The shock announcement that one of London’s greatest culinary treasures, Le Gavroche, would close was met with consternation and sadness, both within the restaurant industry and among the paying public. January saw the last set of contented guests spill out onto the street and the doors shut for the final time.
Originally opened by Albert and Michel Roux Snr in 1967, the restaurant set the standard for French cuisine in the capital and was the first to win a Michelin star in the UK. Its legacy and reputation for perfection only continued to grow as ownership eventually passed from Albert to his son, Michel Roux. As revered for its wine as for the famous Soufflé Suissesse, the list at Le Gavroche boasted some of the world’s most prestigious and hard-to-find names, all offered at relatively sensible prices. Now that the restaurant is no more, the Le Gavroche wine auction, announced by Christie’s a few days ago and set to begin on 10 April, will give bidders the chance to buy some of the restaurant’s wines as fitting souvenirs.
Peeping back into the world of Le Gavroche is like gazing into a magic lantern show, an illuminated circus of plate-spinning perfectionists, each giving their best to create the ultimate dining experience. Vital to this group of performers was head sommelier Remi Cousin, nicknamed ‘The Almighty’; mostly as a tease, although in full flight perhaps he could persuade a customer of the delicious top notes of tap water.
As custodian of the Le Gavroche wine cellar, Cousin is the last in a great line of head sommeliers that included Peter Davis, Francois Bertrand, Thierry Tomasin and David Galetti. The cellar on site was more of a wine pantry or day cellar, regularly replenished from a bigger store and often with clients’ special requests in mind.
For any serious wine lover, reading the full wine list was a wonderful treat and one deserving of lingering consideration. The list took years of patience, thought and tact to create, a treasure that was passed down from one sommelier to the next. Just by reading, one could slip away on imaginary journeys to fascinating, delicious drinking possibilities in the famous châteaux of Bordeaux, the hills of Burgundy and Chablis or the chalky riverbanks of Sancerre.
Like a great French novel, the wine list gave expression to any possible emotional state and, of course, gastronomic whim that a diner may feel. Is it likely that a visitor to Le Gavroche might have had to show a little self-restraint about the wines? Possibly – after all, not every day is your birthday. But there were plenty of decently priced bottles and delicious house wines by the glass to sip on while earmarking a rare, dream bottle for another occasion: perhaps legendary Cheval Blanc’s Le Pins, a mouth-watering Bâtard-Montrachet, a tantalizing 2005 Chave Hermitage or a 2014 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet. Cousin was in raptures when he recently sold, for £22,000, a much-desired 1849 Château d’Yquem, re-corked in 1998.
On some matters, Cousin is extremely straightforward. ‘Wine is not art, it’s not for sticking on the wall, it is for drinking. We priced our wines competitively because we wanted our customers to buy them.’ You can’t help thinking that this fair pricing will contribute to the legends that revolve around Le Gavroche. In an average week, 150 bottles of wine and 20 bottles of Champagne would be ordered – although no week could ever really be described as average.
The Roux family has always cherished its suppliers
The Roux family has always cherished its suppliers. Léon Beyer, for instance, was allowed to use the restaurant’s warehouse, which led to The Roux Group becoming distributor in the UK. Just thinking about the allocations from Domaine de la Grange des Pères, Mas de Daumas Gassac, Domaine Claude Chevalier, Château Gilette, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and New Zealand’s Felton Road is enough to make a wine-lover weep.
Cousin’s own journey to wine began at Le Meurice in Paris, where he was taken under the wing of the head sommelier as an apprentice. His epiphany came in 1997, when, after tasting a 1988 Château d’Yquem during a service, he realised there was no going back. ‘I held the glass in my hand and talked about all the fragrances. My boss just said ‘try it’ and I did. I was like Remi in the movie Ratatouille.’
After working at another legendary restaurant, The Fat Duck, Cousin arrived at Le Gavroche in late 2016. When he talks about the restaurant, the staff sound like family and the nightly service a kind of magic, twilight time of synchronistic complicity between staff and diners. A young sommelier, Freddie, who at 20 had already been at Le Gavroche for three years, explains things simply: ‘This place is addictive. Once you start work here you just want to be here more’. Indeed, Freddie changed track from engineering once he realised that he had found his place among the familial perfectionism that was driving a great institution.
We priced our wines competitively because we wanted our customers to buy them – Remi Cousin
Although the wine list was pretty much fully formed when Cousin arrived at Le Gavroche, inevitably he made some tweaks in his seven years. He was happy to introduce sparkling wine from English producers Rathfinny and Chapel Down, and is a huge fan of Capreolous’ Quince Eau de Vie. However, once he gets going on the subject, he is almost equally passionate about the wines he refused to serve; namely, Prosecco and Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. The Almighty has his boundaries.
To be run by Christie’s in April, the Le Gavroche wine auction, an online sale of some of the finest wines from the cellar, along with a selection of artwork and objects from the dining room, will offer the chance to own a small part of London’s restaurant history. Bidders can expect bottles of Champagne Salon, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, Le Pin, Château Lafleur and Quinta do Noval to feature among the wine lots. Roux will take the Le Gavroche name to The Lawn, the fine-dining space at the Wimbledon tennis championships this summer, along with other pop-ups, and it’s understood the group will retain the exclusive wine allocations.
The closing of Le Gavroche has been marked in many thoughtful ways: a dinner for catering students to ensure the memory of the restaurant endures, as well as a thank you to suppliers and a charity fundraiser. On 20 January, Roux also gave one last dinner for friends, the most coveted of invitations and one on which a guest could dine out for a long time. A five-course banquet, including stone bass gravlax, langoustines and roast fillet of veal, was accompanied by Chapoutier’s Ermitage de l’Orée from 2011, 2013 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru from Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier and 2005 Château Mouton Rothschild, among other gems. It is a party destined to become folklore, a last kiss goodbye to this gastronomic treasure, one with a menu written in the language that Le Gavroche spoke the best.
Christie’s will hold the Le Gavroche wine auction online from 10:30am on 10-24 April, 2024. The sale will offer more than 100 lots, including objects and art from the restaurant as well as special wines from the cellar. Click here for more information.