mercredi 26 mars 2008

Les Ambassadeurs: hard working dilettante

Photos John Mariani

At the end of our dinner at les Ambassadeurs, we were alone in the room, and the remaining young staff offered us to take the coffee « in the lounge » in a way that made it a bit too obvious that they were anxious to have the room to themselves. As we complied with their unspoken request and were seating in that palace lobby, I could see through the glass doors those kids playing and throwing table cloths at each other. And in a way that strucks me as exemplar of exactly how fake, how cynical and desperate that place is. At no point during that whole, rather pleasant evening, did I have any feeling that anyone was actually genuinely trying to create a special moment for me.

It’s like it was all just a game. There seems to be a common belief of le Fooding and other Ratatouilles that fine dining is a ridiculous enterprise, impossible to take seriously, that in the end the only great food belongs to bistrots. It was like this belief had been fully integrated by Jean-François Piège and its staff, running the infinitely impressive restaurant of one of the most impressive palaces in the World.

So the only resource they have left is to be at the same time ironic and cynical about their business. So most Piège dishes are based on something else than making a good dish, a good meal, something pleasant. Here first courses pretend to be like a “TV platter”. There desserts are inspired from pictures in old books, when pastry was a subdiscipline of architecture. Somewhere else, spaghetti carbonara are on the menu – such a transgression!

Of course there’s nothing wrong with these ideas in themselves, and I am the last person to think that a good restaurant needs to be sad and pretentious. Thierry Marx did something really interesting when deconstructing the spaghetti carbonara. Loiseau used to serve stuffed cabbage. But I think it should be good, offer a valuable experience, not a post-modern parody of one.

Take this infamous “blanc manger d’oeuf à la truffe”. On the website of the Crillon, you can actually see Jean-François Piège prepare the dish. It shows an incredible technical mastering. The white are whipped at the exact right consistency, put in a cylinder, the yok is somehow inserted inside so it just floats in the middle. This is cooked with nano-precision, and a rosace of truffle, as you can see, is added on top, and a truffle sauce around it. Of course when you start the dish, you go into the white with your spoon like into thin air, but then you reach the yok and it somehow is just warm and runny. How do you that, O master Piège? Will I, young Padawan, pathetic Karate kid, ever reach that level of sophistication and skills?

Photos Steve Plotnicki

The dish is nothing but impressive. Really. Impressive. Nothing else. Truffles are of limited quality, though they have some of the magic smell. The course lacks any sort of oomph, or wow, or aaahh. No crisp, no acidity, no peps. It would be kind of zen if it was something.

Of course nothing is bad here. One of the best things to my taste was the sweetbread “white and brown”, a very sophisticated construction, which is quite tasty, though by no mean otherwordly. The cooking is precise, though not perfect. And the presentation forces you to be creative – and careful – when eating it. A lobster dish was maybe one of the best things of the evening, inside a crispy cylinder, with a great lobster bisque on the side. It’s like a reminder that they could do great things if they wanted to.

But, you know, they’re over it, beyond that. They have menu holders and plants actually in pots, alive, for herbal teas at the end of the evening. So who needs actual top ingredients as long as they are fancy enough? Truffles were very tasteless, culminating in that double truffle salad dish. Cheeses, though from Master Anthony, were not great.

It’s too bad because they have incredible assets: this room is by far the classiest in town; it feels incredibly good. It is not as pretentious, pseudo-royal as le Meurice or Le Cinq, but it is genuinely, you know, grandiose. The wine list is full of classic wonders at reasonable prices (for a palace, that is). Dinner prices are as high as anywhere else, but the lunch menu features the same absolutely luxurious courses for an incredible bargain. If you’re interested in virtuosity for the sake of it and genuine fanciness, that is.

Desserts, plenty, not bad

It was nevertheless a very pleasant evening that we shared with the great Steve Plotnicki and his friends. He was kind enough to let me use his pictures of the dishes we had. I praise his name... and thank him.

lundi 24 mars 2008

Joyeux anni-veeer-saireuh

Un an de Julot-les-pinceaux aujourd'hui! Hier déjà, en fait. Bon anniversaire, Julot. Il faudra penser à rendre l'interface plus aisée à naviguer, peut-être changer de provider?

dimanche 23 mars 2008

Exquisite and nostalgic Ledoyen

So Vedat Milor loves Ledoyen. In Gastroville, he puts is in the same league as l'Ambroisie. And I value Vedat's opinion. And I had never been to Ledoyen, mind you. So we went together for a wonderful evening. One evidence of how wonderful the evening is our surprise when we went out, that it was 2 a.m. already, and not before midnight as we had imagined. Staying home with the kids, my mother also was surprised by the late hour. So: sorry Maman, and thank you Vedat. Special thanks also to Cathy Ho, who happened to be dining at Ledoyen that night too and was kind enough to let me use the pictures that you see in that post. 

