Archive for December, 2010

Interview: Jaume Tàpies, Review Hélène Darroze (2010)

Posted on: December 15th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Known originally as Relais de Campagne (1954), Relais & Châteaux was an association started by a small group of like minded hoteliers, who went on a journey south along the N7 from Paris stopping at eight places along the way – they called this their Route du Bonheur.

For the launch of the 2010 Relais & Châteaux Guide, at the Connaught Hotel, London, The International President Jaume Tàpies (Left) discusses with Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide the strategies that, while maintaining the spirit of the founders, continue to make the Guide so successful with members and customers alike.

Interview Summary: Jaume Tàpies, President, Relais & Châteaux.

Jaume’s relationship with Relais & Châteaux began when he was born in his grandfather’s hotel, a member of the group. His godfather was a former president of Relais & Châteaux, whilst his father dreamt of becoming accepted into the group in his own right. This aim was achieved when Jaume was fifteen: the memory of his mother weeping tears of joy when she learnt the news is deeply impressed in his heart.

Jaume gained hotelier experience at Relais & Châteaux properties, (including being deputy manager of Martin Scan’s Chewton Glen Hotel, before taking over the family property El Castell de Ciutat in La Seu d’Urgell, Spain in 1992.)

He became president of Spanish branch of the group at 24. Thirteen years later year he successfully applied for the post of International President. .He is now in his second term of office

Jaume considers his powers of gentle persuasion as essential to the group’s need to move forward. Being able to convince members to embrace new initiatives as if they were their own is a key factor in his progress to date.

Jaume sees the “family” as sharing key values. “Personal generosity” in meeting the individual needs of guests, making much more effort than would normally be expected, is an important characteristic. This is complemented by a “a sense of place”, each of the group’s properties being unique in offering a variety of sensations – sight, smell, taste – which capture the essence of the area. “Harmony” of the components an establishment can offer – room, meal and service – is essential in providing a memorable guest experience.

A new concept of luxury, not necessarily determined by material well being and price, but more by relishing unique aspects of Memory, Time and Space encapsulates the Relais & Châteaux experience. Given that 80% of the group’s clients are private individuals, any corporate image in unacceptable in a regime of individuality.

The biggest challenge, maintaining the fellowship of clients, has largely been overcome: 92% of members agree with the restructuring; it is now more a case of implementation.

Jaume admits there was a good deal of initial opposition to the city hotel initiative. Nevertheless, he maintains that, given their location, they are often the base from which Relais & Châteaux clients begin their exploration of a region – their Routes du Bonheur. Getting the right properties is the real challenge, given the very high standards the group demands

Regarding Quality Assurance, Jaume is keen to emphasize that specific standards are individual to different properties. There is no standard check list when inspecting properties, as their unique culture had to be taken into account. The extra training of staff through the Foundation will be a key element in the sharing of experience to guarantee quality and promote career development.

Asked what his favourite Relais & Châteaux destinations are, Jaume commented that it depended on for what occasion being celebrated and/or the people accompanying him, but he did refer the locations as distant from each other as Devon and Argentina.

Review of the launch of Relais & Chateaux 2010, The Connaught Hotel London, December 7th 2009

The Relais & Chateaux 2010 Guide has been launched at the Connaught Hotel, Mayfair. After a reception of champagne and canapés, Jaume Tàpies, the re-elected International President, addressed delegates and invited guests before enjoying an exquisite gourmet lunch prepared by Hélène Darroze, the two starred Michelin Chef.

In an introductory speech, Malcolm Lewis (of Longueville Manor), delegate for the UK and Ireland, spoke of the “amazing journey” and “metamorphosis” of Relais & Châteaux: people had not recognized the brand for what it was, but this is changing. Antony Lee, Maître de Maison of The Connaught, spoke next. He referred to the “extended family” of establishments and further his hotel’s “affair” with Relais & Chateaux before it “tied the knot” as the first city hotel of the group. This iconic, quintessentially English establishment has been refurbished at a cost of £70 million.

Jaume Tàpies began his speech by emphasizing the need to “Rethink who we are and what we want to be.” A key initiative has already started: the brand is extending to cities – 50 are being trialed. He also revealed exclusive news: the alliance with Traditions et Qualite group, representing some 160 chefs with 450 Michelin stars amongst them. The Relais & Chateaux group will also give more assistance to members of the “family” in order to “enhance and elevate” the brand.

