uhockey's thoughts on Paris Restaurants - Part 2 - l'Arpege, Ledoyen, Jean-Francois Piege, Cafe Constant, L'Astrance,
- uhockey May 7, 2011 11:40 AM
Full text below, photos in the blog.
The afternoon following the best meal of my life at Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous restaurant on Le Rue Balzac my sister and I would find ourselves at another 3-starred eponymous (more or less) locale. Sure the small room located on la rue de Varenne has signage designating the space as l’Arpège but everything from the website to the history to the menu says Alain Passard. A former maître rôtisseur later converted to a disciple of “la cuisine légumière” I’d heard Passard’s story years prior and was instantly intrigued; how could you not be by a man who risked an already sterling reputation, restaurant, and career on such a dramatic change? Having myself undergone a significant renaissance in the way I thought about health, food, and dining in 2001 I’d invariably read more about Passard than any other chef over the last number of years and as such there was no doubt the restaurant would find its way into our itinerary.
Beginning with it’s own 100% natural and organic garden some 250 kilometers Southwest of Paris (and subsequently expanding to two additional farms with 14 farmers planting and harvesting through entirely non-mechanical techniques) the restaurant known by some as the most expensive in Paris and by others as “fussy vegetarian food,” for me represents a panacea – the way food should be cultivated, sourced, farmed, and served. With Passard’s dedication to perfection in his produce noted it should be no surprise that the reservation process was similarly perfect – an E-mail nearly three months in advance booked the table for Monday at noon, a call two days prior confirmed it, and our minimal questions were handled by a reservationist identified as Fleur.
Strolling through the heavily patrolled government district and arriving at l’Arpège nearly ten minutes early we were surprisingly the first guests of the afternoon and after a warm welcome we were given our choice of seats. Electing to sit closest to the wall with the famous Lalique glass tiles our chairs were pulled out for us and within moments our captain, a lovely woman with smiling eyes and a memorable laugh, greeted us warmly. Electing still water (the most expensive of the trip at 7,50€ per bottle) we sat and perused the room for a few moments before menus would arrive – blonde woods, hefty reds, white linens, plenty of sunlight, and centerpieces of preserved spring vegetables – natural and understated, as expected.
With the menu explained and the restaurant slowly filling to capacity we debated our choices for a short while before coming to a consensus – in order to optimize the number of dishes sampled one of us would select the lunch tasting and the other the full dinner tasting. Declining wine and confirming our selections to the captain we were complimented on our strategy and after making selections for the main course and a specific request for dessert the journey began. With each menu numbering ten proper courses I will note that due to our method of ordering and the generosity of the kitchen it actually turned out to be twelve proper courses each consisting of fifteen different plates plus amuses, mignardises, and more.
Starting things off our first taste of Passard’s cuisine was a flurry of “les Tartelettes” – two courses totaling twelve small pastry shells containing a mélange of vegetables including yellow beetroot and chopped garlic, red beetroot with chocolate sauce and sesame, and orange beetroot with parsley, radish and turnip. Clearly intended to show off the variety of his garden’s bounty early in the meal I loved the texture of the buttery pastry – a fainting glint on the tongue that gave way to a burst of nature; the first mild but pungent, the second sweet and smoky, and the last earthy and bitter.
After the second round of tarteletts was cleared our next visitor would be a frequent friend of the table – the bread server…or perhaps I should say the man who continuously replenished my delivery mechanism for the best butter on the planet. Beginning first with the bread, a warm house made Pain de Campagne nearly sourdough in flavor with a crunchy crust and soft crumb – it was excellent…at least I’m pretty sure it was. What muddles the picture was the butter – Bordier of course – but this time a whole level above any of the previous (or subsequent) selections and with a description more elaborate than even the Animal Farm butter at The French Laundry. Reportedly made bi-weekly specifically for Passard the butter was the beyond creamy – almost the texture of a soft cheese but infinitely smooth, packed with the finest sea salt in the world, and so fresh that it sweat…it was a butter so good that when the server went to remove our replenished triangle from the table at the end of the meal I instead asked him for more bread because I couldn’t bear to send it back.
Moving on to our first proper course of the menu – for one of us perhaps the most famous dish in Paris fine dining and for the other another take on a similar concept. Beginning first with the former, for my first course I was served the famous l’Arpège egg, more commonly known as “Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices.” Given my fondness for egg dishes and having already experienced David Kinch’s ode to this famous dish at Manresa nearly a year and a half prior I was appropriately excited when the cut egg from the Loire valley arrived and plunging my spoon deep the first bite brought back a flood of memories – the smooth yolk, the aromatic quatre epices, the sour crème fraîche and acidic vinegar mellowed by the maple syrup – it tasted exactly as my mouth remembered, a balance that lands squarely on every part of the tongue and fills the palate.
