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Peter and Gary's France trip: The Greatest Meal of our Lives (long)

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Peter and Gary's France trip: The Greatest Meal of our Lives (long)

Peter and Gary | Jul 30, 2001 03:13 PM

We couldn't resist extracting this review of Guy Savoy, Paris, for the Chowhounds International board. It took me days to write this review, but the meal deserved it.

For context, please visit our France Journal, on our new home page (see link below).

Enjoy this review, but beware: it's VERY LONG.

Peter and Gary
wells@emusic.com

This morning was a mild shopping day, with lunch at a surprisingly upscale place, Tante Louise. We ate lightly, knowing it was a big dinner we'd face in the evening. I had a legume salad and Gary a terrine de lapreaux (small rabbit), and my sautéed tongue with delicate macaroni was quite delicious. We did a bit more window shopping, then went back to the hotel to change for dinner. A word about cabs in Paris: there are none. If you want a cab, you call for one and are firmly told there isn't a taxi to be had. Do not attempt to hail one on the street, it just won't happen. Even empty cabs won't stop: they're on their way somewhere and have no time for accidental fares. We've learned this lesson well, and we called several hours ahead for the cab that was going to take us to dinner at 8:00pm at the top restaurant in France.

The top restaurant in France? The top restaurant in the world? Joel Robuchon has retired, so has the torch passed to another? Perhaps his student and collaborator Guy Savoy? Was it even Robuchon's to pass in the first place? What about Arpège and other "candidates"? Such statements are meaningless, but they help frame the event. Guy Savoy's operation got stellar reviews from everyone; Gary and I both knew this would be a great dining experience. Restaurants change and evolve, they rise and fall. It may be in a decade they'll talk of the "glory days" of Guy Savoy ten years before. Maybe we simply caught them at that nexus of talent, freshness, season, mood, temperament and personnel, something unnamable that a great place has only for a few magic months in its lifespan, somewhere between potential and decline, that instant they call "peak." This was the greatest meal of our lives.

And we knew it was, almost from the moment we approached the door: if any place were to dethrone The French Laundry (Napa Valley, California), our previous number-one experience, Guy Savoy would be it. Even the doorman was eager to welcome us, standing aside as the automatic sliding wood doors rolled back into the walls. The décor was cool, modern, ambient-lit but paneled in dark woods to keep it from modern iciness. The dining room was divided into separate chambers for a cozy, personal feel to each section, but airy enough that you didn't get claustrophobia. Our table was near the back, just where the kitchen joins the public areas. For me (Gary had his back to it) this was an added bonus: I got to watch them work.

Walk into Guy Savoy and everyone greets you, down to the lowliest page. And they're genuinely glad to see you, eager to get in their hello not because it's demanded of them but because they want to close any gap between you and them as quickly and warmly as possible. This was no corporate policy: every greeting had its own timbre. The Captain's greeting is formal and rolling, the waiters' friendly and companionable, the busboy's a little over-energetic in a way that's endearing: he wants to great you like the Captain but doesn't know how yet, he's still in training. You instantly sense a world of order, but not one where personality is stifled. I was inwardly laughing with pleasure before we even reached our table.

The last person to greet us was Guy Savoy himself, in starched whites. It's perfunctory these days that the restauranteur shake hands with every table, ask if all is well, engage in some polite chitchat. Both Madame and Monsieur Boyer had made the rounds, when we ate at their three-star masterpiece. Even lesser places do it now. It's always struck me as formal in a slightly hollow way. Not at Guy Savoy's. He doesn't "make the rounds," he stays in the dining rooms, unobtrusively (only my vantage point at our well-placed table let me observe this), watching every diner, whispering fierce orders to the staff to take care of every need. He was watching us when our first amuse-bouche arrived: wafer-thin slices of foie on toasts, topped with the great gray coarse sea salt of the north. Something in our expressions told him we liked this, and he directed the staff to bring us two more portions each. "Again, again!" he said, pointing to our table, bringing over the first bonus pair personally. "Again!" The whole meal, and it was four and a half hours long, Monsieur Savoy only ducked into the kitchen a few times to make sure all was humming back there. The rest of the time he stood, inspecting every single dish that entered the dining room. I saw him send half a dozen back for not being perfect.

