In 1998, Pierre Koffmann sold his restaurant space on Royal Hospital Road to Gordon Ramsay and moved his three Michelin-starred la Tante Claire into the Berkeley Hotel.* There he stayed until 2004, when he closed the restaurant and turned consultant.
Nearly six years later, he reappeared in a tent on the roof of Selfridge’s in September of 2009, an unlikely “pop-up,” if there ever was one. There, at the age of 61, he revived his signature dishes and reprised his role as the Gascon lion of London. His initial engagement of ten days atop that department store stretched into two months, a testament to the popularity of his comeback.
And then in April of 2010, it was announced that he would be returning to the stove on a more permanent basis. By mid-year, he was back in the Berkeley Hotel under a red bunting across which the name “Koffmann’s” stretched.
I arrived at the Berkeley to find my lunchmates, Stephen and Emma, seated in the bar area chatting with Claire Harrison, Koffmann’s partner and wife. The three were acquainted.
I joined in. Some Champagne arrived.
We chatted some more. And then, into the dining room, sunken by a few steps.
The lunch market menu, which offered a limited list of dishes, was a fantastic steal: 2 courses for £21.50; 3 courses for four quid more.
But I was here for Koffmann’s classics, so we ordered à la carte. I ordered his signature dishes, the last dish listed in each course below.
Tete de Veau
Pithivier de Gibier, Jus au Thyme
Game in puff pastry with thyme sauce. (£12)
Gasconnade de Cepes et Ouef Frit
Ceps, Bayonne ham & fried egg. (£13)
Coquilles St. Jacques a l’Encre
Scallops with squid ink. (£16)
Cassoulette d’Escargot et Champignons a l’Ail
Snails, mushrooms, garlic & mashed potatoes.
(Gift from the kitchen)
Daube de Joue de Boeuf
Braised beef cheeks. (£24)
Quasi d’Agneau Roti aux Flageolets
Rump of lamb with flageolets beans. (£25)
Pied de Cochon aux Morilles
Pig’s trotter stuffed with sweetbreads & morels (£28)
Frites and Vegetables
Baba au Rhum
Rum baba. (£9)
Mousse au Chocolat Noir
Extra bitter chocolate mousse. (£9)
Souffle aux Pistaches et sa Glacé
Pistachio soufflé with pistachio ice-cream. (£14)
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In the introduction to Marco Pierre White’s cookbook, “White Heat,” he says of Pierre Koffmann:
“You see Pierre on every plate. He serves what he likes eating, not what he thinks will earn him Michelin stars. His cooking seems effortless, and in many ways I think it is. It comes naturally, from his heritage, the cookery of Southwest France.”
Judging by the menu, Koffmann likes his food hearty and flavorful.
There was a heavy dose of classicism – a pithivier, for example, glazed golden and filled with a velvety game meat stuffing that tasted equal parts meat and liver. That was exceptional.
But there were more creative leaps to be found as well, like his famous scallops and squid ink dish. Visually, it couldn’t have been more dynamic: a smudge of white, a smear of black, and streaks of orange swirling around three alabaster coins of seared scallops. But in the mouth, the composition couldn’t have been more seamlessly hemmed. The brininess of the squid ink overlapped with the brininess of the scallop, whose sweetness overlapped with the cauliflower puree and the romesco sauce. While the borders were harshly drawn to the eye, where one ended and another began in the mouth was hard to say. Brilliant.
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The cooking was superb. Every one of our dishes was faultless.
Beef cheeks had been braised until they reached a state I rarely encounter. The meat had been rendered so soft that it parted with a fork, tasting purely of red wine, aged and rich. There were pearl onions, silky and soft, and bacon and hazelnuts too. I can’t imagine a better version.
A ragout of cepes, thick and pure, tasted like you’d expect: a beefy stew of the forest floor threaded with ham. Nestled on top was a breaded and fried egg, decapitated to show its melting heart.
Perhaps Koffman’s most celebrated dish was my main course, a deboned pig trotter stuffed with chicken mousseline studded with sweetbreads and morel mushrooms. It’s Marco Pierre White’s favorite dish: “If it had been a painting, it would hang in the Tate. It’s simple and earthy, but it’s also elegant and intelligent. You can’t take it any further.”**
The wobbly glove of collagen, filled with a fluffy mousse, rested on a sticky reduction of meat jus aside a mound of fluffy, whipped potatoes. Pinwheel palmiers of pork crackling seemed too perfect to be real. But they were, crisp and flaky, the conceit complete.
The kitchen sent out escargots in little copper pots. This was Koffman’s famous cassoulette that we neglected to order. The snails were buttery and tender, embedded in fluffy potato puree and blanketed with garlic, parsley, and mushrooms.
Have you ever noticed that escargot can taste of rose water, and maybe just a hint of vanilla? I was hesitant to mention it, but was relieved when Emma said she noticed it too. Could it be credited to the snails’ steady diet of flowers and herbs? Or, perhaps the reaction of the meat with garlic and parsley? We mused ourselves with such trivia.***
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Halfway through the pistachio soufflé (or was it the spongy baba drunk with rummy lime syrup?), I turned to Emma and said, “This is why classical French cuisine will never be irrelevant.” (That soufflé was stunning, thick with pistachio flavor. The baba was garnished with plump sultanas, boozy with rum.)
My spoon may have been nodding at the desserts, but my remark could have applied to any one of the dishes that preceded them. The frites, the bread, the bitter chocolate mousse atop an honest marmalade – all of it was timeless, quintessential, perfect.
Enfin, a boat of madeleines, eggy on the nose, buttery on the tongue.
Service couldn’t have been more gracious or attentive (or French, for that matter). Of course, we were known to the house, but I’d like to think that made little difference.
By the time we left, the winter sun had set, leaving us alone in the dining room at twilight. Stephen and Emma were off to a Michelin party (this was the night before the release of the 2011 U.K. Guide Rouge, in which The Sportsman kept their star). And I was off to do a bit of shopping at Knightsbridge before dinner, just a couple of hours hence.
I have heard that Koffman dreams of a Gascon bistro. I hope he gets his wish; I’d be first in line. But for now, I’m pleased by Koffman’s reprisal at the Berkeley, however temporary it may be, a fountainhead restored. I can only hope for an encore.
Koffmann’s at the Berkeley
London. SW1X 7RL
+44 (0)20 7235 6000
* La Tante Claire moved into the space now occupied by Marcus Wareing. Following the move, he lost his third star. His new restaurant, Koffman’s, now resides in another space in the Berkeley Hotel.
** This was Marco Pierre White’s headnote to his version of “Pig Trotters Pierre Koffman” in his cookbook “White Heat.” I have only had this dish once before, a chance encounter at niche, where Gerard Craft happened to offer it as a special one night.
*** It seems almost silly that we asked, but the kitchen confirmed that there was neither rose water nor vanilla in the dish, which surprised me little since I have noticed these flavors in escargot before. But this time, the flavor seemed particularly pronounced.