10 Days in Paris....
Detailed reports are not my thing. Following are highlights (and lowlights) and reflections on my recent eating adventures in Paris.
A few random thoughts:
I am not as into 3 star Michelin experiences as I used to be; upon reflection, I attribute this fact to a few things. Firstly, I have become a little jaded; the element of newness and surprise is gone. I am no longer blown away by the wonderful service at these gastronomic palaces, I expect it. The novelty has worn off a bit. Secondly, I now understand that the lunch menu deals, while fantastic values, often don't offer the best of what the chef offers or the most desirable (pricey) ingredients, nor do they give you the luxury of choice (with some exceptions). Thirdly, these are mostly places of celebration, to be shared with a friend or a spouse or a family; experiencing them alone gets tiresome. And finally, unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment. These are great restaurants, to be sure, but we are talking about a lunch or a dinner, not anything more. Occasionally, something magical happens, when the place, the food, and the company meld to create a life-lasting memory; but this only happens when it happens. On this most recent trip, I had none of those magical experiences.
On this trip, I reduced my restaurant commitments; on my next trip, I will reduce them even more. I love having the freedom to do what I want when I want to, without too many commitments (including restaurant reservations) hanging over my head. The price for this freedom, of course, in Paris particularly, is that you risk not going to certain places that you want to.
Lunch at Pierre Gagnaire, formerly one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, was disappointing. While I have had dishes in the past that I did not get, or did not like, or both, this was the first time I had a mediocre experience on the whole. Also, for the first time, I did not enjoy the service, and I felt rushed (which if you knew me, you would laugh at; I am fast). The assortment of little bites for the first course was enjoyable and beautiful, but the second course of a tuna and sea breem sashimi with vegetables in a strong unpleasant sauce did not appeal to me; in fact I did not finish it. The principal course was a rabbit dish, which was fine, but nothing special; its accompaniment was a rabbit gnochi with rabbit liver; I did not like it and did not finish it after only one bite. The desserts were as always at Gagnaire, good, but not great, and the mignardises were beautiful and great tasting. The bread and butter, were, as always, exceptional. And M. Gagnaire made his usual charming round of hellos, but I suspect I will not return to this restaurant any time soon.
Lunch at Le Meurice. What a beautiful room with fantastic service. This is what a three star restaurant is supposed feel like. I had the prix fixe lunch menu, and loved the experience on the whole, but did not love the food. After nice pre-amuses of foie gras (with a-little-too-tart mousse) and smoked salmon lollipop-ish thing, there was a refreshing avocado mousse-y gazpacho type amuse that was, again, too tart for my taste. A first course of white asparagus was fine, and a second course of ham and cheese tartlette, was beautiful, tasty, but very small. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the main course at all: a chicken breast cooked in bread, ceremoniously unveiled and de-skinned at the table, served with a mustard sauce and a large carrot. I do not generally like boneless skinless chicken breast; I did not like it here either - it was mundane and unenjoyable - not what I expect at a restaurant like this. A grand Marnier souffle for dessert was good, but an accompanying small scoop of ice cream with a crispy cookie was fantastic; there is a great dessert chef at work here.
Lunch at L'Astrance. Though I did not enjoy this meal quite as much as my last one here, I still love this restaurant. The room, the service, and the food just make me happy. This was, as usual, my favorite three star meal.
*Please note: There was an earlier post of an unfavorable review of L'Astrance, noting in particular that one table had received one dish, but his did not. It turns out that L'Astrance purposely varies the dishes from table to table so each table experiences its "Surprise" menu uniquely. It is actually quite a nice thought that they would contemplate this.
Dinner at Saturne. I loved this restaurant. I loved the room, the ambience, and the food. Smart, clean, simple, and wonderful, I would return here in a second. Surprisingly, the desserts (yes, two) were fantastic! One in particular was spectacular: it was seemingly the ever present strawberries and meringue or whipped cream, but it was so much more - it was complex with a rocket ice cream hidden under the meringue. The only hitch in the meal was that I did not enjoy the beef course, which I found too simple, lacking flavor, and the meat was not to my liking; the waiter asked me about my largely uneaten plate, and then brought over a wonderful plate of shaved Comte before dessert as a nice gesture. Loved this place!
