Azurmendi | Larrabetzu | Jun ’14 | “liquefaction”

15 Jul
  • Rating: 19.5/20
  • Address: Legina Auzoa, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Vizcaya, Spain (exit 25, N637)
  • Phone: +34 944 55 88 66
  • Price (after tax + tip, coffee): ~€150 ($204 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 165 minutes
  • Chef: Eneko Atxa
  • Style: Modernist
  • Michelin Stars: 3

Notable reviews:

  1. (2014) Elizabeth Auerbach review
  2. (2013) Vedat Milor review
  3. (2012) Bruce Palling review

 

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Azurmendi has had one of the fastest three-star rises anywhere in the world. Eneko Atxa’s greenhouse of sustainability, a short 15 minute drive from Bilbao, was awarded 1* in 2006, 2* in 2010, and finally 3* in 2012. In fact, leaving aside the expansion restaurants of celebrity chefs like Robuchon, Ducasse, and Keller – Azurmendi may in fact have the fastest three-star rise for an original chef proprietor anywhere.

Azurmendi is named for both the mothers of Eneko Atxa and Jon Eguskiza, the chef and maitre d’ of the restaurant respectively. They were brought up in the Basque village of Amorebieta-Etxano. Eneko Atxa’s uncle, Gorka Izagirre, is “the largest proprietor of Txakolin in the Basque region.” [1] . Atxa has trained at Martin Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, and Mugaritz. He also considers Yoshihiro Murata of 3* Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto a major influence:

“There was another Three Star Michelin chef that had a big impact on me in 2005. I learned a lot from Yoshihiro Murata the famed kaiseki chef at Kikunoi Honten, Kyoto) as I worked with him in Japan. I had been talking with him for a few days and asked him if I could witness his creative process in the kitchen. In response, Muratasan told me to meet him at five in the morning so I imagined he would take me to his kitchen and we could cook together. We got into his car and surprisingly, we didn’t go to his kitchen but instead to one of his producers. We had some tea and then spoke for two hours about which produce he should use because of the seasonality. It made me realize that factors like seasons and availability of various products was so important. We visited one who provided vegetables, another who dealt with general produce, who also knew things such as when the best fish are available and why. This was a very valuable lesson to me as I opened my first restaurant at the end of 2005. I was always very clear about what I wanted to do in my own kitchen – to make something from the local produce that had a universal message.” – Bruce Palling


EPICUREAN EXPERIENCE

Right when I stepped into Azurmendi, I was given a tour of three spaces (along with snacks) before settling into my table for the afternoon. The first was the environmentally sustainable greenhouse, growing an admirable variety of herbs. I was served six snacks there, some with a “found” quality, akin to a fairytale. The second was a picnic basket of three little bites in the main foyer. The third was the kitchen tour, with two further snacks. And finally I was ushered into the dining room to begin the meal proper. Elizabeth Auerbach mentions that the kitchen considers this the “four acts” of Azurmendi. It is unique among the restaurants I have visited – not least because it requires an integrated compound to have all these spaces to walk around in.

The end effect is that the diner ends at the table well-disposed to the kitchen, for adding a new experience to his memories. I had, for instance, a mix-up with the rental car company that caused me to be an hour late, but I had forgotten all my worries by the end of the tour around the greenhouse, garden, and kitchen.


LIQUEFACTION, OR THE BONBON EFFECT

I wish to draw attention mostly to Azurmendi’s liquefaction effects, which have not been remarked upon sufficiently. I consider this a signature effect of Atxa’s cuisine. I was served a “bonbon” (for definitional purposes: liquid held in a thin solid receptacle), at least eight times over the course of my meal at Azurmendi. Normally, this would be nothing more than a pleasant effect. This is what the modernist spherified amuses-bouche and mignardises at Le Squer’s Ledoyen achieve – an amusing diversion, they bookend Le Squer’s more substantial and celebrated classically-based cuisine.

But Atxa seems a veritable master of liquefaction. There are two major differences I have noticed between his approach to liquefaction and those of other chefs. The first is the variety of textures, and receptacles he uses for his liquids. His signature truffled-egg uses the natural yolk-membrane to hold both hot-truffle jus and gently poached yolk. In the greenhouse, I was served a guacamole cream bonbon with a thicker shell. He uses souffle pillows to hold ham-liquid (in the picnic basket, in the garden) and garlic cream (in the kokotxas). Somehow, he spherifies idiazabal cheese (with alginate? but the spheres are huge…). For his milk dessert, he crafts eggs with creme-caramel filling. Clearly, he has mastered a whole range of techniques for liquefaction and containment of such liquids. He has at least five good ones.

The second major difference is flavor. I do not know his techniques, but the liquids in his spheres are somehow more intense than those of other chefs. (Does it have to do with centrifuging?). In fact, this is a strength not just in the liquids, but in all of the dishes, the flavors tend to belie their minimalist and sleek geometric presentations, with flavors that dance on the tongue.


TWO-NOTE COOKING

If Atxa’s cooking seems minimalist, it is - in terms of flavor profile of some of the dishes. Many of the snacks in the greenhouse were two-note bites (e.g. carrot in balsamic, tomato in vinegar, sunchoke skin with lime). While this is to be expected for the simpler greenhouse snacks, it (sometimes) makes a reappearance in his cooking at large. And so we enjoy dishes such as the lobster-chive, where a cornet of lobster tartare sits upon a roasted out-of-shell lobster, in chive oil and chive puree. Or his signature truffled-egg, which is precisely its stated two ingredients. Duck a l’Orange – is duck and orange. His successful dessert of strawberries and roses, is precisely strawberries and roses. This is ingredient-minimalism even beyond that of L’Ambroisie, typically 3-5 apparent principal ingredients; Atxa apparently can sometimes make do with just 2.

Minimalism of flavor profile, requires a great deal of conception and execution to pull off successfully. Atxa is not always successful in this. He hits extremely high heights (the perfectly roasted out-of-shell lobster; strawberries and roses) but can also overplay the unctuous nature of his creations (duck a l’orange, kokotxas). But it is exciting to witness his creations, in the dishes where he sets himself these two-flavor constraints.

Minimalism also expresses itself in radial symmetry in his dishes (nearly all of them). And since minimalism is a perfectionist’s errand, the spirit of a meal at Azurmendi is the opposite of the jazz restaurants (e.g. L’Arpège or André).


HIS PHILOSOPHIES

The general philosophy of Azurmendi is sustainability. Azurmendi was sustainably constructed (see this video on Azurmendi’s construction), and Eneko has mentioned his desire to be the most ecological restaurant in the world:

“The one thing that was always very clear to me was although I conceived of Azurmendi as a restaurant, I also wanted to be my home, so everyone involved has to think of themselves not as a cook or a waiter but everyone who formed part of the project had to behave like a host. And that is all of the members and staff. There will always be a host to greet our guests and then we start with a small walk. We are happy for people to arrive in electric cars because we have a free service for them to recharge.

We try and encourage this whole attitude within this complex. We have been in touch with the American authorities to see if we qualify as the most ecological restaurant in the world as we are definitely the most advanced one in Europe but we don’t know yet if we quality on the world level too. We are not completely sustainable at the moment but that is definitely the path we are striving to achieve.” – Bruce Palling

But a puzzle about Azurmendi and Chef Eneko’s philosophies remain – one specifically about his culinary philosophy – for someone who worked at Etxebarri, why does he not have a wood-fired grill in his kitchen?

“After further conversing with him I understood that he considers the a la brasa method, however subtle and nuanced it is, as is the case at Etxebarri, not suitable for a top end destination.  He thinks that dishes cooked a la brasa lack refinement. This is strange because I think the very opposite. For example, Etxebarri’s cooking brings out the taste of the great ingredients, whereas sous vide eliminates textural differences between and within categories ( I am talking about meat) in favor of a cloth-like soft and UNIFORM texture.” – Vedat Milor

The flavor of smoke appeared in the fisherman’s rice, but only as if by some sort of flavor sorcery, for there was no smoke to the eye. From my meals at Etxebarri, grilling can elevate a solitary ingredient, and can be seen (with a lot of aesthetic distance) as the culmination of culinary minimalism. Perhaps the final judgement is a visual-aesthetic rather than a culinary one, for the beautiful sculpted dishes of Chef Eneko’s art seem to inhabit a different aesthetic plane from the robust ingredient-dishes at the temple of Etxebarri. Both types of cooking yield great tastes (and Chef Eneko is a master of intensifying tastes), but the sculpted cuisine offers him a greater leeway to create a visual art. Thus the centrifuge over the wood grill.


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  • Appetizers in the greenhouse:
    • Tomato poached with vinegar (3.25/5)

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  • An elixir of (orange, pomelo, hibiscus) (3.5/5)

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  • Pumpkin-parmesan butter biscuit. (3.5/5)

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  • Avocado bonbon – coloured to mimic the seed of the avocado – in a dried avocado shell. (3.5/5)

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  • Roasted sunchoke skin, stuck on the stem with lime gel (3.25/5)

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  • Carrot, marinated in balsamic vinegar (3.25/5)
  • A bunch of herbaceous snacks, which were more interesting rather than delicious, reminding me of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, New York) with their amuse of vegetable crudites. But these one-note snacks were peripheral players, prefiguring the playfulness of Atxa’s vision. These were not chords (hinting at a future dish), let alone fugues (completed dishes), but rather minimalist note tinkering.
  • The fun was to stumble across these dishes, as if these wonders had been placed by Providence along our path through the greenhouse. It was a novel concept (and also one that requires a surrounding bit of nature). Of those I would class the avocado bonbon as the cleverest, relying on a visual similarity between the bonbon and an avocado seed – and the ensuing texture of guacamole on the tongue enjoyable. The sunchoke skin, with its visual similarity to bark, was also very interesting.
  • It was in a way, a logical extension of New Nordic cuisine, which seeks to bring the forest floor to your table. Azurmendi brought us to “nature” (a greenhouse), and served us dishes. In the future, some enterprising chef might even plate full dishes in nature. Alinea (see Ruth Reichl’s 2014 report) and Atelier Crenn in the US have experimented with “found” dishes, using carrots.

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  • Appetizers in the garden:
    • Bread and ham (5/5)
      • This really kicked off the meal. An intense hit of umami, liquid ham, hit the palate as soon as the bread pillow cracked. The senses were jolted with the first protein of the day. The meal had started.

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    • Homemade Seasoned Anchovy (4/5)
      • This was fairly good, but our perceptions of saltiness being what it is (very personal), I felt it was oversalted for my taste. I preferred the salting of Asador Etxebarri version.

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    • CaipiriTxa (4/5)
      • A liquid Caipirinha cocktail bonbon, only with Txakoli instead of rum. Good. You will note that at this point, Azurmendi has already served three bonbons. (avocado, ham, caipirinha)

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  • Appetizers in the kitchen:
    • Red bean soup (4/5)
    • Blood sausage croquette (4/5)

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  • Hazelnut, peanut, almond and mushroom leaf (5/5)
    • Atop a mushroom leaf covering three nuts.  Clockwise from 10 o’clock: hazelnut, peanut, almond
    • Hazelnut turned out to be a pigeon foie gras (5/5)
    • Almond was amaretto liqueur (4.5/5)
    • Peanut was peanut butter [possibly with addition of foie?] (5/5)
    • A big part of Atxa’s aesthetic seems to be stylised set pieces. Here, a tree leaf covers three nuts. Before, a picnic in the garden. Before that, found plantstuffs in the greenhouse. All of the nuts had great mixtures of sweet and unctuousness, from the butters and foie.

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  • House steamed bread with olive oil (5/5)
    • One of the simplest bites, but among my top memories of the place. A simple steamed bread with Andalucian olive oil, but the bread had a milky sweetness and a pillowy texture, similar to a Chinese mantou (steamed bun). It was unexpected that I would find a similar steamed bun tradition in Basque country.

