‘Smells like apples, tastes like shit’, was Heidi’s synopsis of the apple wine from Normandy that was the first offering as part of the wine package at Le Chateaubriand. Our sommelier had told us that the locals in Normandy drink the apple wine during the week and then make cider for the weekend. Not content with her first payout on the wine Heidi then said ‘I bet they look forward to the weekends’.
Le Chateaubriand is white hot at the moment, coming in at number 9 on the San Pellegrino world’s top restaurant list for 2011. It is casual, grungy and they do things their way. You can only have the 5-course degustation menu but at 50 euros, for the quality of the inventive cooking it is one of the best food bargains in France. Waiting staff are a little ‘too cool for school’, need to stand closer to the razor when they have a shave, but are quite friendly and explain the food in good detail and speak English. I’ve seen the place described as ‘effortlessly cool’ but you sense that they are a little ‘contrived cool’ but I am getting a bit more cynical as I grow older.
The wine list is all natural, low sulphur producers (think Gramenon, Gravener, Cossard, Foillard, Lapierre and the like) and we decided to go with the wines to match each course for 50 Euros per head. As we were concentrating on the food and I really can’t be shagged going into the wines in detail, my wine notes are quite sparse in this report.
Food started with some lovely light gougeres and moved onto three amuse bouche. Mackerel in coriander water was an incredibly vibrant and simple dish. There was grapefruit juice in which the small morsel of fish swam and the acid, salt and oiliness of the fish were all in complete harmony. Oregano soup was stunning. A miso bowl housed a wondrous chicken broth and as you drew the bowl towards you face there was a direct, pure waft of oregano. In the bowl were pieces of celeriac and a couple of raspberries, the raspberries were a little odd. The next dish of Asparagus with mozzarella milk was a little less successful.
A small red mullet was just undercooked and it was difficult to separate flesh from the small bones. It was served with a small paste of chicken liver topped with mixed seeds, and it just missed the mark. A perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of cod was sublime and was served with deliciously sweet kipfler potatoes, various greens, herbs and flowers and a fabulous, fishy rouille. There was some mango dust on top of the dish that seemed to serve no other purpose than add to the ‘wank factor’ of the meal. The accompanying wine was retsina and I have to say it was the best (and only) retsina I have had in a very long time. It’s floral attributes matched up nicely with the cod. Bonito came with weird cubes of celery loveliness, which we later discovered were apple pieces that had been soaked in celery juice. There was also olive pesto and broad beans on the plate as well as fresh herbs, wild asparagus and an assortment of other greens. It was drizzled with cucumber juice and was remarkably light, bright and energetic.
Waygu beef with burnt eggplant dip and artichoke chips and stems was the main protein course and was boldly flavoured. A dense, chewy, dark red from the Languedoc nearly kept up with the hearty, smoky flavours but just got a little overwhelmed. I liked the dish, Heidi thought it was a little over the top.
Two desserts to finish, the first being fresh strawberries with fresh peas, pea puree and mint. It just didn’t quite gel, coming off as more savoury than sweet. Next a bowl of delicious cherries with a light and fluffy sabayon. A really good dessert until a couple of black olives make an appearance, I kinda know what chef was trying to do here in countering the sweetness but to me it just didn’t work.
Inake Aizpitarte is cooking food that is intense and full flavoured without heavy cream or butter based sauces. There are all sorts of pastes, emulsions and pesto’s that compliment and highlight key ingredients and he uses many fresh herbs, flowers and vegetables in his dishes. There are some quite brilliant dishes but some do miss the mark and you sense that in a few cases an ingredient is being used just to test the boundaries and that he perhaps should have sat down and eaten the dish before adding it to his repertoire. It is a cutting edge restaurant that suits modern tastes and philosophies.
Is it the world’s 9th best restaurant? In our less than humble opinion, no. You will eat better food by Dan Hunter at the Royal Mail and the likes of Gaignaire, Michel Troisgros, Pascal Barbot, and Elena Arzak can still push the boundaries and serve up a meal with just as much excitement and more consistency, you will however pay between 2 and 5 times as much for the menu. It is however a relatively casual restaurant of great energy with vibrant food and terrific value at that, if you can snag a reservation.
Jeremy - agree with your last para. The Top 50 is a useful list but it is also a list which needs to be understood i.e. it is a chefs and food professionals personal view thus not tempered for an audience. It has many flaws (like any Top 50 list) but it does give some insight into where to find good leading edge food.
We were chatting to our waiter at Le Chateaubriand and got onto he subject of Mugaritz and they confirmed it is one of Inake's strong influemces which ties back to Dan Hunter who worked there (as head chef?) and it shows in his food at he Royal Mail, but as you say our last meal there was E450+ compared Chateaubriand where it was approx E150. Did you know that the Royal Mail was Anthony Bourdains top meal of 2008?