Then we did what I've always wanted to. Our captain came by with the menus, which we refused. In my best French, "We would be honored if you and Monsieur Savoy would chose our meal for us, and the wines. We place ourselves completely in your hands." That was it--the floodgates opened. Our captain beamed with pleasure, hurried over to Monsieur Savoy, and started debating. The sommelier was summoned and we chose two half bottles, a red whose name we forgot to jot down and a white, a Meursault from Burgundy, that proved once again French whites have the depth, complexity and maturity to be called truly great.

After three helpings of the first amuse-bouche came the second, a small prism of basil jelly served alongside a béchamel of tomatoes mixed with herbs. You know the meal is going to be special when the amuse-bouche compliments the décor. The third amuse-bouche (yes, third) was a trilogy: a toothpick spearing a ring of fresh calimari that surrounded half a cherry-tomato flanked by slivers of cucumber, a chiffonade of basil floating in a tiny dish of cold cream of carrot soup and a dumpling around a cube of tuna seared and coated with forty year old balsamic vinegar. The whole thing was perhaps three half-bites, it couldn't even be called an appetizer, but what flavor, what texture! These amuse-bouches did what they were supposed to, whetting the appetite and setting a level of expectation for the meal to come.

By this point, Gary and I were fighting the urge to giggle. We were a strange mix of excitement and relaxation: we felt so warmed, so welcome that it seemed like a sleepover, like visiting your best friend while they broke out the good china just to show you they could. The whole staff seemed to be playing with the rules, enjoying the game of great service as much as the reality of it. I'm certain this is a feeling we got because we wanted it. In the short time we'd been there, Savoy and his staff recognized what kind of experience we hoped for and provided it effortlessly. Tables around us were getting their own treatments: some formal, others deeply romantic. This is service raised to an art form. No amount of policy or schooling can prepare a staff to recognize the subtle wishes of individual clients, it takes an artist's eye and a willingness to do anything, be anything--like actors on a stage--to provide the atmosphere and temperature of the experience. We wanted to revel in the meal, so they provided a revel. We wanted to be friends, so they were friendly. I'm certain had Gary and I wanted a quiet romantic tete-a-tete with invisible service and stately decorum that's what we'd have gotten. That Savoy and his crew could give us what we wanted while treating others in the restaurant that evening to their own little worlds, each different and many contrasting, is the mark of hospitality beyond the pale.

The first entrée (note an appetizer is called an "entrée" in France) was a tuna tartar sliced paper thin, marinated, surrounded by tartar sauce and topped with beluga caviar and a single quail's egg lightly poached, dusted with vinaigrette and chervil. Imagine this sensation: fresh tuna, caviar, the warm acidity of lemon and old balsamic mingling on the tongue, when the quail's egg yolk bursts in your mouth and drowns you in silk. The afterglow held us until the second entrée arrived, a baked shrimp in a light orange beurre-blanc with tiny florettes of broccoli. The shrimp for me was the greatest dish of the evening, and that's saying something. Baked shrimp? This was a tour-de-force of temperature and texture control. By baking the shrimp it took on multiple textures, the outside and bottom fully cooked but tender, and the inside--it tasted the way one might imagine pearls would taste, if they were soft and delicious. I've had shrimp sashimi before, even the sweet shrimp sashimi ebi prized by Japanese chefs. The center of this prawn had all the sweetness and freshness of those, but warmed and elevated, somehow. I wouldn't trust myself to bake a shrimp if my life depended on it, but Savoy knows his ovens well enough to pull it off.

It's a good thing we were nursing our white, because the seafood wasn't finished yet. The third entrée was a hearty dish of mussels and mushrooms floating in a "soup" of beurre-blanc and mussel and mushroom liqueur. Freshness was the key here, with preparation at a minimum, letting the tenderness and flavor come through. It lent character to the white even more than the tuna, with its stronger flavors and heartier texture. Next came an old favorite, if you used to dine with Joel Robuchon: artichoke soup. As always it came rich with black summer truffles, long sheets of parmesean and this time a brioche made with mushrooms right in the crumb, and a dollop of crème fraiche. This soup is a signature dish, and it was flawless, made with the obvious reverence the French have for vegetables.