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  • Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled (5/5)
    • A video of Eneko Atxa preparing the dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqpS3UPQ30w
    • Hot truffle jus is syringed into an egg yolk. The temperature cooks it through, poaching the egg.
    • This is essentially a two-note dish, a modern interpretation of the scrambled eggs and black truffle combination. I thought this very clever. The bonbon effect was at play for the Fourth time again, as truffle and egg exploded in the mouth upon contact. A conceptual masterpiece.
    • One wonders if it can be replicated with white truffle. Would it be desirable to replicate it with white truffle?

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  • Bloody “Mar” (4.5/5)
    • A video of Atxa preparing the dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyh9L14bSZ8
    • Vodka, black pepper, tomato, with sea urchin and celery.
    • Really strong sea urchin flavor, which was complementary to the cocktail. A bit difficult to figure out how to eat this dish, I settled for taking a bite of the wafer (halving it), then sipping the cocktail, then finishing the other half with the remaining cocktail. I found the concept and flavor pairing compelling, but the presentation unwieldly.

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  • Tomato, cheese and basil tartlet (4.25/5)
    • Vegetable tartlets, with skinless tomatoes, tomato emulsion, and the roasted skinlets of tomato. Finished with idiazabal (sheep’s cheese) bonbon. By the side, a idiazabal cheese sorbet.
    • Good. Sweetness of tomato cut the richness of idiazabal. Strangely, for a strongly flavored cheese, I remembered the idiazabal bonbons as having a bland milkiness. Profound tomato flavor.
    • I was advised to eat one tartlet first without the idiazabal sorbet, and the second one with.

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  • Roasted lobster out of the shell on oil herbs and sweet chives (5/5)
    • A great lobster dish. A lobster tail taken out of its shell, perfectly roasted to give it a crunchy browning outside, with a cornetto of stuffed lobster tartare on top. Chive oil and chive emulsion. The out-of-shell lobster was perfectly roasted to give it the crunch, while retaining softness within. The cornetto was delicious.
    • I remember most the impeccable technique, to impart that crunchy browning to the lobster, while maintaining a good inner texture.

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  • Traditional Fisherman style charcoal-grilled rice (5/5)
    • A strong smoky flavor, a hearty dish of the juices of little clam, with cream of sea urchin, and oysters smoked in charcoal. Eating this, I was transported somewhere near a burning wood campfire, eating with fishermen at the end of a fishing trip.
    • This presented a different side of Atxa’s cooking. Whereas I admired some of his other dishes (like the Bloody Mar) more with the head, this grabbed me by the gut. I craved this dish.

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  • Duck Royal “a l’orange” and orange blossom aroma (4.25/5)
    • The scent of orange zest was sprayed when the dish was served. The “orange segment” was sculpted of foie, covered in orange jelly. In the centre, a terrine of meat (and foie?).
    • While I enjoyed and appreciated the technique involved in reimagining and executing the dish (orange segment especially), the tastes were dominated by the savory parts of foie and meat terrine. I rationed my little real orange bits, and the orange jelly on the foie “faux” orange segment, to provide a fruity respite from the onslaught of unctuousness. This dish felt unbalanced, as if the kitchen had cranked up the dial on fattiness to 11/10.
    • Perhaps as an improvement, a lighter intermezzo course would have worked well between the Fisherman’s Rice and Duck a l’orange.

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  • “Kokotxas” with potatoes (4/5)
    • Kokotxas – an ingredient I would become very familiar with over the next few days – was first introduced to me here. It is the cheek of hake, the most gelatinous part of the fish, and sought by gourmands for its melt-in-the-mouth texture.
    • It was here confit with olive oil, and the gelatin was used for an emulsion with chilli pepper and chipotle garlic. On it, the bonbon-liquidising element made a sixth appearance, with the potato souffle pillows containing a burst of garlic cream.
    • Heavy. The 4th of 5 heavy courses, the gelatinous kokotxas were indeed enjoyable, but the dial on heaviness remained at 11/10 thanks to the garlic and cream.

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  • Confit and roasted baby pig, crunchy pork ear and pumpkin in different textures (4/5)
    • Suckling pig, a croquette of pig’s ear, with slivers of raw pumpkin wrapped around pumpkin cream
    • The suckling pig was drier than I would have liked. Here we can make another observation: in an echo of the earlier snacks at the greenhouse, Atxa can minimise the basis ingredients of his “signature dishes” down to 2. I think of the egg (truffle + egg), lobster (lobster + chive), and now the pork (pork + pumpkin). I do not think it is a coincidence. Atxa’s minimalist tendency expresses itself presentation-wise in sleek geometric lines (think the cornetto) and radial symmetry (this dish); taste-wise in paring down ingredients to two principal actors, with maybe a minor third ingredient for certain accents.

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  • Dry Croissant of Fruits and Creamy Cheese Ice Cream (5/5)
    • Fruit meringue and thyme-cheese ice cream. Tremendous and inventive flavor.
    • The bare bones of a larger idea about thyme and cheese?
    • The sensuous curves evoking the nearby Bilbao Guggenheim.

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  • Strawberries and roses (5/5)
    • With violence, and dry ice, the vase containing a solitary rose exploded into wafts of “smoke”, carrying rose perfume.
    • The delicate crunch of rose petals (shredded and whole), with marshmallow of rosewater, strawberry sorbet and wild strawberries. For me it was indescribable, the delicate vegetal crunch of the shredded rose, along with the light rosewater marshmallow, which captured for me the lightness of the flower. It was given body by the strawberries. Independent of the theatrical presentation (which was much appreciated), this dish had the highest gastronomic merit: the metaphorical lightness of roses was made literal with textures of marshmallow and shredded rose.

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  • Egg and dairy products, Farmhouse Milk Ice Cream, Butter Toffee, “homemade eggs” milk skin and gelée of yogurt (5/5)
    • “It has made me fall in love with vanilla” – that was what I wrote. Bed of toffee butter, cubes of yoghurt gelatin, dehydrated spiced milk. Dehydrated milk bits, milk ice cream, along with for a seventh time, eggs with liquid creme caramel filling.
    • The vanilla in the ice cream was accentuated by its supporting cast. It was the star. The taste of spiced milk; the sour of yoghurt; the richness of toffee butter. A homage to milk.

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  • Petit fours
    • Hazelnut
    • Golden – buddha hand, flan
    • Chocolate jelly
    • Marshmallow, chocolate dip
    • Hazelnut bonbon
    • White chocolate
    • Passionfruit

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Tapas 24 | Barcelona | Jun ’14

11 Jul 2014-06-07 19.11.24
  • Overall Rating: 4/5
  • Address: Carrer de la Diputació, 269, 08007 Barcelona, Spain
  • Phone: +34 934 88 09 77
  • Price: €90 (all-in) for 3 pax

AN ASIDE: RANKING CASUAL RESTAURANTS

*After a lot of thought, it seems to me that casual restaurants tend to be shortchanged by being ranked on the same scale as fine-dining restaurants. It would be unfair to them, to compare them against a brigade of chefs and staff, dedicated to crafting the edible works of art.

Therefore I have decided to rank casual restaurants on a different scale from formal restaurants. They will be ranked out of 5, and the details can be found here: (http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/ratings/). This will be my first casual place review, using the new ranking system.


TAPAS 24 in Barcelona is often crowded with tourists, especially after the hours of 7.30pm (it features in Japanese guidebooks), and is considered one of the city’s better tapas restaurants (along with El Quim de Boqueria, and Cal Pep). I was recommended this place by at least two people who’ve lived in Barcelona, independently of each other. It is conveniently located on the Passeig de Gracia, near the two Gaudi attractions in the center of town. We ordered the following:

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1. Tapa d’Or (Fresh crushed tomato with pepper, Jerez vinegar, salt maldon, and EVOO) (3.5/5)

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2. Croqueta de Pollastres Rostit (Roasted Chicken Croquette) (4.5/5)

Moist strips of chicken within, well marinated and very tasty.

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3. “Boquerones al Limón” (Fried anchovies marinated with lemon) (4.25/5)

Fresh, and a wonderful beer snack. Subtle zesting with lemon.

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4. Patatas Bravas (3.75/5)

Nice crisp initially, but quickly got soggy from the heavy sauce. Sauce wasn’t particularly inspired, have tried better bravas (at Flan y Ajo in Providence (!))

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5. Tacos de Cochinita Pibil (4/5)

A slow roasted pork dish. This had good warm tacos – rough in texture, and at least with some semblance of corn flavor. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochinita_pibil

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6. Gambas a la Planxa (4.75/5)

The best dish we tried here. Crisp, the legs were easily edible and crunched off like so many salty crisps. The heads were delectable. I would go on to have great prawns at Etxebarri, 41 Degrees, and ABaC, but these were fantastic, no frills.

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7. Sonsos (4/5)

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8. A rice stew with artichokes, sea-bass and rice. (3.25/5)

This had alright flavor, if a bit salty. But the serving was meagre, and the seabass texture could barely be  discerned.

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Auberge du Vieux Puits | Fontjoncouse | Jun ’14 | “perfect masterpieces”

10 Jul 2014-06-06 12.15.58
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: 5 Avenue Saint-Victor, 11360 Fontjoncouse, France
  • Phone: +33 4 68 44 07 37
  • Price (after tax + tip, wine and champange): €190 ($258 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Course Progression: 4 amuse – 5 main – 1 cheese – 1 dessert – 3 mignardises
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Gilles Goujon
  • Style: Creative
  • Michelin Stars: 3

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The hour-long drive from Carcassonne to Fontjoncouse passed through a number of rural villages, many the colour of light sand. Dwindling in population as we got further and further from the highway, and each successive village seemed increasingly unlikely to contain gastronomic temples. Finally we were confronted with a short 15 minute segment up a windy and secluded mountain path, and arrived in the smallest town of them all – Fontjoncouse (population: 131 [2008]). But as we approached the scenery changed. A multinational crew, hallmark of a Michelin starred restaurant, was preparing for lunch service.

And in this remote corner of France, I had a fine-dining meal, where for the first time, I thought every course was perfect (i.e. 5/5). In fact, in a trip that featured so many memorable meals, L’Auberge du Vieux Puits (Inn of Old Wells) stuck out as one of the most memorable. I would rate it as my favorite meal this France trip, out of a galaxy of multiple-Michelin-starred restaurants we tried (L’Arpege, L’Ambroisie, Ledoyen, Le Parc Franc Putelat).

A comment on Gilles Goujon’s working method: Chef Gilles Goujon chooses to focus on a few dishes at a time, and each of dishes represent a single idea developed to a very high level. And the fruits of his labour are his perfect masterpieces.

Gastronomically, the sauces here are some of the most intense sauces I’ve ever tried – there is no concession to modernity or corner-cutting in the preparation of these fantastic sauces. Many of the dishes evoke rustic French and Catalan cooking, and the flavors are clear and shine through with intensity. Most chefs would be happy with creating some of the most delicious dishes known to the diner. But Gilles Goujon has presentation strategies that elevate these dishes to an even higher level. His tools are elaborate sugarwork (a pearl containing smoke, polished to lustre; fake-cherries and fake-lemons for dessert; a crystallised courgette flower to evoke a Mediterranean salad), and interactivity: few dishes are served “complete” straight from the kitchen to the diner’s table – instead, the diner has to either take part in serving the meal, or witness the finishing of the dish before his/her eyes. I smashed a pearl with a hammer to release its smoke, and cut open an egg to reveal its “rotten” truffle puree core. I watched as a spoon of saffron cream was dissolved by the pouring of a bullinada fish stew, and witnessed cream being poured into a vol-au-vent. The diner does not just tuck into the dish with forks and spoons, we are active witnesses to the dish being finished, participants to a theatrical show. One feels here a playfulness and sense of mischief.

