Emily Rookwood gets carried away by the Orient Express – and by the ‘The Dinner’, Laurent-Perrier’s new evening of champagne and fine dining on the locomotive epitome of glamour
THE BRITISH TRANSPORT network isn’t usually the first choice for a sumptuous and satisfying evening experience. Usually the only thing to celebrate is the punctual arrival of the 18.45 to commuter-ville and the lack of five copies of the Metro littering your chair – if you have the luxury of a seat that is.
It is easy to forget that train travel was once – back in the days of true elegance – the epitome of extravagance. To my mind there is only one remnant of this bygone era of Daisy Buchanan, champagne and decadence: the Orient Express.
Laurent-Perrier has paired up with Orient Express to offer ‘The Dinner’ – a hat doffing to true indulgence. If you follow the couples dressed up in their finery at Victoria Station (unlikely locale!) you will find yourself in the red-velvet and gold Orient Express waiting room and the champagne reception.
Departing to the sound of bagpipes, the British Pullman hauls all three-quarters of a mile of its carriages out into the smoggy London dusk as it sets off on its three and a half hour journey around the South Downs. All of the carriages have beautiful marquetry, fine fabrics and glittering pasts, but each one has an individual style; we travelled in Gwen – aptly named given that my father’s first car (he was the lucky recipient of my second ticket) was called Gwen.
The most recent addition to the British Pullman, Gwen is finished in chrome rather than the usual brass and is everything you’d hope for in a carriage (minus Poirot, that is) on the world’s most famous train.
Walking, if somewhat unsteadily, through the eleven carriages you can see the distinct character of each and if you’re lucky enough can pop an inquisitive head around the door of the kitchens. There are only two kitchens serving all of the carriages and both are fully fitted with their original equipment.
EXECUTIVE HEAD CHEF Robbie Gleeson is as much a magician as he is an accomplished cook to produce food of exceptional quality in such cramped conditions. And the food he produces truly is exceptional. From the delicate celeriac and Colton Basset Stilton veloute served in painstakingly hollowed out celeriac bowls to the powerfully gamey pan-fried grouse with jewel-like pickled damsons and a silky Madeira jus, all five courses were well balanced and skillfully cooked to restaurant quality in little more than a broom cupboard.
Dinner aboard the Orient Express
The seasonal menu is paired carefully with five different Laurent-Perrier champagnes – and it is at this point that the decadence of the evening becomes even more apparent. Sitting in your armchair you gaze across the tables dressed with elegant cut crystal glasses, heavy napkins and gleaming silverware. There really is no better setting to appreciate the exquisitely clean taste of Laurent-Perrier’s champagnes.
You are served a variety, from the zero-dosage (indicating no added sugar, meaning that the grapes selected must be of the very highest standard – sugar hides a multitude of sins, from a poor grape to a second or third press) Ultra Brut to the soft and complex flavours of the Cuvee Rose, made using only Pinot Noir. The discreet waiting staff are hugely knowledgeable, gracious and affable and for those who don’t know as much as they’d like about either the menu or accompanying champagne they can provide answers and explanations.
The menu is as much about showing off the subtle notes of the champagne as it is celebrating local, seasonal produce. Talk to most diners and they won’t often consider champagne as a suitable accompaniment to a meal, seeing it rather as an aperitif or stand-alone celebratory bit of fizz. However, once you have experienced how food and champagne can bring out the very best in one another the picture looks rather different.
AT NO POINT will you feel an urge to sip on a robust red: you can find all of the depth and subtlety required in a carefully selected champagne. What’s more is the added lightness that champagne brings, even those with the heaviest of mouth-feels – for example the 1982 Vintage from Laurent-Perrier with its sauterne coloured hue and slow trickle of bubbles – are still bright on the palate.
There will be those out there who swear by a Merlot at dinner and won’t accept anything other than a thimble of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise with their desert, but they will be missing out – the pairings at a meal such as this demonstrate how very versatile champagne can be – and what better place to make such a discovery?
Many people dream of boarding the Orient Express and travelling to another, more beautiful world and this evening allows that moment of perfect escapism. Never has the Golden Canton in Herne Hill looked more wonderful than through the carefully polished window of your carriage and even though separation from the urbane world we all inhabit is but a few yards, it couldn’t feel further away.
The Orient Express pulling through the countryside
For those brief moments pulled up in Guildford station next to the Quick Cafe the hilarity of the juxtaposition reminds you just how special the experience is, not only for the lucky lady whose other half was preparing to propose over dessert (claiming that he wasn’t a romantic but thought he’d make the effort), but rather for everyone on the fully booked train.
‘The Dinner’ with Laurent-Perrier on the Orient Express has limited availability but in this, Laurent-Perrier’s bicentenary year, there is no better time to reserve your place and indulge yourself and reminisce about the days when train travel was the height of luxury and not just a pink and blue carpeted sardine-can means to an end.