Would you prefer to sit near the Damien, the Roy, or one of the two Keiths?
I’m referring, of course, to Mr. Hirst, Mr. Lichtenstein, and that saucy Mr. Haring. That you dine in cozy proximity to the original works can be rather bewildering if it’s your first time at La Varenne. It’s all unexpected and unassuming in the same breath. The pieces of art are displayed with little ostentation, covering the occasional wall space in between floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
So they’re stunning yet subtle, and, in that vein, set the tone for this French brasserie in the business district of Doha. The tables may be covered in white linen and the staff clad in suits and vests, but handsome doesn’t mean haughty.
And you’ll have to remember that when tackling the nénuphar d’artichaut, an item so lyrical in French that it doesn’t get an English translation on the menu. The water lily artichoke arrives in full bloom — majestic and blushing. Each waxy leaf, unfurled, is like a petal, the work of chef turned horticulturalist.
Don’t be reticent; dive in sans cutlery. You’ll need fingers to dislodge the leaves. Then dredge them through the creamy smoked salmon sauce in the anther’s heart. By the end, you realise the dish is designed for sharing; the diffused labour of deconstructing an artichoke can’t help but foster camaraderie.
Other dishes require far less effort but command no less rapture. The braised leeks, a fixture on the menu since the restaurant opened its doors three years ago, is the poster-child of umami. Tender leaf sheaths are anointed by truffle mayonnaise that veers on a mild vinaigrette — tangy and bright with olive oil. Shimeji and enoki mushrooms punch up the flavour. Take a mouthful with toasted hazelnuts. Crunch. And savour.
A simple tartine goes rustic. Tomatoes and aubergine — roasted till pillowy and sweet — hide underneath smoked mozzarella. All are piled onto toasted baguette, becoming a cross between an upscale pizza and an open-faced sandwich.
The duck breast, with skin that glistens in light and shatters like crackling, is elegant… restrained… desire-inducing. The sauce is made of veal jus with whole black pepper, the heat offset by slices of fresh citrus. Duck and orange, foundational to French cooking, takes a leap forward in time, landing on La Varenne’s plate with verve.
Purists of the cuisine will find comfort in the likes of Burgundy snails and bouillabaisse. These classics go largely unaltered — the escargot swamped in garlic parsley butter, the soup steeped with seafood and saffron. Although, the latter is served together as a stew unlike its more traditional form in which the fish is separate. It’s just one of the adjustments that Executive Chef Nalinda Perera is mindful of.
“You have to think about the market in Doha,” explains the humble, instantly amiable chef from Sri Lanka, who joined La Varenne’s opening team after a decade in London and Dubai. “The most important thing is that the flavour profile goes together with every component on the plate.” And in thinking about said components, Chef Perera actively caters for local palates. Consequently, lamb navarin is served with couscous; pilaf rice is a popular side order; and even chargrilled beef burger makes an obligatory appearance.
If the adage is true that the best be saved for last, then wait till dessert rolls around. It actually is rolled over tableside — on a trolley — during lunch, weekend brunch and aperitif service. A colourful kaleidoscope of marshmallows, tarts, sable, cookies, financiers and maracons is joined by a parade of ice creams and sorbet, made daily, velvety and impossible to resist, their flavours ranging from rhubarb and confit orange to honey and salted caramel.
Most of the sweets adhere to the French tradition; but, once in a while, a surprise lurks. The passion fruit mousse, soft and jittery with a trace of gelatin, is a composition of the tropics surrounded by brunoise cut, lightly poached pineapple and mango and rounded off with a quenelle of coconut sorbet. It is a far cry from, say, the basket of freshly baked madeleines, but welcome nonetheless.
For these items sit not with hostility but with harmony on the menu. They capture the spirit of the post-gourmet dining world where borders are flouted and ingredients mingle, where classical French cooking is called nouvelle and accessible to all.
And somehow, in this relaxed, unbothered atmosphere at La Varenne, ordering a lemon soufflé to accompany a macchiato while admiring the butterflies mounted on a heart-shaped Damien Hirst installation seems the most natural thing to do on a Sunday afternoon.
** A version of this article appears in the magazine Khaleejesque **