Those pictures will no doubt show you how refined and exquisite that place is. It is like the ultimate romantic, Parisian dinner spot, with its location in the park of the Champs Elysées, both in the middle of the city and country-like. The place started 1791 and, while it is perfectly decent, you sure can feel the history. In the daytime, how used the place is may even show too much. But in the evening, it is like a dream, and sure would expect Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles to come in any time. It makes it all the more surprising and, frankly, odd, that there are so many business tables.

That ultimate refinement is also very apparent in both the amuse and the mignardises. If you take a close look, you will see that, like in some sort of symphony, they actually have a formal similarity. Both are four different bites, the first one like a lollipop, the fourth one on some sort of triangle. Taste wise, the amuses are particularly impressive. As Cathy noticed, they resort to molecular cuisine techniques, like this liquid mozzarella ball, or the lollipop which actually hides a delicious, juicy redmullet. But those techniques, as should always be the case with great chefs, are only used to improve the food experience, and, in that case, highlight the ingredient.

Indeed Ledoyen has top notch ingredients, on par only with l'Ambroisie or Le relais Bernard Loiseau. This was exemplified by what I considered the highlight of a very good meal, the mise en bouche of first (in the season) green vegetables. This was actually exemplary, intense, an experience that opens horizons. Those peas in particular, so incredibly fresh, so crunchy, so full of spring flavours, demonstrate what truly exceptional ingredients cooked with infinite precision and care can be. "Premier matin du monde", they could call it.

Another schockingly good ingredient (among other) was to be found in that infamous langoustine course. There are two different preparations, but the star of the show is the mayonnaise that they spread on the warm langoustine, and which dissolves slowly, strangely moving from the bland, unsurprising taste of Mayonnaise to something more subtle. There again, molecular-like techniques are used for a dish which does not try to play the wow effect usually associated with them. At the same time, this is indeed a non-wow course, and mostly, while it is very interesting and subtle, I am not sure that it brings anything to the exceptional langoustine itself.

Now the same is true, in my opinion, and to a wider extent, of that equally infamous sweetbread. It is roasted on lemongrass and has the most amazing flavours in itself. Serving it on some salsifis also makes a lot of sense. But then the whole subtlety of that dish is overshadowed by a ridiculously strong sauce based on seven different herbs, and also on a very generous use of vinegar. It's not that this sauce did not bring anything to the sweetbread. It actually damaged it.

Truffle is a must in this kind of restaurant at this time of the year. And Ledoyen probably got the best truffles you can find. If that is true (and my experience this year says no different), then it is confirmation that this was a bad season. Mostly those truffle smelled great but tasted close to nothing, not unlike the ones we had earlier in the month at les Ambassadeurs and at La Régalade. That said, I don't think that such a top restaurant should serve truffle at all when they are of unsufficient quality. And at any rate, they should definitely warn serious clients like us. Indeed two truffle based courses were disappointing: a puff pastry one, with an incredible smell at the first bite and nothing after that, and a scallop one that was unremarkable. Expensive disappointments.

(crispy pineapple dessert)

Those disappointments also have to do with a service who does not seem to worry too much about the time sensitivity of dishes. On many occasions, I barely ate warm because we were waiting for the courses of others to arrive or for the explanations and preparations to end. Now this is no major drama, but this reinforces the idea that this is not a food nerd place, unlike l'Ambroisie, l'Arpège, Gagnaire or les Elysées.

While ingredients and technical quality are at the highest level, recipes are more refined than intense, and they are clearly more geared towards being pleasant than maximising their impact. They actually make for a gentle, subtle, very civilised way to accompany an exquisite moment. In that way, Ledoyen is the ultimate super-date, proposal dinner. It is impressive yet warm, high quality yet not distracting. It is a unique place that seems to prolounge an old conception of fancy dinner, using exceptional ingredients and state-of-the-art techniques. At stratospheric prices (count 300 to 400 eur per person).

Desserts were extraordinary. In particular that caramel based one was incredibly intense and subtle -- actually too strong at the end of a degustation meal, but the whole table ended up sharing it. The pinapple iced soufflé was, on the opposite, incredibly light and flavourful.

mardi 18 mars 2008

Whose fairy tale exactly?

"You say yes to Hillary and you won't have to worry about your future", said Bill Clinton somewhere in a townhall meeting in Pennsylvania yesterday. Who's telling a big fairy tale now?

Les Magnolias

Les Magnolias is the restaurant of Jean Chauvel, a 33 year-old talented chef who has an exemplary and fashionable background (the Conticinis at la Table d'Anvers, Christian Constant at le Crillon), and claims to deliver a "creative version of the French gastronomic cuisine". He is abundantly talken about as he offers a clearly creative menu for 55 euros. I finally had a chance to visit the place and taste its funny-named dishes.

In a way, the amuses were very representative of the what the meal would be: there was a cylinder of beet jelly with some sparkling powder on top, and a leaf of parsley. It sure is funny when it pops in your mouth, reminiscent of childhood memory. But this bit was not interesting in any way. It came with a pumpkin a mozzarella soup yet, which was very good and very subtly made, the liquid mozzarella creating an unexpected perfect match with the sweet pumpkin soup, giving it the little oomph that it naturally misses.

