting and delightfully out-dated; First Class Titanic made available to all: birthdays, business lunches and blind dates altogether in the most revered of dining rooms.

The food was, as you’d expect, French. Soufflé Suissesse, the Roux classic, was like a savoury île flottante, covered in Gruyere and swimming in double cream. A decadent dairy overload that for me needed a pinch more seasoning to really sing. A Carpaccio of beef was standout. Waterbathed for a matter of minutes and neatly sliced, it was crisscrossed with mayonnaise and as delicate as you like. Beets and a slightly crispy salt beef sandwich completed a wonderful dish.

The large scallop came with plenty of shaved truffle and was cooked with skill. Two purees, one of white bean, one of mushroom, were quite unremarkable and didn’t match the powerful flavour of its shellfish sauce. Stone bass was gently flavoured with Middle Eastern spices providing a momentary deviation from the Frencher-than-French menu; the little pastilla in particular was a lovely accompaniment.

A pig cheek that gave way to the shadow of the knife was incredibly tender, the belly ravioli more a gyoza than traditional pasta and a red cabbage puree offered an interesting acidic hit. The main was meagre, even for a tasting menu. Cloches were whisked away to reveal a plate of perfectly cooked venison with an earthy artichoke puree and light shallot rings, on to which was poured enough sauce to baste a whole deer. It’s a shame there wasn’t more to eat it with.

The Cheese trolley was impressive. A cumbersome fixture that required all of twins Ursula and Silvia’s Perberschlager navigational experience. It should have come with hazard lights and a reverse beep. It was extensive and unexplainable, although they could have tried a bit harder. We sat there dumbfounded before deciding on a spin of the roulette wheel: whatever she thought was good. To be fair, it was.

Chocolate and orange cake felt like a bit of an afterthought. Little hemispheres of chalky chocolate ganache sat upon a tolerable sponge. The orange gel and orange segments were the best part. Petit fours seemed even further down the mind of the pastry chef. Nougat had nought flavour whatsoever and the white chocolate truffles were too boozy even for my taste buds.

Talking of booze, we’d already sunk a trolley load. The wine pairings seemed to work with most of the ‘Menu Exceptionnel’ but as the reds accumulated (at one point we had four different glasses each), the first to hand was often slurped. The only gripes were over the pudding wine’s sweetness and the lack of, well, anything in the rosé that came with the Carpaccio. It was almost too fresh and not far off sipping iced water.

I couldn’t tell you the prices because my menu came without them. But I sure as hell knew about them after. Perhaps this little omission played a vital role in the meal’s pièce de résistance: a final slice of immersive theatre in which you collapse, pale and sweaty at the dizzying expenditure you’ve just incurred. Or perhaps it’s just a simple way of culling the people that have to ask and therefore can’t afford.

The food at Le Gavroche is certainly tasty but I’ve had more inventive dishes elsewhere. With its two Michelin star price tag, it was ever so slightly disappointing. The cooking is undeniably restricted by its past. It’s a London institution that showcases the foundation on which fine dining has been built in this country. It can’t progress too far, it must remain largely the same as it’s always been but that’s its charming attraction. That’s why it’s packed from midday on a Monday. That’s why tables are still buzzing with merry guests at half 4 in the afternoon. That’s why it’s such a treat to spend time there; to escape the stresses of modern life. I could quite happily hibernate there for the whole of winter.

Afterwards I felt like we’d played a part in our very own nativity. It had been a pilgrimage. A visit to the gastronomic landmark to pay our respects to the most famous culinary family of all. Excusing the egotism, our visit was much like a verse from The First Noël:

Then entered in those wise men three, Fell reverently upon their knee, 
And offered there in his presence 
Their gold…

Was what we got in return Christmas come early? Well, yes and no.


Le Gavroche on Urbanspoon Square Meal