Top-end London restaurant openings defy economic gloom

By Maggie Rosen

Top-end London restaurant openings defy economic gloom

Despite fears of a protracted recession, London foodies are refusing to forgo their enjoyment with several top-end eateries opening to acclaim this summer.

In July, against a backdrop of doleful news in the property and financial sectors, Ambassade de L’Ile, with Chef Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex, opened its door to diners in francophone South Kensington, while the eponymous Helene Darroze at the Connaught started serving in Mayfair.

A third, Andaman with Chef Dieter Mueller, launches August 18 at the renovated St James’s Hotel and Club in the heart of London’s hedge-fund district.

All feature respected Michelin-starred chefs, luxury ingredients and prices among the highest in Britain – ranging from about 65 pounds to 95 pounds (US$130-200) for basic prix-fixe at dinner (lunches are less pricey), and a la carte main dishes topping 30 pounds. That’s before water, wine or frills such as caviar, foie gras or the post-prandial cheese plate.

The menu by Mueller, who also cooks at gourmet destination Schlosshotel Lerbach near Koln, Germany, will describe Marco Polo’s journey from the Mediterranean to Asia, with small plates priced at about 10 pounds to 17.50 pounds a piece.

Yet while the chefs and their backers are not complacent about the fiscal climate, they are cautiously optimistic.

“Business has already exceeded expectations,” said Ansanay-Alex of Ambassade, where diners can sip watermelon gazpacho, with avocado puree and large Scottish langoustines (22 pounds) or foie gras ‘royale’ (foie gras, lobster and figs in a late harvest wine sauce: 39 pounds).

“We have been a bit quiet at lunchtime,” he admits, “and we are not selling our most expensive wines. But we are full almost every evening.”


Ansanay-Alex, who divides his time between Ambassade and its older sibling – L’Auberge de L’Ile in Lyons, France – planned for five years before opening in London. Current economic conditions haven’t discouraged him or his co-investors, French software magnate Jean-Michel Aulas and London-based trader Marc Grosjean.

“London is already a very overpriced city,” says Grosjean.

“You can easily spend a ludicrous amount on a horrible meal. We think that if people do cut back, they’ll stop eating in local restaurants which have average food and are way overpriced, and go instead to somewhere special, where they know they’re getting value for money.”

Chef Helene Darroze, who commutes between her Paris restaurant and the just-reopened dining room at The Connaught Hotel, expresses similar sentiments.

“For the moment, we aren’t having any problems filling the room, touch wood,” she said.

“Even in times of economic crisis, when you have a good product there will always be an audience. And when times are tougher, people are even more discerning about how they spend their money. They are looking for something to cheer themselves up and make themselves feel wonderful and we hope we can do that.”

Like Ansanay-Alex, Darroze is sticking with premium imported raw materials like black Perigord truffles for her rabbit dish, and blue lobster for ravioli with tandoori spices, and cheese from – though she also features such British-sourced produce as Irish scallops and Angus beef.

The a la carte menu at the Connaught – three course for 75 pounds – features such dishes as blue lobster ravioli with tandoori spices, rabbit with black Perigord truffles and Venezuelan Carupano dark chocolate cream flavoured with lavender praline. There is also a 95 pounds tasting menu.

Darroze’s only concession to budget, she says, was to forgo ordering flatware from silversmith Puiforcat.

“I sort of suggested this as a joke,” she says. “It was just an impossible dream, really.”

Peter Harden, co-founder of Harden’s restaurant guides, believes another reason restaurateurs are going for broke amid a faltering economy is that long-term effects may be less severe than in previous downturns.

“The atmosphere doesn’t feel the same as it did during the mid-90’s recession, which went on and on,” he said.

“The financial news has been dire for months, but the axe hasn’t fallen as far as predicted – not yet, anyway. And the restaurants that are launching have very good pedigrees.”

He points out that because the restaurant-going population is getting younger, and women are delaying starting a family, there are more people with both the free time and disposable income.

“Eating out has become such an entrenched part of peoples’ lives that they are unlikely to relinquish it altogether, no matter what,” said Harden.

“Just as breweries do well in a downturn because people drink themselves happy, they may eat themselves happy too.”




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