A friend took a long weekend in Paris (a long time ago now) in an attempt to accumulate as many stars as possible. He did an excellent job. More importantly, he took the time to catalog everything. Here is his report:
As many of you know, birthday celebrations in our family are often celebrated as surprises–my 16th, 25th, 33rd, and 34th birthdays (I know, how could I be surprised two years in a row?) were all successful surprise parties. But as this year I turned 35 and for someone who studied Dante as much as I did the35th year has significance (according to Dante (and the Bible), a man’s life should span 70 years, hence the midpoint is 35), I wanted to celebrate by doing something significant without the fear of the shock of something unexpected (and totally new). After much discussion, Bridget and I decided that we would celebrate our birthdays (Bridget’s birthday is three weeks after mine) in Paris, a city we grew to love on account of the two years that we lived there in the early 1990’s. It also allowed us to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes (Bridget would call it a sport)–dining at the top restaurants in the world.
Getting away from our responsibilities at work was not that difficult. With email and voicemail, we can almost be wizards of Oz, sending messages in the middle of the night that make it seem like we are still at work. But slipping away from Aurora was a bit more complicated. First, we felt guilty about leaving our very sophisticated daughter at home when she too could be going to Paris for a food fest. Second, we couldn’t conceive how she could get on without us? Who would indulge her every whim and desire? What would happen when she woke up at 6am? Could she live without our> company as she watched Barney or Sesame Street? The reality as we soon found out is that she gets on fine without us. She stayed with my mother and does not appear to have outstayed her welcome. Third, and most importantly, we had not really been ready for a “get away” until now. But after two years of early morning wake ups, we were indeed ready for a short vacation.
So off we went to Paris and thanks to the “connaissance” of a couple of my relatives, we were able to get reservations at three incredible, three-star restaurants in Paris–Jamin, Lucas-Carton, and Pierre Gagnaire. I include the menus and brief descriptions for those of you who, like us, like to gorge yourselves. And for the rest of you, this is fodder for much abuse (I’m sure I will receive when I next see you).
Restaurant Jamin–made famous by Joel Robuchon and his mashed potatoes is now in the hands of one of his “disciples” (not my description but the standard description in France where Monsieur Robuchon is treated like a God). Jamin is a very conservative restaurant, both in terms of decor and cusine. The service is formal but lacks the militaristic attention to detail that seems to permeate the three star operations in Paris (where the waiters stand at attention all the time, surveying the dinner landscape for situations that require a new napkin or a second fork (to enable one person to taste another’s dish)). At Jamin, we begain with a tiny pizza, no bigger than a silver dollar made of leeks and cheese, which went very well with the champagne (a small producer I had not heard of before) we started with. Then the chef sent out a demitasse cup in which we found a crabmeat supspended in aspic with an avocado coulis on top of it. Although it may sound strange, it was excellent. To start, I had a chicken sausage (these things sound better in French I find) which was truly outstanding. It was incredibly light, almost like a quennelle, and lacked a casing. The sausage was surrounded by morrel mushrooms in a delicious cream and a carmelized sugar and meat sauce that complemented the woodsy mushrooms. Bridget had shrimp in a vegetable broth with spring vegetables which was straightforward and excellent. We both had fish for dinner (and a Meurseult as a wine)–I had a turbot on a bed of pureed peas surrounded by snow peas and Bridget had Saint Pierre with more spring time vegetables (peas, favas, tiny fennel bulbs, etc). For dessert, we had ananas victoria which is essentially pineapple sauteed in vanilla butter with a bit of genoise cake and some whipped cream–again straightforward but well executed and a couple of selections from the dessert cart–a rubarb tart and a pineapple, pistachio, and merigue cake. I must note that Bridget does not approve of dessert carts. She feels they demonstrate a laziness in terms of presentation. I would tend to agree that they don’t leave one impressed, but they do show how a kitchen thinks about dessert. And again, Jamin is extremely conservative–its desserts were very traditional. Overall, Jamin is an excellent restaurant for those of you who like tradition, but it lacks the drama you would find at other places in this letter.