The Auberge du Vieux Puits is a rare place: most restaurants are skilled at extracting flavors, but presentation is secondary. What I mean by secondary is not that the presentation is not wonderful, but that the presentation technique in non-essential. For example, in my post on Ledoyen, I posted a video of Le Squer making his turbot dish for home-viewers. At the end, his “zebra” truffle stripes are dispensed with, since they are just ostentatious ornamentations; Le Squer merely spoons some mashed truffle over the finished turbot. At Auberge du Vieux Puits, in the best dishes like the “rotten egg” dish, the temporal element of presentation is all-important. We are meant to feel the surprise of seeing rotten egg come out the egg. In the oyster dish, we are meant to see the pearl in all its glory, but the “finished” presentation is a cracked pearl. The “bullinada” being poured into the spoon; yields a “finished” presentation that will look messy, but half the fun and excitement is seeing it being poured.

(Another type of restaurant has dishes with good presentation, but poor flavor. Pete Wells, the NYTimes critic, recently wrote a good critical piece on this phenomenon)


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As a last comment, I think that the chef is one of the bravest in France. It takes a certain kind of bravery, perhaps even foolhardiness, to open a restaurant in the middle of mountainous nowhere. For 5 years from 1992-97, the Auberge saw little business, and was forced to throw out almost all of its purchased produce, since Chef Goujon did not believe in serving frozen food.

There seem to be four sources of information for Gilles Goujon’s career, two Slate articles written by Nicolas de Rabaudy on chef Goujon’s backstory (http://www.slate.fr/life/75572/gilles-goujon-fontjoncouse-trois-etoiles-aude [2013]) and (http://www.slate.fr/story/11493/un-grand-chef-inconnu-gilles-goujon-fontjoncouse-aude [2009]), a Quora post by Julien Vache on the promotion of Chef Goujon to three Michelin stars, and finally a French Wikipedia article also fills in on some other details (without attribution though) such as his motivation for becoming an MOF (to bring more publicity to this remote restaurant).

I won’t belabor the biography, but in short order: Gilles Goujon trained as a chef under Roger Verge at the Moulin de Mougins, and then Gerald Passedat at Le Petit Nice. At 30, he decided to take on a failed village hostel called Auberge du Vieux Puits for the equivalent of 34,000 Euros. The mayor of Fontjoncouse had believed that the only way to attract visitors to his sleepy village was to create a destination restaurant. For 5 years, Goujon and his wife Marie-Christine had almost no customers, since the Auberge was situated in a remote corner of France. Since he did not believe in serving frozen food, he would throw out a lot of fresh produce, and by his own admission, was despairing of the situation. To create a higher profile for the restaurant, he trained and won MOF honours for himself in 1996. The restaurant began to attract a local clientele from Narbonne, Carcassonne and Montpelier, drawn by both Goujon’s growing reputation and his very reasonable prices (15-25 Euro set menus). In 1997, he was awarded a first Michelin star,  increasing customers by 35%. In 2001, he was awarded a second star, increasing customers by another 53%. A misstep in 2008, chronicled by Julien Vache, temporarily delayed his ascension to three-star ranks. But in 2009 (for the 2010 guide), he was notified that he would be awarded three Michelin stars.


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  • Amuse bouche (5/5)
    • White shell, liquid truffle ball. (5/5) An intense burst of truffle flavor. Liquid truffle is one of the great truffle preparations of the world, especially when bitten into, a la bonbon.
    • Snail and garlic in choux-pastry (4.75/5)
    • Goat cheese millefeuille (4.5/5)
    • Tartlet of carrot and cumin (5/5)
    • All of them had well-developed, well thought-out flavors.

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butters: beetroot + pink pepper, seaweed + oyster jus, Espelette pepper

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  • Gillardeau Oyster, Seawater Jelly, Sugar Pearl Containing Smoke, and Cream of Chives (5/5)
    • “With a hammer, please smash the pearl”. A waft of intense wood-smoke arose.
    • First class sugar work, a pearl which was very lifelike.
    • A piece of art, evoking joy of discovery of the unexpected. The pearl was the first surprise, the interactive smashing and presentation of the smoke the second second surprise. By subverting expectations twice, once on serving the dish to the table (with sugar pearl), and once on interacting with the dish (by smashing said pearl), Chef Goujon created a masterpiece.
    • Texturally, the uniform texture of jelly and the diverse textures of meaty Gillardeau oyster, gave it a great contrast of textures. Superb in presentation and conception

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  • En hommage à Roger Vergé. <<Le Poupeton>> fleur de courgette chrystal farcie d’un sorbet tomate basilic, marinade catalane aux anchois de l’Escala et huile d’olive maturées (5/5)
    • A crystallised courgette flower, with tomato basil sorbet in the center atop a Catalan marinade with anchovies and mature olive oil.
    • The first thing about the dish, is that it feels conceived first with the Catalan marinade of Mediterranean ingredients – chopped tomatoes, courgettes, red pepper, and black olive – in a “tartare”.
    • But that is not the first sensation to hit the mouth. It is the cold of the tomato-basil sorbet, which shone with tomato flavor. The sweetness and the cold, mixed with the “tartare” of various ingredients, became a delightful taste of a cold Mediterranean salad, with the coldness taken literally.
    • Aesthetically, this was crowned with a crystallised courgette flower (which was amazing to behold), and overlapping slices of courgette. This symbolised the delight I feel when seeing great flowers, each flower telling of the beautiful qualities of the land. The terroir here was the Mediterranean. In presentation and taste, this dish was inspired in conception and perfect in execution.

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  • L’oeuf poule Carrus <<pourri>> de truffe mélanosporum sur une purée de champignons, briochine tiède et cappuccino à boire, une râpée de truffe tuber aestivum (5/5)
    • The signature “rotten egg” dish of the restaurant. A complicated dance of steps. First an egg is presented on top of mashed mushrooms.
    • Then to the side, a dish of truffle milkshake and truffle brioche is served. It will remain there.
    • Back to the main dish, with the fork, one splits the egg open, to reveal a filling of a thick, opaque, black truffle sauce. The egg has gone bad!
    • A sabayon is poured over the split rotten egg.
    • And the pièce de résistance: truffle (summer truffle) is shaved over the plate, which has been filled with the dried grass that lines chicken nests.
    • The aesthetics of the dish are impeccable. The plate evoked a nest in which the rotten egg was found. In the center, a piece of interactive art. Splitting the egg, the pungent smell of truffle (I can only imagine how it will taste in black truffle season) was of a piece with the pungent smell of rotten egg. The yellow sabayon brought colour of the “yolk” halfway back to normality, symbolising a resuscitation of the dish. The dish evoked a rustic French farmhouse. The discovery of a rotten egg is usually an unqualified “bad thing” to happen, but Chef Goujon has given us happy memories of a delicious rotten egg, in his own way revaluing this “bad thing”, and has made a jewel of a common event in rural farm life.
    • Gastronomically, this dish was perfectly conceived. The egg was delicious, and the accompanying truffle milkshake and truffle brioche were infused with strong fungal flavors. Mushrooms and egg; two of the most common ingredients: but in the hands of a master chef like Goujon, they are transmuted into the highest art.

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  • Filet de rouget barbet, pomme bonne bouche fourrée d’une brandade à la cébette en “bullinada”, écume de rouille au safran (5/5)
    • With a saffron mousse on a spoon, mounted above the plate, a Catalan fish stew – the “bullinada” is poured in a concentrated stream onto the saffron mousse, filling the plate with one of the most complex fish stews, a hint of sour, tangy, fragrant, and submerging the mussels, onions, peppers, and potato stuffed with red mullet puree with the stew.
    • The red mullet was perfectly done. Soft and seared perfectly. I had taken a bouillabaisse eating tour of Marseille two years earlier, but was left disappointed by the quality of fish stew on offer. I could not believe what I was eating. This was by quite some distance, the best fish stew I had ever eaten, a true celebration of the Mediterranean terroir. I had found what I had not found in portside Marseille, in a inland mountain village two years later.
    • Most of the dishes I had eaten so far evoked a sense of place: The rotten egg, a French farmhouse; The courgette flower, the Mediterranean salad; this dish, the treasures of the Mediterranean sea; The oyster was the only one which seemed to come from a particularly fertile corner of Chef Goujon’s mind, a creation all of his own.

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  • Filet de Saint-Pierre contisé à la truffe mélanosporum, oreille de cochon et artichaut rôtis au jus de volaille, réduction acide-amer de Noilly
    • I did not have this dish: but it was a John Dory, stuffed with black truffle, with roasted aritchoke, and a darkly rich chicken jus. “Pork herb”.

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  • Vol au vent d’autan <<contemporain>> comme une capitelle aux morilles, crêtes de coq, rognons de lapin et sol l’y laisse, réduction de rancio sec crémée (5/5)
    • A vol-au-vent is typically a hollow puff pastry, but here Chef Goujon chose to represent the hollowness by putting four sides of puff pastry around a mound of morels, topped with a mushroom foam. To the side, local Musseron mushrooms from the Aude region, rabbit kidney, sweetbreads.
    • A thick cream was poured in the middle of the vol-au-vent, suppressing some of the mushroom foam, mixing with it, and seeping out from under the construction to mix with the savory offal ingredients. I was left licking the cream sauce after this dish was done.
    • Superb: again, multiple innovations in this dish: vol-au-vent as 4 sheets of pastry vertically stacked together with foam within, pouring the sauce downward to mix with the foam for interactivity (notice that the puff pastry sheets had minimal contact with the sauce, minimising sogginess), and coating the offal and mushrooms. Tremendous. A genius at work.

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  • Chariot de fromages, affinés surtout des Corbières… mais aussi d’ailleurs (5/5)
    • One of the most comprehensive cheesecarts I have ever seen; overwhelming almost in its comprehensiveness of Aude cheese. I had a number of first rate cheeses from this cart, though my transcription of the names is admitted spotty. If anyone can read the descriptions better than I can, please let me know.
    • From left to right: (Cow) Bleu de Driola [sic] (5/5, sweet and tangy) ; (Cow) Laguiole 18 months (5/5); (Sheep) Le Claoosoo [sic] Fromagerie Hyelzas (5/5); (Goat) Crottin (3.25/5); (Cow) Bamalou; (Goat) Cendrie Feume la Balneutier [sic]; [Goat] Crottin. (5/5)
    • Local cherry jam

 

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  • Faux citron de Menton délicatement cassant, sorbet citrus bergamote et kumquat du Japon du Mas Bachès, crème thym citron, sablé fleur de sel (5/5)

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  • Salut vielle branche: de genévrier, poires confites en chutney, fruits du mendiant et crème de baies de genièvre (5/5)

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  • Fausse cerise finement cassante, sorbet noyau, tiramisu mascarpone à la pistache sur un clafoutis sablé et jus de mélasse à la verveine (5/5)
    • Three desserts, all in the theme of evoking the original ingredient. A false Menton lemon, with bergamot sorbet, kumquat and cream with thyme and citrus, was indistinguishable from the real article for a split second when it was first presented.
    • Then, a cherry with tiramisu mascarpone, cherry compote, and shortbread platform.
    • Then, a chocolate branch, with juniper cream, and pear chutney. By its side, a tall glass of fruit sorbet.
    • All of these desserts were hugely imaginative, and delights to eat and behold.

