Absolutely wonderful from start to finish!
The dining room is luminous with contemporary etchings and lithographs on the walls, well-spaced tables with wooden armchairs, yellow linen, silver place settings and interesting centerpieces of dried sea urchins and maroon pods stuffed with dried star anise. Beneath a silver dome on the table is secreted a vibrant colored glass bowl of butter. This hefty and eye-catching bowl was the first in a parade of colored glass plates in different textures, shapes and sizes that appeared throughout dinner. It was as much fun waiting for the next unique plate as it was awaiting the next bit of food.
The beaming woman who greeted me is the chefs wife, and her effusive welcome erased fears that this would be a stuffy experience. Madame Derbord seated me to the side of the main room which gave me views of both dining rooms, the entry way and lounge, and, out the widow, to the grand fountain in the Place President Wilson, a nice gesture to give a solo diner plenty of places to turn his attention. The hospitality of the staff through the evening was genuine and caring, and once it was clear that I enjoyed chatting, they made sure to continually drop by and converse, so I never really felt that I was dining self-consciously alone. Every person on this wonderful staff shared their knowledge of and pride in the menu and wines with bright (in both meanings of the word) enthusiasm and confidence.
The clientele ranged from well dressed Europeans (Germans, Dutch and Italians), tables with locals who seemed to know the staff very well, and some young French businessmen. I heard no English being spoken. The number of foreigners there that night might have been exceptional as Mme Derbord remarked late in the evening that everyone there that night had come from faraway to hear Charles Aznavour sing the next night (as I had). Dress was casual to business, though the locals were in shirt sleeves and the young businessmen had along a Japanese teen who wore baggy jeans and an old untucked t-shirt. The teen was given the same warm welcome as everyone else, although they were seated in the side garden room.
I went whole hog and chose the Menu Harmonie (85 Euro). Described as the chefs choice of four dishes, it turned out to be so much more that I had to ask for paper and pen in order to number them and keep them straight in my head. Since this was the land of cassis, I had a kir (6 Euro) to begin. It was brought by the sommelier who told me that the chef had chosen two seafood dishes, followed by pigeon, cheese, and a dessert tasting. She gave me their thick wine catalogue and asked me to relax and think about wines or regions that might interest me. After a while she returned, and really chewed over my responses to her list of questions, then suggested two vineyards not far from Dijon for a half bottle of blanc Meursault les Clous, Bouchard Pere et Fils, 2002, and a half of rouge, Clos de Vougert, 2000 (wine total 87 Euros). Her selections were right on the mark and matched the food hand in glove throughout the meal. I would have bypassed both wines without her thoughtful guidance.
Here is what arrived at the table from 8:30 pm to after midnight that wonderful evening...
#1 - a mini brioche stuffed with a creamed cheese and white seafood mixture;
#2 - a lilliputian loaf of nut bread that made me smile at its one inch size; and
#3 - a sundial -- a disk of local jambon was its base and a rolled up smoky jambon sec was the needle. A surprise was that inside was piped a wild mushroom paste that unexpectedly contrasted texture and added a woodsy flavor and creaminess to the jambon sec.
The AMUSE COURSE:
Four amuses were served on a chunky rectangle of bumpy amber glass.
#4 - a shooter glass of silky pumpkin soup topped with seafood (shrimp?) foam with an elegant parmesan spear laid across the top for accent;
#5 - a pool of turnip foam surrounded a vertical cylinder composition, like waves around a lighthouse. The bottom of the cylinder was a buttery turnip puree, the center a succulent noix de St. Jacques, perfectly cooked to be firm yet juicy, and the top a crispy turnip chip. I have a big star next to my notes on this item as being one of the best things of the night, such a soothing marriage of flavors and textures.
#6 a dark transparent rectangle of aspic holding aloft in its jelly tiny cubes of Spanish Mackerel sushi and poached carrot. The carrots still held a bit of crunch, so in this offering the crispiness was inside rather than the outside. The orange carrot and brown aspic had a pop art glassy look like that of the colorful plate below.
#7 ratatouille in miniature, the vegetables were diced very small and molded into a cube, then given a square of dense tomato paste icing into which was stuck an earthy flash-fried tomato leaf. Im not a huge ratatouille fan but I liked the icing idea and enjoyed that unique fried tomato leaf on the top since Id never eaten one before.
THE ENTRÉE COURSE:
Compositions with beets, all on a sprawling square plate made from hot-poured glass.
#8 pan fried fois gras that was cut into diamond shapes and arranged with diamonds of poached beets, over which were frizzy flash-fried julienned beets.
#9 tempura beets were chopped and rolled, then fried, sliced, and plated with sauces of beet puree, balsamic vinegar and strawberry puree.
#10 - a mixed beet salad in vinaigrette with fried sage leaves across the top (I was really loving the chef's fried leaves).
THE FIRST FISH COURSE.