New forms of communications will be exploited: clients will be invited to Congress where they can recommend establishments to each other, and the group’s website will offer clients itineraries of leisure – in line with the Routes du Bonheur which provided the original inspiration for Relais & Châteaux. Quality Assurance of properties will include provision of training by the group’s Foundation, to help staff develop their careers. World wide membership, for example in Asia and Latin America, will be extended. Jaume also stressed that the group is child friendly, with age specifications in the guide. Finally, at the Biarritz Congress, the group agreed that the serving of endangered species especially blue fin tuna, would end from 1st January 2010.

Review of Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, Lunch December 7th 2009

Hélène Darroze, who was born in a Relais and Chateaux hotel owned by her grandfather, immediately “fell in love” with the Connaught. In 2008, she took over the Italian based kitchens from Angela Hartnett, re-introducing French cuisine. “Born in a saucepan”, in the Landes region of south-west France, her family has for generations, been in the restaurant trade.

The height of her career to date has been the winning of two Michelin stars for her eponymous restaurant in Paris. No doubt she hopes to emulate this achievement at the Connaught, dividing her time between London and Paris. In another claim to fame, Helen was the model for the chef Colette in the film Ratatouille.

The gastronomic lunch she prepared more than satisfied the high expectations of the guests. Influenced by her native Les Landes, the use of game, foie gras and nut based desserts was apparent. Hélène’s cooking combines mostly classical French techniques with contemporary adaptations of taste and texture. Tastes range from mild and subdued to bold and adventurous, but combinations are harmonious, with clean flavours and restrained presentation.

A well executed first course comprised a wafer thin pastry tart layered with delicately gratinated slices of Jerusalem artichoke garnished with fragrant Perigord black truffle. The accompanying velouté, was light but deeply flavoured. Roasted lobster was accurately timed to retain its succulence. This dish was a master-class in gentle tandoori spicing which enhanced the main ingredient. The carrot and citrus mousseline with spring onion reduction and beurre noisette added complexity without being overwhelming. Visually this dish was stunning.

Breast and leg of Grouse, spit roasted to tender medium rare, had then been flambe’d “au capuchin” to produce a dark caramelized skin. This was suitably matched by a intense jus of aromatic Mexican molle pepper. Grilled duck foie gras from Les Landes provided a rich, smoky dimension, whilst contrast was provided by the garnishes of simmered Brussel sprouts with apples, dried fruits and Medjoul dates. This complex dish, proved to be triumph of taste, texture and balance,


A single quenelle of unpasturised cheese, Stichelton blue from the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, came with caramelized endives and citrus fruit chutney. The salt – sweet contrast proved highly satisfying.

Chestnut biscuit, chantilly and wafer proved to be less challenging than the description suggested. The chestnut mousse was partnered with yuzu curd and yuzu sorbet, providing a light and refreshing end to the meal.

Overall, this was a highly accomplished menu, even if some might argue that four courses featuring elements of fruit is too much. The menu composition eschews the faddish obsession with local ingredients – how “local” can you be in London? – for flavour of the finest of ingredients regardless of origin. Concessions to other ingredients and techniques have been noted, but the overwhelming direction of the cooking is classical French.

The excellent accompanying wines included a Passito di Pantellerio 2007, Sange D’Oro. This sweet wine came from the vineyards of actress Carole Bouquet, the ambassadress for Relais & Châteaux.

Ristorante Semplice Restaurant Review, December 2010

Posted on: December 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood


Located in Blenheim Street, near the junction of New Bond Street and Oxford Street, Ristorante Semplice opened in March 2007, gaining in less than two years, a first Michelin Star. This achievement was partly down to its uncompromisingly Italiannature: the three owners are Italian, two being the manager and head chef respectively; the décor is Italian inspired; the furniture is Italian; the wine list is exclusively Italian; and over 60% of the produce is imported regularly from Lombardy.

Not that these alone make for automatic success: the co-owners, who have excellent CVs, constitute a winning team. Giovanni Baldino was manager of Locanda Locatelli before undertaking the same role at Semplice. Marco Torri, Head Chef (left) of Teca in Mayfair for six yearrs, worked for Milan’s three Michelin starred Gualtiero Marchesi at the Halkin Hotel, and later under Giorgio Locatelli at Locanda Locatelli.