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  • Les mignardises du Vieux Puits (5/5)
    • Chocolate caramel; orange chocolate
    • Lime basil macaron
    • Rhubarb tart with strawberry mousse

Le Parc Franck Putelat | Carcassonne | Jun ’14 | “ingredient Gestalt shifts”

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  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: 80 Chemin des Anglais, 11000 Carcassonne, France
  • Phone: +33 4 68 71 80 80
  • Price per pax (after tax + tip, some cocktails and wine): €100 ($136 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Course Progression (for me): cocktail – snacks – bread service – 1 amuse – 1 main – 2 desserts – mignardises. 
    • I ordered a la carte. 5 course, 7 course, and grand tasting options also exist
  • Value: 3.5/5
  • Dining Time: 210 minutes
  • Chef: Franck Putelat [wiki-biography]
  • Style: Classical with modernist touches
  • Michelin Stars: 2

Carcassonne is a beautiful city. Home to a medieval castle that was besieged during the Albigensian Crusades (to root out the Cathar heretics) in 1209, and annexed to the kingdom of France in 1226, today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (thanks to the 19th century restorer Viollet-Le-Duc, and an encyclopedia of medieval defences:

For example, there is your textbook moat, probably filled with fetid sewage from the castle’s inhabitants. Then the Narbonne Gate “castle entrance on the town side has an effective defense system with two portcullises […] The portcullises were operated from control rooms on different floors, with no communication between them, to guard against possible treachery by soldiers.” (A sign in the castle). “The roadway between the outer gate and the inner gate at the Narbonne towers twists first to the right and then to the left. This is not the result of a drunken engineer but is another deliberate defensive device, used at the gates of most fortified castles to make it more difficult for the enemy to charge the gate with any momentum” (Ina Caro, The Road from the Past, p82)

Then, there is the wooden hoarding, “a projecting wooden gallery installed on top of the ramparts as an additional defence during sieges. The beams supporting the hoarding slid into holes in the masonry made for the purpose during construction. Openings in the floor allowed arrows to be fired and stones to be dropped from above. [No, boys and girls, they didn’t drop hot oil! It was expensive and precious, not to mention a fire hazard to the wooden hoardings] The exterior wall also had loopholes for firing arrows” (A sign in the castle)

In addition…

“The top of the wall consists of embrasures (indentations or openings enabling the defending archers to shoot) and merlons (raised portions behind which the defending archers could stand for protection); together, they are called battlements. You will notice that the battlements are only on the wall’s outer face, thereby providing protection only for archers facing outward. Therefore if this outer wall was captured, besiegers would not be shielded from fire from the inner wall.” (Ina Caro, The Road from the Past, p80)

“These thirteenth-century towers do not go straight up and down; rather, they were made thicker at the base so that tunneling or mining through them was more difficult. One tower, for example, has walls six feet thick at the top and thirteen feet thick at the base. the slant also prevented movable assault towers from getting close to the wall”(Ina Caro, The Road from the Past, p82)

Ina Caro also contends that the moat, was a dry moat – a trench, which functioned as a no-man’s-land without protection from arrow fire from the towers and battlements. Was the moat wet or dry? – This is a job for the professional medieval historian to settle.

So why did they lose to the crusaders sent by Pope Innocent III in 1209? Because within 2 weeks the city ran out of water. The nearby river doesn’t pass through the old city.


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Chef Franck Putelat, a second-place winner at 2003’s Bocuse d’Or, became Chef of the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne (the only hotel within the medieval old city) in 1998, and set up his own restaurant in 2005, Le Parc. He was awarded his second Michelin star only two years ago, in 2012, and a good friend of Gilles Goujon, owner of L’Auberge du Vieux Puits in 45-minutes-away Fontjoncouse (subject of my next report). The restaurant also gained a 7 room boutique hotel in 2013.

We actually came to Le Parc first to stay. I was recommended this place by the bloggers at Smiling Lion Eats (highly recommended to read), since it was a 10 minute walk away from the Old City (the medieval castle), and the hustle and bustle of the tourist crowd. It was a very nice place to stay, full of chic furnishings, good for couples. At 7pm, after a good half-day exploring the medieval castle, we were hungry and decided to eat at our hotel restaurant.

Some general comments: I enjoyed the ingredient referencing. Chef Putelat really knows how to emphasise the commonalities and qualities of ingredients. To bring out the silken qualities of young foie gras, he uses it like silken tofu in a tom yum soup. To emphasise the meatiness of Tarbouriech oyster, he pairs it with beef tartare and a re-imagined frites. He visually plays with smoked haddock, makes it seem like white asparagus, which is the other passenger on the plate. And there is a Bocuse d’Or competition dish on the a la carte menu which studs springy lard into a classic beef filet, enriched with a perfect jus. It is classical cooking at its finest (it could have only been improved in one way – if truffles were in season, and thus more richly perfumed the dish).

He is also creative in presentation. To joke about his location in the most medieval of castles, he serves his bread on chain-mail “plates”. He serves his olive oil in test tubes. And he serves his alcohol in liquid droppers.

Yet there are points of improvement. My strawberry cocktail is served between lukewarm and cold, an insipid start to my meal. The desserts, while impressive to look at, can be dominated by a single taste (The pineapple strongly dominated the last dessert). And mea culpa, I had a string of misses with the local cheeses. I tried some dishes of the other set menus. They were very good, and probably were a more cohesive meal than my own selections. If I return, I would put myself in the hands of Chef Putelat completely.


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  • Cocktail: Strawberry liqueur, lemon (3.25/5)
    • Served between warm and cool, watery, and when it wasn’t watery, it hit a one-dimensional sweetness. an insipid start to the meal. I think most cocktails should be served ice cold

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  • Bread, served with Picholine olive oil
    • The chain mail was cool, but that meant that crumbs hit the table all the time, seeping through the cracks.

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  • Snacks -
    • lemon olive madeleine (3.5/5)
    • salmon gravlax with lemon cream (3.5/5) [gravlax == cured in sugar, salt, dill]
    • pistachio macaron with duck liver (4.25/5)
      • worked surprisingly well, the creaminess of the duck liver
    • beef croquette (3.5/5)

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  • Amuse: Red Pepper-Tomato Veloute “Gazpacho”, quail egg, squid ink crouton (3.75/5)

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  • Main: Beef Filet “Bocuse D’Or”. Served on January 29, 2003 in Lyon (4.75/5)
    • submitted by Chef Putelat as a competition dish in the 2003 Bocuse D’Or. A memory-intense dish, beef filets studded with cubes of truffle, and salty springy lard. Perfectly done. Accompanied with jus de boeuf, and stuffed artichoke with truffle. I was really impressed by this, a rolling symphony of salting that flirted with the variant porkiness of lard, springy to the chew, and the perfume of truffles. The beef was cooked perfectly, and the vegetables carefully sculpted in the classical tradition
    • the only imperfection came that the truffles were out of season, and thus the dish, relying on the intensity of truffle to complement the beef, fell short of its full potential. However there is nothing that the kitchen can be faulted with. I was especially excited to tuck into this competition dish as it captured a lot of hard thinking.
    • The classical flavors of beef, jus, truffle were rationalised into geometric shapes, the only concession to modernist taste. The pork was a surprising and completely successful combination with the beef.
    • this won Chef Putelat second place [Bocuse d’Argent] at the Bocuse d’Or in 2003.

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  • Cheese. Fresh and Matured from Aude Area and from Elsewhere. (3.25/5)
    • Clockwise from 11 o’clock: Bethmale cheese, Cantal cheese 24 months, Ecu Cathare
    • All a bit dry and salty, harsh to the tongue, not really to my taste.

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  • Dessert 1: Pistachio Meringue, Cherry-Orange Sorbet, Lime Spiral (4.25/5)
    • Pleasant

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  • Dessert 2: Satin Pineapple, Lime, Juniper Berries Sherbet (4.25/5)
    • A green hollow cuboid tunnel of lime sugar, in it a traffic buildup of pineapple-stuffed-meringues. precariously perched on the edge of a square pistachio cake in the hollow of which is filled with pineapple, topped with juniper berry sherbet. The tension of the eye rests on the thin biscuit stick forming an X with the lime cuboid. Puree dots.
    • This dish looked very pretty. It was however a bit too sweet, the candying of pineapple going a bit far. The look was sophisticated, the taste less so, more like some pretty pineapple candy.

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EMOTION… MENU

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  • White Asparagus from Mr Cardoso at Saint Couat. Smoked Haddock, Yellow of Crystallized Egg, Squid Ink Bread (4.75/5)
    • a really playful dish, where the ring of smoked haddock was cut to look like white asparagus. I always enjoy these surrealist contraposition of ingredients when they arise (aterarazor clams, garlic, almond; restaurant andresquid and rice). but this was no slouch on the taste front. a very good cream of white asparagus accompanied the juicy spear

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  • Shell, Razor Clams and Coriander, Albedo of Lemon. Short Lived Foie Gras, Citrus Broth From Bachès (4.5/5)
    • Tom yum soup, coriander, and seared foie gras. I don’t know what the foie was, but this was supremely sweet and springy, like the most silken tofu (and was even slightly more silken than the Fat Duck version. was the goose very young?). no doubt the Thai preparation was meant to evoke its tofu-ish qualities. A very good dish.

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  • John Dory, Almond Cream, Girolle, Olive Emulsion

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  • Raw Milk Reblochon From Savoie Leeks (4.75/5)
    • a really addictive reblochon espuma. sweet and milky, in a satisfying adult cheese-candy experience.

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  • Poached Rhubarb in the Vanilla and Anis. Blood Orange Sherbet with “Sapon”

CLASSIQUE… FICTION… MENU

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  • Tartare-Frite. Tarbouriech Oyster, Beef Tenderloin, Monalisa (4.5/5)

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  • Argenteuil. Green Asparagus, Frogs Off the Bones, Crust. (4/5)
    • green curry. Chef Putelat in a Thai mood.

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  • Barigoule. Boneless Red Mullet, Purple Artichoke, Orange Powder.

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  • A La Française. Veal Chop, Hay From Ruis, Green Peas.
  • Cheese. Fresh and Matured from Aude Area and from Elsewhere.

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  • Banana-Split. Gariguette Strawberries, Chocolate from Peru, Almond Ice Cream.

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  • Eclair. Choux Pastry, Meyer lemon, Micheline Sherbet
    • Micheline liqueur, we were told, similar to green chartreuse.

Ledoyen | Paris | Jun ’14 | “last order”

27 Jun 2014-06-04 11.58.00
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: 1 Avenue Dutuit, 75008 Paris, France
  • Phone: +33 1 53 05 10 00
  • Price per pax (after tax + tip, some champagne): €290 ($395 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Course Progression: snacks – bread service – 1 amuse - 3 mains – 1 cheese – mignardises (1st round) – 3 desserts – mignardises (2nd round)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 160 minutes
  • Chef: Christian Le Squer [wiki-biography]
  • Style: Classical with Modernist Touches
  • Michelin Stars: 3

 

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Farewell, Christian Le Squer and your wonderful Ledoyen. We stepped into Ledoyen without knowing it would be our last meal at the place, in its current incarnation. The reason for that last meal, is that head chef Christian Le Squer is quitting Ledoyen, and his last service will be on June 30th. For 15 years he has headed Ledoyen, and for 12 of the 15 years of his tenure Ledoyen has been a 3-star restaurant. Only this year in 2014, has he been awarded 5 toques from Gault-Millau. But what a meal we had there: we encountered a restaurant performing at the top of its game.

[Le Squer will be replaced by Yannick Alleno (lately in charge of the 3* Le Meurice in Paris before quitting to start his own company, and having Le Meurice taken over by Alain Ducasse). Le Squer plans to cook in his 1* restaurant etc… in the 16th arrondisement until the end of 2014, until which he will try to crown another venture with 3 stars.]

One regret is that I’ll not get to taste the spaghetti dish at Ledoyen. Here’s a picture from Luxeat. That is one of the stunning dishes of world cuisine. It was out, because Le Squer doesn’t do them with non-aromatic mushrooms – only morels, or white truffles, or black truffles. (the black truffles are the one recommended by the maitre d’) I will have to find them at Le Squer’s next venture.

I found the blend of modernist and classical touches here delightful (though the modernist touches on the amuse were a bit weaker than the classical dishes). There is very little new I can say that a lot of other bloggers have said besides [e.g. Andy Hayler, Ulterior Epicure], the classics menu was perfect in execution, and perfect in conception. Ledoyen’s classics menu is perhaps one of the touchpoints for a gastronomic education. A second regret is that I won’t get to try Le Squer’s modernist menu.

