lundi 10 septembre 2007

Senderens, sophisticated and brutal, erotic and Parisian

Cliquez ici pour la version anglaise.

Senderens is the former Lucas Carton: a legendary restaurant where the Troisgros brothers or Bocuse were trained. It is listed as a historical monument in France, and it was taken over in the eighties by one of the greatest geniuses of nouvelle cuisine, the inventor of vanilla lobster and foie gras steamed in a cabbage leaf among other landmarks.

For twenty years now, Alain Senderens has been focusing his incredibly fine palate, huge inventiveness and vast curiosity to the wine-dish pairing, looking for the best wine for a given dish, but also adapting the dish to the wine he chose, modifying for instance the spice blend in the Apicius duck to match a different year's Banyuls des caves de l'Etoile.

A few years ago, Senderens spectacularily "renounced his three-stars", and closed the Lucas-Carton to reopen at the same place a restaurant open everyday with a 100€ ticket instead of 400€ (Lucas Carton was one of the most expensive restaurants on the planet). They would serve sardine instead of turbot, Senderens then declared. Once again Senderens, started a trend that other chefs followed, as did for instance Christian Constant lately. Renouncing the expensive tableware and China and other expenses ususally associated with haute gastronomie (and for which they cannot compete with palaces like Le Meurice), while offering extended opening hours and at least two servings a night worked well financially for those two chefs.

Food wise however, it has been a difficult process to move from the grand restaurant pace and manners to more casual ways. Constant, while having created a very pleasant place, did not succeed in offering a cooking even vaguely up to what it used to be. Senderens on the other hand started his new restaurant as a major success -- and the scrupulous perfectionism of his executive chef Frédéric Robert, who stayed one year in the new restaurant, was instrumental to this success: the food in Senderens was consistently as wonderful and mind-blowing than it had been at Lucas-Carton. But then Robert left for the Grande Cascade and the new chef, coming from l'Ambroisie, seemed to have a hard time adapting to the now very large audience and also to the very subtle Senderens style of cooking.

The good news is that, judging from this last meal, this transition period is over, and you can once again enjoy the genius of one of the greatest cooks ever for a price which, though hardly a bargain, is one third of what it used to be. Seven days a week and also (relatively) late at night.

There is, however, one precaution to take, and a fundamental feature of what made Lucas-Carton so unique has largely disappeared. In addition to his food, Senderens in the Lucas-Carton was looking for the best wine pairing with almost no cost constraint, so that the wines served by the glass were some of the most amazing the World had to offer. While the wine-dish pairing as such is as subtle as ever, wines by the glass are today, in their majority, simply not good enough. Under the new concept, glasses of wine are under 15€, often less than ten. And while it is true that you can do great food with less expensive ingredients, nothing replaces great wines. But there again there is good news: the bottles in the wine list are from the old Lucas-Carton cellar, with margins considerably reduced. So the user manual of Senderens is, in general, get a bottle of wine rather than glasses. I enclosed copy of the Red Burdungy and Champagne pages of the current wine list, click for reading.

As amuses, mussels in a nasturtium emulsion were simply delicious, the mussels intensely sweet and perfectly cooked, with that taste that make you wonder why you would ever stop, just highlighted by the flower.

The zucchini flower stuffed with crab has confit zests on top, and was served in an emulsion of ail des ours, that wild herb that tastes like garlic without the strength. There was also another zucchini flower, simply fried, and a token of nice, dark green and shiny zucchini skin. The citrus gives an energetic start in the mouth, then the contrasted textures of the flower and the crab kick in, before you feel the ail des ours favour mixed with the delicate fresh zucchini smell of the flower.

The delicateness of zucchini flowers is not only in their taste: they are such a fragile product that even washing them is tricky, and of course they do not keep, so it is a very “high gastronomy” dish. This is about the wonders of nature, and with the ail des ours, the dish ends up being like a walk in the countryside, an expression of nature. Actually, the dish is even about the wonder of reproduction, with its main ingredient being a sexual organ, and featuring the contrast of the silky, round, delicate and stuffed flower with the fried, crispy, long and standing version of the flower.

The traditional crispy langoustine dish at Lucas Carton relied on absolutely enormous animals (the size of little lobsters), carefully wrapped in vermicelli and exactly fried, that you would dip in an intense cream of clams and spices. That was a very moving dish, very typical of the Senderens style, with the explosion of the incredible ingredient and the super subtle balance in the spices and the artistic wrapping and frying. Resquiescat in pacem. (Though they told me that they will reintroduce a few Lucas-Carton dishes in the menu soon. But if I remember correctly, that was a 130€ dish in Lucas Carton.)

In earlier days of the Senderens, they tried a very similar recipe replacing Langoustines by Gambas, and that did not work. The good news is, the dish you can see is a streamlining of the concept: they kept the play on texture and the idea of the Thai spices, but rethought the rest. Instead of encouraging my nostalgy of Lucas Carton, they really did invent something new based on the ingredients they have rather than the one they don't want to use anymore.

