lundi 16 juillet 2007

Michel Rostang

La version française est ici

You know how some restaurants make you feel like you never ate before, like you did not know that "it" could be that good (e.g. Pacaud, Passard, Loiseau, Bras with seabass, onions, wine sauce, and veal respectively)? Well, Rostang is not like that. And yet it is one of my favorite restaurants. The food there is not unknown, it is not pure, and it is not new. It is just very good, and in a very familiar way. It feels like something you already had a long time ago, and that you have missed since then. It is a very casual cuisine, made of rich recipes and flavors we know well.

Take that potato gratin that he serves on the side of some meat dishes. It is what some reviewers call perfectly decadent: full of cream, it does not even pretend to be so perfectly cooked that it would only be good for a few minutes (see the recipe on the website). It is presented in a large oval dish, the same gratin serving everyone in the dining room, several times if they like. Little drops of butter are apparent in the creamy sauce. Potatoes are melty and tasty. It does not matter anymore if it is the best, or how it compares with the competition: that cuisine, which in a way splendidly ignores the culinary revolutions of the last thirty years, is immensely satisfying.

Eating at Rostang made me understand in what sense Bocuse is a modern chef: he is looking for the clarity of taste, valuing and emphasizing ingredients. Ingredients at Rostang are very good, some are exceptional (the lobster): but it is mostly about the preparation. What you are eating is a cuisine (as Guy Savoy says: “l’art de transformer les produits en joie”). And that generous cooking, dare I say, makes you (or me at least) feel loved, taken care of – a feeling reinforced by a very warm, and very professional service, and a wine list that is like the restaurant: classic, mastered, accessible in taste if not in price.

Novelty and minor surprises are not absent at Rostang: I always have had unexpected or original dishes. But it is more like exploring a forest you already know and changing your perspective a bit, than like discovering un-chartered territories.

Rostang seems to ignore culinary modernity but he certainly knows it.

See for example the amuses I got for that lunch on July 13. They were a contemporary interpretation of a buffet campagnard, of what you traditionally get in the French countryside with your aperitif. There is a tiny club sandwich à la rillette de sardine, basically a toast of rillette, only reinterpreted with the sardine instead of the pork or goose, and with a size fit to the exercise. There is a simple slice of some kind of sausage with foie gras inside, a bit overcooked, with a touch of grated cheese, just melted, on top. And there is a spoon of beet salad, rather insignificant in taste, but it “washes the mouth”, and it is made amusing by the fact that the spoon is made of dough and can be eaten.

In his classical repertory of techniques and recipes, where sauces are rich, portions are big, main dishes are meaty (fish included), meat is fatty, and desserts are sweet, Rostang totally explores combinations that depend on the market, the season, the weather and the diner. It is unlikely that they were never done, including by the Chef himself, but the repertoire is large enough, so that you can be played a different partition every time.

Thus the entrée du jour was a terrine de raie. There were green beans in this fish terrine, of which two solid slices were served. The flesh of the ray was very apparent and recognizable (and not the homogenous mousse that is sometimes evoked by the idea of a fish terrine). Some green asparagus, two tiny marinated girolle mushrooms and a baby zucchini cut in two accompany the terrine, which is served with a vinaigrette a la Savora, that half sweet mustard from the supermarket. This is not only to show that the Chef has fantasy and is funny: the balance with the fish, the vegetables and the toasted pain au levain served on the side is quite perfect, and makes this first course a fresh pleasure, which really makes you ready for more.

The aforementioned Gratin came on the side of a calf kidney with puff pastry, tomato, and a mustard sauce (this time not Savora but some moutarde a l’ancienne, with the seeds inside). This, the maitre d’ tells me half joking, is a pizza rognon. Half a whole kidney (uncut) comes on top of the puff pastry with tomato, big, grilled, appetizing, for food lovers. The sauce is poured in my plate, and I am asked whether I would like some directly on the meat (I do). Hidden between the kidney and the tomato, and bringing balance to this rich dish, are some greens: feves et petit pois. Now it may sound scary if I tell you that I took spoons with some creamy gratin, some puff pastry, the creamy mustard sauce, greens and kidney. But it was, ooohh, so good.

A mille-feuille, a big one of course, with wild strawberry (fraises des bois) on top and a blue gelee of rose underneath, serves as perfect dessert, there again very precise but also kind of rustic, with its uneven cuts of puff pastry.

Emblematic are the mignardises served on the side of the dessert on a forged plate representing a lady (see picture above) – there is almost every pastry known in France, in tiny (or not so much) bits. They are not lightened: they have sugar, butter, cream and everything inside. Cannele, baba au rhum, caramels au beurre sale from Henri Roux in Quiberon, nougat, calisson, tartelette a la fraise, lunette, tartelette au chocolat, petites truffes au chocolat, guimauve, chou à la crème, financier, and groseilles au sucre are the one I remember spontanously… Michel, one of the maitre d’s, packed a sample of those in a box for my beloved and alas absent wife. Yes, she enjoyed it later that day.

I drank a perfectly sweet and balanced Gewurtzraminer Vendanges Tardives 2000 from Limbach to begin my meal, and then two glasses of Macon blanc 2004 from Lafon, a perfect match for the fish and mostly for the meat. I was only charged one of those glasses, maybe because I had sent back the Bourgogne rouge that was no match for the mustard sauce and asked for more of the Macon instead. I also drank that new mineral water which is (they say) mentioned by Julius Cesar in War of the Gauls, and which is indeed even finer and less salted than the Chateldon.

Rostang, it’s Jurassic Park: a restaurant from another time, and yet it is still alive and well. And impressive. Even its very charged setting, with its lambris on the wall, its soft light and its collection of bibelot attests of that strange status. If you take the common criteria of contemporary fine dining, i.e. exceptional quality in ingredients, seasoning and cooking, or innovation, it is a leader in none (far from it for the latest one). Yet I have never been disappointed at Rostang: it was always delicious, joyful, and friendly. They would always accomodate something to please the customer, say if you suddenly feel like having a different side dish which is not on the menu.

It is the place where I would like to celebrate something happy with the people I love, provided they are food lovers and do not expect a light meal.

Provided as well that someone can pay. I paid 108 euros for that lunch, based on the 79euros lunch menu. Amazing value compared to the usual prices in this restaurant.

The restaurant only starts its summer holiday on August 3rd, so for the week before, it will be one of the only top restaurants open in Paris.

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