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Paris report: Violon d'Ingres, Le Cinq, Regalade St Honoré

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Diapason Jun 9, 2011 06:53 AM

Hi all. We just got back from our trip to France yesterday, having spent 3 days in Paris and 8 days in St Jean Cap Ferrat, and here follows a very brief report on the Parisian restaurants we sampled. I never take notes or photograph food, so I'm likely to forget what I ate. Please forgive me if impressions are somewhat "general", rather than specifically detailing ingredients and dishes.

Le Violon d'Ingres
This was our first night, and we'd already been taken over by the magical feeling that a return to Paris always brings, so after our stroll to the restaurant we were thoroughly ready for dinner. Our table was at 7:30, which is earlier than I'd normally like to eat, but on this occasion I was happy. The only problem with starting so early is that we virtually had the restaurant to ourselves at the beginning, so we had to create our own atmosphere. Still, it gave me time to look around and let my surroundings sink in. The restaurant is comfortable enough without being fancy, although I'll admit that at this price point I prefer a bit more space between the tables. I'm old-school like that.

And the food? Well, here's where things get tricky for me. I really enjoyed dinner, genuinely I did, but I found the food somewhat unmemorable. Sufficiently unmemorable, in fact, that I can't remember a single course I had here. I wasn't even drinking much wine, so I can't blame that. Expectations are funny things, and I'd read a lot of glowing reports on Christian Constant's food both here and elsewhere, so maybe I was expecting too much. What I got was a thoroughly solid meal, very enjoyable to eat, but that to me was slightly overpriced. I left feeling that I can eat nearly as well at home for a lot less money. That reads a little more damning than it should, because we really did have a very enjoyable time at the restaurant, but there it is.

Another aspect worth noting is that 75% of the guests (if not more) were English speakers. While that obviously doesn't change the experience of the food at all, I was left wondering if this is just the place you go cos you're a tourist and you read about it on the internet? I fell squarely into that category myself so this isn't a complaint, and the fact that it was a Saturday night may have contributed to the "tourist central" vibe of the place, but I think for our first night in Paris we should have gone for something more Parisian, whatever that means.
All told I'm glad we went, but not glad enough that I'd make a beeline for the place next time I'm in Paris.

Le Cinq
Day 2, and it's time for the culinary highlight: lunch at Le Cinq. From the moment we walked through the front door to the moment we walked out again 3.5 hours later, this was pure heaven. I don't think pictures I've seen online really do the restaurant justice, it's far more comfortable in the flesh and, while it's no Louis XV, far more opulent. We were shown to a beautiful table beside one of the windows, and with glass of Billecart-Salmon rosé in hand and delicious and perfectly-seasoned squid tempura canapes being gobbled far quicker than probably polite, we perused the menus. As I mentioned in my earlier thread, I was genuinely concerned that many of the limited-choice menus of the moment seem to involve a lot of raw meats/fish/seafood which wouldn't suit my pregnant wife, and I'll admit I had a jolt of nerves when I first saw the lunch menu. I'm no longer in a position to contemplate eating a la carte in an establishment such as this (damn this recession!) so if the lunch menu didn't work we were snookered. Starters were a choice of veal tartare with oysters, or prawns done a variety of ways, including raw. Mercifully, the raw aspect of the prawn dish was small enough that my wife could easily work around it, and the upside for me was that I got to eat a starter and a half!

But I'm leaping ahead. First our amuses arrived, foie gras with grapefruit foam, a piece of eel (smoked?) with a very attractive glaze, and something else I've forgotten. All were delicious, the foie gras especially good. Interestingly, we were instructed to eat the foie first (which made sense given the rapidly-deflating foam) while the table next to us was later advised to eat the foie last. In any case, we were happy. Breads arrived in due course, first very simple, virtually tasteless slice designed to show off the olive oil on offer, with later breads accompanied by a strangely incredible seaweed butter (with good, ordinary butter also presented of course). Pacing was perfect for us, measured, relaxed, no hurry. We were really settling in.

For starters I went for the tartare mentioned above which was astonishingly delicious, again perfectly-seasoned as you'd expect, but so filled with flavour that I was actually blown away. My wife's prawns, prepared 3 ways, were also very delicious, the crunchy deep-fried heads providing the highlight for me, but I kept returning to the flavour of the tartare. I can still taste it now.

Service at all times was impeccable, but also incredibly warm and friendly, and the warmth grew as the meal continued. However, at this point we have the one and only minor mis-step of the day. When laying the cutlery for main courses, our waiter started to put the fish utensils in front of my wife, asking "the salmon for you, madam?" Admittedly, the salmon was the "girly" dish and the lamb the "blokey" dish, so I can understand the mistake, but in our case it was the other way around. Of course, this was easily solved with a laugh, and it's not the kind of thing that would ever bother us, but I know some who'd be unimpressed.

