I think Christian Etienne has something of an Iron chef in him. The Michelin Guide indicates that the tomato menu is one of his specialities. And on a "scouting mission" where I looked over the menu, his all lobster menu caught my eye. That's what I'm getting, I told myself.
A day later, I was finally seated in the restaurant. It's just around the corner from the Pope's palace, and almost seems like part of the same structure. I get the last table, which although nice, is unfortunate. I'm seated in the modern dining room instead of the beautiful historical room that was once a Pope's residence, complete with the original elegantly painted walls replete with old and tasteful patterns.
I'm a fickle guy, and when I spot the Menu Confiance, a secret series of dishes chosen by the chef, the lobster menu is quickly abandoned. I'm not told what the dishes are ("They are a surprise.") but the maitre'd checks with me about my likes and dislikes. ("I eat everything.")
They keep me busy with a plate of amuse bouches while the kitchen schemes. First, a gougere, a truly tasty drumette of fried chicken and a thin slice of bread with cheese and some wonderous pesto. It makes a stronger statement than the Roman walls - the Italians never really left.
Next, a sweet and creamy soup made from squash or pumpkin, with crunchy little grains of crispy rice, light and fragrance - think rice crispies after an expensive make-over. Great flavors and even better textural interplay.
The first dish is a whole lobe of roasted duck foie gras. It is all the more powerful because it brought back the satisfying memory of foie gras at Au Crocodile. This version is similar, but Jung's creation is unbeatable. Etienne's version is classic and he takes no risks. Apples are cut into little matchsticks that light up the foie gras with acidity and subtle sweetness while a richer and more intense sweetness comes from the dark red sauce; I guessing it's a fig reduction of some sort.
Next, a greaseless and shatteringly crisp tempura of rouget (red mullet). The fish is so light that it almost levitates. It is a great fish, but it is the bed of chopped and stewed tomatoes underneath that thoroughly steal the show. Questions abound. It is late fall; where did they get such amazing tomatoes? How can tomatoes be so rich and so pure in flavor? And more tantalizingly, what would they taste like in the summer? Bright, sweet and sour, their arresting redness and juicy flavors arrives at the Platonic definition of tomatoes. What a glorious reminder of the Roman presence. Beside the tomatoes, the sauce take a supporting role, echoing rosemary and basil and what looked to me like shreds dried scallops, the kind that Chinese use to flavor stocks. I almost don't believe myself about the dried scallops, but I think it's plausible, given the international outlook of this restaurant, as reflected in Californian and Australian selections on the wine list.
Then a lovely half lobster, whose succulence contrasts well with the leafy green spinach. The sauce is also intriguing - the quality of its fragrance is almost curry-like but not exactly. Some blend of cumin and coriander perhaps?
After the lobster, my third partridge at Avignon. This one is fabulous. A parchment-thin slice of bacon and wild mushrooms celebrate the moist bird's wilder nature, while celery crisps exert a taming influence. All in all, a great balancing acts with the flavors.
I wind down some cheese (can't remember) and am led to the sweet stuff.
Another hint of Iron Chef comes up in the first dessert. Etienne plays with apples and comes up with three renditions. The centerpiece is a terrine-like slab of baked apples chunks, pressed togther and framed by thin slices of the same fruit. A luscious apple sorbet rests next to it, and an rich apple sauce makes number three. I loved the way the different apple preparations provide contrasts in textures and subtle variations that highlight different aspects of appleness, from warm sweet gooeyness to crisp chilled tartness with everything in between.
Lastly, a warm and rather intense chocolate tart topped with very creamy pistacchio ice cream.
On the whole it was a wonderful dinner. I looked at the menu again at the end and some of the dishes, like the fish tempura and the chocolate tart, were not on it, so there must have been a little bit of improvising. It was a great meal, and if nothing else, it was a lot fun for the palate. I wish I could be there in the summer to try the tomato menu.