NOVEMBER 8, DAY 2--How Savoy-ry It Is!
Omissions from Day 1: We stopped by the Legrand wine shop and found it a bit underwhelming, and I bought ring molds at Dehillerin. I could spend all day in there if I knew what I was looking for; but without a plan, I sort of petered out at 30 minutes. Great, great store--twice as much good stuff as Bridge Kitchenware and less useless stuff. Also, the ossau-iraty at Salon d'Helene was accompanied by a none-too-sweet cherry syrup, and the foie gras with some quince compote.
We awoke about 8AM, showered, dressed, and strolled down Rue des Martyrs for a pain au chocolat and a chausson aux pommes. Both were nice, though the apples in the chausson were completely pureed--is this normal? After wiping the gluttonous crumbs from our faces, we slipped into the Metro and teleported to the Louvre.
The Louvre isn't that big when you're not a big fan of sculpture. Like it or not, I take an historiographic approach to art, and while I'm able to grasp meaning and explain paintings in detail using this approach, sculpture has for the most part escaped me. We did make it a point to see Venus de Milo, the code of Hammurabi and a statue of Akhenaton (if you don't know him, he's like the Michael Servetus of his time--a revolutionary figure totally forgotten by his contemporaries). But mostly we looked at paintings. Not the Mona Lisa--I don't get it, the artistic devices used in it are a mishmash, and it doesn't "move off the canvas" like some people says it does. I'll take almost any Rubens over five Mona Lisas, thanks. The Rubens here was great, as were the like two Titians, as well as two of the more forgotten paintings of Zurbaran, whose work I admire more than almost anyone else. Despite a mid-visit stop at one of the terrace cafes for a coffee, we were bushed before we got to the 19th century Frenchies, but all the ones I cared about were at Musee d'Orsay anyway.
Exiting the Louvre, we trekked to Willi's Wine Bar, but the kitchen was closed and my wife didn't want cheese. So we headed to Galeries Lafayette and the self-service place for passable couscous and very nice merguez sausage for me and lamb for here. I had a dark beer whose name I forgot. We ate about half of our plates, because we knew what was to come that night. Following our repast, I cruised the Galeries Lafayette food hall and wine shop. The coolest thing about the food hall was that it had about six places to stop and have a glass of wine and sample some of the wares for reasonable prices, as well as a pasta counter, a steak counter and a cooked fish counter (doesn't get much fresher than that). None were opened when we were there, but imagine the kind of business Balducci's or the like would do with places like that in the store. By the end of the food hall, I was tired and dehydrated, so we got some water and headed back to the hotel for a nap and a shower.
I had made our reservations at Guy Savoy through e-mail about a week before our trip, and was a little surprised when they offered me a free choice of days. It looked like the place was fully booked, however. We arrived somewhat early and were ushered through a smiling gauntlet of "Bonsoir!"s, started by the eminent M. Savoy himself (who shook my hand and took my introduction, smiling the whole time. He looks like the happiest man in the world). Our table was in a corner of one of the back rooms, and we ended up being next to a large, loud, smoky table of the chef's closest friends (it appeared). Not that that was negative at all--it added considerably to the joie de vivre, though we didn't get any white truffles shaved on our soup :-).
The champagne card arrived and we chose the house cuvee of Deutz. It was the best champagne we tasted the whole trip, well-integrated with real complex fruit over all the nuttiness. Our captain came over and asked if we wished to converse in English or French, and when I explained to him that we'd like to attempt to speak French at times just for practice, he smiled, chuckled and said "after the first glass of wine, we'll try to speak French!" If we were nervous, we would have been calmed by this line--we were already euphoric, so it was just another log on the fire. Then came the first two amuses--salt-cured foie gras on toast and a small piece of Bresse chicken breast with a brunoise of peppers and eggplant in a vinaigrette made from chicken stock. Both were wonderful, the salt-cured foie gras a total revelation in flavor and texture control, the best foie gras either of us had ever had and the best we would have on the trip. Not that any of it was less than wonderful, of course :-).
