Whoosh! Take the high-tech lift in Tornado Tower to the 28th floor and you will find La Varenne. It is one of Doha’s best-kept culinary secrets and many of the people working in the same tower are not even aware of its existence – but I doubt it will stay that way for long.
It is a rarity in Doha as a stand-alone gourmet restaurant as usually you have to head to the hotels to find this type of gastronomy. Winner of ‘Time Out Doha Best Business Lunch 2014’ the place has already established itself as a foodie’s dream. And it also attracts Doha’s art-lovers with original pieces by Keith Harring and an oversized pink heart with butterflies a la Damien Hirst.
During the day sunlight floods into the restaurant and there are amazing views of the towers of West Bay and the sparkling waters of the Arabian Gulf. If you are looking to enjoy a special occasion there then make sure to ask for a sea view for a day visit and a West Bay city view for the evening.
La Varenne’s culinary inspiration comes from its 17th century namesake, French Chef Francois Pierre de la Varenne, who broke away from the overly-seasoned foods of the medieval age. Instead he cooked dishes which showcased the different elements of a dish, and he used stocks for flavour, and cooked with vegetables from the new world such as squashes and Jerusalem artichokes.
Serving French bistro-style food, with an epicurean kick to it, La Varenne has interpreted French classics, such as French onion soup, foie gras, nicoise salad, bouillabaisse, and veal escalope. Their one-page lunch menu hasn’t got the range of dishes other restaurants have, but what they do have all sounds fantastic. The menu is lacking on description but our server was well-informed and provided more information. Menus change regularly and there is always a special of the day section on their lunch menu.
The management at La Varenne have figured out how to make lunch as express as possible with a hors d’oeuvres and a desserts trolley, which would result in the type of speed lunches that is preferred by the many business people in Tornado Tower, and the surrounding buildings. These trolleys have mini-sized starter and dessert options which are carted around by a server who describes what is available. Diners then choose four items from the ten or so pre-prepared options that are available. It’s a great concept for those looking to either save time, or for those looking to try a variety of the flavours on offer.
The bread basket had a lovely selection of small loaves with one palmier thrown in for good measure – they were all baked in-house. I enjoyed the wholemeal bread slice but the bread was cold. Please tell me who really enjoys cold bread – I feel like I am missing something here? Service was impeccable and at a measured pace, which was perfect as we were not in a rush to be somewhere else.
Whilst waiting for our starters I enjoyed the Apple and Mint Iced Tea, which was a beautifully crisp drink with a slightly fresh undernote due to the peppermint tea base. My dining companion ordered a popular soft drink which looked very refreshing especially in the delicate tumbler glasses used by La Varenne.
I chose the hot starter of Cream of Celery Soup which tasted beautifully smooth and rich. The cheese-covered croutons added to the decadence of this dish – I would say though that it was blazing hot when it arrived and I had to wait quite some time before it cooled to a comfortable eating temperature.
In contrast my dining companion had the cold Confit Vegetable and Shrimp Salad, which looked beautiful on the plate with its perfectly placed salad elements. It is also well-named as a starter as it only has two pieces of shrimp, but the flavour was good and there was a variety of vegetables in the dish.
My main was a beautifully composed dish of Braised Chicken Parmentier – the Chef packed in the chicken flavour with a punchy jus. Soft, fluffy potatoes enwrapped a layer of moist braised chicken which had been shredded to create ‘pulled’ chicken. The flavours were spot on, whilst the accompanying frisee salad leaves were there mostly for decorative effect.
Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder was on the menu for my dining companion, and it was a technically perfect dish with a striking plating concept, perfect portion sizing, and exceptional seasoning. The lamb was flawlessly tender and had deep meaty flavours, whilst the sweet pumpkin and rosemary jus were perfect partners to the dish. The smooth creamy potato puree was ordered as an extra accompanying side, and tasted like a dish with a healthy use of butter.
Overall, the mains were received well however the dishes are very carb-heavy, despite the small portions, and may not be to everyone’s taste for a midday meal. Fortunately, you can choose to stop your meal there and limit your adventure to a two course meal. Or you can move on to desserts but choose from the smaller portions available from the dessert trolley, including homemade ice-creams.
Being the dessert fanatic that I am I could not miss out on the third course, and I was pleased to have the option of small bite-sized desserts – however for those of you wanting a normal dessert portion I would recommend you choose a dessert dish from the menu as you may be disappointed by the portion sizes of the dessert trolley. Whilst the trolley looks substantial with its many sweets on offer, you do have to remember that you will usually only receive one of those offerings.
I chose the pistachio fudge, the homemade marshmallow, the chocolate macaron and the buttery madeleine which was so tiny that I was given two. My favourites have to be the light, fluffy marshmallow which was enrobed in shredded coconut, and the macaron which was very French in its perfection. The madeleines were overly sweet which is an accomplishment considering how minute they were. The pistachio fudge was nutty and had a lovely hit of chocolate, and was a fair enough example of creamy smooth fudge.
My dining companion tried the Sticky Date Pudding which seemed to be only slightly bigger than the cake on offer in the desserts trolley. The dish came with a smooth creamy cinnamon ice cream which was made in house and showed evidence of the use of real vanilla bean with black flecks of vanilla seeds. The sticky element was provided by a nice caramel sauce on top, although the sauce was sparse it wasn’t an issue as the dessert was a small portion. If anything the dessert portion was far too small to be able to taste the dates but I have found that most date cakes use juicy dates to provide flavour rather than texture. It was a good servicable dessert, but it needed more depth of flavour to be categorised as anyhing more than good.
La Varenne’s smaller mains are a positive idea that prevents diners from consuming too much rich food in the middle of the day. But, a smaller portion also seems to extend into desserts which make me less impressed – mainly due to my obsession with desserts. However, this shouldn’t really mar the experience for most diners as the quality of the food is impressive and there is skill and technique involved in food preparation showcasing some very impressive chef expertise.
Business Lunch is a set menu with about 3-4 dish options per course. The two course business lunch costs QR 85, whilst including dessert will take it to QR 95. You can also order sides such as glazed carrots or braised shallots for an additional QR 18, and drinks are about QR 25.
The important question, which will be answered in a few weeks, will by whether La Varenne can hold onto its ‘Time Out Doha’ plaque as Best Business Lunch – I personally have to try a few more lunches before I can decide!