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Paying it fwd: Short reviews of a few Paris restaurants

coxford | Dec 9, 201309:03 PM

Once more, posting up some reviews as a ‘paying it forward’ to the board, and once more, into the fray with more reviews on my trip to Paris (Cinq, Arpege, Ambroisie, Chez Denise, L’ami Jean, 110 taillevent, Frederic Simonin, Charbon rouge). Bear with me as it is long.

Saturday – Cheese hunt (Marie-anne Cantin). Decided to go down on a cheese hunt and picked out some 4 year old Comte (I think from 2009?) – sublime taste, good length with very nice crystallized texture. I couldn’t resist grabbing some of the La truffe de la marne as they were in season, and I do like that there was a lot of balance, with neither the truffle or the cheese overpowering each other (having said that – it was a bit difficult to chomp that that much cheese without some champagne). Pretty fun.
As we were in the area, next up was the aux merveilleux de Fred. I had read about this on the board and it was truly the find of the trip (at least for me) – these were the best meringues I have ever tasted in my life, it literally dissolves in your mouth, light as air, and leaving behind that cleanness of taste. I bought 15 tiny ones and before I knew it, had ate 5 at one go. These were truly astonishing – so much so that I was really tempted to buy the huge cake and eat it. As an aside, the only problem with the meringues were that they can’t keep beyond a day (understandably so as it collapses), which makes it virtually impossible to bring it home or to save it for later. I only found this out the hard way when 5 of my precious meringues died in their own pool of cream. Very tragic.

Sunday – Lunch at Le Cinq. I know many people have written about them and their great value – but decided to go for the carte, and ordered the lamb shoulder for mains, and the egg dish and the shellfish for the starters. Shellfish was amazing (oysters in 3 ways etc), but the lamb was fantastic. Slightly Arabic tasting, and so so tender, to quote my wife “if I have to stop eating lamb for the rest of my life, let this be the last taste of lamb..” It is that good. I must also say that for some strange reason, the wine at Le Cinq was actually not too bad – I had a decent value bottle of Coche-dury for much less than any of the other restaurants at the rest of the trip. There was also something quite funny – at the end of the meal, as I walked out (more like stumbled out), I was perusing their cognac/fine cart and saw a couple of DRC Fine. The server, being ever so generous said, pick one (and I did), proceeded to pour out a generous portion and gave it to me gratis. Loved it.

Monday – Lunch at Chez Denise. Pretty fun and shoulder to shoulder stuff, we were trying to recover from the heavy meal at Le cinq, but I think this is really not the way to do it at this restaurant. We had the massive pork with lentils as well as the onglet. Onglet was forgettable, but the pork with lentils was the standout dish. Very well executed with the lentils just about balancing out the pork, which was full of flavor and umami. Excellent.

Tuesday – Lunch at L’arpege. I think my wife was a little affected by the board’s discussion about “to arpege or not to arpege” and having been there before, we were a little apprehensive whether they were still “consistent”. It didn’t help that before my trip, another friend of mine was talking about how the standards have truly fallen at arpege, hence it was with some apprehension that we approached l’arpege. This is not a detective story, so I will just say straight up that they were just as good as the first time I have been there. What I really love about them is (i) food execution (ii) generosity (iii) great fun. (In contrast to l’ambroisie, which I will talk about later) – for a lunch tasting set, Passard threw in a lot of other dishes not listed in the menu for free (that would have been in the more expensive degustation). Standout dishes – celery soup with vegetable ravioli, butternut squash veloute, the best ever hay smoked chicken with that right combination of moistness, fat, and flavor that almost made me tear up (I told Passard that Gunther’s in Singapore – his ‘disciple’ – tried to make this same ever dish, but my god, this one is many steps above Gunther’s). I like how his dishes are simple, not overly complicated, but just really fresh. Having said that, there were a few dishes that didn’t cut it for me – notably the beetroot sushi (which to be honest, I was looking at it from a lens of someone who likes to eat sushi, and while his rice is done well, the flavor and the portion of rice didn’t quite work for me as with sushi, there needs to be a balance – and the rich portion was too much and didn’t quite balance against the thin strip of beetroot. I noticed he put quite some soy sauce onto the rice which was a bit … interesting). I don’t know, maybe Passard was in an exceedingly good mood (I counted him out of the kitchen at least 8 times – and all smiles!), but the food certainly reflected a certain joy which I couldn’t quite capture in words.