For Erika’s first course the afternoon would deliver “Oeuf Parfait Fantaisie,” a lovely dish in its own right though clearly not as famous as its counterpart. With a lightly poached egg anchoring the plate the “parfait” aspect of the dish was provided by creamy parmesan foam kissed with black truffles and freeze dried shrimp while fresh cut parsley and celery added a vegetal finish.
For our second course we would both receive a course that was listed only on my sister’s menu – “Musclun de Sylvain au praline de noisette a l’ancienne – mizuna, moutarde metisse, choho, roquette.” Again highlighting the diversity of Passard’s collection this course was described as a raw green salad featuring ingredients picked less than 8 hours prior and amongst the elements included were a rare variant of Sylvain musclun, feathery mizuna, crisp Japanese Choho, arugula, and Mustard Greens topped with lightly sweetened hazelnut vinaigrette, coarse almonds, sliced heirloom beets, and thinly shredded parmesan. Never one to rave a “simple” salad I will simply say this was as good as a salad can be – each ingredient a prime example and in harmony with its counterparts.
Much as I received Erika’s second course complimentary she would receive my third course on the house – in this case one of Passard’s most famous. Titled “Fines Ravioles Printanieres consommé amber – oignon red baron, chou cabus, oseille large de Belleville, ail thermidrome” each member of this quartet of ultra thin dumplings consisted of a different distinct flavor of finely-diced or pureed vegetables in a clean and clear broth kissed with saffron and ginger. With each pocked melting on the tongue the flavors of the afternoon consisted of red baron onion, green cabbage, Belleville red peppers, and roasted garlic with an aged cheese – each entirely distinct, mildly sweet, and the very essence of their respective ingredients.
For course four our paths would once again differ – this time substantially. For my sister, “Sushi printanier ail frais” was a unique dish and certainly not sushi in the traditional sense. While ruby-red and easily mistaken for tuna at a distance, this dish instead featured nicely prepared and slightly sweet white rice draped with a thin slice of beet accompanied with garlic oil, shaved beetroot and grated horseradish. Visually lovely, texturally impressive, and tasty without being overly spicy, but overall the least wowing dish of the afternoon.
As part of the more expensive tasting (actually more pricey than the entire lunch menu if ordered a la carte) my fourth course would be “Homard <<blue nuit>> de Chausey au miel du jardin <<recolte ete 2010>> transparence de navet globe.” It would also be the best lobster dish I have ever tasted. Reportedly caught the day prior and transferred live to the restaurant prior to being poached in Bordier butter the lobster itself was tender, meaty, and succulent. Having had excellent lobster in the past, what put the tail over the top was the accoutrements – a layered veil of transparent globe turnips and beet root and sugar cane sauce infused with honey and lime. Impressive in both portion and presentation this was a dish where nothing was extraneous – a sum of flavors greater than the whole of its parts. It was incredible.
For the next course we would return to similar dishes once again, this time “Couleur, saveur, parfum et dessin du jardin cueillette ephemere” – roughly translated as Color, flavor, fragrance and designs of the fresh picked garden. A simple dish of orange and green, yet perhaps the dish that captured exactly what l’Arpège was all about in a single plate this pairing of Spinach with Carrot moussline left both of us with out mouths agape. With the spinach steamed and the carrot sieved, both prepared in Bordier and lightly accompanied with olive oil, onion compote, and golden sesame I think Erika summed this up best when she said “This is what happens when you take ideal vegetables and prepare them ideally.” Clearly enjoying this dish a great deal I will note that our server asked if we’d like another serving – an offer we graciously accepted.
Round six would again see our menus diverge though my 6th would end up being Erika’s seventh. Titled Robe des champs <<Arlequin>> a l’huile d’argan – radis rudis, carotte ronde hative de Paris, chou rave noriko, pois mange-tout norli I believe the translation of this dish was something along the lines of unpeeled vegetables in Argan oil and thin vegetable sausages, however the plate was much more elaborate than that. Invariably the brightest of the afternoon’s creations this dish presented a cous-cous crafted entirely of finely diced of vegetables cooked with semolina intermingled with lightly cooked fresh vegetables in nutty Argan oil and perhaps most uniquely a small “sausage” made only of red vegetables with spicy Harissa. Almost a breakfast dish in some ways I loved the way this course fit in the progression of the menu for both of us despite the different timing.
Erika’s sixth dish of the afternoon was another item titled more in spirit than by ingredient – this one “Collection legumiere 2011 image du potager ce matin.” Described as the ‘chef’s whim’ course of the night, this plate featured a shallow saucer of bruleed golden onion gratin with Parmesan and Candied lemon. Shattering just like a crème brulee and clearly sweetened the interior of the plate was creamy and smooth – plenty savory but also just a little tart…to be honest, it could have served as a dessert or palate cleanser as much as it did as a savory.
With a small service glitch (a young man in a blue tie inexplicably came and stole our butter and bread plates after the sixth course) remedied by more butter and more bread the meal would progress next to Erika receiving the Robe des Champs while my seventh dish would deliver another special from the dinner menu, the (120€ ALC) Turbot de la pointe de Bretagne au <<Cotes du Jura>> pommes de terre <<belles du Bois Grioult>> fumes. A classic presentation poached in buttery smoked wine sauce and accompanied by cabbage, potatoes, and fine herbs the dish was clean, restrained, and pristine.