Dinner at the original La Regalade. I still love this place, and prefer it to St. Honore (it just feels a little more authentic to me). Incredible food, incredible value. I had my favorite dish of the trip here: a generous portion entree of squid ink risotto with garlic shrimp and tiny crunchy cracklins (or croutons?) - it was simultaneously homey and complex.... I am not a big risotto guy, but I loved this.The main course of Poitrine de Cochon and the chocolate dessert were as decadent and fantastic as ever. This food blew away any of the food I had at the three-stars.
Dinner at Senderens. I did not know exactly what to expect here, but I was slightly disappointed in the experience: I expected more. Firstly, I did not understand the decor at all; the weird ceiling, and the pervasive red lighting was just a little odd to me; not horribly unpleasant, just really incongruous. I ordered a la carte, and I regret taking the waiter's advice and ordering the lamb for my main; it was a mundane, small slice of baby lamb tenderloin, under-seasoned and served with sliced eggplant, which was quite tasty. I just did not find this dish worthy of someone reputed to be one of the best chefs in the world; it was simple, even plain, and served luke warm. My starter of crispy langoustines was tasty but served almost cold. The 27 euro dessert was not enjoyable to me, and I did not finish it. I would consider going back to try other things, and I suspect there were better things to order (like the vanilla lobster perhaps?). And being open Sunday is a nice feature.
Lunch at Josephine Chez Dumonet. After reading various mixed reviews on this place, I went with slight trepidation, but I loved it. I was seated outside (my choice) and had a wonderful, (too) rich lunch. I started with the half portion of foie gras, which was excellent, followed by the main of duck confit. This was, by far, the best, richest duck I have ever had. Served with a lightly dressed perfect salad and roasted potatoes (I assume bathed in duck fat), this giant leg of duck with the thickest crispiest skin I have ever experienced was the perfect Paris bistro meal. Also, contrary to what I had heard, this lunch was a bargain for what I had. Great food, great place.
Unfortunately my rich lunch at JCD ruined my stomach for my planned dinner the same evening at Passage 53...Oh well, next time.
All in all, a great trip. Some wonderful restaurants, and a bit of revelation about what kinds of places I truly like.
Regarding the negative review at L'Astrance. l was the other diner at that meal and while not as upset as the reviewer was upset at their decision to give us mackerel, a fish l really dislike instead of Palombe, one of my favorite things in the world. Had they asked, l would have told them my choice, but was ,of course, not asked. You may think this was 'A nice thought', l thought it was quite presumptuous of them that they would know what l wanted better than l did. For me, a poor surprise.
First, thank you fishskis for your thoughtful and considered report. Thank you, also, for explaining the philosophy behind L'Astrance's surprise plates.
That said, I agree with DCM that a chef's surprise should be one that is a guaranteed winner, and that the product of every surprise should be of essentially equal worth, not so disparate as mackerel and dove.
It has occurred to me over time that an undisclosed chef's menu is all about the chef, while ordering a la carte is "all about me". I realize that it is counter intuitive to the concept of three star dining, but when I am paying that kind of money and time, I would like the dinner to be about me.
I agree with both of you. Actually, at L'Astrance, I went through some of this "other table envy" while I was eating a pigeon dish, which I enjoyed very much; but while eating it, I was glancing at my neighbors eating the lamb dish which I really loved on my last visit there. So, I guess L'Astrance's policy is really a double-edged sword.
There is something I enjoy about leaving myself in the chef's hands, without any knowledge of what is coming. On the other hand, as my choice-less trip progressed, I missed ordering for myself. I was supposed to go to Le Cinq, which offers choices, but there was a reservation mix-up; and I was sorry I did not get to go.
Next time, for me, there will be fewer meals in the chef's total control.