Might I also repeat how much I enjoy haute-cuisine in Paris? It is not just the divine food, it is the history of the dining spaces I eat in – a couple of days ago, we sat in the room of the old L’Archestrate, and the previous day, we sat in the quarter-century-old setting of L’Ambroisie. Today, the two-century-old Ledoyen. One might succumb to Stendhal syndrome…


HISTORY

During the late 18th century, it was a haunt of Louis de Saint-Just and Maximilien Robespierre and they dined there on 26 July 1794, two days before their execution. Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais reportedly met at the restaurant and the restaurant was also a favourite of artists and writers such as Danton, Marat, Degas, Monet, Zola, Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. A mid-19th-century account states that the restaurant was also the breakfast place of duellists, who, after shooting at each other in the Bois de Boulogne, reconciled over breakfast at Ledoyen. – Wikipedia

In mid-1999:

“Yes, there had been early warning signs of turmoil in the haute cuisine. First came news that Mme. Ghislaine Arabian, the highest-ranking woman chef in France, had been forced to leave her ill-starred two-star kitchen at Ledoyen in the park of the Champs-Élysées after she angrily fired one of her young cooks on camera during the making of a television documentary.” – Jeffrey Steingarten, “Is Paris Learning?”, It Must’ve Been Something I Ate.

The Breton Christian Le Squer took over the kitchen right after Mme. Arabian in 1999, and Ledoyen held its two-star rating, and elevated to its third star in 2002.


CLASSICS MENU

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  • Amuse
    • Spherified rosewater (3.5/5) – subtle, not sweet let alone cloyingly sweet which is a credit to the kitchen, good taste
    • Spherified olives (4.25/5) – recalling el Bulli? Good olive flavor
    • Poppy seeds and lettuce roll (3.25/5)
    • Foie, cherry, crab mousse (?) (4.5/5)

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Salty crackers. Squid crackers.

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Olive; whole wheat; baguette; Bordier butter

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  • Amuse: Fresh melon, verbena, almond jelly, sprinkling of fresh almonds (3.5/5)
    • A bit lacklustre. From what I remember, the sweet melon dominated.

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  • Grosses Langoustines Bretonnes, émulsion d’Agrumes (5/5)
    • One in the shell, one within a breaded and fried dumpling. Acidulated olive oil + vinaigrette
    • The langoustines were sweet and firm in both, the kitchen able to get the great texture in very different preparations. It paired brilliantly with the acidulated foam.

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  • Blanc de Turbot de Ligne juste Braisé, Pommes Rattes Truffées (5/5)
    • A rectangle of turbot, with just-mashed potato, and a truffle-butter sauce.
    • The mashed potato chunks, not really mashed potatoes in the puree sense we have come to know it, but chunks of potato that have been mashed, were swimming in a most decadent truffle butter sauce, beneath a foam. On top, a conceit of plating, stripes of black truffle bits. The turbot was two filets stacked on each other, though right at the start, so it wasn’t evident when I cut it.
    • Since we weren’t in black truffle season, the truffles used were frozen. This decreased the truffle aroma, but increased the evident decadence of the butter sauce with turbot, which had its gelatinous texture well brought out. This was clearly a perfected dish.
    • Truffles: Ledoyen under Christian Le Squer may have been a winter play
    • A video of Le Squer making the dish: http://www.francechef.tv/recette-blanc_de_turbot_juste_braise_emulsion_de_pomme_ratte_truffee.html

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  • Ris de Veau en Brochette de Bois de Citronnelle Rissolée, Jus d’Herbes (5/5)
    • A whole lobe of sweetbread, skewered by lemongrass, roasted, and sitting on a bed of beans. The sauce was made of 9 different herbs, very good
    • The sweetbread had a soft creamy texture, the generous portions allowing me to savor each bite – the texture of this lobe was reminiscent of another roasted-but-soft-inside ingredient, foie. Their two soft textures explain why they are so prized. A sweet glaze outside, the inner lemongrass skewers giving the sweetbreads a vague Thai flavor. Fantastic

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  • Les Fromages (5/5)
    • Eaten in order from clockwise from 12 o’clock:
    • The maitre d’, going off my three choices of St Felicien, Mimolette and Beaufort, rounded it off with the Banon. Nothing to say, except that the cheese mini-tasting sequence was absolutely superb, each cheese playing off the other (5/5). The Banon in particular was a welcome palate-cleanser in between the sweet-potato-ish Mimolette and the salted-egg Beaufort. This may be the very greatest cheesecart I’ve ever tasted.
    • Saint-Félicien (5/5) – seeking something close to my beloved Saint-Marcellin, I got a superb Saint-Félicien
    • 46 month old Mimolette (5/5) – from North of France. A hard cheese, its sweetness resembling a sweet potato
    • Banon goat cheese (4.5/5)
    • 24 month old Beaufort (5/5) – sweet, salty, starchy, with the mouthfeel of salted egg, a truly marvelous cheese, which contrasts completely with the creamy textures of younger Beauforts. Unique.

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  • Mignardises 1:
    • Spherified pineapple (4/5)
    • Pistachio macaron (4.5/5)
    • Raspberry stuffed in strawberry (4/5)
    • Passionfruit pastry (4.5/5)

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  • Yeast ice cream / White caramel film / Meringue / Silver Leaf (5/5)
    • “Chef wants you to have this, in order to ‘shock the palate’ “. The yeasty flavor (which yeast? what proportions, if a mixture?) was pronounced, capturing a hearty, bready flavor. For such a thin film, the caramel flavor came through strongly.

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  • Croquant de Pamplemousse cuit et cru (5/5)
    • One of the best no chocolate/ no cream desserts I have tasted.
    • From bottom up, 4 layers of grapefruit celebration, in increasing order of abstraction away from the fruit:
    • First a sweet confit grapefruit skin to form a fruit leather base, to capture some of the bitter tastes of the fruit
    • Second fresh grapefruit, to give the tastes of the original fruit
    • Third sorbet, to refresh the palate, and give a cool temperature mouthfeel.
    • Fourth a grapefruit sugar glass to give a crunchy texture.

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  • Chocolat / Framboise, Cacao légèrement Fumé (5/5)
    • A perfect classic chocolate/ raspberry combination, a classical bookend to the meal as the amuses were modernist.

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  • Mignardises 2:
    • Chocolates and Caramels (5/5)
    • Kouign Amann (5/5)
      • A very strong end to the meal.
      • We had feared the kouign amann was soggy from the caramel, but it was perfectly crisp.

 

PHOTOS OF OTHER DISHES

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Homard au Naturel en Gelée de Sucs de Carapace

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Daurade Royale Snackée, Câpres et Tomates Acidulées

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Grillade de Pigeon, Fleurs de Navets

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Fouetté de Chocolat Blanc en Crumble Acidulé

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Givré de Citron Vert, Fruits du Marché


OTHER NOTABLE LINKS:

  • Ledoyen (December 2012): Gastromondiale:
    • ON THE LANGOUSTINES: “This is a house classic. I have eaten this dish at least ten times and, if I could, I would eat it every day.  The langoustine quality here is a close second to what I can find in the great seafood temples of Spain (Galician langoustines) or in La Taupiniere in Brittany (another victim of the Michelin guide’s palette challenged inspectors). Probably they are fresh frozen and sent to Paris immediately. But they are still succulent and sweet, although a bit less firm compared to langoustines that have not seen any ice.  LeSquer prepares a brilliant mousse-like olive oil-agrumes infusion with the two large langoustines, one encased with kataifi and deep fried, and the other appropriately cooked a la plancha, as they do in Spain.”
    • ON THE SWEETBREADS: “This is always a masterpiece, a 20/20 dish.  It is light, creamy, and intense and excellent quality.  The whole lobe of milk-fed veal sits on a lemongrass or citronelle stick.  The lobe is glazed with jus, crispy dried sweetbread crumbs and lemon peel. Salfsify sticks are cut in a rectangular shape and braised with butter. The herbal sauce is rich, complex and refreshing (due to the agrumes jus and raspberry vinegar used in deglazing). The sweetbread is crisp outside, but very juicy inside. This is an exceptional, 20/20 dish.”

2014-06-04 14.06.17 2014-06-04 14.06.53

L’Ambroisie | Paris | Jun ’14 | “timeless. …?”

20 Jun 2014-06-03 20.27.01
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: 9 Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris, France
  • Phone:+33 1 42 78 51 45
  • Price per pax (after tax + tip, a bottle split among three): €430 ($585 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Typical Course Progression: Amuse 1 – Amuse 2 – Starter- Main – Optional Cheese – Dessert – Mignardises
  • Value: 2/5
  • Dining Time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Bernard Pacaud / Mathieu Pacaud
  • Style: Nouvelle-cuisine
  • Michelin Stars: 3

 

2014-06-01 18.14.41

It seems timeless, as if it has existed at the beautiful Place des Vosges forever. But that is an illusion. 27 years ago in December 1987, Bernard and Daniele Pacaud moved the then-2* L’Ambroisie to an old silversmith’s shop, at the Place des Vosges. In the 1988 Michelin Guide, 2* L’Ambroisie was elevated to three Michelin stars, a rating it has kept until today.

We were greeted and ushered into the first dining room by Madame Pacaud. It was cosy, and the lighting came from a Baroque chandelier above our heads. A candle was lighted, an arrangement of fresh flowers. “This might be the most romantic dining room in Paris”. And on the table, salt and pepper shakers (I rarely, if ever, see them at haute-cuisine establishments). That said to me, the diner’s enjoyment is paramount.

Just as rare: No tasting menu. Starter, main course, dessert.

I wanted to dine at L’Ambroisie, precisely because of that gesture; a throwback to an earlier age. Until now, my dining experiences at restaurants considered to be at the top end; restaurants capable of creating transcendental meals, were limited to restaurants with a short history, about 10-20 years at the most. In the United States, the 3* restaurants are unfailingly young (The French Laundry, the Daniel of Daniel Boulud [from Le Cirque], and the Le Bernardin of Gilbert Le Coze, being the three oldest 3*’s in the United States). The other seven (Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Brooklyn Fare, Jean-Georges, Masa, Alinea, Meadowood) are considerably younger.

What other restaurants are like L’Ambroisie? Such a combination of (A) storied history and (B) a preserved cooking style exist only at a handful of restaurants, and (C) at the 3* level is truly, truly rare: Paul Bocuse in Lyon, and Jiro’s sushi outlet in Tokyo are the only other top restaurants that immediately come to my mind. Troisgros, birthplace of nouvelle-cuisine, seems to be experimenting in an Asian fusion style in its third-generation.

I wanted to experience nouvelle cuisine: as in its heyday in the 80s and 90s, when it was still considered the state-of-the-art. How was the food? Intense. Perfection, or very close to it, with every dish. Each dish seemed a minimalist masterpiece to the eye, comprising four or five principal ingredients. It had all the intensity of the best of classical French haute-cuisine, with none of the heaviness. Many of these dishes deserve to be painted and hung as portraits.

And I think it is at L’Ambroisie that I have found the surest hand for caviar. By that I mean, the caviar isn’t fetish-ised and the show-stopper everytime it is served. It is a very sure chef who can relegate the caviar to the supporting role for an asparagus and egg dish, or the supporting role for a line-caught sea-bass with young artichokes. And yet the instinct is precise, and the caviar plays a first-class supporting-role. I am glad to have caught the Pacauds’ cooking (Bernard Pacaud, or his son Mathieu Pacaud who is taking over). To me, L’Ambroisie is the ultimate French haute-cuisine experience.

The food seems timeless. But not events off-table: Surprisingly, L’Ambroisie is going to open a second branch in a Macau casino. It is assured that “the Pacauds will be regularly cooking at the Macau restaurant”. To ensure quality, they need to put a senior chef (perhaps even one of the Pacauds?) in Macau. Will this harm the L’Ambroisie flagship in Paris? One hopes not. But in this corner of the Place des Vosges, it seems even the masters of nouvelle cuisine have been touched by the nouveau riche.

