dimanche 8 juillet 2007

Les Elysées Du Vernet: best value in town

La version francaise est ici.

This is a dining-room under a glass roof from the same Gustave Eiffel who designed the tower. The weather was changing that day, and the passages of clouds created a changing light. Table cloths and silverware are impeccable, even though the general setting, with its fresque of fields on the wall and door that connects directly to the kitchen and its painted marble on the walls feels a bit like traveling in time back to the fancy eighties. They will be doing renovation work in August, and I am ready to bet that, with the potential of that sunroof, more efficient air conditioning and new table wares, this is going to be one of the nicest rooms in town. If history is any indication, it may also result in upgrades in both prices and ratings. Go now.

Chef Eric Briffard is known for having been kicked out of the Plaza when Ducasse came in, tired of occupying the unpractical former restaurant of Robuchon on avenue Poincare. Those were the times of the Ducasse-Robuchon war, when both were pushing their boys on the gastronomic scene. They are now friends again, having made their own little Yalta.

So Chef Briffard arrived in the kitchen of Les Élysées in 2002, where his sorry tale continued for a while, as he was demoted to one Michelin star to general incomprehension and astonishment. A MOF (meilleur ouvrier de France, the highest distinction in French cooking), Briffard is a master of the classic Robuchon style cuisine, infinitely precise and very focused and demanding on the quality of the execution. He has his second star back, and seems to be back in fashion, as Gault & Millau also gave him back his third “toque”.

The meal started with an iced melon soup, served in a glass, topped with a red pepper mousse, and some hints of spices and ham. The soup has bits of perfectly mature melon inside, so in a bite, you have the three textures of the liquid melon, juicy melon, and creamy mousse. Furthermore, you also have two temperatures, as the mousse is at room temperature. This, in passing, indicates that this dish is assembled at the last minute. This is a good example of Briffard’s attention to those very details that really make a difference. Oh, and by the way, there is a magical alchemy of taste between the melon and the light pepper taste of the mousse, which is creamy but not fat. Gives depth and length to the melon. Patrice, the very nice and talented young sommelier, 4E a glass, had selected a funny white Languedoc wine.
Then there was that double starter. In a little coupe, a lobster gelee, cream of vin jaune, bit of lobster. This is good, perfectly seasoned, with a clear taste. And it kind of sharpens the taste buds for the main plate: tourteau crab flesh is assembled in three small columns, with a thin slice of marinated Japanese daikon. Like with sashimi, it balances the slightly fat and nauseating taste of the crab’s flesh, but being marinated in a finely balanced marinade makes it sweet, and that combination of sweetness and bitterness really brings out the taste and texture of the tourteau. It was also a great match with the Chablis of Stephane Moreau Maudet – 12E a glass.
In case I thought all crabs tasted the same, or in case I thought that chef Briffard didn’t know how to prepare them, there was then a dish based on araignée de mer. The taste of the araignée is stronger, sharper than the one of the tourteau. The dish was another “vertical” one, served in a coffee cup. At the bottom, a royale (a kind of mousse or pudding) of foie gras with some fresh almonds inside; then a layer of araignee flesh, and then a light foam of almond milk, bit of nori seaweed on top. This is a perfect example of a “sea and land/terre et mer” dish. It also serves as a transition between the starter, based on crab, and the main course, that has foie gras. The araignee plays vis-à-vis the foie gras the role the daikon was playing with the tourteau, while the foie gras gives depth and length to the araignée’s taste. There was also a contrast of temperatures again, as the foie gras was slightly warm. Once again: delicious, subtle, very finely tuned, and smart.
The main course was a cannette breast served on watercresson with a “crumble” of peaches and foie gras. The chef added, we were told, girolle mushrooms and salsifis. The so-called “crumble” is a roasted cylinder of peach topped with a disk of grilled foie gras, bits of fresh almonds between the two. A salad of watercresson with diced peach was on the side. The duck was well cooked, medium rare, and well seasoned. That was all good but without the magic of all the other dishes. I don’t know about you, but when first courses are really good, I often find the savory/main dish of little interest, especially when it follows the model of roasted meat with vegetables on the side. And, because of those extra vegetables, the dish lacked in focus what it gained in richness. Felt a bit like an under-cover dish from l’Astrance ;-)

More remarkable was the biodynamic wine that came with it. Mr. Kreyderweiss, Patrice told us, is an Alsatian vine grower who ended up buying a vineyard next to Nimes in Southern France because of his latest wife. And indeed, that strong red, named Anraton if I remember correctly, is full of sun and power while having a very velvety touch. It is an intensely sensual wine, and a major merit of the duck was to not really interfere with it. 8E a glass (which, I must say was generously refilled a couple of times).

The pre-dessert was the absolute highlight of the meal, in my opinion (isn’t that science of counterpoint, after that less impressive duck?): a sorbet of caillé de lait de brebis (some fresh sheep cheese, very light in taste and fat) with olive oil, vanilla and orange bark. It was pure sweetness, yet with very little sugar, no fat, and it lingered in the mouth probably thanks to the olive oil. Once again, this is a good idea to be sure. But what is more impressive is that it cannot work with any olive oil, any sheep fresh cheese, or any vanilla – this demonstration of technique is highly dependent on the choice of ingredients and the adaptation to their variations.

It ended with a modern, light and sweet fraisier: some Mara des bois (hybrid of strawberry and wild strawberry) in a whipped vanilla cream, between two thin and tasty slices of almond paste. On the side are drops of a vanilla strawberry coulis and a quenelle of freshly turbinated pistachio ice-cream with pistachio bits. It was a light and pleasant dessert, not a moving one. Still, isn’t it remarkable that it was enjoyable after that whole meal?

Coffee was good, bread from la Boulangerie de Monge, and butter was first class, looking and tasting like Bordier.
The Maitre d’, André Wawrzyniak, is a former Jamin, from Robuchon and then from Guichard. He spent some time at Meneau after Jamin closed, and is now back in Paris. He is a great professional and a very kind man, just like the rest of the service team. You can see pictures of the room, the chef and him here, where there are also samples of the menu.

I kept the best for the end: this was the 59E lunch menu. With three glasses of wine, coffee and water, this meal cost 94E per person. No kidding.

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