Female Chefs Light Up London

Angela Hartnett's Murano, owned by Gordon Ramsay, boasts a simply decorated dining room. The food reflects the chef's Northern Italian heritage.
Angela Hartnett's Murano, owned by Gordon Ramsay, boasts a simply decorated dining room. The food reflects the chef's Northern Italian heritage. (By Ben Anders -- Murano)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Edward Schneider
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2008

At two new restaurants in London, you're served a dish of prosciutto before you get down to the serious eating. At Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, it is tender ham from Noir de Bigorre pigs, a heritage breed from Southwestern France, sliced in the dining room on a splendid red hand-cranked slicer. At Angela Hartnett's Murano, it is sweetly aromatic Parma ham, sliced in the kitchen and arranged on a wooden board. For theatrical effect, Darroze is the clear victor, and, with its delicate flavor, her ham wins by a nose.

Top-flight women chefs are well represented in London compared with most other cities. Sally Clarke (Clarke's), Helena Puolakka (Skylon) and the team of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray (the River Cafe) immediately come to mind. But Darroze and Hartnett were two of this summer's hottest openings.

Darroze, in one of London's truly great hotels, is extremely fancy, with fabulous crockery and silverware and countless staff members of every rank. Much is made of the chef's Southwestern French roots; on the table is piment d'Espelette, a chili from her region.

The food ranges from stunning to -- alas -- mediocre. All the extras -- amuse-bouches, pre- and post-desserts, etc. -- are perfect. Dinner proper started well with tuna belly, slow-cooked with citrus and peppery flavors, served at room temperature with a cool white gazpacho of almonds and garlic; and a huge Scottish scallop with a thin cheese crust, crunchy thin-sliced cauliflower and a light shrimp emulsion. But no one had troubled to remove that scallop's impossible-to-chew side muscle. Also careless (or willfully wrongheaded) was the cooking of my wife's pigeon. I like pigeon really blood-red rare, but this was unpleasantly raw, which, apart from the creepy consistency, meant that its flavor was not well developed.

I had an all-pork platter. Some of the meat was bland, and the accompanying chunks of pineapple would have been improved either by tinkering with their sweetness or by omitting them, but the assortment's two sausagelike elements could not have been better.

When you're paying the better part of $200 per person including service and fairly modest wine (the prix fixe is around $130, and there is a $68 lunch menu), you cannot help wondering about lapses of the kind we experienced -- neither main course was good -- but this was an evening of theater, and we had fun.

A five-minute walk south, Murano is of simpler appearance, but with Gordon Ramsay's company behind the scenes, it achieves elegance, imagination and precision in its cooking. Like Darroze, Hartnett has a family history that is part of her persona as a chef (she's Northern Italian on her mother's side), and that colors much of a meal here. There's that prosciutto, and there are also miniature deep-fried risotto balls of great delicacy and creaminess. There are first courses that are traditional Italian dishes viewed through a modern chef's prism, such as potato gnocchi with chanterelles, artichoke hearts, goat cheese, a drizzle of reduced chicken juices and a goat cheese sauce (sounds complicated but tastes harmoniously simple); and a great dish of scallops with roasted watermelon and aged Spanish ham.

Main courses cover most of the expected bases -- turbot, red mullet from Cornwall, beef, lamb -- in dishes that sound tempting enough to make it hard to choose. Italian influence continues to be felt: for instance in the crisp semolina gnocchi and cabbage that came with my (perfectly cooked) pigeon and in the mostarda (fruit preserved in mustard-oil syrup) with my wife's crisp and juicy duck breast.

Here, for the prix-fixe dinner with a modest wine and service you can expect to pay about $150 per person (there's a good $44 lunch menu too). What you're getting is less spectacle and more consistently good eating. The choice is yours, but I reckon there's room for both.

· Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Carlos Place (off Mount Street), 011-44-20-3147-7200, http://www.the-connaught.co.uk

· Murano, 20 Queen St. (off Curzon Street), 011-44-20-7592-1222, http://www.gordonramsay.com/murano

© 2008 The Washington Post Company