We had a moment after the entrées to contemplate the bread and butter. Should a dinner's bread come with salted butter or sweet? Classicists say salted, purists say sweet, Guy Savoy says take your pick. I'm surprised I never saw it before: two dishes of butter accompany the bread, a deep, rich salted butter from the north and a pale, glorious sweet from the south, each complimenting the bread in a different way. Both were served in a geode, smoothed and polished (okay, it was glass, but it was shaped like a geode), the butter in a hollow at the center, level with the flat surface. After you broke the surface with your knife to butter your bread, the butter dish was whisked away and replaced with a fresh one, so you always had an undisturbed plane of butter to invade.

Finally the main course: a complete Bresse chicken poached while sealed in a pig's stomach. The skin of the chicken had been loosened and the inside lined with fresh herbs. This is the grand fowl dish from Pyramid, in the 1960s France's best restaurant (except at Pyramid the chicken had subcutaneous truffle slices instead of herbs). A Bresse chicken, by the way, has an appellation controlée (like Champagne--if it's not from the Champagne region of France you must call it "sparkling wine"), the only bird in the world that does: it is the greatest chicken there can be, the "Kobe beef" of chicken. It's produced only in the town of Bresse, west and slightly north of Paris. Guy Savoy did honor to the bird and the preparation, pairing it with a lemon and thyme infused butter and poultry stock reduction sauce and tournedos of vegetables, as well as a separate dish with braised eggplant and zucchini in a veal reduction thick with the flavor of oranges, lemons, thyme and salt. The technique of poaching a whole bird inside a tied-off pig's stomach is ancient and perhaps unique to France, but it seals in the flavors and ensures thorough, perfect cooking through pressure years before the pressure cooker was invented.

Our captain sliced the bird tableside, while we marveled at getting this greatest of main courses. Meanwhile at the next table something that resembled osso bucco was being dished out. Perhaps Guy Savoy noticed my wandering eye, or maybe they were just proud of it, because after the chicken they came by with a small serving for each of us, whispering, "We just had to let you taste this one, it's special." Special, after a Bresse chicken? Turns out it wasn't an osso bucco, but close: a braised veal shank en pêche, with a roasted half peach in a very heavy peach juice sauce-glaze. To be fair, I found the veal just a fraction tough, though Gary was right: it was a perfect braised peach.

With the main courses complete, they opened and chilled our Chateau D'Yquem, 1991, in preparation for the cheese course. Yquem is a dessert wine, a Sauternes, from the Bordeaux region. It's made from grapes that have been damaged by an infection, a parasite fungus nicknamed "the noble rot" (technically botrytis) that attacks the grapes, shriveling them and concentrating the sugars, leaving you with a wine that's difficult to make but sweet and very complex. It's the king of all sweet wines, it lasts practically forever, and a bottle from a great year like 1945, 1921 or 1900 can run thousands of dollars. Chateau D'Yquem is my favorite wine in the world, and I keep a stock of 1990s on hand at all times in my wine fridge, since that's the best year since 1945 and it's still available at reasonable prices (these days about $350 a bottle). In half bottles, all Guy Savoy had was a 1991, and though Gary and I don't trust Yquems after 1990 (when the original family sold the factory to a conglomerate), we decided to try it. Turns out the 1991 is excellent, if not quite as complex and powerful as the 1990 we adore.

When someone orders Yquem in a restaurant it's an event, and this time it was also an opportunity. Monsieur Savoy came over to our table: "You're having the Yquem? I will have a special dessert made for you to compliment it." Then our captain came by: "We have a Roquefort perfect for the Yquem, and I will fetch a special loaf of bread for it." Everyone was eager for the challenge, excited to use the knowledge they'd built up for just such a moment. They knew the dinner was special for us, and they wanted to make it special for them. This is service transformed into a collaborative venture, where everyone is contributing to the experience: diner, staff and chefs alike.

