It is a welcome sign of the restaurant business’s growing maturity that news of a woman chef opening her own place is no longer thought a novelty. In London, the trickle is now a torrent: this year, Monica Galetti, Anne-Sophie Pic and Clare Smyth – all chefs with impeccable credentials – are joining the ranks of the capital’s restaurateurs.
Galetti’s new place, Mere, comprises a smart ground-floor bar and the light-flooded basement of a handsome, listed Georgian building on Charlotte Street. Her 12 years as senior sous-chef at the resolutely French Le Gavroche has given her the chance to broaden the menu, incorporating some of the flavours of her Polynesian childhood: the restaurant’s name, pronounced “Mary”, is a tribute to her mother.
Lunch started with a sweet potato mousse, spiked with cumin and a crunch of hazelnuts; then a seahorse-like curl of octopus tentacle, slightly charred and smoky, with a caponata-ish, sweet-sour blend of capers and raisins, and a spicy lick of ’nduja. Then a perfectly cooked, rhubarb-glazed breast of squab pigeon, paired with a crisp tube of the minced leg, spiced with ras-el-hanout: a kind of cylindrical pastilla, utterly delectable in texture and flavour. Mere already has both style and a touch of swagger.
Not that the blossoming of women chefs is restricted to London. In Geneva, Virginie Basselot, who spent nine years cooking with the distinguished Eric Fréchon at Le Bristol, has taken over the stoves at Le Loti, in the five-star La Réserve Hotel and Spa on the shore of Lake Geneva. It is a highly confident debut. Her menu – served in the Loti’s striking dining room, a fairytale tree at its centre – is as spectacular as its setting, a succession of perfectly balanced dishes, many laced with the sharp sweetness of citrus.
A native of Normandy, she handles seafood brilliantly. Tartare of scallops and oysters is topped with a quenelle of caviar, a cucumber-scented borage flower and the rock-pool fragrance of oyster leaf; a notably clean-flavoured terrine of foie gras harmonises happily with earthy discs of beetroot and the zing of green apple; artfully arranged spring vegetables decorate a precisely cooked tranche of cod, all bathed in lemon balm butter.
The pièce de résistance is a fillet of chicken for which the term “supreme” might have been invented: cooked at a low temperature, then roasted with cocoa nibs and served with a coffee jus and roasted jerusalem artichoke: not puréed, as less self-assured chefs might serve it, but left crushed and nubbly, its scorched skin adding crackle and savour.
Basselot’s talent is already evident in the tricolore of a Meilleur Ouvrier de France on the collar of her jacket: by the time the next Michelin Guide comes out, I suspect she will have a macaron to her name as well.