Restaurants & Bars 7

Paris report, Arpege, Lucas Carton, Gagnaire, L'Ambroisie (long)

mdibiaso | Apr 23, 2005 05:21 PM

A 3 day 5 meal (4 of them 3 star) solo visit to Paris was something I have been looking forward to for some time. Last week was the week and here is the report.

Lunch Day 1, Arpege: I arrive just after 12. Few tables are occupied but there is one other solo diner, a middle aged woman whom everyone in the staff greets with cheek kisses. She is obviously a regular and I am happy to see I am placed in the same part of the room as her, right by the kitchen door. One might have otherwise thought I was being given what the staff considers a lesser table. But I am right under a picture of Passard’s grandmother (judging from age I do not think it is his mother).

After speaking with extremely helpful staff I am able to request that the chef simply cooks for me as he pleases. I was very happy to see throughout the meal that the staff was VERY friendly to me and all other guests since my last visit many years ago had seen something different. There was a lot of laughing and playful fun and it was obvious that many customers were regulars. Also, compared to other meals this one had a LARGE number of young French women, and some French men. All dressed very casually, several in jeans. An unusual crowd for a 3 star, but maybe something to do with it being lunch. But the room is NOT geared towards quiet dining. The guests are happy and having fun the doors to the kitchen swing open and close constant and you can even hear the pans banging and whisks working in the kitchen. This is surely an example that Michelin does NOT require a certain style of luxury in order to give 3 stars. But don’t be tricked the service itself is definitely 3 star. Shortly all but one table was occupied and the single women diner left after two small plates without getting any bill or paying anything. I guess she settles up once a month. God, I wish I was her!

Amuses and bread. Bread is excellent thick slices from a country loaf with a very thick crust. The famous poached egg with sherry vinegar, maple sugar and chives arrives. The yolk is perfectly luke warm and running, the whites are more of a foam than boiled whites. And the dish is a statement with emphasis on Passard’s cooking style. Balances flavors and contrasting textures with a lot of focus on non luxury ingredients. The yolks and whites are totally different in texture and contrast each other perfectly. The flavoring balance of the vinegar and maple sugar is perfect, with each flavor coming thru clearing but neither taking over from the other and both there as a complement to the rich egg yolk. This dish deserves its reputation. Next was a vegetable bouillon with two small raviolis filled with mint and coriander. It is the dish of the meal. The bouillon is miraculous, just like a world class wine. Each spoonful presents new nuances of flavor and the aftertastes of each spoon is long, at least 30 seconds and ever changing. The two small raviolis offer two bursting mouthfuls of fresh bright flavors that totally contrast the depth of the bouillon and serve to refresh the mouth for more spoonfuls of pure bouillon.

Onion gratin with parmesan and lime. Another winner. Served so hot you can hear it sizzle, the onions are very soft but not caramelized. They are lightly dusted with parmesan and the few drops of lime lighten the dish in an amazing manner. What sounds like a heavy dish is actual as light as a salad. And a perfect balancing of flavors using somewhat mundane ingredients. It is this style dish that are the best of the meal in my opinion.

Vegetable velouté with bacon chantilly. The bacon cream is more like foam and spooned onto the hot velouté at the table. It puffs up like a soufflé when apply (another visual treat). The texture of the thick velouté and light foam blend perfectly in the mouth. The smoky flavors add even more depth to the multitude of vegetable flavor, including fresh beans, that comes through the velouté. Another huge winner. Can Passard keep this going forever?! Each dish has been so light, so I feel at this point like I could eat forever.

The next dish, caviar and seminola is however not as good as the others. I am not a huge caviar lover, but the quality of the caviar seems very good. It is the matching seminola that I find misplaced. It is just too dry and tasteless to add anything to the caviar other than a reflection of the shape of small beads.

Spinach, carrot mousse and orange peel offers a new style of dish. The three ingredients are separate on the place and separately nothing special. But as they represent three different base flavors, when mixed together they balance and enhance each other. Although the dish makes you think, I still prefer the dishes where Passard has already done the balancing.

The next dish is however another huge winner, second best of the meal. A single scallop extremely lightly sautéed is served with grilled leek, grilled shallots and an onion citronelle puree. The scallop is an amazing specimen, extremely meaty in flavor, blowing away all myths that scallops are tasteless. The 3 different onions offer a full spectrum of flavors and the dish is perfectly spiced with acidity from vinegar to give the dish perfect balance.

The meal had so far been like a symphony reaching a crescendo with the scallops. And I had reached a crescendo as well and was hoping we would now move to dessert. But more fish was to come, a sole filet of very high quality, again barely cooked with a parsley sauce. Excellent but I was just not hungry anymore. So when a roasted chicken dish came out I could barely touch it, and I did find it somewhat dry. I said at this point this was enough food as I feared the kitchen was just going to continue cooking until I said stop. They brought me some excellent cheese including an amazing 4 year old Comté from Bernard Antony who also supplies Lucas Carton. I told them I would not be able to make any desserts so they just brought out some jellies (including celery root which was delicious) and chocolates.

