May 22 2011
I was taken for lunch the other week by Pascal Tingaud, Dom Pérignon’s head chef. Perhaps because it was my birthday (although I hardly imagine us to have gone to Burger King if otherwise), Pascal had plumped for two-Michelin-starred The Ledbury. His choice was particularly pertinent as, the night before, at the San Pellegrino World’s Top 50 Restaurant Awards, the Oscars of the food world, the Ledbury’s chef, Brett Graham, had shot to no 34 – highest new entry and second only to The Fat Duck in the UK. The event at London’s Guildhall featured frenzied and diverse Twitter activity, incredulity at some choices, and increasing discontent at the actual presentation’s “dry” hour and half. It concluded with a stampede of indecent ferocity to the bar by thirsty hacks before the cheering for Noma’s repeat first place triumph had died away, and your correspondent gleeful to be revisiting London’s newly-crowned best restaurant a scant 12 hours hence.
For the past couple of years, like many others, I have recommended The Ledbury (pictured) as the capital’s top choice for questing gastronomes. Not only for Brett’s excellent cooking and focus on making game more accessible to a non-Rules crowd (under 90), but also for their excellent wine list. Visionary owner Nigel Platts-Martin has ensured an extensive selection, depth of older vintages and fair pricing, earning a rare five-star rating on WineChap (his flagship restaurant, The Square, features also) and sommelier Luke Robertson confidently continues its curation. Where better to tuck into a specially created tasting menu paired with a choice of one of Champagne’s truly legendary wines, Dom Pérignon’s Oenothèque?
I’ve written previously for The Haute Seat on the importance of treating champagne as a wine first and foremost, to be savoured alongside appropriate dishes, but few individuals could have better mastered the philosophy and process than the man hosting lunch. Pascal has been working closely alongside Dom Pérignon’s maître de cave, the mercurial Richard Geoffroy, for longer than he can remember (or at least for longer than I can remember he told me), and the two are responsible for creating some unforgettable fine wine dining experiences.
Pascal, whose apprenticeship in ’83 at The Connaught taught him more classical French cuisine than any previous Gallic appointment, believes that pairing is about capturing the emotional impact of the wine. In place of both traditional sommelier-led aroma/flavour matching and modern El Bulli/Fat Duck molecular approaches, he suggests that ingredients should combine to create an atmosphere that is sensuously intoxicating. Three of four ingredients, perhaps re-stated in the perfume and colours of one’s dining environment, offer sufficient tonal variety to express a particular mood. Simplicity equals intensity.
Correspondingly, specificity becomes essential, with varying styles and grades of caviar (Russian or Iranian, Oscietra or Sevruga etc) preferring different vintages, for example. Method of preparation similarly indicates preference, ie a griddled scallop suits Dom’s rosé, but if slow-cooked in butter, a brut works best. Our scallop starter at The Ledbury, hand-dived of course, was served as a ceviche with seaweed and herb oil, kohlrabi and horseradish. There you go – four ingredients, and thoroughly delightful with our second bottle of Dom’s latest release, the precociously vivacious 2002 vintage.
We did not tackle asparagus or artichoke next, although Pascal suggested that the oft-reported wine pairing difficulty with the former is caused by a villainous vinaigrette, and that Dom Pérignon 1992 was a surprisingly effective foil for artichoke ice cream(!). Instead we moved on to flame-grilled mackerel (with celtic mustard and shiso) followed by roast langoustine in Indian spices, both of which warranted the Oenothèque 1996. Dom’s “normal” ’96 remains the best young champagne I have previously tasted, but the recently-released Oenothèque, 15 years on its lees as standard, has freshness and charm to offset its power and gravitas that suggest an agelessness to balance its undoubted longevity. It was wonderful with our dishes but Pascal said his favourite pairing with ’96 was an oyster with a droplet of fresh ginger juice.
John Dory featured a little later on the menu after buffalo milk curd and truffle toast but in my eagerness to set about Brett’s guinea fowl and the accompanying ’75 Oenothèque, an extravagant treat among treats, they didn’t get the attention they would normally warrant – like Charlie Rich supporting Elvis, or the Prince of Wales’s polo team playing the match prior to Argentina trotting on. ’75 was nearest to my birth year, hence I assumed Pascal’s selection, and was a magnificent, truffley beast that worked the game bird (poached and roasted) as shrewdly as any sinewy red burgundy of comparable age. Interestingly, Pascal had last enjoyed this with lobster in coconut milk, Chinese fish sauce, ginger, kaffir leaf and lime, which just goes to show how his notion of emotion is more diversely applicable than traditional pairing methods.
Skipping cheese, we finished with Gariguette strawberries and blueberries, an enchanting violet ice cream, tapioca and herbs (from Brett's garden). This brought into play the delightful 2000 Dom Perignon rosé and also my query about the propriety or otherwise of playing the pink with chocolate (shudder). I sensed that Pascal was similarly indifferent to the enterprise, but demurred that older wines, maturing with coffee and oak tones, were more fit for purpose. I can certainly believe that his current preferred pairing of 2000 Dom with Japanese sticky rice and caviar is much better than its incarnation as half of the “Dominguini” cocktail doing the rounds in Cipriani NY last year (a waste of good Red Bull, says he).
Pascal’s insistence on simplicity, precision and intensity in his cooking to convey the emotion created by Dom Pérignon is persuasive, and if I still need to be convinced that the current ’02 vintage Dom is a good match to slices of rare roast beef as he opines, I’m very happy to experiment extensively at his expense. Lunch raised the bar for future birthdays improbably high and once again proved to me that the best things in life are (those exquisitely rare, extremely expensive things one experiences for) free.