Following those two amuses came three more, plated together. Carrot soup with a bit of star anise quickly established itself in my mind as the flavor combo for my next round of glazed carrots. A cube of quickly seared tuna, smaller than a Yahtzee die, accompanied some baby arugula that was all nuttiness and no bitterness, which is a long way to say that Christina actually liked it. Quite possibly the most champagne-friendly morsel attainable. Finally, a squid ceviche-style with bean sprouts and chanterelles. The first of many appearances of the chanterelle on the night, this time exposing its sweet, apricot personality.
Next came another waiter with menus, which we refused, asking for a surprise tasting (many of you have probably read an account of such a meal on the Chowhound site--we acted similarly and got a similar response). Our captain returned to assess our likes and dislikes--Christina doesn't like goat cheese, that's pretty much it, and we told him we didn't want to know anything. He did ask if strong flavors, "like wild hare," were okay, and we told him absolutely! He did volunteer, before I could stop him, that we would be having six courses, plus cheese and two dessert courses, with the signature dishes of Guy Savoy. Or something like that :-).
A table was placed next to my seat for the wine list, the size of a phone book, only because the pages were thick and the type was large. Guy Savoy doesn't have an encyclopedic wine list, but it's very good, with plenty of verticals and about ten half-bottles each, white and red. I perused those lists, as with the champagne, some dessert wine and armagnac (and a wife who is a very light drinker and who might have a glass and a half for the whole night), that would be plenty.
Next came four more amuses on the same plate. Pumpkin soup, or rather, white truffle soup masquerading as pumpkin soup, had none of the musty flavors of old truffle oil. It's nice to come to a serious restaurant when both white and black truffles are in season! Another soup of lentils and langoustines had neither whole lentils nor langoustines, but the haunting, concentrated essences of both. I'm convinced the langoustine is the truffle of the sea, and I think Guy Savoy is too--more on that later. Third was a beet chip topped with a slice of black truffle and accompanied by a pretty-classical mustard vinaigrette--one sweet, earthy, bite. Last was a Savoy signature, an oyster on the half-shell topped with an oyster glace, in which floated a single slice of carrot (?). The glace, made from oyster liquor, tasted like it took at least a dozen oysters to make. I queried the captain about the number, and he agreed that twelve seemed about right.
The sommelier returned and went over the half bottles with me. He downsold me from a Meursault when I told him I didn't like very oaky wines (I used the example of Ambroise, which he understood right away and smiled), and upsold me a little from one red burg to another. In the end, I chose the 2000 Georges Vernay Condrieu Coteaux de Vernon (is that designation right? It's something like that) and the 1999 Pierre Matrot Blagny, 1er Cru "Piece Sous Les Bois," both about $38 bucks for half bottles. He returned and opened both bottles and also poured some Evian (note, Guy Savoy operates on the "water fee" basis, charging you for one bottle, no matter how many you drink).
Finally came the first course, two almost-raw langoustines covered with lines of sevruga caviar and served with a caviar cream. Nothing like a simple little starter to send you on your way :-). This was lovely, though it didn't match well with the wine, and I thought the langoustines could have been cooked a tad bit more (they were a bit mushy in the middle). Not that I minded, but the fully-cooked langoustines at Gramercy Tavern are a little sweeter than these. With this dish, the Condrieu tasted a bit metallic and chippy. It also needed air to open up, and air it got. We told the captain that we were in no rush, and we were certainly not rushed, if one judges by the clock. We were so into the experience, however, that we almost did feel rushed, only because each dish was worth an hour of conversation in itself. Each morsel showed either a new technique or a new flavor combination, and probing (and pondering) the possible motivations behind them was a foodgeek's (and cook's) paradise. I was also happy that Savoy chose to compose his plates very simply, validating (in my twisted mind) the menus I serve to guests at home, which often only have two or three elements on a plate. Then again, his cooking is on about twenty-five million higher planes than mine. At least.
Next was bass, seared in Savoy's way in olive oil with the scales on, with braised fennel and a vanilla, coriander and fenugreek cream sauce applied at table. The scales puffed up, an eating experience not unlike a wispy-crusted soft shell crab, but with an earthier flavor lifted and enriched by the fennel and cream, respectively. Now the wine was starting to sing, too (a tasting note later, I promise). It was at this point that we began to pick up on the rhythm of plate service here. The plates would be placed in front of us, silently, by a waiter. The silence was a cue not to do anything. Next, the captain would come with a pot of something to spoon on, usually a sauce. Then, he would describe the dish. It's a nice rhythm, one that I wish more places adopted, even though it means having hot food sit on a table for ten seconds. People might think it was pretentious. Those people (who always seem to write letters to the editors of restaurant reviewers) would be, well, wrong.