With the afternoon’s roast being paraded around the dining room in whole form our eighth course would bring a surprise – two distinctly different versions of my sister’s main course selection “Peche cotiere de la pointe de Bretagne grille sur ecailles;” for her “avec vin beurre” and for myself “avec the vert matcha.” Another simple but lovely fish the Sole from the Brittany Shore grilled with the scales alongside green cabbage and smoked potatoes was more meaty and less subtle than the Turbot but a sterling example none the less. With her buttery wine sauce similar to that on the Turbot though more sweet and less dry, the grassy green tea sauce accompanying my version was an inspired choice particularly for how it paired with the cabbage and herbs.
For our final savory I’d been given the choice of lamb or duck – the lamb specific to the dinner menu and the duck also my sister’s alternative option to the Sole on the lunch menu. With duck the obviously answer we were once again surprised when course nine arrived with two portions. Listed on the menu as “Rotisserie <<Grand Heritage>> de Louise Passard grand crus du potager” and dating back to his Grandmother’s influence on his previous life as a maître rôtisseur this service presented a Salt roasted strip of rosy Challans Duck breast, confit of thigh, and a bone-in leg alongside confit carrot and onion, orange mousseline, fresh baby leeks and a finishing hibiscus flower sauce added tableside. Yet another dish with plenty of visual pop the duck itself was supple and fresh with a nice layer of fat while the vegetables were all perfect as expected. Was it as good as Gagnaire’s duck? Not quite, but tasty none the less and the bone-in leg paired with the hibiscus sauce was a fantastic pairing.
With our menu going a couple plates longer than the others we’d already seen what was next – La Carte de Fromage – and an enormous one despite a small well-culled selection at that. Featuring only six cheeses on a large wooden block supported by a silver cart the afternoon would deliver 6 month aged Auvergne, St. Nectaire, and a trio of aged soft Goat Cheeses from West France – plus the star of the show, Comte de Garde Exceptionnelle November 2007 by Bernard Antony. With each selection a standard-bearer for its respective genre there is no doubt the other cheeses stand in the shadow of the golden comte which is shaved lightly and melts slowly on the tongue leaving behind an unmistakable aura quite unlike any cheese I’ve ever experienced. Having tasted this same cheese later during our trip in larger slices I’ll simply say that this is one case where size matters and thinner is better given the heft of the flavor.
Again catching a glimpse of the next course while enjoying the prior dish, the dessert of the day for the lunch menu was Passard’s Millefeuille <<caprice d’enfant. >> Constructed as a nearly two and a half foot long log and cut to enormous individual portions tableside this lovely pastry was as light as a feather yet intense and decadent at the same time. Composed of at least ten layers of caramelized puffed pastry interspersed with clouds of hazelnut cream and dusted with powdered sugar there was no lack for sweetness in the plate, yet at the same time it never became overwhelming as the pastry itself was slightly bitter and shattered with the lightest pressure to prove an amiable foil to the cream. While not the absolute best Millefeuille of the trip in taste I enjoyed the texture of this one the most by far.
Arriving shortly on the heels of the Millefeuille would be the afternoon’s collection of Mignardises, a pair of plates; one with more tarts and the other with cookies and candies. Declining the offer for coffee after the bites were described our captain asked if there was anything else we’d like and with a simple request she responded “certainly” and disappeared to the kitchen as we explored the options; Red Onion and Parsley Tarts / Rhubarb, Red Pepper, and Asparagus with Parmesan Macarons / Black Pepper Marshmallows, Honey Cranberry Nougats, and Individual Fleur de Roses. With each selection tasty and unique it was actually the Asparagus Macaron and Parsley Tart that impressed most from the plate – each vegetal yet sweetened in a manner to enhance rather than to distract from the natural flavors. Interestingly we’d be brought a second round of Mignardises at the end of our meal – after our request was fulfilled.
To be honest, had I paid closer attention to the mignardise plate (instead of focusing on the Millefeuille at the time) I’d probably not have even made the request I did – you see, I had not realized the Individual Fleur de Roses to be what they were at first. None the less, having read nothing but praise of Passard’s signature “Tarte aux pommes Bouquet de Roses Caramel au lait” I knew it was something I had to taste during my visit and as such when the captain asked if there was anything else we’d like the Tarte was a logical answer and without question or second thought two of them arrived at the table at no additional charge. Similar in taste to the version on the mignardise plate each Tarte featured seven of the crispy golden “Roses” of apple and cinnamon centered in a dense buttery crust. Topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and encircled by a rich and complex salty caramel it was like an apple dumpling all grown up and every bit worth the special request.