Rating: 20/20

(We switched plates so that we could each try as much of the L’Ambroisie menu as possible. My impressions follow)


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  • Amuse: Choux, Quenelle of cream and caviar, Ginger on top (5/5)
    • Top class. The caviar (well-distributed in the quenelle) paired perfectly with a very light cream. Excellent choux. Elevated by the globules of fish oil from the caviar. A little ginger spiced it out. I don’t think I can tire of such a great combination of choux-cream-caviar

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  • Amuse: Ravigote d’écrevisses aux petits pois, émulsion à la coriandre (5/5) [sic?]
    • Crayfish and green peas, with a fava-fennel soup. Anise-like flavors. A sweet cream soup (veloute?) from fava and fennel, with aforementioned light anise flavors, made for a refreshing bite. Needless to say the crayfish was of first-class sweetness, texture and colour, the peas juicy.

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  • Feuillantine de langoustines aux graines de sésame, sauce au curry (5/5)
    • A L’Ambroisie house signature, these sweet langoustines were done to a texture soft to the front bite,  and yet maintained some resistance to the back bite. Covered with a sesame crisp, just done vegetables, and a curry sauce.
    • A superb flavor combination, especially the delicate curry sauce which did complemented the langoustines superbly.

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  • Chaud-froid d’oeuf mollet au cresson, asperges vertes et caviar golden (5/5)
    • Say what you like about L’Ambroisie and its prices, they are generous with the caviar. When they put a spoonful of caviar, they put a spoon-FULL of caviar. Also I noticed that they don’t use mother-of-pearl unlike most other restaurants. I have heard that L’Ambroisie sources its caviar from both Iran and China. I didn’t inquire, but this was top class stuff. Delicious and decadent, firm globules of rounded salinity.
    • The hot-cold boiled egg, which is boiled to ensure a solid white but runny yolk, and cooled down to ensure the yolk stops cooking, is perched on pieces of asparagus with watercress puree, and a heap of caviar. This was possibly the best asparagus dish of the entire trip, acquiring the salt from the caviar.
    • By the side, an egg with (I believe) watercress sauce, with another spoon of caviar. Superb.

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  • Marjolaine de foie gras au pain d’épices, cristallines de rhubarbe (4.75/5)
    • A foie gras “marjorlaine cake” (multilayered cake) with crystallised rhubarb, and gingerbread as its constituent layers. Lemon confit (preserved lemon) and fresh strawberries.
    • Foie gras terrines can be overwhelming unless intelligently paired with sour fruit, since it is of a uniform buttery texture. Here, the biscuit from gingerbread and crystallised rhubarb gave variation to the texture of the terrine. It was a delight to eat, with none of feelings of satiety that can result. Further, the lemon confit and strawberries had sour tastes that cut away from the unctuousness of foie. A really good foie cake.
    • This recalled a great foie terrine I had at Eleven Madison Park in New York, the fruity contrast then coming from umeboshi.

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Fresh flowers

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  • Escalopines de bar à l’émincé d’artichaut, nage réduite au caviar (4.5/5)
    • Another L’Ambroisie house signature. Three pieces of perfectly filleted “bar” (translated as “seabass”) on top of slices of artichoke heart, on a reduction of nage (white-wine, butter, fish broth) and dotted generously with caviar.
    • Luxury ingredients, played with a delicate hand. It was perfect for its conception, reduced and perfected to its ultimate form. It was very good, though the whole dish’s flavor combination did not blow my mind. (except for the nage with caviar). I did not sense, for example, an especial harmony between the bar and the artichokes.
    • One lady going by the name of “lxt” elaborates on the bar:

It is hard in general not to fall in love with this aristocratic and refined fish, whose tender meat seems to be pampered by nature as if only the best of two worlds – hermaphroditic, the fish produces eggs, claiming its female origin, until later in life its ovaries dry up and it switches hormones to produce sperm – can deliver this extraordinary softness and piquant, delicate taste, but when it is a line-caught specimen, delivered the same day and handled with extreme care, sea bass becomes a real treat. The extraordinary preparation of the sea bass at L’Ambroisie secured its fluffy texture – characteristic of extremely fresh fish, the flesh of which generally becomes slightly firmer the day after the catch, which is not always a negative, since its taste still remains superb, providing the fish was stored properly (another advantageous quality of sea bass compared to other no-less-glorious species like turbot, for instance, whose taste and texture deteriorate rapidly with time) — and the skin tightly embraced the flesh so that every cell of its pattern was glittering in the artificial light almost decoratively, while the moist, tender and cushiony meat added a sensual legato to the tableau. -


2014-06-03 20.27.47
2014-06-03 20.28.03

  • Viennoise de dos de sole au vin jaune, étuvée de morilles et “demoiselles” (5/5)
    • Spectacular. Dover Sole with an amazing vin jaune sauce. The sauces were really intense, incredible. Asparagus, fantastic. Chanterelles. Who doesn’t love them? A combination of three perfect elements that was executed as precisely and perfectly as conceivable.
    • Side plate: Chanterelles with fresh almonds. The chanterelles were as tasty as the fresh almonds were crisp. I’m sure I’m not alone in loving the baby-delicate, slightly-vegetal crunch of fresh almonds. These were perfect. (5/5)

2014-06-03 20.28.37

  • Navarin de homard et pommes de terre nouvelles de Noirmoutier au romarin (4.25/5)
    • Bisque-ish sauce, great new potatoes, fantastic lobster. I did not however glimpse the X-factor in this dish.

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  • Côte de veau glacée au jus, meunière d’asperges vertes au vieux comté (5/5)
    • A side of milk-fed veal, with a tremendously perfect jus, asparagus and an old Comte covering on top of the asparagus. The asparagus was perfect. The veal, too, had an amazing melt in the mouth texture I did not know was possible from veal, recalling a meatier otoro. The veal as with all young animals lacking in taste in order to produce a great texture, needed the jus to unify taste and texture.
    • The savory dark, sticky jus, was almost bitter in its intensity and darkness. Perfect.
    • With another side of girolle (chanterelle) mushrooms.

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  • Assortiment de desserts et pâtisseries:

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  • Parfait glacé à la réglisse et framboises (5/5)
    • A raspberry-licorice sorbet. Refreshing.

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  • Dacquoise au praliné, giboulée de fraises de jardin (5/5)
    • A tremendous dacquoise (a cake made with layering nut-flavored meringues with cream). Here the meringues sandwiched a hazelnut cream. The meringues were light, and contrasted beautifully with the cream. It was every bit the equal of the legendary chocolate tart, the two were like yin (chocolate) and yang (hazelnut)

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  • Tarte fine sablée au cacao, glace à la vanille Bourbon (5/5)
    • The legendary L’Ambroisie chocolate tart – the chocolate as light as air, melting on the tongue like a cloud, it was perfect with a vanilla ice cream. A classic, intense combination.
    • Both tarts were tremendous.

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  • Gaufrettes légères au mascarpone, melba de fraises des bois (4.5/5)
    • A really good strawberries and cream -  marscapone, wild strawberries, wafers. Refreshing.

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Mignardises: Chocolates, hazelnut sponge, rum raisin…


Other Notable Write-ups:

  • L’Ambroisie (2004): Vedat Milor (Gastromondiale) Write-up on e-Gullet: http://forums.egullet.org/topic/57414-french-haute-cuisine-dead-or-alive/
    • There is an extended disquisition by a learned lady named “lxt”: Perhaps it is just an old habit of mine to attempt to characterize all establishments through a prism of current and historical stylistic influences, interweaving threads of commonality among the arts, music, and food, or perhaps style is what defines any creation, and it, or rather its presence is not only a hallmark, an imprint of imagination, but a clear representation of a personal expression and philosophy, but I’m not generally settled until I identify a chef’s style. For instance, Passard is the most vivid representative of Minimalism in food, while his former student Barbot (L’Astrance) is primitivist. While Berasategui’s cuisine gives the impression of a French contemporary influence with his overuse of quiet, cautious flavors, Gagnaire’s contemporary style is more vocal and is closer to Glen Brown’s approach (not Kandinsky’s, as Beaugé suggested in Francois Simon’s “Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry” nor is it minimalist as stated in the same book) in how he treats “savage” recipes and ingredients (the beef aspic dish), eliminating the element of “rough brushstrokes” while introducing a gracious refinement of “lines,” and in how both of them use the historical context (e.g. Gagnaire’s classic turbot in buttery cream turned modernistic with a spike of African melegueta pepper). Piege seemed to be struggling to stray away from the Baroque of Ducasse’s style on my visit to Les Ambassadeurs, and Senderens (Lucas Carton), the father of minimalism, aside from an occasional tiredness, maintains some elements of restrained Art Nouveau, just like the décor of the restaurant itself.  L’Ambroisie, however, seemed to be the hardest one to “file” not due to its lack of style – to the contrary, there was something very personal and expressive in Pacaud’s cooking – but because it didn’t seem to fall under any of the existing categories of predefined stylistic formulations. His cuisine doesn’t posses that indefinable “animalism” that cannot be resolved intellectually because it is addressed not to our intelligence but to our senses only, nor does it rely on a theme and thirty variations, with set forms and complicated constructions built on key relations and symbolism, nourishing our curiosity more than our senses. Neither conservative (with classical grandeur and heaviness of individual dishes) nor avant-garde (gathering together smaller, interlocking units [dishes] of shorter breath while corresponding more closely to the overall tasting flow), with a good instinct to weave all components of an individual dish into an enjoyable unity, his style seemed to represent a work of “realism” composed by a romantic whose imagination and invention were accompanied by the supervision of an alert critical mind. 
  • L’Ambroisie (2005): Vedat Milor write-up on Gastromondiale (copied from the eGullet forum?): http://www.gastromondiale.com/2008/09/lambroisie—-paris.html
    • I especially liked this passage: “Arguably, to call this tiny place located in one of my favorite squares on earth, the regal Place des Vosges, a “restaurant” is misleading. In fact, L’Ambroisie is rather an institution which is quintessentially French, and one that can only be found in Paris. Like all institutions grounded in historical traditions, L’Ambroisie has its set of unwritten rules and codes of behavior. One salient rule is that customers at L’Ambroisie are perceived less as passive recipients of gastronomic delights whose needs have to be pampered at all costs, but rather as potential partners and friends of a culinary institution who will internalize the culture over repeated visits. It is therefore the client who should adjust his expectations to suit the mores/norms of the restaurant and not the other way around. To some, especially some non-French more steeped in individualist traditions, this attitude is seen as elitist and nationalist, and their first visit to L’Ambroise (if they have managed to get a reservation) is often the last one. Yet for others, the type of classic traditions that this restaurant epitomizes and stands for are perceived as a magical escape from the dictates of modern fads and realities of the marketplace, and they appreciate the type of professionalism and perfectionism that is expressed in this institution. Thus for many people, including this writer, the first visit to L’Ambroisie is the beginning of a journey whose rewards increase with each repeated visit and whose pleasures, both culinary and intellectual, may be savored long after the end of your meal.”
  • L’Ambroisie (2010): Some very nice photos from Adam Goldberg: http://www.alifewortheating.com/paris/lambroisie-revisited-paris
  • L’Ambroisie (2012): A review from Vedat Milor on the cooking of son Mathieu Pacaud: http://www.gastromondiale.com/2013/01/lambroisie-and-ledoyen-close-to-perfection.html
    • “Chances are that, just like a lucky man who can bed a different lady every night for 30 consecutive days and then will even forget their names, if you are privileged enough to dine in 30  three star restaurants in a given year, you will no longer remember what you ate where.  To continue with the above analogy, the first few experiences will be enchanting, but then you will grow tired and feel the need to settle…Well, not to settle with one, but with a few… With those with true character and identity. L’Ambroisie and Ledoyen are among my two favorites, not only in Paris, but possibly in the world, among three star restaurants. I can enumerate the three reasons. 1.   In general, these restaurants serve great ingredients, better ingredients than what I can buy in the best local markets in the States. Ingredients.  I have seen frozen fish, canned seafood, and average quality meat in many three star restaurants (even great technique cannot hide the flaws).  I am not saying that all ingredients are the best of the available category in L’Ambroisie and Ledoyen, but I insist that they achieve a very high level on average. 2. These restaurants do not bombard me with 20+ courses and fill my blood with sugar at the end of the meal.  After the amuse, I get a few courses, maybe four, and I can remember them and salivate for months after the meal. I believe it is much more difficult to turn a duck breast into a memorable dish than to serve corn mousse, jellified espelette peppers, argan oil, powderized feta, and crystallized geranium in a cornet. 3. The meal has a true identity. I understand fully that it is French haute cuisine, inspired by classical dishes, rooted in a culinary tradition, with some twists.”
  • L’Ambroisie (2013): Good photos from Luxeat: http://www.luxeat.com/blog/lambroisie/