All in all it was an amazing meal from a very talented chef. 2 of the courses, the sole and the scallop were not on the menu nor did I see them served to anyone else. So it really felt as if they were cooking just for me. And the quality of those ingredients were pristine so this was not a case of cleaning out the fridge, but rather one of the chef having some special things in his back pocket in case someone comes in and asks for them. There was two warm dishes more than I wished, and fatigue sat in but that was my fault for not saying stop after the scallop. Luckily I was only drinking water otherwise I do not think I would have been able to handle a dinner that same night. And if one does not drink wine the food prices are extremely reasonable. Great service, great food, maybe not the place for someone’s first 3 star if they are expecting more traditional atmosphere and cooking but an absolute must for anyone serious about learning from one of the leaders in modern French cooking today with a unique style that is very much his own.

That same night, I somehow made it to my old standby Lucas Carton. It probably wasn’t fair to them to go there in such a state. I can not honestly say I had any desire to eat after lunch. But I was glad I went. Having written so much about Lucas Carton in the past I will keep this report rather short. Interesting points. There are currently 3 DIFFERENT Condrieau’s by the glass on the menu, one to amuses, one to entrees and one to mains. One could surely have a very interesting meal and learn a lot about French Condrieau’s but simply ordering these 3 wines/dishes. My entree was asparagus and morels served in two manners, stuffed and sautéed, together with a vin jeune, Château-Châlon 1997. The food was excellent, but my God what a wine. It is wines like this, by the glass, that make Lucas Carton unique and a winner for me. I am sure very few people would order a wine like this by the bottle at a restaurant and therefore never get to enjoy it with food cooked to perfectly match it. Everyone should however do this.

Next was veal sweetbreads served with popcorn and Grüner Veltliner "Alte Reben" 1996 - W. Brundlmayer (one of two Grûner Veltliners available by the glass). The sweetbread had a perfectly crisp crust and the matching with the popcorn was ingenious and not just for show. Popcorn with its crispy and soft contrasts as well as salt/sweet contrasts turns out to perfectly mirror a crispy sweetbread. And the wine. It was a great wine when tasted before the food but grew 300% with the food. At Lucas Carton wine is always served before the food, I am sure so that one can compare the wine first on its own and then as it changed when served with the food. In this case, the wine developed a whole different level of fruit when served with the food without losing is strong mineral backbone. The was the dish/wine of the night.

The next dish was very nice wild duck with a crispy skin served with mango and ginger. The wine, Clos de Vougeot "Vieilles Vignes" 1996, was however a bit of a disappointment. I prefer softer Bourgognes with big aromas. This was not in that style. But I must also say that after my lunch and the two dishes before this (both dishes were quite substantial in size and amount of flavors) I really was pushing my limit just trying to eat. Dessert was ordered but just too much for me to eat so I will not comment on it.

Lucas Carton continues to be a place I love, the service is very friendly and well informed, for example telling me without asking that the morels were from Turkey and why (best the best morels come from there not from France!). And for single diners that love the chance to try unusual wines with extremely well thought out food matchings it is unique. In fact, it is usually that lesser known wines that shine at Lucas Carton. Even after dozens of meals here I have not tired in the least.

The same cannot be said of my dinner the next day at Gagnaire. Lunch was light, a pristine plate of sushi at Isami at 4 QUAI D'ORLEANS just around the corner from Berthillion. I highly recommend the place if you are eating big dinners or love sushi. So I was ready to eat when I got to Gagnaire. But the amuses (about 10) and entree had just too many misses and attacked the palate with so many sweet or spicy flavors that the by the time the great lamb main course came I was just not able to eat much of it. And because it came in 5 different plates/versions, much of it was cold by the time I got around to eating it. Gagnaire it just trying to hard to impress. I saw a lot of people laughing in the full dining room at the number of plates they were served or the strange combinations. But I saw few oohing and aahing after putting their fork in their mouths. Misses for me were an amuse of raw shaved coconut and cauliflower that had nothing to offer than “hey they look the same”. A mushroom puree topped with fried clams, that was one of 5 amuses arriving at the same time and the one I was told to try 4th. The clams were cold and soggy by the time I got to them. They paled compared to the fried clams I used to get at Revere Beach outside of Boston when I was a kid. And this is a said statement. A turnip and egg amuse was wrapped in a turnip slice that was almost impossible to chew. My entree, a veal, foie gras and ham terrine was so cold from the refrigerator that it was almost tasteless. The Japanese “pearls” served with it were totally tasteless and had no business on the plate except to impress with a strange ingredient, and the artichoke bouillon served with it was one dimensional and bland and a travesty compared to the bouillon I had had the day before at Arpege.

