You don't have to be gay to have lunch at Ladurée, but it helps. As you enter the Harrods branch of the famous Parisian pattiserie, the first thing you notice are row-upon-row of brightly-coloured macaroons. During Paris Fashion Week, apparently, no goody bag is complete if it doesn't include at least half-a-dozen of these. Penetrate a little further, and you come across "Le Salon Noir" which looks like an S & M dungeon designed by a wedding cake manufacturer. Could this place be any more camp?
According to the manager, 60 per cent of Ladurée's revenue comes from retail sales--with the macaroons accounting for a whopping 50 per cent of this. Indeed, these little circular biscuits--half the size of normal macaroons--are so popular that the four Parisian branches of Ladurée sell 110 tons a year. (And that's just to Karl Lagerfeld.) However, this particular branch also has a restaurant and I'm here to sample the lunch menu. So it's off to the mezzanine level--"Le Salon Orange"--for me.
I have to confess, the first impression created by the restaurant isn't good. I'm tempted by the three-course set lunch for £29, but the waitress informs me that, of the three starter options, two aren't available, so unless I want a "religieuse" of wild mushrooms and fromage frais I'm going to have to go off-piste. My companion--a fellow restaurant critic--asks for a glass of champagne to accompany his starter of foie gras, but is told they've run out of blonde champagne and can only offer pink. (Quelle surprise.) He obligingly orders Sauterne instead and is so saintly he doesn't even complain when they mistakenly bring him a glass of Muscat. "At least it's white and sweet," he says. By any measure, this is a very poor start.
Things perk up a bit when my starter of chicken and mushroom vol au vent arrives. There isn't an over-abundance of chicken, but the accompanying sauce is excellent, as are the morels. For our main courses, my companion opts for Scorpion fish--"You usually only find that in bouillabaisse so I'm curious to see what it tastes like on its own"--and I choose the fillet of beef with potato and mozzarella croquettes. The fish passes muster, though it's flavour is a little too gamey for my tastes, and the beef is perfectly alright, if nothing special.
As you'd expect, it's when the puddings arrive that Ladurée really comes into its own. We begin by dividing a plate of assorted macaroons. I'm not a fan of almond essence, but these have been made with ground almonds and the upshot is that they're much less marzipanny than usual, allowing the other flavours--passion fruit, salted caramel, pistachio--to dominate. My companion follows with a deep dish lemon tart--"exquisite"--while I gorge myself on a huge glass of chocolate ice cream and caramelized almond flakes. As we go to work on these, Homer Simpson-style, a passing woman says, "Look at you two! I'm surprised you're not both the size of houses."
Most of our fellow diners aren't as lively as this woman, I'm afraid. The clientele exemplify the Duchess of Windsor's comment that you can never be too rich or too thin--not so much yummy mummies as mummified grannies held together by tight-fitting Chanel suits. They're aren't very many of them, either, and the restaurant has the unmistakable whiff of failure about it. This may be because of its location. It doesn't help that it's sandwiched behind a branch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. You really have to hunt for this place--no one's going to discover it in the course of their daily shop.
As I was leaving, the General Manager gave me a hand-made Easter egg stuffed with chocolates and while I generally have a "no freebies" policy this one was too good to pass up. I polished off the lot in a single sitting as soon as I got home. The restaurant may be nothing special, but when it comes to everything sweet Ladurée takes the biscuit.