October 11, 2014
Napoleon, it is said, met Josephine at Ledoyen. I don't know if that's true, but it certainly could be. For years I've stared longingly at the lights of this grand old building, set in a park just off the Champs Elysees, and thought it looked like the most romantic restaurant in the world.
Then I heard that Yannick Alleno, whose food I've always admired, had taken over the three-star kitchen. When a celebrated chef takes on an institution – as the reviews are coming in – is always the perfect time to go. The entire establishment is on its toes.
They certainly are. The service, from the moment you enter that gracious building, could not be more welcoming or solicitous. You walk up a regal stairway into a large windowed room of extraordinary calm, the tables widely spaced, looking out at tree level. It is like entering a stage set: you instantly feel as if you have become, if just for the moment, a person of great privilege.
And then the food begins to arrive. A few highlights:
One of many precise little bites: an interpretation of oyster (that's oyster leaf, which truly tastes like an oyster), a leap of textures and flavors that plays with your head. This is a small savory ile flottante that announces, right from the start, that this chef is using classic techniques in wildly inventive ways.
Pillows of beef tartare: the wagyu is from Gunma, the prefecture in Japan known for the sweetest, tenderest beef. Scattered throughout are little explosions of black sesame. On top, cool curls of cucumber and burnet leaf.
Gorgeous, isn't it? Mackerel sashimi stuffed with a puree of shiso and set in a gorgeous hibiscus aspic. Japan filtered through a French sensibility. One of the things I love about Alleno's cooking is the way he gives humble ingredients – mackerel, squid, butternut squash – the same attention as luxurious ones like lobster, wagyu beef and foie gras.
The polar opposite: France filtered through a purely French lens. This extremely unattractive dish was all about the mouth, but I have never had better foie gras. A huge, soft, rich cushion, poached in Riveslates (a sweet fortified wine), and paired with an equally unbeautiful (and equally delicious) sugar-crusted poached pear. "I can't possibly eat this much foie gras," I cried when the plate was set before me. It turned out I was wrong.
Who could resist a dish called "crab wrapped in calamari leaves"? The "leaves" turned out to be a kind of pasta made of pureed calamari, wrapped around crab and set in a potent grapefruit chutney whose bitterness had been tamed by almond milk. It wasn't my favorite dish of the night, but I was intrigued by the flavors.
I would not have missed this dish for the world; it is a real triumph. Eel souffle in a watercress coulis, accented by little bits of beet and onion. The rich softness of the eel was underlined by the edgy green flavor of the cress, then echoed by the combination of sweet, slowly cooked beet and strong onion confit. Again, Alleno offers a textural waltz: air and liquid circling around each other with each bite.
Cepes en civet – it's cepe season in Paris, and this was surely the most impressive presentation we had in any restaurant, the silken mushrooms cooked with orange peel and juniper that coaxed out the deep forest flavor of the mushrooms. Close your eyes: it's a walk in the woods.
I've always been a lobster purist: in the past I've merely wanted lobsters boiled and plunked on the table in the shell. After this, I'm not so sure. This lobster arrived in three takes: the tail so gorgeously grilled in a vinegar made of the coral that it was still tender.
Then there was one claw pureed and stuffed into cabbage:
the other served with the tomally and a sauce made of the shells pressed with vinegar:
Lobster has never been so gracefully deconstructed.
Chicken poached in vin de jura: so simple, but so good. The golden mushrooms a lovely contrast.
Ask for a salad, and this is what you get, a beautiful bowl of leaves and flowers. Vegetarians are well cared for here: there is a lovely plate of cepes in parmesan, a fine dish of butternut squash.
Afterwards there is the elegant cheese cart and a parade of desserts.
The food is intriguing and exciting, but three star dining is about much more than food. It's a performance, and Ledoyen doesn't let you down. The ambiance is so luxurious, the staff so convincing that by the time you leave you expect to find a coach and four waiting to whisk you home.
Alas, real life is just outside the door. Here comes your taxi.
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