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