Sitting and chatting as the room slowly emptied we were finally brought “one last treat from the kitchen” along with a second collection of mignardises – a bowl of “bread ice cream.” Said to be made with fresh unpasteurized milk from one of Passard’s farms and the same yeast used to make the lovely bread the melting quenelle was sweet yet savory, a bit sour, and creaminess defined.
With the (admittedly substantial) bill requested and paid we sat and picked at the mignardises for a while before I asked for a copy of the menu and was given a fully jacketed version with the statement “it is too bad chef had to leave early this afternoon or he could have signed it.” Unbothered despite the fact that I’d have liked to have met and thanked Monsieur Passard for such an outstanding meal we next gathered our bags, thanked the staff, and made our way back to the sunny streets of Paris where our conversation would invariably center on what we had just experienced – a meal my sister now considers the best of her life and a meal that affirmed exactly what I had expected walking in the door…that Passard’s vision is an admirable one and that his food, though not fussy or overly complicated, is at times as close to perfection as is possible – the inevitable result of flawless ingredients and considerable talent. Sure such an experience comes at a price, but sometimes you really do get what you pay for and for anyone with the financial means who truly cares about what they eat and where it comes from l’Arpège is a must visit.
They are very different experiences in all but the service and the quality of the ingredients- both are pleasant, warm, whimsical, and giving in service and obviously capable of sourcing the very best.
Where they differ - the room, the platings, the complexity - it is hard to say which is "better." For what it is worth, of all the miraculous meals we had in Paris, the four I would rush back to the soonest are Pierre Gagnaire, L'Arpege, Ledoyen, and Jean Francois-Piege. The next tier would be Le Cinq, Le Pre Catalan, and Guy Savoy.
Wow, encore. This meal looks (and sounds, as you describe it) superb. I too adore Bordier butter, which is my favorite as well. My favorite restaurants in London (The Square and The Ledbury) serve it as well, each specially prepared in distinctive shapes. This alone exponentially increases my enjoyment of the meal. And that, paired with M. Antony's 4-year old comte must have been extraordinary. I have had 4-year old comte at Dubois in Paris, which was excellent (as is their 2-year old version), and would be curious to know if you were able to compare. Many thanks again for sharing your experience.
re: Nancy S.
WIth regret we did not make it to Dubois. We did have 4-year at Le Pre-Catelan and 2-year Comte at Savoy, Rostang, and Ledoyen however. There is a distinct difference in the flavors to me with the 2-year being sweeter and more fruity while the older product has more of that buttery/nutty flavor. It is also more creamy on the tongue, imo.
Just wanted to chime in on my Arpege experience which was last Monday. Dinner was excellent. I thought there were 2 misfires though. I found the sweet and sour sauce on the lobster very distracting and not in line with the theme of simplicity and letting the original flavor shine through. I noticed another lobster prep circulating which was lobster simply roasted in the shell. I think I would have enjoyed that prep more. The turbot was beautiful and paraded whole around the dining room. It was cooked well done. I would probably have preferred it medium or medium rare. Aside from that, everything else was wonderful. The single item I keep thinking about was a simple piece of perfectly and ingeniusly smoked potato which accompanied the turbot. It tasted like the potato had been simmering in smoked bacon fat for an hour. I had to ask just to make sure. It wasn't. Unforgettable really. The other interesting item was the avocado and chocolate soufflé. The souffle texture was the best I've had. The avocado was very apparent, interesting, but not my favorite from a pure flavor perspective. The chocolate worked well. A great meal, very pricy, and I agree that my preference is still ever so slightly Gagnaire. The purity of Arpege is undeniable though.
Pretty much identical except souffle came after the mignardise. Our millefeuille had rhubarb. For the meat dishes our selection was lamb or the famous straw smoked roasted chicken. Lamb was good, but not nearly as wonderful as the lamb saddle at Chez Louis. Chicken was excellent. The smoking resulted in a subtle almost green tea sweetness of the meat.
Full text below, photos in the blog.
To dine in a space nearly as old as your country of origin is a strange thing – to think that those who have preceded you are the men who fill artistic, literary, and historical texts…it would make the space seem significant even if the food was average. But, what if the restaurant was also a Michelin three-star establishment that some have claimed may serve the best food in Paris? On April 12th 2011 I decided discover for myself just “what if” at Ledoyen – the oldest restaurant in Paris. With reservations made by phone well in advance for one person at lunch I’ll admit this was the one 3-Star meal I was most leery of during our trip to Paris largely because I’d heard of chilly service and a stodgy room – rumors I hoped to find false because I’d heard nothing but praise for the product on the table.
Hidden in the gardens adjacent to the Champs Elysées and established in 1792 as a formal restaurant Ledoyen exudes the very definition of “les grandes tables du monde” – a place of fine dining with an extensive history rooted in quality and tradition, yet at the same time as I walked up the gravel path to the space it was certainly obvious that some aspects of the space had been modernized in the intervening years to provide a touch of modernity. With a uniformed guard patrolling out front as I approached I was greeted with a smile and “bonjour” as he abandoned his march to hold the door and within two steps of breeching the doorway a tall elderly gentleman greeted me, located my name, and handed my bag off to a young lady before leading me up the staircase as he explained to me a short history of a painting on the wall.