L’Arpège | Paris | Jun ’14 | “sunlight past the arras”

19 Jun 2014-06-02 13.16.01
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Address: 84 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France
  • Phone: +33 1 47 05 09 06
  • Price per pax (after tax + tip, two half-bottles split among three): €380 ($518 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Courses: (14 main / 17 total): 2 amuses / 12 savory / 1 cheese / 1 dessert / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $37
  • Value: 1.5/5
  • Dining Time: 240 minutes
  • Chef: Alain Passard
  • Style: Vegetable-Focused
  • Michelin Stars: 3

 

2014-06-02 10.57.26 2014-06-02 11.02.56

I was back. 2 years after a life-changing meal at L’Arpege (my first) in the winter of 2012, where I was served a marvellous parade of dishes (a perfectly executed salad, Cevennes onion gratin, vegetable ravioli, Harlequin Gardener with vegetable sausage, and a superb millefeuille) I returned to the minimalist dining room, with the triptych to Bacchus hanging over the dining room. It was as minimalist as I had remembered it, laminated wood, functional rather than luxurious chairs, and simple table arrangements. The colours, would come not from the decor, but the vegetal stars gracing our plates. And what colour!

One of the pleasures of dining out, is that each great restaurant is unique in its own way. We had dined the previous week at The Fat Duck, where the greatness of the restaurant was in the sheer amount of thought that went into every little detail of the dish, from theoretical construction to the actual assembly and cooking of the dish. (see The Fat Duck Head Chef Jonny Lake talking about how they conceptualised the magnificent Lamb dish, to see what I am talking about). Alain Passard gives each of his dishes equal thought, tasting and refining his raw vegetable products from his farms before serving them. (See the graphic novella: In the Kitchen with Alain Passard) But where at The Fat Duck, portions are measured to scientific accuracy and dishes refined and re-refined in an R&D lab months before they go on the tasting menu, Passard’s improvisational cooking style draws from his love of music, and he is much more willing to let the testimony of his ingredients speak for themselves.

I had also dined at 1* Hedone in London the previous week, and though I found the ingredients impeccable, I found myself enjoying the minimalism at L’Arpege more than at Hedone. The two both prize the testimony of the ingredient, the voice of the ingredient above all else. So why did I enjoy the minimalism at L’Arpege more? I can only think that it is an intellectual response to a great chef’s vision. Passard’s vision of a vegetable cuisine, with vegetable sausages, top-class ravioli, the revaluation of beetroot in his sushi (improved over the winter version, which had an unnecessary dab of wasabi, now gone) – is compelling, above even a chef that demonstrates catholic knowledge over the provenance of a wide range of ingredients. Restriction of the option-space of ingredients to just vegetables, gives the chef that much more to do, to transform and subvert our expectations. And Passard is a great chef, one whose skills are well-suited to the task. In the end though, it is a matter of taste whether one would better enjoy a first-rate meal of the stereotypical ingredients – amuse, vegetables, seafood, red meat, dessert – or if one would better enjoy a first-rate meal that up-ends and subverts those expectations.

And yet L’Arpege is not perfect. Part of the reason I enjoyed it less than in winter two years ago: many of the tropes and gestures from my winter meal were repeated. Beetroot sushi was repeated, as well as the veloute, and the ravioli, with the Harlequin gardener, roast chicken, millefeuille. As it was only my second meal at L’Arpege, I had been hoping to try a broader range of Passard’s cooking. Perhaps I should have ordered the vegetable tasting option, or gone carte blanche, instead of the grand menu. A second possible reason: I found the grand menu very similar (in that only one dish was completely changed – the blue lobster substituted for the potatoes) from the lunch tasting menu. For €200 Euros more (€140 vs €340), it left me feeling a bit short-changed. If there is a better way to ensure that lunch patrons don’t order your grand tasting menu at lunch, I’d like to hear it. Perhaps that is the point – the grand menu being for tourists rather than locals, who know the ins-and-outs of navigating a meal at L’Arpege.

Was it still a first-rate meal? Yes. Was it worth the money plonked down this time? I am on the fence on this one, for both the considerable repetition, and the feeling of €200 misspent. I have heard meals at L’Arpège being described as expensive gambles. When a Passard meal comes off, it is truly magnificent, an eighth wonder of the world. When it doesn’t, it falls to earth with a resounding thud. Among my friends who have had the fortune to dine at L’Arpege, I have noticed two contrasting reactions – no one sits on the fence – the first, if fortune smiles, being that one is a convert to Passard’s vision. The second, if ill-starred, is that one forswears off L’Arpege. Having had both experiences, I now understand both points of view. The arras is drawn, I now look forward to a third meal at L’Arpege  with both the hope of transcendence, and the knowledge that I might yet be disappointed.

Rating: 18.5/20


Les jardins en Juin (grand tasting)

(All listed dish descriptions in French, non-listed dish descriptions in English)

2014-06-02 11.05.16 2014-06-02 11.05.301. Mint/carrot puff pastry (4/5)

    • A nice, immediate amuse, served seconds after we were seated at the table

2014-06-02 11.07.082. Vegetable tartlets: Beetroot/Green Peas/Purple Potato (4/5)

    • An amusing permutation carousel of vegetable tartlets: (A) Green pea puree topped with a piece of potato (B) purple potato puree with green pea on top (C) Beetroot puree with a green bean on top.

2014-06-02 11.12.16 2014-06-02 11.23.29 2014-06-02 11.28.10 2014-06-02 11.28.16Country Bread

    • With Jean-Yves Bordier butter (5/5). Salty, real depth of flavor.

2014-06-02 11.37.40 2014-06-02 11.37.543. Sushi de betterave au geranium (4.5/5)

    • moutarde d’Orleans
    • This version was better than the one I had two years ago, which then had wasabi overpowering the sweet beetroot. Here the wasabi had vanished, and was replaced by a pleasing geranium oil, which gave it a appetising floral fragrance to accompany to smooth sweetness of the beetroot.

2014-06-02 11.42.30 2014-06-02 11.42.334. Chaud froid d’oeuf au sirop d’érable (4.75/5)

    • 4 épices & vinaigre de Xeres
    • The L’Arpege egg, which I had personally made, with David Kinch’s Manresa recipe
    • I had also tried it (the Arpege egg) at Manresa a couple of months earlier, in April 2014. There it is lighter, the maple syrup goes padfooted on the sherry vinegar cream, (5-6 drops in the Manresa drizzle). At L’Arpege, the maple syrup found its way into the poached egg yolk – which was sweetened. Perhaps the syrup was whipped straight into the egg yolk this time?
    • As I mentioned on my Manresa write-up, I prefer to add more maple syrup to accentuate the sweet-sour contrast with cold sour sherry-vinegar cream. Here the contrast was sweet-warm (syrup-egg, somehow mixed) vs cold-sour (sherry vinegar cream), with chives, 4-spice, salt, as supporting cast.
    • In “It Must’ve Been Something I Ate”, the food critic Jeffrey Steingarten details the quatre-epices:

“This common French combination of four spices, used especially in charcuterie, typically includes black or white pepper, nutmeg, cloves or cinnamon, and ginger, and is sold already prepared in bottles. Passard makes his own, using white pepper [Sarawak?] and going heavy on the ginger. To follow him, use a (clean) electric coffee grinder, the kind with a whirling horizontal blade, to pulverize 2 tablespoons white peppercorns. Add 1/4 teaspoon ground clove, 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, and 2 teaspoons powdered ginger, and grind them all together until the mixture is extremely fine.”

2014-06-02 11.43.15 2014-06-02 11.47.45 2014-06-02 11.47.565. Fines ravioles potageres multicolores (5/5)

    • consomme printanier
    • A stunning smoky, green bean consomme that tasted intensely of the bean itself, with 4 types of ravioli: carrot-rose, turnip-basil, asparagus-vervain (AKA asparagus-verbena), and pois-gourmand-ail (AKA pea-garlic). Each primary vegetable (carrot, turnip, asparagus, pea) was perfectly paired with the secondary herb (rose, basil, verbena, garlic). Spectacular. 5 elements – consomme, and 4 raviolis of different pairings, yet a complete garden of flavors. To me, this is a dish one cannot tire of.

2014-06-02 11.57.22 2014-06-02 11.57.17 2014-06-02 11.57.126. Couleur, saveur et parfum des jardins (4.75/5)

    • creation ephemere
    • Purple turnip, rhubarb, purple basil. Pairing ingredients with similar colour profiles, or chromatic cooking. Here the sour rhubarb offset the sweeter purple turnip. The surprise of the dish was an intense purple sauce, right at the very bottom of the bowl. Where had it appeared from? It was intensely sweet, like root-vegetable candy. The pairing with the last bite of rhubarb was sublime.
    • Jeffrey Steingartenin It Must’ve Been Something I Ate details the probable origins of that purple sauce – a version of jus de legumes, probably made from reducing the jus de navet (turnip) and adding honey -

“Jus de legumes can mean a variety of things; at L’Arpege, it is light and sweet, and relies mainly on the wealth of vegetable juices left over from preparing various dishes. Here we must start from scratch. To make 2 1/2 cups of jus, enough for both recipes: In a 4-quart saucepan put 10 cups of roughly chopped vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, black radishes, turnips, leeks, rutabaga, and in the winter, celery root). Cover with cold water, about 6 cups. Add 2 tablespoons of salted butter. Bring to a simmer, partially cover, and cook for 40 minutes. Strain the liquid and reduce it by about half to 2 1/2 cups. Taste it and smile. Add any pan juices left over from cooking the red onion and the celery root”.

2014-06-02 12.09.037. Asperge blanche de la vallee de la Sarthe (4.25/5)

    • geranium & oseille large de Belleville
    • Roasted white asparagus, sorrel, and bay leaf oil. Juicy white stalks, really top class white asparagus. I however did not find the accompaniments of bay leaf oil and sorrel to add much aroma to this dish, and there was a pickled leaf (bay leaf? seaweed?) the slight sourness of which was out of place in the dish.

2014-06-02 12.23.03 2014-06-02 12.23.13 2014-06-02 12.23.248. Bouquet de homard breton acidule au miel (3.75/5)

    • transparence de navet nouveau
    • Sweet and sour sauce, made of honey, lime, sherry vinegar, with carpaccio of turnip, and Breton lobster (AKA homard bleu, blue lobster) underneath
    • a €200 dish (this was the one completely changed dish from the €140 lunch tasting menu). So how was it? The sweet and sour sauce was truly superb, tasting complex. But I was not taken with the cold chunks of lobster, underneath the tender slices of turnip. It resembled a cold preparation of sweet-and-sour seafood salad from a Chinese banquet, and I failed to detect the quality differential in the Breton lobster that would elevate this dish.
    • A massive disappointment.
    • http://www.finisterebrittany.com/discover/breton-lobster

2014-06-02 12.30.31

The displayed monkfish

2014-06-02 12.37.26 2014-06-02 12.37.429. Asparagus-onion veloute (4/5)

    • Smoked ham whipped cream, cold
    • Veloute good in sweetness, offset by smoked ham cream.