There is no long and delicate wrapping of the monsters in vermicelli. More commonly sized langoustines are dipped in beer, then rolled in a mixture of phylo dough and almonds. Now the resulting crisp does not try to mimic the incredible lightness and thinness of the former dish, but it brings different textures. The almonds are not sliced but just chopped, so they still crunch significantly, and they bring that almond taste which is between the fruit and a more earthy, smelly thing. I suspect, though I would not bet my shirt on it, that the dip sauce is based on coconut milk. Some fried celery leaves give further depth to the taste, and the pak-choy (Chinese cabbage) on the side offers an opportunity to lighten a few bites while bringing yet another harmony of taste. This dish was the demonstration that the cuisine at Senderens is back on track

Next came a great foie gras with morels. It is poached in chicken stock and vin jaune (yellow wine from the Jura with very characteristics flavours and a very long maturing process). Careful poaching is a great way to prepare first rate foie gras. It highlights how fine they are, makes them melty and light, and allow of course for additional seasoning. Poaching in vin jaune is classic for chicken (see the Poularde at Le Bristol for a textbook execution), just like serving it with morels. The taste of morels, of course, was the actual center of the dish.

This is all the more ironic since, as you can see, they were at first invisible. Because this dish, like every dish but two in this meal, was yet another semi-soup presented soaking an foamy emulsion. Senderens is a great chef, and none of those dishes gave the impression that the emulsion was articially added, but can't we give emulsions a break? My langoustines and my chocolate cake were the only foam-less dishes in this meal. In fine dining those days, emulsions and geometry are the main manierisms and apparently, they leave no one untouched.

Anyway, this was typical, and great Senderens again, because it relied on the force of high quality ingredients perfectly put forward (here mostly that melty foie gras lending its texture to the morels' taste and contrasting with their firmness); but it also relies on a incredibly subtle composition of tastes. Nuts crumbs and celery dices were on top of the foie gras and in the soup, and, while they were never perceptible as such, they clearly highlighted the retro-olfaction of the morels (celery) and the flavours of the vin jaune (nuts). So this is at the same time simplicity itself and an absolutely achieved and complex composition.

No less typically Senderens was the seabass with fennel, rosemary and lemon, a dish that was all about nuances and the Mediterranean flavour. A good roast seabass was served with fennel in firm quarter and and melty slices. A line of mustard draws the frontier between the fennels' territory and the bass', and a thick lemon and rosemary sauce is poured along this line. This is light, all about smells (of iodine, fennel and its similarity with aneth, rosemary) and some acidity to make it more material. The fish was quite fresh and perfectly cooked, eventhough this 39€ dish is obviously no match for the 5kg, fished within 24 hours , seabasses served by Pacaud or Le Squer. It was still great cuisine.
The rule I mentioned about the wines by the glass did not apply with the dish of strawberry: this Riesling "Auslese" 2004 Selbach Oster was wonderful in itself, very sweet and yet light (5°). It was improved by and improved the dish of strawberry, on a pistachio parfait, in an emulsion (of course) of pepper and strawberry. The very dicreet acidity was just enough to underline the sugar and, like the mussels in the beginning of the meal, this is one of these dishes about which you wonder why you should ever stop eating it.
Another Senderens classic is the chocolate cake, "coulant de Samana millésimé 2006, pur cacao de Saint-Domingue, cerise Amerena". Technically, there is that same mixture of an exceptional ingredient, prepared so that it give the best it has, but turned into Senderens art by the composition of flavours. Cherries here were only serving the chocolate taste, and the experience is absolutely intense, the kind of which makes you half close your eyes.

I believe that the most appropriate comparison for this chocolate dessert is female orgasm, because it is both intense and diffuse. Desserts at senderens are always great, but those, like the famous (and recommended) Dacquoise that rely on more acidic flavours are closer to what male satisfaction is like, a brief, localised explosion of pleasure, which tend to abstract you from the world. But that chocolate spreading in your mouth and nose, sending its chocolate vibes to the extremities of your body, strong and tender, made you more present to the world (And I am not a big chocolate fan).

Now this comparison, and this picture, are not only intended to give sense to the words "food porn". Shortly after opening, Senderens was nominated "best before love restaurant in Paris", and this is no misunderstanding. Everything in Senderens cooking, as I already suggested, suggest eroticism. His way of relying of the sheer power of exceptional ingredients, while distillating so much refinment in it, is the very stucture of the seduction game. And the setting is part of it, not only with the recently added red light, grey leather, or that silky touch of the material of which the table are made. The setting of the old Lucas-Carton is also all about eroticism, with its Jugendstill room full of curves, mirrors and warm old wood.

Lunch of 2 september 2007. 323€ for two persons, 234€ without wine.

3 commentaires:

Fabienne a dit…

Quel menu, mais je n'en suis pas surprise...
Senderens, un grand cuisiner !

Anonyme a dit…

I used to be a frequent diner at Lucas Carton before but have not made it back since the switch. Your insightful post makes me want to get on a plane today. This was simply the most in depth and intelligent review I have seen to date of Senderens
Marc DiBiaso

Julot-les-pinceaux a dit…

Thank you Marc, this means a lot coming from you. Senderens is one of those places that makes me miss Paris while making me proud to be French. Call me before you hop on that plane.

Je suis bien d'accord avec toi, Fabienne, Senderens est simplement un des plus grands cuisiniers du monde. Ce melange de subtilite et de brutalite, de nature et de culture, quand il est realise avec toute la virtuosite necessaire, est simplement la cuisine la plus bouleversante que j'ai connue, en six ou sept repas a Lucas Carton, tous absolument exceptionnels.