Entering the grand dining room – long, spacious, and with enormous bay windows flooding the space with light – I was again handed off, this time to the man who would serve as my captain and within moments I was seated at a handsome two-top with cream linens, monogrammed napkins and a golden charger matching the gilded ornaments of the room. With heavy woods, chandeliers, mirrors, and heavy curtains abound I guess I can understand why some felt the room could use an upgrade, but to me it felt like old luxury befitting a place of such history.
With wine declined and still water (7€ per small bottle) from Vittel poured I next received three menus – one for lunch, one a la carte, and one featuring Chef Le Squer’s signature tasting menu. Having originally planned on the tasting I was instantly forced to reconsider when I saw the lunch menu options and after some debate and a pair of questions I actually opted for the lunch menu plus two supplements – a choice that would lead to more courses than the signature tasting and when it was all said and done leave me as the lone diner in the room. With my comfort and capacity (“Monsieur, this will be much food”) assured it would not be long before the experience would begin.
For my first taste of Le Squer’s cuisine I was a bit taken aback – sure I’d seen pictures and heard that he dabbles in pairing his classic training with modern technique, but I certainly wasn’t anticipating a molecular gastronomy in a room like Ledoyen. Presented on a pair of black slate blocks the sextet of canapés du jour were described first in French and then in English by a young woman who would act as my primary server throughout the meal and each one clearly sported not only modern flare, but Eastern influence as well. With options including a “Ginger Bubble,” a Veggie Wrap with Sesame, an Asparagus Puff with Nori, an Uni pita, and Crackers flavored with Polenta and Parmesan alongside those made with Sesame and Squid Ink each bite was fun and tasty, but overall it was the Uni Pita that truly stood out – like a pizza-roll stuffed with butter and purple urchin that burst on mastication into a flood of briny flavor.
With my love of bread well documented and canapés being enjoyed slowly the next items to arrive at my table would become a serious issue when taking into account my captain’s comment about the size of the meal – to put it another way, the bread service at Ledoyen is without a doubt the best of any restaurant I’ve yet to experience. Featuring a crunchy baguette with an open and airy crumb, yeasty salted olive bread, and a golden roll referred to as cereal brioche – all house-made and all warm – plus a large round of unsalted slightly sweet butter from Bordier it was the sort of bread I simply could not stop eating, particularly the brioche which I’m rather certain I had a piece (or two) of with every course.
With canapés finished the next course to arrive would be the afternoon’s amuse bouche and considering Le Squer’s reputation for drawing on products from his native region I was not surprised when the area was cited in describing the course. Again described in French and then translated to English, “Fine raw peas from Brittany over Pea Flan with Onion, Bacon, Marjoram, Milk Foam” was fantastic – the sort of dish that makes an American wonder why even the best produce back home rarely compares. Snappy and sweet meets salty and smooth and all with the mild undertone of marjoram and onions punctuating the experience – an inspired combination that could have easily served as a proper course given its size and complexity.
Already glad I’d decided to make the visit my first proper course of the afternoon would be precisely the sort of dish I’d expected from Ledoyen – an eye catching dish pairing top quality ingredients and time-honored techniques with a handful of whimsy. Described as Foie Gras des Landes mi-cuit with chocolate, toffee, vanilla, esplette, and sea salt from the Brittany coast this dish was decadence defined and although offered as an appetizer it could have just as as easily arrived as dessert. Significant in portion and more so in taste I particularly loved the manner in which the crunchy peppered toffee melded the thick layer of creamy liver with the milk chocolate ganache forming a flavor oddly reminiscent of an upscale peanut butter cup with basenotes of smoke and spice.
With the plate for course one literally wiped clean to the amusement of my server it would be a short while before my second of the four course lunch menu would arrive, this time “Bresse Chicken in stale bread with Tarragon, Grapefruit, Asparagus and Fine Herb reduction” Again served in ample portion with the bird’s mildly gamey flavor and tender flesh enhanced by the tarragon and herbs packed beneath the buttery crust the other high point of this dish was the inspired pairing of thinly sliced white asparagus and grapefruit – two flavors I’d have never thought to combine, but when used in this setting a pleasant acidic accompaniment to the otherwise classic take on “fried chicken.”
