The Last French Restaurant in the World
There is a sign in chef Michel Bourdin's little office in the middle of his sprawling basement kitchen at the Connaught—the legendary old-style small hotel on Carlos Place in London's Mayfair district—that reads: GOOD COOKING IS THE ACCUMULATION OF SMALL DETAILS DONE TO PERFECTION. Outside the office, on every side, about two dozen men and women of varying ages, nationalities, and degrees of experience, most of them dressed in blue chef's pants, white tunics, sensible shoes, and white paper caps or toques, are scurrying to and fro carrying trays of raw pastry or tubs of greens, or standing at their stations, chopping, whisking, stirring, arranging, paying attention to small details, courting perfection.
The results of their labors, and of Bourdin's rigorous, old-fashioned, but enduringly vital approach to the culinary arts, are served in the Connaught's two dining rooms, The Grill Room and The Restaurant—which offer identical menus, prices, and standards of service, although the former is smaller and slightly frillier, with pale green predominating in the color scheme, while the latter is wood paneled and cloaked mostly in regal red. (As Bourdin puts it, "The 'stage' is different between the two, for them to do their little act.") I sometimes think of the Connaught's dining rooms, collectively, as the last French restaurant in the world. As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the best French-influenced contemporary cooking of Paris, Madrid, New York, and Tokyo, that is, the Connaught remains dedicated to a classic Gallic style of creating and presenting food—a style that has all but disappeared even in France itself. "In keeping with tradition," reads a note at the bottom of the menu, "we have maintained the style of menu designed by Auguste Escoffier, circa 1880." I doubt that there's another menu in the world today that makes that claim—and makes good on the promise it implies.
In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather describes a French-born missionary priest serving dinner to his bishop in the wilds of territo-rial New Mexico in the mid-19th century. The first course is "a dark onion soup with croutons", which inspires the bishop to remark appreciatively, "[A] soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup."
I don't know whether Michel Bourdin has ever read Willa Cather, but I feel safe in saying that he would understand the bishop's sentiment perfectly—and that there are nearly a thousand years of history, generally speaking, in his own food. "When I was young," Bourdin tells me one day, "you'd judge a restaurant on three things: its terrine maison, its potage, and its tarte aux pommes." You have the feeling that he'd be quite happy to be judged by those criteria himself—although he does offer diners a considerably broader choice of dishes.
When Bourdin—a calm, elfinly stocky man of 59 with expressive eyebrows and a slow but genuine smile—took over the Connaught kitchens from his predecessor, Daniel Dunas, on March 17, 1975, he inherited a menu that he describes as "basic hotel food with some British dishes". Today, he likes to say that the menu is "three in one"—that is, about a third each British dishes, hotel classics, and his own creations and specialties. But everything—not just the pâté de turbot froid au homard, the feuilleté d'oeufs brouillés aux truffes du Périgord, and the médaillons de sarcelle "Belle Époque" but also the smoked Scottish salmon, the mixed grill, and the steak, kidney, and mushroom pie—is prepared and served with an Escoffier-like precision and respect for the comme il faut.
"What is interesting in the cuisine I am doing," says Bourdin—who was sous-chef at the very traditional Maxim's in Paris and then chef at the old-style Pavillon Royal in the Bois de Boulogne before coming to the Connaught—"is that it's a bit like classical music. It has been tested by so many people over the years that if you keep doing it properly, you will always be safe. But it has to be done properly. People tend to forget these dishes. It's interesting to maintain the standard."
Witness, for example, well… Bourdin's terrine, which looks almost rustic in its meaty authority but turns out to be very delicate in flavor, and very rich ("It absorbs a lot of gelatin," Bourdin notes). The recipe belonged to Alex Humbert, onetime chef at Maxim's. Paul Bocuse used to have the same terrine on his menu. Now Bourdin is teaching its secrets to his young English and French acolytes.
Another dish imported from Maxim's is jellied consommé Cole Porter, christened after the great songwriter, an habitué of both the Parisian landmark and the Connaught back in the 1930s. "It's a very springlike consommé," says Bourdin, "made with chicken stock and beef and pretty little new vegetables." He quotes approvingly the longtime proprietor of Maxim's, Louis Vaudable: "Change nothing and you will change everything." French-kitchen Zen.