First, the cheese course. It was hard not to sample everything on that huge, groaning cart, but we knew a lot of desserts were on the way and room would be scarce. As great a cheese as Brillat-Savarin is, we knew the taste and wanted to try new things, so we skipped it. They had a muenster and a brie, usually names to avoid, but at Guy Savoy? Bring it on. That muenster! Earthy, rich, totally unlike anything that springs to mind. And the brie! Finally we understood why brie is so beloved: this was a true brie, sophisticated, a dozen flavors and dimensions, creamy and perfect. Then, on a separate plate, the Roquefort came, with its own bread: a dense fruit loaf heavy with bran and pistachios but no walnuts. Every other table got the same loaf with walnuts, but not ours. Walnuts conflict with Yquem, our captain insisted. Where did he get this loaf? It was obviously fresh, made a few hours ago at most. Do they make a few loaves every night without walnuts on the off chance that someone orders Yquem? We thought we knew Yquem, but we had no inkling that walnuts were wrong for it. And the cheese was something special. Roquefort has some real power to it, and we were both startled to hear it paired with Yquem. Sauturnes fanatics know the ultimate combination is with foie or with berries, but Yquem and Roquefort? It was an explosion of taste and texture. We were rocked to our foundations by the combination, the Yquem and Roquefort melding with the bread, fruit and pistachios to make something completely different, something that defies description. Even after all we'd had to eat, after everything we'd experienced so far, the combination of Yquem and that cheese, that bread, was something near to sensory overload. Sipping the Yquem later and nibbling of just the cheese, or just the bread, revealed only hints of what all three could do together.

They gave us a few moments to experience the aftershocks, and then it was time to settle down to dessert. The first was a dish of petit-fours, tuile cookies, macaroons, candied quince and a delicious cube of orange gelée on a square of tempered white chocolate. If you've never had a macaroon in France, you'll be hard pressed to understand what we mean: this is no lump of cocoanut baked brown into a dried-out ziggurat, but a kind of hyper-oreo, meringues surrounding a filling. It was only one element of this set of pre-desserts, dessert amuse-bouches, so to speak, and it was exquisite.

The next dessert was a special version of the evening's selection: strawberries four ways, designed specifically to compliment the Yquem. Imagine a solid crystal ball chilled to frost, with one side "deflated" into a depression to hold the dessert near the freezing point. In this pocket were layers of strawberries. On the bottom, strawberries stewed in apricot marmalade and sprinkled with bits of streusel; atop that a small scoop of fresh, home made strawberry sorbet; then a salsa of minced strawberries in Yquem; finally, strawberry chips (paper-thin slices of strawberry slow-dried in the oven under a weight so they come out flat and crispy) set into the sorbet like the armor plates on the back of a stegosaurus. The dessert required the Yquem: without its sweet complexity the berries would have been too tart.

If this wasn't enough, another masterpiece followed: an apricot feast. Dots of apricot reduction garnished the plate around a hollowed-out orange filled with a creamy apricot and orange soufflé, warm and perfectly balanced by a separate dish of apricot sorbet, very strong. After the berries and Yquem, the citrus was refreshing and the apricot cleansing. All that was left to do was...have another dessert: a tea and pear sorbet with a tea-infused crème anglaise. Coffee followed, of course, with tiny squares of finely tempered chocolate printed "Guy Savoy" in gold leaf, a thin wedge of apple tartine and a financier (a small pound cake native to France shaped like a purse, hence the name) to dip in the rich Kenyan coffee.

The next forty minutes were a happy blur, as Gary and I got a tour of the entire operation, from the other dining rooms to the kitchens, store rooms, the downstairs pastry station, and we met all the chefs who made the dinner so wonderful. "Oh, you're the ones who had the Yquem! How did you like my special strawberry dessert, did it match the wine?" from pastry chef Phillipe Chambon, perhaps the greatest working in France today. Our French was taxed to the limit, we'd used up every superlative we knew. We spent some time talking with Guy Savoy himself, and he presented us each with a menu, signed by him, made out to us by name. Not one menu for us both, but EACH a menu, that's how personal he wanted to be. The bus boy followed us around inserting compliments and observations whenever he could, clearly wanting to be part of the moment, eager to please, to show how sophisticated he could be. It was absolutely endearing. Everyone was wonderful, from the captain to the headwaiter, from the maitre de table to Monsieur Savoy himself. We even picked up a DVD featuring the master lecturing on the vegetables of France.

The cab ride home, at 12:30am, four and a half hours after we arrived, was spent in a haze of pleasure. This was unquestionably the best meal of our lives. Even with lavish tipping and all the souveniers, it was still less than what we paid at Le Cirque 2000 in Manhattan a year before (not to mention better). Forever afterwards, we know what a Michelin 3-star restaurant truly is.

Link: http://www.burkeandwells.com

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