While other diners opting for the lunch menu were preparing for cheeses or desserts the parade of savories would march on for myself in the form of a piping hot structure approximately one and a half times the size of a Twinkie. Dubbed by some as “The Macaroni Castle” (Officially titled Jambon / Morilles / Truffe Aux Spaghettis) this dish came highly recommended by no less than three trusted palates and despite its cost being more than the entirety of the lunch tasting it was absolutely worth it. With tender spaghettis standing vertical beneath a molten cheese roof decorated with crisp potatoes, savory ham, gold, and fresh morels this plate was a visual masterpiece, but like many things it was “the inside that counts” – a liquid filling loaded with butter, parmesan, cream, ham, morels, and chunks of black truffle the size of grapes. Beautiful, complex, aromatic, and decadent in every sense of the word – a dish that will forever stand out in my mind as one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
With praise flowing forth as I again wiped the plate clean it was the cheese carte that would arrive next, an ornately decorated carte with nearly twenty options from which I selected a 2008 Comte, Aged Livarot, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Brie de Meaux, and a particularly creamy Epoisse to go with the house made Fig and Walnut Bread. With each quite nice it was actually the Alpine goat Pouligny that impressed me the most with its somewhat dry texture and sweet-and-sour balance.
With the bread plate and butter no longer present to tempt me what would follow next was the best sort of excess – an over abundance of desserts. Certainly the four course lunch had its two dessert options, but why settle for a single choice when for a mere 9€ you can opt for Le Grande Dessert Tasting Ledoyen – a collection of five – plus four paired petits fours and more? With the parade beginning first with the petits fours as the others were prepared the days selections included Licorice Macaroons with Hibiscus jelly, Pina Colada and Pineapple Lollipops with a Gingerbread base, White Chocolate Sandwiches with Bailey’s and Lime, and Salty Caramel Wontons with Candied Pecans. Much like the canapés this playful collection certainly did not seem to “fit” the classic nature of the room, but by this point I’d more than realized Le Squer was unhindered by such things and I found the Lollipops and Wantons particularly lovely.
Preserving one half of the petits fours for later the first course of my dessert tasting to arrive was described as “white on black” and featured Ledoyen’s yeast ice cream covered in edible silver and paired with a light menthol mousse and shards of white chocolate. With the mousse/ice cream combination smooth and nicely balanced while the chocolate served largely as a textural contrast the surprise of this dish was how light it all was – a chilly cloud punctuated with crunch.
With the restaurant now approximately half-empty the second dessert of the afternoon would be Ledoyen’s signature, yet despite this status I was somewhat hesitant as I generally don’t prefer grapefruit. Arriving stacked as a pseudo-millefeuille and titled “Croquant de pamplemousse cuit et cru au citron vert” the dessert was undoubtedly attractive and on description featured the fruit in no less than five forms – sections marinated in lime, a gelee with dill, icy sorbet, crunchy candy topped with basil, and grated peel punctuated by honey. An explosive showing of tartness and texture I particularly enjoyed the manner in which the spices balanced the citrus, but all in all it was still grapefruit and while I certainly appreciate the effort and balance it simply was not designed for my palate.
The third dessert of the afternoon would arrive perhaps fifteen minutes after the second and this one was much more fitting my sensibilities. Described as “Strawberry, coriander, hibiscus, beurre blanc crème brulee” I personally like to remember this dish as Sophisticated Strawberry Shortcake without the cake. Featuring fraises des bois in a ring surrounding floral pastry cream perched atop the most decadent crème brulee one can imagine at its base the dish was then topped with aromatic coriander foam and smooth strawberry gelato to form a dish where each bite was a little different from the last – it was exquisite.
Dessert four would prove to be another intriguing composition – a dish described in English as “pavlova of carrot, orange, and fromage a la creme” but honestly I think something was lost in the translation as the texture was more cheesecake than pavlova. Semantics aside, with two layers of airy cream cheese sandwiching orange puree topped and topped with orange segments soaked in pineapple rum the cake itself was lovely. What set this dish apart, however, was the carrot component – shards of candy similar to that of the white chocolate from earlier and an aromatic froth that tasted as fresh cooked carrots smell.
With only two other tables still sporting patrons at this point I was asked if I’d like coffee – an offer I gladly accepted as there was a long day ahead, but prior to the coffee my last dessert would arrive in the form of “Chocolate crunch, caramel, crème fraiche.” In my opinion saving the best for last this decadent plate was geometrically pleasing and texturally wowing with two thick fingers of Valrhona ganache filled with nougat and wafer juxtaposing a layer of thick caramel at the center of the plate and tangy vanilla tinged crème fraiche at one side with chocolate pop-rocks at the other.
With plates finally cleared and Chef Le Squer making his way to the dining room to say hello to the seven of us remaining the last bites of the meal would arrive along with the intensely flavored coffee in the form of Chocolate with Rice, Caramel au Beurre Sel, Kouign Aman, and Caramelized Almonds. With the chocolate and caramelized almonds rather unmemorable after such an extravagant meal and the caramels a lovely sweet/salty balance it was invariably the Kouign Aman that stood out – light and buttery, crisp and sweet, and best of all still warm.
Still enjoying the mignardises as Le Squer made his rounds mine was the last table he would visit and although our communication was somewhat limited due to the necessity of an interpreter he appeared to be a very humble man and extremely grateful for my compliments of the cuisine. Stating that he was impressed I ate so much and inquiring as to what I liked best he again thanked me before returning to the kitchen stating it was time to begin preparing for dinner service. With the staff ever efficient, smiling, and professional I was asked if there was anything else I’d like and after requesting a copy of the menu I paid my check and was on my way along with the 2011 Ledoyen stamped copy of “Les grandes tables du monde” gifted to me in the lobby when I collected my bag.