Lucas-Carton–just off the Place Madleine. Art nouveau decor, super formal service, with a surprisingly modern take on a classic french menu. Lucas-Carton is the home of Alain Senderens who, like Robuchon, is one of the top French chefs and who has modernized the classic recipies, introducing new ingredients into traditional dishes. I happen to really like his cookbooks and have used them often (or at least the few times a year when I do cook). We started again with champagne, this time produced for Lucas-Carton–I found this a bit too dry for my tastes but if you like dry champagne you can get it at Sherry Lehman in New York. We received from the Chef razor clams with baby leeks, ginger, and cream. The addition of the ginger was an interesting touch. Then there was a martini glass filled with a ivory colored soup with apple matchsticks on its surface. This was very good, salty, sweet,and creamy. It turned out to be a cream of sole. I liked the taste but thought we were eating some leftover sauce that had missed its plates. We ordered a Pouilly fume as we were both having lighter meats that evening. I had lobster served with a polenta prepared with the lobster eggs. It was excellent and very pretty with the yellow/orange polenta offset against the red and white lobster. Bridget had “asperagus cooked and raw” which were two very large asperigi (if my latin serves me here), split open and filled with veal reduction. Accompanying the two spears were shredded raw apagus that was arranged like a bird’s nest. We thought the asparagus dish was good but not awesome. Bridget had lobster in a bourbon vanilla butter sauce as her main course and it was awesome. I think this is one of the trademark dishes at Lucas-Carton and the combination of the sweet lobster and the vanilla permeated our table. I had roast chicken with perserved lemon and fennel which was also very good. For me roasting a chicken is a real test of one’s cooking ability, and this was very juicy yet crisp–just as I like it. I had the cheese course (livarot, roquefort, a chevre, and epoisse) and then we had dessert. Bridget had a pistachio ice cream with chocolate crisps and a raspberry sauce and I had candied orange peel with bitter chocolate sorbet. I think the french make the best ice cream in the world. I know some may disagree–italian gelato is so (too) dense and rich; american ice cream is so imaginative–but the french do classic flavors better than any other place I have been, and they seem to always deliver their ice cream at the absolutely correct consistency. It seems like the ice cream is only a minute away from melting but is always still intact. Lucas carton is right up there with Taillevent. The service is imppecable. Perhaps a bit formal but that is how I like it. The waiters stand at the center of each dining room, watching diners carefully and always refill our glasses without our having to ask them. The rooms are small and the tables are beautifully set in a very classy sort of way (white tablecloths, custom designed plates and silverware, reste-couteaux for the knives. If you like food more or less traditional but with a twist here and there, then Lucas-Carton is for you.
Our last stop was Pierre Gagnaire, a restaurant that opened after we had returned to the States. Unlike Jamin at which both Bridget and I had eaten and Lucas Carton where Bridget had been before, Gagnaire was new to both of us. All we knew was that Chef Gagnaire had had three stars in his restaurant in Burgundy or the Loire but that his restaurant had gone bankrupt. People said it was on account of the avant-guard nature of his cooking and the fact that the town in which he located his restaurant was not a natural tourist destination so it relied on locals who were not interested in his cooking. He had moved to Paris and was now located in a hotel off the champs elysees. Sometimes the best experiences are those you are unprepared for. I could not have imagined that our final dinner was going to be a gastronomic cirque du soleil. As some of you know, Bridget and I do not have exactly the same taste in aesthetics. She favors more traditional furniture and designs So her eyes were happy at Jamin where the decor was early 19th century. We were both happy at Lucas Carton where the art nouveau decor appealed to both of us. But I was happy at Gagnaire. It is an extremely modern looking restaurant without being unharmonious. It is done all in blondish woods and green grey walls. It had a cool feel to it, not withstanding the velocity with which the waitstaff whisked in and out of the room. As is the case in most all the top restaurants in France, the chef’s wife handles the front of the house. Mme. Gagnaire escorted us to our table. The tables are white (but each table is laid with three white tablecloths, each of which has a different texture–the top was plain white linen, the second which was only ever so much bigger than the first was a white on while stripe, and the third was white on white tiny polkadots. The place setting was very simple white plates and very traditional french silverware. I should have recognized that when you start with plain white plates, you are making a statement–that the food will blow you away. I will let the complexity and abundance of the menu do the talking.
The first thing to arrive was a rectangular silver pan filled with bread crumbs and six potato chips. Upon further inspection and nibbling, we discovered that they were not all potato chips–only two were potato, the others were beet chips and carrot chips. In a demitasse cup there were also two nearly transparent cheese crisps with flecks of pepper visible throughout. We were served four different kinds of bread–pain au lait, buckwheat, chestnut, and traditional. Then we received various dishes from the chef–a cucumber and mango foam in a martini glass, oyster and clam tempura, spanish mussels on a timbale of finely chopped zucchini, and an anchovy cream with tiny gnocchi. We had a delicious Champagne (Salmon-Billancourt or something like that). We had not ordered a thing yet. I cannot do justice to the menu. Each dish had a name that referred to the theme of the dish, but each dish was composed of numerous sub-dishes (if you will) so it was hard to keep everything straight even as one ordered. The menu was sufficiently elaborate that Bridget said to me, “let’s not order the degustation menu as I am not sure I am that hungry this evening”. Read on.