Next came the other half of our lentil dichotomy, a small plate of lentils cooked in broth and truffle juice and garnished with more truffle. The headiness of this dish, which was cut surprisingly well by the wine, was a neat juxtaposition to the different kind of headiness in the truffle-langoustine soup amuse. It was nice to see that Savoy had no qualms about repeating an item, even a lowly lentil, on his menus. It probably took me twenty minutes to eat the maybe 3/4 of a cup of this stew, with its haunting, earthy flavors and perfectly cooked lentils. Remember, kids (including me), don't salt the water until the lentils are done, and even then you've got only half a chance. Lentils de Puy are both Christina's and my favorite starch, and so we were on all levels of overdrive by now--me in technique and menu composition as well as hedonism, and Christina with three times the hedonism to equal my total enthusiasm. Or so it seemed. And, no, I'm not going to give you a note on the wine yet. There was some left in Christina's glass, and I reserved it (fending off a busboy's query about it) for my cheese. Yes, at that point it was that unctuous.
The sommelier now poured some red wine (all Spiegelau glasses, BTW), and the fourth course was served and showered with sauteed chanterelles, white trumpets, black truffles and others that I forgot to write down (and couldn't remember after the captain, responding to my query, told them to me). It was seared foie gras, a thin slice (a technical error in my view--can't get all the different textures with this thin a slice, or maybe just the hedonist poking up again) with a chocolate-black pepper cookie (including roasted cocoa beans) and bitter chocolate sauce. Now _this_ is what I call young Burgundy food, with the FG (ironically) providing a lightening touch to the roasted and bitter flavors and the sweet earthiness of the shrooms. This gentle recastment of ingredients all night shows great refinement as well as the ability to be modern without affecting the diner's hedonistic experience.
And the wine?
Pierre Matrot, Blagny Piece Sous le Bois 1999--half bottle: Medium ruby garnet, rich cherry and chocolate, a bit oaky but not harsh at all, long and stemmy on the finish. Everything yound, reasonably priced Burgundy should be and then some.
Next came the old Savoy standby, on the menu every day of the year, artichoke soup laden with parmesan and black truffles, accompanied by a mushroom "brioche" (it was like ten times richer than the name suggests, even richer than a brioche mousseline) smeared at table with truffle butter. I'd never had my bread buttered for me before, but this was no slice of Wonder bread! Amazing, as was the soup, although the flavor was so refined that the artichokes only really manifested as sweetness against the earthy and rich flavors (though that made the wine match better). Dipping the bread, which was encouraged, produced a total explosion in the mouth.
As this was the end of the truffles for the night, I do want to point out here that the truffle flavor in Savoy's dishes was never harsh or unbalanced or musky, like it often is here in the States. Rather, it was refined, pungent but also sweet, and luxurious without drowning out the other flavors. With apologies to the advocates of black truffle ice cream, _this_ is what truffles are all about.
The last savory dish for the night arrived as a small brown trapezoid of meet on some dark brown sauce, garnished with a single rigatone. Then came the waiter, spooning more of the thick brown sauce and some shrooms on the plate, before introducing the dish as "Wild Hare a la Royale [shooting a knowing glance at me], with a macaroni stuffed with celery root, and mushrooms." The oldest, most famous recipe in the classical repertoire! And it exploded tonight, with roasted, exotic flavors, plenty of the animal's fat in the terrine-like presentation of the stew (though it was warm and loose, unlike tightly-packed, cold terrines), a sauce clearly made from hare stock as well as the necessary blood, and a wonderful, sweet, pungent celeriac puree (and I know a thing or two about celeriac purees--it's my favorite root veg). As the waiter suggested by his knowing glance, Christina didn't know what "a la Royale" meant, so I asked the waiter to explain it when he cleared our (virtually licked clean) plates. Christina was very proud of herself once she knew it was blood (she had figured so much all along).
