At the end of a long concourse, and down an escalator, visitors to the Sofitel London Heathrow may well wonder where the airport ends and the hotel begins. But do not be fooled, its seamless merger allows for passers-by to discover the wonders within.
Turn left at the bottom of the stairs and experience the shining Sphere bar with its classy cocktails and premium drinks selection, or turn right and walk through the reception, past the Tea5 (I like what they’ve done there) café and into a stunning atrium. Off to the right is the entrance to La Belle Époque – the pride of the hotel’s F&B offer, and arguably the only fine-dining venue at Heathrow.
Dining at an airport is so often tinged with disappointment as an air of hurriedness and fast-food, even if it’s not classed as such, hangs overhead.
So, when La Belle Époque proudly displayed its three AA-rosette status, I was intrigued.
A mixture of leather banquette seating and smaller, more private tables is housed under a purpose-built interior awning that encloses the restaurant within the glass atrium. Dark wood and deep violet flooring and curtains, as well as the use of angled mirrors, also help to create an intimate space – something airport restaurants struggle to achieve.
The food is said to be “inspired by the La Belle Époque era in French history during which major medical and technological advances were made and arts and literature underwent radical changes”.
Boasting the Salon Privé private dining option for up to 20 guests as well as a chef’s table accommodating up to 10 guests with a unique view of the kitchen, La Belle Époque is equally geared up to cater for larger business groups or intimate dinners with friends and family.
And while the clientele are heavily made up of overnight guests using the airport, the level of food on offer means that La Belle Époque attracts walk-ins from the local area, too, a real challenge to airport hotel dining.
Head chef Mayur Nagarale serves up an interactive array of dishes offering French cuisine with an Asian twist across an extensive a la carte menu, group set menus and a stunning seven-course tasting menu.
The Menu Degustation is offered at £64 per person, with an optional £34 wine pairing with each dish.
As with all good restaurants, it is the attention to detail that grabs the eye. For example, the mushroom-infused butter served with a choice of raisin or hazelnut bread to kick things off with a Spanish tomato mousse amuse bouche.
There is a real theme of modern European flavours working with British base ingredients. For example, the exceptional tartare of Cornish mackerel, centred in a shallow bowl topped with kohlrabi and fennel. Our service team then live-pours a classic tomato gazpacho at the table to add a little theatre to the course. Meanwhile, the house sommelier introduces the table to the paired Albarino wine from Catalunya in Spain.
This flavour fusion takes a further strand in the third course as poached Scottish lobster is served with squid ink-dyed tempura frog’s legs, with sorrel and an Asian-style lemongrass veloute. Once again this is finished at the table by the service team accompanied by a French Domaine Zinck, Alsace, wine.
The highlight of the theatrical menu comes in the form of the roasted fillet of grain-fed Irish beef. Glazed with miso and served with braised short rib, shiitake, roasted potato mousseline and a merlot jus, the beef arrives at the table on a trolley on a bed of smoking hay being heated by small coals in a steel pot.
Our server slices the succulent cut of beef and distributes it between those at the table – seriously, we are still in an airport hotel – a move previously sampled at a very high-end hotel restaurant in the West End of London. For the wine, the sommelier goes further afield, and the beef is paired with a beautiful 2014 Malbec, Bodega Ruca Malen, Mendoza, Argentina. It’s an absolute bargain on the tasting menu as the dish retails at £33 alone from the a la carte.
The beef and red wine offers perfectly rich complement to the other courses, which are completed by lighter dishes including a confit of Norwegian sea trout with horseradish, cucumber and dill; and pan-fried fillet of Atlantic halibut with summer vegetables, lemongrass miso and bulgur wheat.
Desserts are as delicious as they are artistic in design, with a terrine of vibrant raspberry and luminous lemon curd with Thahitian vanilla bavarois (gelatine and whipped cream).
Pineapple roasted with pink peppercorns, served with coconut and kaffir lime sorbet and coconut marshmallow completes the seventh dish before petit fours and coffee.
You cannot help but walk away from La Belle Époque impressed. Taking it out of its context, the skill of the meal delivery is as good as any you would expect from one of its marbled central London counterparts. Arguably, it has to work harder than others to inject imagination and transport diners away to enjoy a one-off culinary experience.
But the thoughtful ambience, high level of service, and premium quality food and drink does exactly that, it makes you forget where you are. And that is a skill not to be taken lightly.
Sample Tasting Menu
FOIE GRAS TORCHON, PRESERVED CHERRIES, ANISEED ASH CRACKER
AND MACADAMIA NUT
Marsanne/Viognier, Rare Vineyards, Languedoc, France 2016
PAN-FRIED FILLET OF ATLANTIC HALIBUT, SUMMER VEGETABLES,
LEMONGRASS MISO AND BULGUR WHEAT
Côteaux De Provence, Château De Beaulieu, Provence, France 2016
ROASTED RED-LEG PARTRIDGE, CONFIT HEN’S EGG, PEAR AND AUTUMN TRUFFLE
Fleurie, Château De Fleurie, Beaujolais, France 2015
CONFIT OF NORWEGIAN SEA TROUT, HORSERADISH, CUCUMBER AND DILL
Sauvignon Blanc, Vidal, Marlborough, New Zealand 2017
ROASTED TENDERLOIN OF PORK, CONFIT BELLY WITH CHORIZO,
GIROLLE AND HERITAGE CARROTS
Rioja, Bodegas Coral, Don Jacobo ‘Crianza’, Spain 2012
DARK CHOCOLATE MOUSSE, SPICED BLUEBERRY, ELDERFLOWER AND FENNEL
PINEAPPLE ROASTED WITH PINK PEPPERCORN, COCONUT AND
KAFFIR LIME SORBET, COCONUT MARSHMALLOW
Pacherenc Du Vic-Bilh, Saint-Albert, Plaimont, South-west, France 2013