And so, onto the mains. I had ordered the salmon merely because it's the kind of thing I *never* order under normal circumstances. This was delicious, very lightly cooked, encased in a fabulously light and flaky pastry, flavoured with more than a nod to Asia, but again perfectly balanced. My wife's lamb was a far more rustic, rib-sticking dish, containing navarin of lamb, chops and sweetbreads, accompanied by a superb gravy.

Time and again I found myself marvelling at the perfect balance of flavours in both dishes, the spot-on seasoning, as well as the beautiful presentation of the food. It should also be said that while the food was cooked with a pleasantly light touch, these were *not* stingey portions. The amount of food offered was very generous, and I didn't feel at all cheated by choosing the lunch menu over the a la carte. A table beside us was eating a la carte and the food looked exceptional, but I couldn't justify €135 for asparagus. It was hard to believe that we were both eating our entire 3 course lunch for not much more than the price of a starter beside us.

We were drinking wines by the glass (unusual for us, but pregnancy and drunkenness isn't a great combination) and I had virtually finished my first glass by the time the mains arrived, as you'd expect from an Irishman. I had intended to order another, but before I had the opportunity the sommelier arrived unprompted and topped up my first glass. Again, the generosity surprised and impressed me.

At this point, it was time for cheese, and having seen the trolley making its way around the room earlier, I knew I was in for a treat. The selection itself isn't vast, but every cheese was perfectly chosen and in great condition. Once again, generosity was not a problem, as I ended up with 5 or 6 cheeses simply because it was obvious I was a fan, all washed down by a cracking (if expensive) glass of tawny port. On completing the cheeses, our waiter actually asked if I'd like to try any of the others. I declined.

Time was pressing on, lunchtime had long since turned into afternoon-tea time, the sound of live violin and cello now permeating the dining room as well as the area outside, but we still had our pre-dessert, dessert and coffee with petit-fours trolley to go. I'm sorry to report that my memory fails me here, so I can't tell you exactly what we had. All I know is that it was all fabulous! The banter with the staff was now at its peak, it felt like we were old friends, and all was well with the world. When a restaurant makes you feel this good, it's something special. I can easily imagine that you can eat better in Paris, but at that moment I couldn't really imagine feeling better. It was a magical afternoon.

We were the last to leave (why does that keep happening to us?!) and we basked in the warm glow of that meal for a day or two. Fabulous stuff.

La Regalade St Honoré
Having cancelled our lunch booking at Ze Kitchen Galerie in favour of a (decent) croque-monsieur in (very touristy) Montmartre, our final meal in Paris was dinner at La Regalade St Honoré. Again, our booking was on the early side and we were one of the first tables to arrive, but things filled up pretty quickly. Once again, the restaurant was filled, and I mean FILLED, with English-speakers. I don't know that I heard a single French patron all night, which surprised me a little, and to be honest disappointed me a little. The funny thing is, the menu is available in French only, this seemed to cause a bit of confusion and meant the waitress with the better English was kept busy. The (elderly, American) couple next to us seemed to be struggling, so we did our best to help them out with translations. Unfortunately, this opened the floodgates for a torrent of cross-table conversation that we struggled to stem. Has anyone figured out a friendly and polite way of suggesting that, while we're happy to chat as far as it goes, we'd prefer not to do it non-stop for the night? We haven't perfected the art yet...

Anyway, onto the food. It will be no surprise to readers of this board to learn that we started our meal cutting slabs from a communal terrine and eating it on crusty bread. What is it about such a simple combination that makes it so good? Once you start on this stuff it's pretty hard to stop, but we just about managed to curtail ourselves. I chose a starter of prawns on squid-ink risotto, and it was an absolute triumph. Chock-full of flavour, this was one of the highlight dishes of the whole trip. I can't remember what my wife had because the truth is I didn't care, I only had eyes for that risotto! If I had a tiny complaint it's that the flakes of (roasted?) garlic on the top were a bit much, but they were easy to work around. Other than that, it was a fantastic dish, exactly what I was looking for at a place like this. For mains I had the pork belly, and once again flavours were top-drawer. Some may prefer the fat to be rendered a little further, but I guzzled down the naughty white stuff and thoroughly enjoyed it. I can't remember what accompanied the pork (lentils maybe?) but I know that this was once again a top-notch dish. My wife may have had daurade, but I'm struggling to remember that too. One way or the other, we were both very, very happy.

Not being a huge dessert person at the best of times, I can't really remember what I ate to finish the meal, but I seem to recall there was a lot of it. Having grown somewhat weary of hearing what our neighbour's grandkids were up to, we drank a swift espresso and headed off into the late evening Parisian sun, happy with the world.

As you can see, we ate well in Paris, and we felt that we experienced a nice mix of styles and levels. There's only so much you can do in 3 days of course, and obviously there are many more places I'd like to try. As always, I can't wait to go back.