Paris: One Sad Night

October 10, 2014

One of the cardinal rules of restaurant-going is this: the better the view, the worse the food.  You just don’t climb to the top of tall buildings, or sit on the waterfront, expecting a wonderful meal. 

Still, when Alain Ducasse is at the helm, you can't help having great expectations. Especially when the Guide Michelin has awarded his place a star. Which is why I happened to be halfway up the Eiffel Tower, eating at Restaurant Jules Verne on Sunday night (a notoriously difficult time to dine in Paris). 

It was, from start to finish, a miserable experience.

First: the room. If you’re seated at the window, you have the view.  If you’re not (we weren’t), you are in a room, dark as a nightclub, facing a black wall, so close to the surrounding tables you can hear them wishing each other happy birthday, transacting business, talking about their homes in White Plains (there are a lot of Americans here).  I felt as if I had been transported back in time to one of those depressing seventies discos. 

This is your first impression of your table. (Turned over, this strange brain becomes a plate.)

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Second: the service. I have never had such bad service in an expensive restaurant.  (There are only two options here: the 6 course prix-fixe at 230 euros, or the 5 course menu at 185.)  We sat for a full 10 minutes before anyone appeared to offer so much as a glass of water. It took forever for the wine to arrive.  The amuse bouche – if you could call it that – was a little dish of stone cold gougeres. When we told the surly waitress that we thought they would taste better hot, she said testily that “they can be served hot or cold, but if you’d like them hot I can warm them up.”  When they returned, barely warmer, she said “if I warmed them any more they’d be too crisp.”  I thought, longingly, of the gougeres at Daniel, made to order, wrapped in a napkin and whisked to the table. 

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Third: the food.  There’s a little note from Ducasse on the menu that says this: “A restaurant in the heart of the Eiffel Tower has always been a dream for me…. I want to share this feeling of happiness and ensure that the experience at Jules Verne remains in the memory of everyone.  More than a restaurant, it is a place of dreams and memories.”

Which is why it makes me so mad. This will be, for many who come here, their first taste of what’s supposed to be great cuisine. Their first experience of a grand restaurant.  And they come away having had sloppy, indifferent service and food that reminded me of nothing so much as first class airline food.  

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The foie gras: a cold little rectangle of pate, with a sweet fig jelly, a slim slice of duck, and a finger of fairly stale toasted brioche.  All I could think about was the fine slab of foie gras I’d eaten the night before at Ledoyen: warm, rich, perfectly cooked and paired with a caramelized pear.  I wished everyone around me could have tasted that, and understood why there's so much fuss about foie gras. 

The best course we had was a single sea scallop in a watercress veloute, topped with a few grains of excellent caviar.  The scallop was perfectly cooked, the veloute was mildly flavorful, and that caviar was a superb little mouthful.

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The worst course was called truffled macaroni au gratin with pearled veal jus.  It was five long stands of macaroni, very tough, stuck together with some cheese and topped with tasteless bits of meat. It was very much like something you’d get on an airplane.

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If you opt for the 7 course, you get both fish and meat.  The fish was a filet of sea bass, the skin and scales left on, but not crisped, so the overwhelming sense was something tough and gelatinous. Artichokes were  still clad in their indigestible outer leaves. There were a couple of mingy cepes on the plate too.

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The meat choice was actually pleasant – roasted saddle of lamb, surrounded by inocuous vegetables.  Still…. it was an easy option. 

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Dessert: very acid preserved lemon with basil sorbet.  And then a little chocolate pastry, which was the best thing we had all night. Saving the best for last.

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They had run out of the first wine we ordered, and when I asked for a suggested replacement the sommelier pointed to a far more expensive wine.  The wine we did order was going through a second fermentation, and when we mentioned that the sommelier frowned and said repressively, "This wine was chosen by M. Ducasse himself."  The bread was sad.  The light on our table (see below) kept going out;

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“Oh,” the waitress said, “the battery is tired.”  

It seemed like a fitting metaphor for the entire evening.

The ride down the Eiffel Tower, however, was an undeniable thrill. 

Up next – a truly lovely meal at Ledoyen.  And a trip down south to Lyon, to Maison Pic, to Michel Bras. And then a few more meals in Paris…..

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More Paris: Clamato

October 8, 2014

Flatbread

Everybody loves Septime, the small restaurant in the 11th, which is just about the hardest reservation in Paris.  I couldn't get in, so I was thrilled to find that their little "fisherie" next door doesn't take reservations.  We got to Clamato at noon on Sunday, eager to be first in line. (We weren't.)

It's a terrific little place, very simple, with a delicious version of Clamato (basically a Bloody Mary with clam juice), homemade Tabasco sauce, and the best looking waiters you've ever seen.  Loved everything we ate, but this flat bread at the top, slightly sweet, topped with fresh white cheese and trout roe was my favorite.

