mercredi 8 octobre 2008

L'Ambroisie, trop belle pour toi

L'Ambroisie on a late September Thursday night -- party of four. My overwhelming impression was that of an extremly civilised place, and even, quite frankly, of a place reserved to the happy few. Clearly, the restaurant is not even interested in making you the meal of your life. Not even a very special party. They're focused on an aristocratic model of almost daily "you can't afford it if you have to ask about the price" food model. The setting (which is starting to get old) reinforces an impression of old French nobility, pretending to be holders of century old secrets when, in fact, the secrets are those of Claude Peyrot from the 1980s. The spirit is pre-revolutionary, ancien régime -- you're in or you're out.

I arrived early and asked le Moullac what was off the menu that day - nothing, everything is in there, he said. But then the next table had lobster ravioli and wild duck pie, both off menus. It's funny, not ha-ha funny, that a scarred abandoned child has constructed something so clearly based on the historical heritage idea, a place that is in every regard mimicking some imaginary lordship and "medieval" tradition. It's also striking how the place that, ten years ago, was still a violent, schocking place (by the power of food) that produced life-changing taste experiences has turned into something so fundamentally smooth, refined, polished and self-assured. And while we're in the funny department, it is also the evolution that the Relais Bernard Loiseau followed. But Bernard Pacaud did not die. Or did he?

Maybe you'd like more detail about the actual food? It started with the usual gougères, temperature was nice, texture mastered, taste absent. Then, following the almost scene I made about our neighbors having lobster raviolis (or maybe just pretending to respond to my remarks when actually going as planned?), we succeeded in having some as amuses. The lobster cream was deliciously delicious, while the lobster itself was overcooked. All night, one of the co-diners, who liked it a lot, referred to it as "the mousse".

I got the chaud froid d'oeufs mollets, crème de céleri, caviar, one of the highlights though not the "wow" I expected. Two oeufs mollets, cold, are lying on a nice veal gelée (carefully reduced, no gelatine in there) that also embeds the Iranian caviar (probably not enough for both eggs). They pour a truly incredible celeriac cream on top of the dish, and, as you "go in", the yolk becomes a liant for the whole dish, particularly magical when you reach the caviar.

Another member of my party had some rougets with cèpes and a sauce of which she asked more -- but I did not taste it. I did taste the foie gras which was good not great and, most schockingly, wrapped in an old, stingy pepper -- more itchy than hot. No big deal, but it gave the feeling of eating food from a common charcuterie de village.

The four of us then had the famous seabass with caviar sauce and sliced artichoke. The caviar sauce, hardly sophisicated, is indeed perfect and intense. The seabass was as fresh as they say, but it was a tad overcooked to my taste, showing some of that paper feeling in the mouth. I told them and they told me they would know for next time that I like my fish at the lowest possible degree of cooking, just more evidence that l'Ambroisie is conceived for regulars.

The sweetbread "à la grenobloise" was better looking than it tasted. It was braisé, with the characteristic associated texture, and some fancy rings of melba toasts hanging on rosemary pikes, which were planted in the sweetbread. The charlotte de macaronis on the side actually steals the show. There's no question to me that the night before's sweetbread at Tante Louise, for one third of the price, was much better. And the Tante Louise sweetbread came with small girolles that were also better than the girolles served on the side of the pigeon at l'Ambroisie. That night, the l'Ambroisie girolles looked good too, like the sweetbread, but they were tasteless and not firm. Those girolles were the major letdown of the night. The pigeon was actually an excuse for garlic -- why not, but again, nothing to write home about.

Once again I had the best choice, which was lamb, extremly tender, and luckily so since it was basically rare. It came with some "nougatine" of garlic and almonds, unpractical to eat and not particularly useful for the dish. The only real wow of the night was the carrots on top of the artichoke on the side. There were three small slices, but they were moving and magical, slighly acidic, greatly flavourful, very crunchy and yet cooked (my guess is: cooked in white wine). And they came with plenty of absolutely excellent lamb juice to add on my plate. I mentioned recently, about Briffard, that only a handful of chefs do juices as well he does. Pacaud is one of them.

Cheeses were very good, though none was extraordinary. The famous chocolate tarts and vanilla ice cream did not disappoint for dessert, while the cheesecake was, I hate to say it, ordinary, and the peaches in the peach soup were not ripe enough. Le Moullac offered a Vouvray moelleux for apéritif that was thoroughly delicious. The "Winston Churchill" champagne was appropriate in these times of crisis, and a Puligny-Montrachet was chosen by Le Moullac to end the meal and it was everything you'd expect of such a wine.

After the meal I thought that I should reincorporate Ledoyen in my first tier restaurant list. Not because it suddently grew better, but because I can't argue anymore that l'Ambroisie is a better restaurant. And Ledoyen, expensive as it is, is less expensive than l'Ambroisie and offers the tasting menu with wine pairing at 284€. Not to mention that the menu with wine pairing at le Cinq is 210€, and I just find it better than both.

De L'Ambroisie

Now, don't get me wrong: this was an excellent night in an incredibly special setting, with service that grew even more friendly and adapting to our tastes as the night went on. The bill was still ca 1700€ for four, and at that price, as I said, they don't even try to make it the meal of your life and it is by any standard far from perfect, even though it is no doubt unique. But when money is no object, I understand why you would want to make this place your home. And I'm sure they'll do much better now that they know me better. If I give them a chance.

Thanks to our generous hosts.