I mentioned funny named dishes: take this starter of snails, the highlight of the meal. As you see, it is designed as a little walk of snails. The walk (sortie) is called "risquée" (risky), which I guess reflect on the fact that the snails are now dead. Now those snails are in a fried ball, under their shell. The shell is filled with some sort of garlicky vegetables in mayo. It is lying on a "sod": cubes of brocoli in jelly. The whole thing is "under a rain of lettuce": they come with a little watering-can and pour lettuce juice over your plate. On the side is a lettuce soup with snails inside, and an additional fried snail ball.

Now this is a funny idea. But it is mostly a very good dish, based on a now very classic recipe -- snails with green. Remember Loiseau's nettle soup? Well, that's very close. And it is well made, with very fresh, very well cooked broccoli, decent lettuce juice. So the design does not impact the quality of the food overall. That is, if you except that it is very complicated to eat (brocolis cubes to big for a bite, while you off course have to take those big snail balls in one bite), and it is so big that by the time you reach then end of it, it is cold and soggy.

Then came another example of how a funny idea, even well executed, does not necessarily make for a good dish. They call it "sandwich jambon beurre à boire", and it is served in a funny glass including a straw, on which they spectacularily grind some toast. It does taste of ham and butter, and vaguely bread. It seems to be some ham-infused cream thickened with butter. It is funny and hard to not drink entirely, especially since you have to drink the whole think before you reach the crumbs on top, since your straw comes from the bottom. But honestly, it is just disgusting.

The main was called "violent passion of a guinea fowl". No idea what is violent or passionate about this course. The main theoretical attraction is the "émulsion de gratin dauphinois", a liquid potato gratin. In effect, it is a creamy sauce with a vague potato flavour. It mostly demonstrates, a contrario, that the "Gratin dauphinois" appeal is largely about texture. But it comes on top a low-temperature cooked guinea-fowl breast. Very good meat there, maybe very slightly undercooked. The rice chip on top is a great idea, more so than the celery slice at the bottom and the citrus confit. With the "liquid gratin", the chip and the tender and juicy meat, this course has a nice balance of texture. More interesting is the second plate: the dark meat (more tasty of course, perfectly cooked) lies in a bergamot juice, the same liquid gratin and fine rice chip on top.

The whole thing is served with a very traditional, very unsurprising potato purée, with little potato bites inside. And then, as a final note, there is that green tea with spice and oranges, and finally a simply brilliant sweet macaron with mustard, finishing on a hot and sour note, bringing together two unlikely flavours.

The dessert was less interesting, if at all. Small cylinders of chocolate and passion pudding are hidden under bits of thin white and dark chocolate, with coconuts. The whole thing lies on a bed of passion fruit and a ball of very good sorbet. It's good, nothing noteworthy. Very nice, very personal wine list. The whole place is located in an unlikely suburb. All in all, it is a good restaurant, at good prices, with some uninteresting manierism.

lundi 17 mars 2008

Acajou: très bon, pas cher

On mange vraiment très bien au restaurant Acajou, 35 bis rue La Fontaine, 01 42 88 04 47. C'est un joli petit restaurant d'angle, avec des décorations par l'artiste des rues qui a aussi fait l'hôtel des académies et des arts. Il y a un menu à 40 eur avec un verre de vin et un café. C'est une très belle cuisine de produits, où des ingrédients très frais et de très belle qualité s'expriment superbement, tous bien identifiés et mis en valeur par des combinaisons bien maîtrisées.

Ce jour-là, une brochette de Saint Jacques avec des tomates cerises, des petits champignons de Paris, des courgettes et des échalotes sur un nid de roquette parfaitement assaisonnées. On ne peut pas manger de tout dans une seule bouchée, mais toutes les combinaisons marchent superbement.

Ensuite un pavé de bar parfait, juteux et brillant, avec un petit coulis d'épices qui, en fait, laisse le poisson intact en bouche mais interagit superbement avec la purée de carottes jaunes qui accompagne. Celle-ci a tout le goût de fruit du légume cueilli la veille, et toute l'onctuosité de la purée de pomme de terre de Robuchon, qu'on attend aussi bien avec des carottes et presque pas de beurre. Des jeunes feuilles de betterave amène un contrepoint sucré presque génial.

Le dessert, c'était un financier maison, croustillant dessous et riche mais pas gras dedans, un sorbet de citron superbe, et une très jolie rosace de quartiers à vif de pamplemousses jaunes et rouges. C'est très joli mais il y en a trop par rapport au financier. Le tout est posé sur un jus au basilic qui unit intelligemment le tout.

Bref, c'est une petite maison pour de la grande cuisine pas prétentieuse. Je ne lui connais pas de concurrent à ce niveau de cuisine et de prix.