#11 - perfectly roasted turbot with crisped skin was served over chopped pomme de terre and a pool of woodsy cepe sauce, with a flying buttress of parsnip shavings that had garlic pressed into them before they were flash fried (another take on the fried leaf motif). The fish and cepe sauce met over those anything but ordinary smashed spuds to form a very comforting dish. This dish also had a huge star next to it, an indication that I was being enchanted both by the cooking and the wine at this point.
THE SECOND FISH COURSE. In an unusual deep bowl that had a wide flat brim was
#12 - nage de langoustines. in the hollow of the bowl was a bed of soft poached fennel and carrot soaking in a pool of licorice cream. On this were placed the langoustines which had been steamed with saffron. Near them was a samosa of fillo dough filled with ground and seasoned langoustines. There was a radio tower of fried tarragon sticking out of the arrangement. That licorice and fennel combination at the base perfumed everything else into a sophisticated party.
On to the MAIN COURSE,
#14 pigeon and accompaniments. In the upper left corner of a large plate is a timbale that looks very Jazz Age, all black and white. It turns out to be black beans and some sort of cream concoction, perhaps coconut milk? In any event I cant get enough of it, it is absolutely stunning both on the plate and on the tongue, so audacious to treat a humble black bean so elegantly. At the center of the plate is a river of carmalised onions on which is the rosy sliced pigeon breast, looking like ginko leaves floating downstream. On the left bank of this stream are an assortment of things that have been cut into tiny interesting shapes and then roasted: theres garlic, fennel, turnip, potato, black mushrooms. On the right bank of the pigeon is a line of baby chanterelles, sauteed in butter. To the right of the chanterelles was a long canal of intense, sweet, autumnal parsnip sauce.
Next came the SECOND PART OF THE MAIN COURSE, being a small cast iron pot filled with:
#15 - pigeon pot au feu. The leg, thigh and wings of the pigeon had been simmered with veg and farci, and were served in the broth. It was good but to be very honest I could have done without this, I was beginning to fear I was going to do myself a mischief with all this food.
Thankfully there was a REFRESHMENT of
#16 - granita of pink grapefruit.
The CHEESE COURSE appeared on the gargantuan cart. I had watched and listened as the young waiter described the forty or so cheeses on the cart to other diners, so I leveled with him and told him he could skip going through everything with me as I was getting pretty full and the cheese course was not my favorite part of the meal, so perhaps he could choose three cheeses that were unique to their restaurant or the area and Id have a little bit of those. He seemed delighted to be put on the spot, and explained that the house had a bread made with cassis so he would pick cheeses that went well with it. He served up
#17 - a smoky and sultry Mont dOr, which I could have easily eaten more of (I guess that's what comes from having REAL cheese in front of you), a livid blue, and a fresh creamy yogurt that is made in-house and is served with a sprinkle of sugar crystals. I really liked that as well, especially on that dark red bread, so well done, maître des fromages!
The DESSERT AMUSES:
#17 - a dark chocolate macaroon
#18 - a pistachio nougat and chocolate parfait
#19 - pineapple sushi, which reminded me of Japanese dessert jellies, it was very original and tasty, I liked this one a lot.
The actual DESSERT COURSE, which again featured four different items:
#20 - a white grapefruit mousse that held a citron cookie sail
#21 - a milk chocolate tower that had a white chocolate mousse interior and a pediment of bittersweet chocolate and gold leaf
#22 - a caramel-sauce soaked spongecake which had coffee ice cream hidden inside,
#23 - a whole pear that had been poached in white wine and looked as if it was doing the hoolahoop as it was trisected by planes of wafer cookies. More fun was added by the discovery that the pear had a hidden interior full of whipped cream.
COFFEE (an excellent taste from an excellent silver pot to behold) and PETITFOURS included
#24 - teeny madeleines, chocolate truffles, petit fours.
And to top it all off, another final REFRESHMENT:
Two tall beakers with long straws arrived on a platter, looking like a chemistry experiment. I was instructed to drink all of the first one before finishing with the second:
#25 - a silky and milky stomach-calming green tea concoction with chipped mint ice, followed by
#26 - a effervescent grapefruit concoction with chipped citron ice, perky and reviving. When I finished these two drinks my stomach felt as if it could assay a few more plates. Too bad the kitchen was closed!
Total cost of this evening for myself was 245 Euro, for food, alcohol, and a large tip for the staff and sommelier. I felt it was an incredibly good value when one considers the amount of prep, imagination and work involved in creating just one of these dishes, let alone 26 different items, not to mention the sauces that went with. Beyond that, the sheer mutual appreciation in the room left me feeling great I was told by the chef and his wife how much they appreciated my visiting all the way from New York, and they meant it. I told them how much I appreciated their invention and hospitality, and I meant it. I cant wait to go back.
On leaving the restaurant I noticed the chef walking his dog in the nearby park. He waved, we chatted and then he went out of his way to walk me to the corner where he headed me in the right direction for a midnight stroll back to my hotel, with more good wishes and more thanks for coming. It seemed like a typical gesture from him, going a bit out of his way for a happy guest.