8 commentaires:

Unknown a dit…

I'd like to take issue with this review, which I think raises interesting "philosophical" questions about how one of the world's greatest restaurant should operate.

First, the trend today is every talented or semi-talented guy wants to be on TV all the time not cooking for any normal human beings OR wants to have 15 restaurants with a corresponding attenuation cascade of what probably wasn't even so great to begin with when it existed in it's proto-unique state.

L'Ambroisie, by contrast, has for two decades plus taken the complete opposite approach. The world's most talented chef never leaves the kitchen. Normal humans get to eat his food instead of TV personalities. By contrast, in NYC, Tom Colicchio (who doesn't have 1/10th of Pacaud's talent) has his underling's underling running his "flagship" resto Craft as Tom screws off on Top Chef and his #2 underling Damon Wise jets around overseeing the empire. Makes me love Pacaud! Yes, let's compare to Pacaud with what exists.

If super regulars are getting things out of the kitchen the unknown people don't get, I feel it's very forgiveable. Just like I'd lend my friend a hundred bucks before I'd lend it to a stranger.

In fact, I'd propose a restaurant business model that maybe should go even more super-insider. What if the best restaurant went more extreme treating the regular customers as family. That has potential.

Unknown a dit…

I think this is the best review of the restaurant I have seen so far. It captures the essence of l'Ambroisie as what it is: the club canteen of the local aristocracy/grande bourgeoisie. The food has been the same for a long time and that's ok for the people who go there. "Trop belle pour toi" is a nice way of saying "you don't belong here". Pricing is used as a tool to keep the ordinary(i.e. non French aristrocracy) man out. Should you still desire to go, they will make it a one off experience for you.

Unknown a dit…

I think 'Trop belle pour toi' is the exact opposite of what's going on there. If you want to eat Tom Colicchio's cooking, you gotta appear on a TV show. If you want to eat Pacaud's you just need to buy yourself lunch. He's there overseeing everything.

Having the main guy there working is the model I prefer. If they charge high prices to max profit, that doesn't bother me, but having the guy turn himself into a brand and run 10 places does bother me.

Mathieu Pacaud is on Facebook and friends with people who have never eaten in his restaurant. How is that snobbishness? Good luck making Facebook friends with Thomas Keller.

Unknown a dit…

BTW, how do you know the guys who got the Tourte de Canard didn't call ahead and ask for it?

Anonyme a dit…

agree fully with Scott... Chez Pacaud is rare greatness of spirt and cooking in this day and age modern brand name celeb chef soulless restaurant business. No restaurant is for everybody and the club like atmosphere i adore at l'Ambroisie simply might night work for everybody.
Even when dish is slightly off a bit at l'Ambroisie there is still a great spirit there. I truly appreciate the fact that in Pacaud's kitchen there are 2 modern machines besides the ice cream/sorbet maker a small robocoupe and a kitchen aid blender..true spirit of the hand and real technique not dialing up some sous vide thermal regulator that any design school graduate can program.. well of course the quality of ingredients are truly extraordinary as well! So many dishes at chez Pacaud are etched permanently in my memory. If you follow the suggestions of M. Pascal on the menu and guide yourself through the winelist you will usually end up with at least an excellent experience and most of the time a otherworldly one..
Now on to Thomas Keller he gave the america some thing good for a moment and then lost his the example he gives to young chefs is see who can get 5 restaurants faster than the next untrained top iron chef in front of him... oh well

La Tache 1962 a dit…

agree in total with scott...Pacaud is a true artisan he does not even feel comfortable passing into the dining room in l'Ambroisie he is in the kitchen. With only 2 modern machines besides the ice cream/sorbet maker being a small robocoupe and a kitchen aid blender. In today's very many brand name soulless restaurant business with a kitchen full young design school graduate kids programming sous vide thermal regulator machines to as Thomas Keller says "have a consistent product"(see the new under pressure book coming to a borders near you)one should find Pacaud a extraordinary spirit. With unreal ingredient sources and great technique of the hand Pacaud is a true genius. So many dishes are etched in memory as otherworldly at chez Pacaud some are at least excellent to extraordinary. Now not every restaurant is for everybody ..i adore the spirit at l'Ambroisie others might not find enough bells and whistles or large enough stemware.

Anonyme a dit…

I find the review most interesting in the sense that I have visited L'Ambroisie several times and have felt -gradually- the same way as Julot. My first meal there was quite simply the most memorable meal in my life. Unreal the whole way. Then, I started to see chinks in the armour... to the point I fully agree with Julot... "Trop belle pour toi" sums it up to some extent. The fact that Pacaud does not show up in the restaurant to greet custimers is, imho, a very positive point as I dislike the "celebrity chef" spirit/fashion altogether.. without wanting to take away any credit from them, of course. But the fact remains that I did not got blown away anymore and less and less so... while service is certainly aristocratic, it's still relaxed enough and certainly very fine... wine service... well, I'm seriously into wine so better not talk about this... but it's the food that got me thinking... some tastes were not very precise... same goes with the cooking... the unbalance in certain dishes, such as a totally unnecessary side dish of mac&cheese with the otherworldy poulette de bresse... well... all things together still excellent but not for the price tag... And I feel pretty much thinking... I might give them a chance again... might...

Anonyme a dit…

I agree that "L'Ambroisie" is more expensive disappointment among 3-stars in Paris when I dined April 2007. I would prefer to spend the same amount of money at Arpage or have two meals at other places.