Wednesday – Dinner at 110 Taillevent. Having had dinner at taillevent before, I wanted to try out 110 given its interesting concept (4 types of wine for each course). It wasn’t as dreaded as some people make it out to be (ie. Full of tourists, commercial etc), and it was actually quite enjoyable. Decided against the set and went carte – trying out their calamari, foie gras and 2 fish dishes for mains. Food was quite decent – but nothing to rave about. Generous portions (quite similar to their big brother) and wine pairings “worked” in so far as they weren’t disjointed, but for some reason (and one could be post arpege?), there was no “wow” factor. It was functional, decent. Would recommend, but reluctantly.

Thursday – Lunch at L’ambroisie. I recall at Le Cinq, my server was telling me that L’ambroisie served fantastic truffles during this season, hence I was raring to go and try some of their famous dishes. Apparently Mathieu Pacaud was away – hence this meal will all be Bernard Pacaud. I must confess I have no idea whether there is any different, but the dishes were simply … sublime. We had the scallop broccoli with white truffle, and the ‘egg’ for starters and for mains, we had the Bresse chicken breast with crayfish and the sole braised with yellow wine and grated truffle, finished with their chocolate tarte. L’ambroisie is difficult – it is not a ‘wow’ type of cuisine – as the dishes are simple, not too many ingredients, not overcooked, and actually quite deceptive. For example, the broccoli dish. For a dish like that not to taste purely of truffles (you need to see the size of the truffles) but to taste of the finest essence of broccoli, yet without overpowering the scallop, is really amazing. I can’t help but harp on how this is real mastery – and I would say, impossible to recreate. In fact, the sole was another incredibly executed dish. Once again, it is very counterintuitive. A fish dish that should taste light, but taste heavy, yet not ‘corrupted’ by the overpowering truffle. I don’t know, but as I left, my first thought was ‘when can I be back?’. Surely a tour-de-force in restraint.

Friday – dinner at Frederic Simonin. We ended up here in part because we wanted to dine at L’atelier Joel Robuchon. This was quite an interesting story – we walked over to l’etoile JR without reservations only to be told that they have started taking reservations and they were full. Amazing. I had wanted to recreate the great fun we had the last time (and I think my wife has a mini-crush on Suga) – and we were gutted to find out it was full for dinner. Next seating will be at 10.30pm which was a good few hours away. Fortunately Francois Benot (the chef patissier of JR, but based at etoile) was kind enough to suggest a restaurant just ‘round the corner’, cooked by his good pal but more importantly cooked food that was actually very good, and asked whether I have heard of them. I confessed to my ignorance, but given such a recommendation by Francois, I couldn’t say no and proceeded to walk over to the 17th to Frederic’s restaurant. (Of course, later I found out that Frederic had worked in JR for a couple of years and that Francois knew him for 25 years - and that was after I had eaten at Frederic and went back to thank Francois for his kind recommendation). Anyway, back to the review – Frederic Simonin was very very good. For dinner, we ordered from carte, his sea urchin and crab for starters, for mains the squid and turbot. I like his bold use of Japanese ingredients – yuzu mainly – and his lightness and his own interpretation of sea urchin. The sea urchin had a certain creaminess (very different from the uni we eat in Japanese restaurants) and flavor that was quite unique. I loved his turbot (it had a texture like chicken and the skin was grilled to have that oiliness that was similar to chicken – but then it opened out became a lot more fish like). My wife was raving about Frederic Simonin and how he didn’t even need to serve the mash potato (in a nod to JR) as his dishes stand on their own. The service, the atmosphere, the food, was a lot better than expected. Would definitely go back.

Saturday – dinner at L’ami Jean. By now, I was exhausted. I was, to be honest, dreading a massive heavy dinner, but given that this is a strong chowhound favorite, I decided to indulge myself. I don’t really have much to add that hasn’t been said about this place (it was quite amusing to see Jego do his clapping and scolding his chefs) but one thing that struck me was how this is *really* shoulder to shoulder dining. This is 2x more cramped than Chez Denise. And it was hot, it was loud, it was just a spectacle. Having said all that, there were 2 standout dishes. First – the squid in squidink with ‘risotto’ – absolutely heavenly and Second – the rice pudding (nothing more needs to be said).

Sunday – dinner at Charbon rouge. My wife actually likes this place – a lot. I don’t know, there is something about this place (I ordered the hen – ha ha – but my wife ordered steak) which I can’t place. It doesn’t do anything extraordinarily good (service/wine/food) but for some reason, I think it was the perfect place to just chill out, no stress, eat loads of meat and move on home.

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