Next came cheese. Savoy has a single cart, a manageable selection of about twenty cheeses, all attractive looking (except for the epoisses, which was kept closed, of course). I chose for Christina, cantal (which was a little too lemon-cakey for the both of us), parmigiano-reggiano, st-marcellin (which she didn't like), and a wonderful reblochon, which she devoured. I chose epoisses, of course, and the waiter had to fetch a separate spoon to serve it, vacherin, a corsican sheep cheese that I don't remember the name of, a beautiful and well-balanced southwestern goat cheese, and splendid roquefort. I had never had Epoisses or Vacherin before, and I don't necessarily like really pungent cheeses. But a lesson I have learned over and over again at Gramercy Tavern was hammered home here--no cheese is too funky for raisin bread! On the lovely raisin bread provided with the cheeses (and re-provided), the Epoisses shedded any gag-inducing spunk and became beautifully pungent, balanced, sweet and earthy, while the Vacherin was milky and candy-sweet. At no other restaurant we went to did raisin bread come with the cheese, and the smelly cheeses really suffered for it (the jellies and compotes notwithstanding). Also, the white wine really shined off of the milder cheeses on both of our plates:
Georges Vernay, Condrieu Coteaux de Vernon 2000--half bottle: Light straw, with powerful perfumes of white flowers, with lemon oil and orange oil coming on strong after four hours of air. Lemony palate with bartlett pear skin and a pulsating, acidic, flowery finish. Needs decanting. Yum!
By this time it was 12am (we had sat down at 8:15), but we were floating on top of the world. And so came the dessert amuses--a bright-green apple jelly with a marbled-chocolate wafer, a tart lemon cookie, an ultra-creamy vanilla macaroon, and a muscadelle grape sheathed in the thinnest possible layer of crispy sugar syrup, probably the most fun single morsel of the evening, even though the seeds were of course still inside.
The sommelier proposed a dessert wine, and we ordered one glass, a 1997 Coteaux d'Audonce (forgot the producer--the AC is near Savennieres) that was earthy and balanced, especially for a 97, and just sweet enough to accompany the next dish, a tasting of pear and lemon desserts, with a no-sugar lemon sorbet (yow!), lemon custard with pear puree, a pear chip garnish and a lemon-poached pear with candied zest. The kind of dessert that would sell zero covers at most American restaurants, but the perfect palate cleanser from the robust cheeses, a festival of techniques and combinations (sometimes with the lemon providing the sweet and the pear providing the tart and sometimes vice-versa) and a vehicle for making the humble little dessert wine (which I think was only like $7/glass) explode. As we were eating this, a small dish of eight chocolate "pawns" was set down--eight small taller-than-they-were-wide pieces of a milk-and-dark chocolate terrine. Not too intense, just a segue to the next dessert.
The next dessert was a presentation of chocolate sorbet with another bitter chocolate cookie and coffee cream. Probably the most conventional dish of the night, but a very pure expression of chocolate without resorting to complete cliches, and a comfortable way to ease back toward the ground.
Two more dessert amuses were offered, a creamy-textured tea sorbet with vanilla cream, and Savoy's traditional closer, a sliver of a very thin apricot tart. I asked for an Armagnac, "nothing too expensive" and was poured a 1981 that was still a little chippy and tasting of hazelnut skins. Judging by the miniscule prices for old armagnacs everywhere we went, I should have known to go for something a bit older. Still it was a nice finish and aid to the digestion. We lingered a bit, made smalltalk with M. Savoy (he was chatting up the table next to ours the whole night, but glanced over quite often, making eye contact with both of us. And when the next table said anything in English, which was rare, it was always positive, and we made a little smalltalk with them, too).
The restaurant called a cab, and unfortunately, it arrived. We paid (4090 francs, or about $575) floated out of the restaurant to handshakes from the entire staff and the warmest handshake of all from a grinning Guy Savoy (and a gentle josh of the master from our captain, who told us "we got lucky" tonight in an obviously kidding tone).
Best meal of our lives? Of course, though we are young and have many more great meals to look forward too, we hope. But it was, and it sets a high standard. Best food, best service, plenty of foodgeeking with the waitstaff in two languages, well-matched wines at reasonable prices. Our own little corner of heaven on a drizzly night in the most wonderful city in the world. And we weren't too full to wake up in the morning (tho we were close).