I finally realized what dining at a 3 star Michelin place meant when I tasted the first course at Au Crocodile, a whole duck foie gras accompanied by "pommes royal gala" (apples two ways - a puree and baked slices with cinnamon). The foie gras had an impeccable texture - firm with a soft crunch on the well cooked exterior while being juicy, unctious and meltingly tender on the inside. The richness of the liver was perfectly cut by the acid and sweetness of the apples in their two forms for textural complexity. Emile Jung, the chef/owner, understands not only flavors and their combination, but also psychology, awakening the barest touch of cinnamon in the apples by placing a stick of cinnamon on the dish next to the apples, a masterly use of the power of suggestion. These flavors added up to dizzying heights, only to be raised higher by a glass of Tokay Pinot Gris - another layer of sweetness, and the distinctive smokiness from the aged wine that resonated perfectly with the crispy and equally smoky surface of the foie gras. Places like Lucas Carton in Paris have done wonderful pairings with food and wine, all calculated artfully and brilliantly, but in my travels this last month in France, I was hard pressed to find a wine that took to a dish so naturally, like love at first sight. It must have been a kind of native affinity between a wine and a dish that both originated in the same land of Alsace. This was a gastronomic experience that has forever colored my taste memories, a sensation that has become the unconscious measure of other dishes and restaurants. I've had foie gras before, but that evening, I was educated.
Before that wonderful foie gras were 3 amuse bouches - an intense and creamy shrimp or lobster bisque of some sort with a fragrance not unlike that from dried shrimp that is common in Chinese cooking, a lovely piece of smoked salmon with dill and creme fraiche, and a little square of terrine bordered by a thick gelee.
Next a small slab of perfectly roasted fish resting on a bed of mashed chestnuts with a red butter sauce. A lovely piece, but what could compare to that foie gras?
The next dish came close (but the foie gras was superior in the end) - scallops that have donned the golden perfume of marsala. I could smell it 2 metres away, a fragrance that was gently spicy but never overpowering. This dish was a study in textures - succulent scallops on a slice of soft potato and topped with a crisp of paper-thin beet. On the side, a crispy fried mint leaf and supple and delicate sticks of cooked celery. Perfect when little pieces of everything are in the mouth at the same time.
Then something light: a beet soup with quenelles (dumplings) made from white cheese. Well spaced smoky notes come from microscopic bits of bacon and soft tiny crunches from equally micropic bits of onion. Floating in the soup is a small tip of parsley, the green leaves spread out and wavering in the red liquid. The clever menu planning is evident in the placement of a light soup before the heavy venison that was to come next.
The venison arrives with a dark red wine sauce, and there are hints of star anise and cinnamon, once again subtlely revealed by the presence of a cinnamon stick and a whole star anise, leaning 2 slices of baked apple. The heavy red sauce is given a sweet touch from stewed cherries on the nearby potato galette. The composition is complete.
Next the cheese course. I think Emile Jung likes goat cheese a lot, because at Au Crocodile, there are two cheese carts, one for regular cheese and one dedicated to goat cheese. That dedication is well placed - I picked one with herbs and it was a revelation. The cheese is mild and soft and essentially distintegrates into a million particles on the palate. And then the particles melt away. My amazement and pleasure was impossible to disguise. Another cheese that stood out was the munster, the local Alsatian cheese. This one was smoky and pungent and full of engaging personality.
After that, the first dessert. It was a whole fig wrapped in crisp pastry and baked. The fig is clean and mild and not as jammy as I've come to expect (it's not fig season) but worked as a palate cleanser. Instead, the fruity tones came from strawberries and a bright strawberry sauce, with the brittle cruncy interjections from toasted almond slices.
The last dessert is a treat - creamy white parfait with a center of cherry sorbet - a lovely combination of rich cream with tart fruit. Flavor reinforcements in the form of stewed fruit (strawberries, cherries and raspberries).
Lastly, an array of minature tarts, and chocolate truffles. I go gently into the good night.
P.S. a word on the service. I made reservations late (that same afternoon) and ended up in the front room instead of the grand dining room. Bummer. But it made me appreciate the quality of their service. There were only 2 other tables taken in this room, and the whole time, we had 2 dedicated waitstaff, who would stand and survey the room when they were not bringing out the plates, presenting the dishes, and warming the plates once more with a burner on the side table before finally serving it. Nothing like this in any other place I ate at; elsewhere, the waitstaff were wonderful, but also moving continously. That level of hospitable attention at Au Crocodile was unprecendented.