With the afternoon gorgeous as I made my way towards L’Arc de Triomphe to meet my sister I was left to reflect on the meal I’d just experienced and all things considered it marked my third outstanding experience in three days and in retrospect it was also my third favorite meal in Paris. While the room is certainly aged and the service not as whimsical as that of Pierre Gagnaire or l’Arpege I personally did not find either to be cold or boring but instead classical and befitting a building of such history. Moving beyond this, I found Le Squer’s style and the product on the table to almost serve a bridge between past and present – a classic approach that is not afraid to have a little fun and serious dining with just a touch of whimsy.
re: Nancy S.
Thanks for the great reporting! I'm so envious of the sheer amount of food you seem to be able to consume, especially bread. I adore good bread but even when I force myself to limit the intake to a few bites of each kind offered, I am always so stuffed near the end of a multi-course meal I can never do justice to the last dessert or the mignardise. And after a meal like the ones you've been reporting, I can't eat again for another 24 hours! I'm impressed at your ability to eat meal after meal of so much rich food!
I assure you I don't eat like this at home. And I run daily. To be fair, if it isn't in the blog I made 99% of it myself and it is largely vegetable and lean meats. I can't think of the last time I bought something packaged or "refined" and 90% of my kitchen is one-ingredient items like "broccoli" or "chicken"
Full text below, photos in the blog.
Considering the “15 days in advance at 8:00AM local time” reservation policy, twenty-seats, and one service per four (or sometimes five) nights of the week my dinner on Tuesday evening had everything to do with a fantastic local contact and a bit of luck in the form of a day-of cancellation – located above the bustling Hôtel Thoumieux I’d say it is fair to call Jean-François Piège the toughest ticket in town. Well aware of the nearly instantaneous awarding of 2 Michelin Stars to the tiny jewel box and having heard from a number of people that Piège’s cutting edge cuisine had perhaps been held back during his most recent stint at Les Ambassadeurs I must admit that the eponymous locale this was in my top four “must visits” for the trip and as such both my expectations and excitement were high walking in the door…a door that I walked by twice without even noticing it was there.
After finally realizing the small door and narrow carpeted staircase next to Thoumieux was indeed the entry to Jean-François Piège it was a short climb before I found myself in a room bathed in soft white. Chic and sexy with soft lighting and a cocktail-bar-styled hostess stand I presented my name and after a quick browse of the reservation list I was told it would be a few moments before the room was ready. Taking a seat on a plush leopard-print chair (and a second glance at the Scarlett Johansson look-a-like hostess) it was perhaps 5 minutes of listening to the soft overhead euro-pop before I was led to my table directly adjacent to the viewing window style kitchen.
With the room bathed in light from an enormous overhead skylight the most striking aspect of its design (save for the kitchen) was the sleek intimacy – a product of the narrow room, white walls, wooden tables, and plush patterned seating options. Invariably trendy but at the same time recalling the 60’s in style, sound, and mannerisms I found the room pleasant but perhaps trying a little too hard. Within moments of my seating I would be greeted by a young man of perhaps twenty five who, along with a slender young woman in a lacey tutu, would act as my server for the evening.
With the room now half full and soon to be at capacity I was next presented with the menu and a description of how it works – essentially a list of six ingredients sourced from local markets from which the diner selects one, two, or three at a cost of 70/90/115€ respectively (or 165€ with wine pairings) along with “Les Grignotages, Les Fromages de Xavier, et Les Gourmandises.” With my three ingredients selected I was next asked about allergies and after declining any such issues I opted for the 7€ water service and things began rather quickly. As a note regarding service – it was succinct, helpful, and professional but rather lacking in personality or smiles even when compared to more “serious” spots such as Rostang, Ledoyen, or Le Pré Catelan – a peculiarity to me considering the whimsical nature of the room, platings, and music choices.
With a cut tablecloth laid to cover the wood and unique cutlery plus an ornamental apple full of fleur de sel brought with my water the first flavors to arrive would be presented on a sort of rotating flower. Flavor and fun with items described as Creamy Cod Fritter, Chorizo Pizza, Salmon Belly and Avocado Macaroon with Red Onion, Ham and Cornichons with Lemon and Mustard, plus Rutabaga Chips and Dip I really enjoyed each but most of all the spicy deconstructed pizza puff and creamy fritter with hints of sage.
With the canapés consumed in short order the next item to arrive at the table was the bread basket – literally, a wire basket filled with bread. Featuring two full baguettes, one salted and soft and the other crunchy and loaded with sesame seeds, plus a rustic sourdough with a lovely crumb all were good, particularly the salted baguette which provided ample mechanism to deliver more of Bordier’s blissful butter.