Bridget seemed to have a thing for dishes that had the word “Spring” in their description on this trip. She ordered the Selection Printemps which had four different plates including sauteed frog with mushrooms, terrnine of rabbit, marinated abelone, and a very sweet soup of spring peas. I began with a dish entitled “Memories of Catalan” which translated into a plate of the smallest squid I have ever seen. A whole squid would have been no longer than 2-3 cm. They were served in a light saffron sauce with raddichio. The bodies of the squid were stuffed with I think must have been a mixture of bitter greens and finely chopped orange rinds. This was a delicious combination. Accompanying this dish was catalan spaghetti (greenish twigs that tasted like fennel seed) with a deep fried, breaded duck liver ball, chic peas, and a tiny piece of skate fish. I do not know Spanish cuisine well enough but I can say two things–each ingredient was probably deeply symbolic of the cuisine of Spain and you probably couldn’t find anything like this in Spain, except at that restaurant El Bulli where the chef may be more of a crazy-genius than Pierre Gagnaire. We had a cote rotie this evening to span the various dishes we ordered. My main dish was venison cooked “a l’enfer” (how could I miss out on something described as infernal) which meant it was cooked quickly in a very hot oven–we call that broiling…The venison came with what appeared to be mache lettuce (also known as lambs ears lettuce) and some pretty yellow and pink flowers. It was served with a sauce diable, a moderately spicy pan juices and tomato gravy. On another plate was a tiny caillette (a baby quail) stuffed with a variety of organ meats (I know not which) , on another was what appeared to be pieces of venison liver in an orange marmelade sauce, and on a third I had a “cake” made from roasting juices and cinammon with a mousse of chevre cheese and a blueberry/mirtilles sauce. Bridget turned the tables on me this evening. She had a roasted chicken with modern version of pommes anna–except there was only the crust. Call it six two inch in diameter potato rounds layered against each other and fried to a crackling crisp and served with a single cooked prune on top. On another plate was shredded chicken thighs cooked with some brown sugar sitting on a bed of what appeared to be bitter greens and a few carefully placed sweet peas. On top of the shredded chicken lay a very thin disk of carmelized sugar infused with cumin. I liked this quite a bit.
At this point, I was stuffed, in fact the last time I was so stuffed was
10 years ago when we went to Troisgros with our good friend and gastronomic mentor Vincent Giroud. Although I thought I was going to explode halfway through the meal and was duped into believing that the fruit cart that came after the meal was the dessert cart (there was another dessert cart that followed with actual sweets), I had seen Vincent–all 145 pounds of him– polish off a gigantic meal without even breaking a sweat. So I had inspiration to last a few more dishes. Bridget reminded me that I knew of techniques to increase my capacity to eat. When I was very little, I had a Hungarian aunt whose husband was in the food (unfortunately instituional) business and for whom food equalled love. When my sister and I used to visit her, my aunt would treat us like french geese being prepared to make foie gras. If we couldn’t finish whatever she placed before us, she would suggest that we walk around the table until our hunger came back. Then more food would be piled on. 30 years later, I was not going to march around the restaurant waiting for my appetite to return. I used my will power (and greed) to steady myself for what was to come.
Bridget and I agreed to order only one dessert–Gagnaire’s fantasie des desserts. Just the name alone indicated that this like everything else at this restaurant came with multiple dishes. We girded ourselves for the seven desserts that were to arrive. Only now do I see the dantesque nature of this meal–these were nothing more than the seven deadly sins making their way into the dining room. But I digress. There was a “margarita” which was essentially a frozen margarita with a very foamy head–an alcoholic intermezzo if you will. A kirch flavored gelatin with wild strawberries and a strawberry coulis which was very good. A passion fruit mousse served with a vanilla sugar crisp in a chocolate cup. A mille feuille/chocolate tower composed of chocolate wafers and bitter and milk chocolate ganache layers . Cooked fruit (apples, pears, and peaches) on a cake. A very strange frozen yogurt-flavored yogurt served with a sauce of extra-virgin olive oil. ( I have always thought “extra-virgin” is one of the best marketing concepts ever created. Could someone please explain what could be more virgin than virgin?) A coffee semi-freddo made with taboule and what appeared to be a licorice-flavored coffee sauce. And finally marshmallows. Two white cubes dusted in powered sugar. They had a very floral bouquet to them–frankly,the smelled like a fancy talcum power to me. Can’t say either of us liked them, but having eaten everything else placed before us, Bridget and I looked at each other and
said “pourquoi pas” and down they went.