We had oysters, of course:

Oysteres

and a wonderful ceviche:

Ceviches

and this irresistible merlan, impeccably fried and extremely meaty, with it's backbone removed:

Fried

 and lovely scallops:

Scallop

 Lovely vegetables too, including this eggplant, in dashi, with little frisks of dried bonito waving from the top, like underwater sea anemones. 

Dashi

The room is cheerfully casual, the soundtrack terrific, and the clientele makes you feel like you've wandered into the most happening place in Paris.  Children wander in and out, babies coo, and everyone looks happy. But the food itself has an admirable precision; everything feels beautifully sourced and extremely well thought out.

The menu changes daily, so there's no excuse not to come again. 

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Paris: An Unexpectedly Great Meal

October 6, 2014

Livarot

Isn't this the most delicious looking round of cheese?  It's a perfectly ripe Livarot, at the wonderful wine bar, Legrand Filles et Fils in the Palais Royal neighborhood. Excellent selection of wines, terrific cheeses. But probably not the perfect place to stop for a bite between an afternoon of major meat at Desnoyer and dinner at Verjus. Can't say I arrived at dinner with an enormous appetite.

But that soon changed.  You're going to have to forgive the following photos: the light was dim, and in my enthusiasm for the flavors, textures and sheer exuberance of each dish, I didn't spend a lot of time capturing images.  The food looked lovely, but it was so intelligently put together that I couldn't help concentrating more on the way it tasted than how it had been put upon the plate.

Chef  Braden Perkins combines flavors in fascinating ways.  The 7-course prix fixe meal (68 euros) began with this ceviche of bass on a bed of fresh hummus made of cranberry beans.  Had you asked me ahead of time if I thought hummus belonged in ceviche, I would have given you an emphatically negative answer.  And I would have been wrong. The textures were completely harmonious, the silvery smoothness of the fish underscored by the grainy texture of the beans.  What really pulled the dish together though was those lightly charred snap peas, which changed the flavor profile of the plate.  Wax beans and radishes frolicked through the dish, adding lovely little bits of crunch.

Ceviche

This next course pretty much blew me away:

Pasta

Wonderful little strands of squid, looking just like pasta, topped with pasta that looked like something else. Dark green with nettles, the strands of pasta were tangled into a sauce of piquillo peppers;  crushed marcona almonds were strewn through every bite. This was such a pleasing disht that I was deeply disappointed when I looked down and realized there was nothing left.

I thought that would be the high point of the meal.  Then this arrived:

Mushrooms

Braised porcini (cepes), topped with a salad of raw sliced mushrooms.  Here the flavors were underlined by the sweet woodsy taste of hazelnuts, the savage wildness of strong arugula and a bit of burnt lemon powder.  Those little black dots dancing across the plate?  Dehydrated mushrooms. 

So far this food had been extremely delicate, but it was about to become more forceful. And here it comes…

Carrot

an impeccable little rabbit sausage.  Most sausages are bursting with fat or dry as dust; this one was simply filled with flavor.  A brilliant use of rabbit, the taste of the meat was enhanced by pickled grains of mustard that popped inside the mouth, the earthy sourness of mustard greens and the gentle sweetness of blackberry.

  Duck

Terrible picture; my apologies. This duck breast was wonderful: cooked rare, slightly smokey, and served with celery root and a sauerkraut made of red cabbage pricked with caraway. 

  Granita

A pre-dessert: granita of apples perched on a strangely wonderful panna cotta that tasted like winter in the forest. Such an interesting pairing: the sweetness of the apples, the prickly sharpness of the pine. 

  Lemoncake

Salted lemon cake – just a square, in froth of lemon creme anglaise with blackberry sorbet melting across the top.  What’s lovely here is the utter lack of cloying sweetness: the perfect coda to a really impressive meal. 

The room is lovely, the service sweet, and all over the room people were murmuring happily, loath to leave their tables.

I can't wait to go back.  

 

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First Taste of Paris

October 4, 2014

Hugo

This is Hugo Desnoyer, the celebrity butcher of Paris, hand-chopping steak tartare. He just won Le Figaro's contest for best tartare in the city.

And no wonder.

His pristine shop out by the Bois de Boulogne is a lively place; when someone comes in for a large order, one of the butchers brings out whole sides of meat and cuts off what is ordered. The cases are filled with all manner of prepared foods – from meat-stuffed peppers to sausages and salads. They even have their own gorgeous line of caviar.

You can watch the action from one of the twelve seats at the tall tables in front, while you sip wine and eat that amazing tartare.  Perhaps you'd prefer your hand-chopped meat to be veal:

Tartare
Or perhaps this carpaccio of beef: I've never had better.

Carpaccio
If cooked meat is your pleasure, there are many choices.  This ribeye (for 2), was mine:

Ribeye

The meat was great – the fat even better.  And those bones!

I went to Desnoyer right from the airport (well, I did drop my luggage off first).  It was quite a start to a marathon few days of eating.

Up next: a great wine bar, and one of the best (and best bargain) meals I've ever had in Paris. 

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