Why Gagnaire just can’t cut down on the number of plates, and when serving lamb in so many styles at least do it in two different servings in order to build some progression and allow the food to be eaten warm is beyond me? When he gets it right the food is phenomenal (and it often classic prepared like long stewed lamb leg topped with puff pastry that is best). But when 9 out of 10 is mediocre or just plain bad, and your palate is worn out from all the sweets and spices half way through the evening, those few moments of bliss are just not worth the bother. But awards to the serving staff. It is amazing the amount of work they manage today. Being the dishwasher here must be punishment for misbehaving in Hell.

My last meal was lunch the 3rd day at L’Ambroisie. A friend had helped with an introduction so that service team of Pascal Vetaux and Pierre Lemoullac took great care of me, choosing dishes and wines for me. The amuse, a traditional cheese gorge set the tone. Perfectly executing cooking with great respect for the ingredients and nothing on the plate that does not have a reason to be there (Gagnaire should stage here for a month and try to learn something). Pacaud the chef at L’Ambroisie like Senderens at Lucas Carton does not believe in multicourse marathons. Here and at Lucas Carton you eat 3 to 4 plates, each of substantial size to give you a chance to truly enjoy and understand each dish. If Senderens approach can be summarized as finding perfect matches of food and wine, Pacaud’s can be summarized as putting one ingredient in the center and surrounding it with a few tones that enhance the main ingredient’s inherent flavors. As a small amuse foie gras terrine is served that has a “skin” of spices that looks thicker than those on an Italian salami and paired with a confit of cabbage root and green apple. What a shock when tasting it that the spices are so mild and understated, just accenting the perfect foie gras. How this is done is beyond me, but I am as happy as a pig in heaven that it is done. The apple and cabbage root confit provide a sweet, sour, mineral contrast that enhances the richness of the liver.

First dish is the famous langoustine with sesame wafer and curry sauce. The langoustine are barely cooked and of such perfect quality that I ooh and ahh with every bite. The spicing is again very subtle, there to enhance not detract or cover up the main ingredient. A perfect dish in every sense

The fish course is a St Pierre with a shallot marmalade and artichokes and fennel. The fish sits separate on the plate and is perfectly cooked and of amazing quality. I could just it this fish without any of the other parts of the dish. But that would be a shame, because the rest of the plate is a first class trip to Provence. Perfect textures, perfect flavor balances with just the right amount of acidity and the killer. A small twig a marjoram. Some may have just pushed this aside thinking it was garnish. But I could see just by the way it looked (as if it had been picked less than 10 seconds early at the height of maturity) and the fact that I could smell it even though it was only 1 inch long that this was an integral part of the plate. With each bite a small leave was removed and added. The herb simply exploded with freshness and flavor, lightening and enhancing the whole dish to amazing levels. This was the work of a genius.

The final dish was a braised veal sweetbread with morels. The dish was extremely good but a few years ago I had the single best dish of my life at L’Ambroisie, a crispy sweetbread with an orange crust. I just could not help comparing this dish to that one and the excellent sweetbread at Lucas Carton two nights earlier and this was not as good. And I was again getting overwhelmed by all the food I had had the past 3 days. A light sorbet woke me back up for the grand finale. An assortment of desserts. An absolutely perfect chocolate tarte that is at one and the same time amazing rich and amazing light, served with a vanilla ice cream with 2 miles deep flavor. Strawberries are a winner at L’Ambroisie I have learned in the past, but I was sceptical that they would be so good so early in the season. But these, Gariguette’s were perfectly ripe and served in two different ways warm with lemon on the side of a hazelnut pastry, and in a cold soup with black currents. The final dish was a fresh cheese with sautéed rhubarbs.

A tremendous meal that taught me a lot about having respect for ingredients and letting them speak for themselves rather than being drowned with other parts of the dish. And the service was so friendly and gentlemenly that you would have never thought possible today. The staff in the dining room has the same respect for their guests as the kitchen has for the ingredients. And here are definitely coming into someone’s home and should approach it in that manner, with respect and joy and a goal to give to each other.

Overall on the trip it became clear to me that Passard, Senderens and Pacaud are all three delivering world class yet totally different experiences each with first class service albeit also of different styles. A key to dining at these places is to talk with the management and let them know that you are looking for something special. Do some research in advance so you can discuss your expections, likes and dislikes. Maybe even take the old world approach and write a letter by hand a few weeks before arriving. Approached in the right manner these service professionals will stop short of nothing to make you feel at home.

Also it was clear after my 5th meal at Gagnaire that I will not be returning for quite some time. It is just too frustrating an experience. And next time I will never eat so many meals of this type in such a short time. In fact, I would suggest that one meal like this every other day is another. And on the in between days one can explore all the other wonderful food offerings that Paris has.

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