With the outdoor lighting beginning to wane and the small kitchen of five chefs moving in swift silence it would be perhaps twenty minutes between the canapés and the first courses – variable from table to table as the order in which the selections were served was based on chef’s choice. For myself, having neglected lighter ingredients such as Caviar Oscietre, Asperge Vertes de Provence, and Langoustine Vivante, the first course of the evening would be “Turbot Sauvage,” and a large portion of it at that. With the subtle and meaty fish poached in butter and served over a bed of English peas, Lima beans, zucchini, and asparagus it was the sauce that truly stood out – a combination of the pan jus, pork prosciutto, and black truffles – and brought all the flavors together. While not as pure as my previous Parisian experience with Turbot and not as playful as Piège’s other options for the evening I couldn’t have asked for a better opening volley.
Moving on to my second course I will note that this was the first of two notable delays at Jean-François Piège – a lag of approximately thirty five minutes that likely would not have felt so excessive if dining with others but was rather off-putting in my case; thankfully what followed was worth the wait. Denoted as “Pigeonneau de Nid” this course was even more substantial than the fish that preceded it in both portion and flavor and overall ranks as one of the top ten plates I enjoyed in Paris. With both breast and leg seared golden on the exterior and red within the already exemplary bird was brought to the next level by a pair of stuffings – the first a textural puree of black olive and brioche and the second a creamy terrine of foie gras. Not to be outdone, the pigeon’s partner on this particular plating was a galette of pommes puree and a crispy potato chip topped with micro-greens that went very nicely with the reduction of port and game jus poured tableside.
For my third selection of the meal I was pleased to see the chef had saved the best for last – “Ris Veau de Lait.” Seated next to a “cheese stick” comprised of crystal rice and comte and topped with comte-crisps and earthy morels the milk calf thymus – lightly seared, sweet, and creamy – was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and by far and away the best prepared. With both the cheese and the offal delightful I was additionally pleased by yet another inspired offering from the saucier - a pool of morel beurre blanc sauce abutted by vegetal spinach puree that mellowed the otherwise weighty flavors.
With plates cleared and another baguette, this time raisin and walnut, delivered in a fresh basket I was next delivered an enormous block of wood topped with Quince puree and three cheeses from Xavier Fromager - Castillonais, Brillat Savarin, and Bleu de Séverac plus a shot glass of apple juice and house made yogurt. Having never sampled any of these three cheeses in the past I will note that the smooth texture of the Savarin was quite impressive while the Bleu was one of the most pungent I’ve ever tasted even when paired with a smear of the quince.
What followed next was another substantial delay, perhaps twenty minutes with the empty block on the table and another ten after it was removed before desserts would arrive. While the small kitchen and variable timing of people finishing each course likely had something to do with this, the primary issue was that of my neighbors who insisted on asking innumerable questions about each plate and wine – an unfortunate burden on such a small staff.
With the time now approaching 10:30pm and coffee declined it should be noted that when desserts did arrive it was quite the display – a Gagnaire-esque presentation of five selections with each quite sizable and ornately plated. Amongst the less memorable options were a spicy Bergamot Pot du crème, a selection of Pineapples, Bananas, and Papaya with Lemongrass, and Fresh Strawberries with Chantilly Cream and Mint – each good, none wowing. Fairing better would be a collection of bite sized Pomegranate Beignets served in a porcelain black dove – sweet yet tart, lightly fried – while the star of the desserts was a “free form” vanilla soufflé filled with buttery vanilla bean egg cream and topped with a crispy honey tuille…plus cinnamon crème Anglaise from a small pitcher that I believe was actually intended to be used as a dipping sauce for the beignets.
With plates cleared and no mignardises to be served I sat and relaxed for a few moments before requesting the check – a relative bargain at 122€ – and after paying made my way to the street as Dean Martin played overhead. With the Eiffel Tower aglow in the distance as I walked to my metro stop my thoughts of the meal just passed were a jumble as the food and the room were some of my favorite in the city, yet the service and pace were at times so dull that I nearly fell asleep during the five course/four hour experience. All in all I think Jean-François Piège fits a unique niche in the Parisian dining scene and in that single evening he served me two of the ten best things I’ve eaten thus far in 2011 but without improving the service I simply do not see people continuing to deal with the impossible reservation system no matter how good the food or Michelin ranking.
thanks for that report. Both the pigeon and sweetbreads sound wonderful. I wonder, however, would the service mishaps have been so noticeable if you had a dining companion, as you yourself observe. Although I do dine alone (rather less frequently these days), my most memorable meals have tended to involve company -- I think that reflects more on me and human nature in general rather than the chef's abilities. I also believe that most professional reviewers tend not to dine alone, perhaps for similar reasons.
Of my top 10 meals all time less than half were with others. I not only enjoy dining alone, I think I recall the food more fondly as it is the ONLY focus. That said, 4 hours for 5 courses is extremely excessive, IMO. Spent less time at Gagnaire and l'Arpege WITH others.