Italian style, luxury and comfort are abundant in the clean lines and polished surfaces of the dining area, which is divided by a lacquered ivory wall. This opulence is further emphasised by a wooden Venetian designed wall fresco, decadently adorned in gold leaf. Elegant leather chairs and low backed banquettes in soft cream and brown offer highly agreeable seating. The room’s spotlighting is better at illuminating the wall features than the tables which are lit by rather unattractive and slightly obstrusive dangling lampshades.

For a relatively small restaurant of fifty five covers, the extensive menu reflects confidence and versatility in the kitchen. Of the traditional four courses, there are seven antipasti; seven pasta and risotto dishes, eleven fish and meat options and seven desserts.

The emphasis is on the cuisine of northern Italy, from where many of the top quality ingredients are sourced. This is reinforced by the wine list, which is strong on vintages from this region.

Despite the restaurant’s name – Italian for “simple” – Marco Torri’s cooking is complex and sophisticated. The seasonally changing menu emphasizes flavour, with saucing and seasoning being well judged. Unusual combinations are avoided, as is over elaboration on the plate. Garnishes are kept to a minimum to allow the main ingredient to shine, and there is a consciously homely feel to the presentation of the dishes. How refreshing not to see foams, smears, spots and purees on the plate. Only in this sense can the food be described as “simple.”

Fine Dining Guide visited Semplice on a busy mid week evening in late 2010. True to its Italian roots, Semplice prefers to serve as an aperitif sparkling wine from Franciacorta – made using the Champagne method – rather than its French equivalent. The accompanying sweet Parmesan puffs were feather light and melted in the mouth. Wafer thin squid ink and sun dried tomato bread, alongside vegetarian crisps, showed the same painstaking attention to detail. Wine: Cruperdu Bomomi Castellimo NV Franciacorta

An antipasto of pan fried foie gras was served with a warming Casteluccio lentil stew. Modena balsamic vinegar, added at the table, gave a sweet and sour zing to this flavoursome, earthy dish

Foie Gras

Another successful first course was baby monkfish “Milanese.” The bread crumbed coating helped retain the fish’s moisture, whilst the classic green seasoned panzanella and soft boiled quails egg added substance without heaviness.

second course

The intermediate course was a signature Milanese saffron risotto. The bright yellow rice had a perfect al dente texture and rich creaminess, enhanced but not overwhelmed by the highly scented spice: the balance was perfect. This classic accompaniment of osso bucco came without the bones but with three glistening pieces of unctuous veal marrow. Served on a black plate, this dish was also visually stunning. Wine: Curiefranca Bianco Bonori Castellino 2009 Franciacoria


A signature main course of roasted Piedmontese rabbit was a veritable tour de force. It comprised a rack of tiny saddle chops, confit shoulder baked in filo, leg meat served breaded in Milanese style, and pan fried liver and kidney. The cooking showed real skill timing, avoiding dryness and retaining succulence. Garnishes of glazed baby carrots and an artichoke puree added a robust element to the delicate meat. Finally, the whole dish was lifted by aroma of fresh thyme.

fifth course

Equally impressive was the slow roasted suckling pig. The mahogany coloured skin and sweet, melting flesh showed the three and a half hours cooking did full justice to this delectable animal. A garnish of sautéed herb gnocci was satisfyingly light, whilst the sauce of olives and sun dried tomatoes added a piquancy which balanced the richness of the pork.

Wine: Recioto decca,Valpolicella, Le Sacette. Veneto To finish, the embarrassment of choice was solved by sharing cheese and dessert plates. Characteristically, the cheeseboard was totally Italian, with a good selection of hard and soft, strong and mild, all in peak condition. The five chosen were served with fine homemade breads, chutneys and honey. Finally, three sorbets – lime, mango and chocolate – had exemplary smoothness and intense flavour.

Overall, it is clear why Semplice deserves the acclaim it has received. The dedication and passion, which supplement the high level of skill, are abundantly evident in the breadth and depth of the cooking and the knowledgeable, efficient, well paced service. Whilst dining at a restaurant of this quality does not come cheap when choosing from the carte, the value for money is unquestioned, more so if the award winning bargain set lunch is chosen. Either way, a truly memorable gastronomic experience will be enjoyed by all.