2014-06-02 12.44.02 2014-06-02 12.43.2510. Tuna tartare, vervaine, fava beans (3.5/5)

    • Tastes of soy sauce, without further perceptible modification, which was an Asian touch that seemed perfunctory. Solid, though not mindblowing.

2014-06-02 12.48.41

I really like crusty ends, and thanks to maitre d’ Hélène Cousin for noticing that.

2014-06-02 12.52.20

 

He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…

2014-06-02 13.02.2111. Peche cotiere du Golfe du Morbihan au <<Cotes du Jura>> (4.75/5)

    • pommes de terre nouvelles
    • grilled monkfish from Brittany, which was a classic. New potatoes, which had a nice sweetness, along with springy monkfish, cabbage, spinach, and a vin jaune sauce. Very classic, and executed beautifully.

2014-06-02 13.03.52 2014-06-02 13.15.58 2014-06-02 13.16.01 2014-06-02 13.16.2812. Jardiniere Arlequin & merguez vegetale a l’harissa (4.25/5)

    • fenouil selma, courgette fleur, trilogie de carottes, artichaut violet…
    • I was served almost the same dish at my last meal here, and there the winter vegetables, bursting with sugar, sung with a true harmony of flavors. Here the vegetable sausage was a bit rougher and drier than I remembered. The vegetables seemed a bit less flavorful. To be honest, if I wasn’t served a sublime version two years ago, I wouldn’t have known what the fuss about this dish was all about.

2014-06-02 13.39.48 2014-06-02 13.39.1713. Vegetable minestrone, chorizo, parmesan (4/5)

    • I think my personal joy of a L’Arpege meal is just being able to take in the sweetness and unreal quality of the produce from Passard’s farms. A real sweetness in the carrots, and peas- peas that are perhaps less juicy that those at Manresa in California or Etxebarri in Basque country, but so giving to the bite, and the two halves sliding off each other so easily. Very tender, excellent produce.

2014-06-02 13.48.1114. Grande rotisserie d’heritage Louise Passard (4/5)

    • eleveurs de nos regions
    • Chicken, fig-leaf oil, potato gnocchi
    • Good. Passard likes to cook his chicken more than other chefs, and this was a bit tougher than I would like. But it was more tender than the winter version.

2014-06-02 13.48.40 2014-06-02 14.07.18 2014-06-02 14.09.08 2014-06-02 14.11.3915. Le plateau d’Helene

    • ses fantaisies
    • The cheese cart: Bernard Antony 48 month Comte (5/5), Camembert from Normandy, Banon cheese from Provence, dry goat cheese from Savoy, Bonde en Gratin.
    • What is there about the Bernard Antony Comte that hasn’t been said? Nothing. But I’ll say it again: a dry, nutty, textured shavings of a scarcely-sandy, sweet, cheese. Every bite reveals a food complete in itself. May it repose, self-satisfied. Masterpiece (5/5).

2014-06-02 14.23.35 2014-06-02 14.24.43 2014-06-02 14.28.3316. Millefeuille rhubarbe <<vintage>> a l’angelique officinale (5/5)

    • sirop rose
    • Thank the Gods Passard among the top Paris chefs still prepares his millefeuille (I could not find it on the menu at L’Ambroisie or Ledoyen). It is perfect. The flaky pastry cuts beautifully, and with an audible crunch. Rhubarb millefeuille with sour cherries, and then paired off with an intensely floral rose ice cream, which brought to mind the intensely floral geranium oil in the beetroot sushi that our meal started off with.

2014-06-02 14.41.19Fresh Strawberries

2014-06-02 14.23.59 2014-06-02 14.37.42 2014-06-02 14.34.1617. Sucreries

    • macaron, nougat, tuile, bouquet de roses®, pop-corn…
    • Angelique (sinensis? danggui?) caramel was very interesting – the bitter herbal taste going well with the sweet stickiness of caramel; choux, sweet, macaron, and the mini bouquet of roses tart.

 

Other Notable Write-ups:

  • L’Arpège (2004): A trip report to Arpege by the most delightful “lxt”, who has a most distinguished palate, an impressive knowledge of caviar, and an unfortunate run-in with L’Arpege’s dungeon room (http://mouthfulsfood.com/forums/index.php/topic/1088-arpege/)
    • On the dungeon room: “I turned abruptly, so that the courteous distance between the hostess and me was slightly reduced, and politely inquired whether it was possible to be seated upstairs. “Since you made a reservation at the last minute, this is all we can do,” followed the firm response from the slim, fragile-looking young woman who seemed not to be inclined to change her mind. Our insistence that we indeed cared enough to make a reservation two months in advance by both mail and phone and were forced to reschedule due to special circumstances didn’t seem to soften her heart, and we were seated in the dungeon at the farthest table from the entrance with a promise, however, to be moved upstairs in case any of the more privileged diners wouldn’t object to dining downstairs or would finish their dinner early.After the hostess disappeared and we were left alone for a short while, I was stunned to recognize the smell of mold, of a basement, of an old building flooded for a long time: a smell of rot and age that would undoubtedly interfere with the appreciation of food, since when the nose fails, 80% of the ability to taste is lost. The thought crossed my mind that the disparity in comfort between good tables and bad tables – that is, the difference between the upper and lower rooms – while offset by genuine chords of compassionate sighs from the staff, was so much more extreme than at similar establishments, that perhaps it should place on Arpège the obligation to inform a diner in advance of his seating assignment.“Do you sense the smell of …” I started saying, lifting my eyes up at my consort to find out whether he detected an unpleasant odor as well, and stopped in the middle of the sentence with a chill running through my body as I saw him turning pale with a dew of cold sweat on his forehead, taking me back to the recent past in a momentary flash and a sudden burst of memory where I was terrified watching a neuro-surgeon, who happened to be on the same plane with us, gently chuckle, mumbling “It’s always big men who faint,” while taking my husband’s blood pressure.We were very apologetic on our way out. “The last thing we all want is me passing out in your restaurant,” laughingly added my consort halfway out, but… apparently this last argument was quite convincing, and a cozy table in the main room across from the entrance was kindly offered and accepted.”
    • On caviar quality: “Caviar osciètre royal d’Iran (nouvelle pêche).
      When a bowl of white, thick and smooth, creamy and lightly frothed Jerusalem artichoke velouté, whose gentle flow was disturbed only by the dark beads of the scoop of Iranian Royal Caviar in the center, was placed in front of me, before I attempted to unravel the flavors of this pictorial dish and examine the quality of the caviar, a reminiscence of the first time I tried beluga – the world-class 000 malossol caviar (from Astrakhan, aged for two months), with large (about 3 millimeters in diameter) beads, leaving an unforgettable sensation as little black pearls popped lightly when pressed against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, releasing, just like good butter, a soft, rich and exquisitely delicate flavor with a hint of sweetness, a slightly nutty flavor and a clean, smooth finish – brought back a pleasant feeling.With current problems relating to overfishing in the Caspian Sea and trade restrictions on Russian sturgeon, I hardly expected to see beluga on the menu, though the price of the dish prompted high expectations, but I anticipated finding excellent quality osetra and was surprised and disappointed after examining it.Iranian caviar has several disadvantages compared to Russian (specifically, along the Volga, “the mother of sturgeon rivers” –Inga Saffron) that may affect the quality and taste, in my opinion: 1) Osetra from the cooler waters of the southwest shores (the coast of Iran in the Caspian Sea) doesn’t develop the complexity of flavors, ranging from fruity to nutty, lingering pleasantly in the mouth, for which it is praised. 2) There is a fine art to producing top-quality caviar that varies from fish to fish, applied depending on whether the eggs are perfectly ripe, immature or too mature, requiring different curing techniques to bring out the best in the roe. These skills were mastered over the centuries in Russia and were passed from generation to generation assuring the high level of integrity of the product, whereas the consumption of both sturgeon and its roe and even touching the fish were not allowed by Islam, since sturgeon doesn’t have scales, so that Iranian participation in the caviar trade has really been only a 20th-century phenomenon.The dark-gray-to-brown color of the beads on my plate, indicating a stronger flavor (lighter, golden color osetra is more delicate), their medium size, uniformity and shine were very attractive, and I anticipated a little burst as I put several pearls in my mouth only to be disappointed by a sluggish, soggy result lacking the distinctive “pop,” and sadly, a very salty, straightforward flavor, which is an indication of inferior quality.Lightly salting caviar, as with Russian Malossol, is the desired treatment for the best eggs, allowing no more than 3% salt in relation to the egg weight; lesser grades can have up to 10%. Mixing salt with borax (an old method utilized in Russia to simulate the 16th century approach where caviar was penetrated by borax from the soil, near the Caspian Sea, in which bags with caviar were buried to age), results in caviar with a more rounded, sweeter flavor. There were none of these characteristics in the caviar at Arpège. In fact, it tasted as if it were pasteurized, which sometimes is done after curing and packing to prolong caviar’s shelf life, but which permanently alters the eggs’ delicate protein, resulting in sogginess.“Passard should change his supplier, but this dish is excellent,” said my consort, referring to the caviar, as he mixed it thoroughly with the velouté, and took a spoonful of the gently warm mixture. Indeed, despite the name of the dish, caviar was not the central element in this composition. The suave, rich velouté (slightly warmer than room temperature) was so intense in its gentle flavor that it was as if the last drop of life had been drawn out of the vegetable, revitalizing the creamy liquid and permeating it with a subtle, softly sweet and precise flavor. As the caviar beads spread out in the liquid and contributed their salty intonations, the sweetness seemed to blend naturally with the salt without being suppressed. It was a nice progression of flavors from slightly sweet to salty-sweet, with a gentle amalgamation of all components giving the dish its very structure, which didn’t shock, just pleased. Though the title, accenting a less-than-perfect component, was misleading, the ultimate result of the whole dish seemed to transcend the ingredients.”
    • On the same thread, a poster named Orik compares Passard’s vegetable cuisine with his cuisine in the 90s: “lxt,I don’t have my summary of the last meal at Arpege in front of me, but vegetables vs. meat is not a primary concern. I can only remember having eaten a few meat dishes at the 1990s Arpege (wild hare once, a couple of amazingly good duck preparations and the pigeon, never beef, pork or lamb). Their seared foie gras was not an interesting dish – scallops, lobster and fish, truffles and vegetables were always the stars.The notes from our last meal there are not in front of me, but let me see if I can recall:1. Luxury ingredients – the menu still features homard breton and caviar, so there is no real movement away from these ingredients. However, the lobster in yellow wine used to include truffle shavings (otherwise it was identical) and sell for half its current price. Also, there was previously a wonderful truffle and parmesan soup, in our last visit this was replaced with caramelized onion gratin. I’m not going to argue with anyone claiming that an onion can bring him or her the same pleasure as truffles and parmesan – this is a subjective matter, but it surely brings pleasure to the restaurant’s accountant, as both dishes sell for about the same price.2. Quality of ingredients, complexity of preparation – also in our last visit, we ordered a mushroom soup. Sivan tasted it and said “well, this is most certainly a very plain mushroom soup”. The following day we saw passard offering the same soup at some sort of a food event, together with the recipe – champignons, stock, cream… Nothing different from how you would have prepared cream of mushroom. 64 Euros, I think (or was it 48? ridiculous, in any event).3. Wine prices – the restaurant can do as it pleases, but there are some cases where prices in Euro are not much lower than they were in Francs…

      4. Boredom – the egg, both lobster preparation, a couple of variations on the caviar theme (sometimes it’s with avocado), a very large whole roasted bass, when available, even a slightly modified version of the scallop dish (I think the cabbage was only present in the lobster with yellow wine before) have been on the menu for many years. If you look at the cuisine of the 1990 [sic] and the current cuisine, you’ll see just how much of the supposed change is purely marketing and cost cutting.

      5. Cheese service – used to be exceptional, has become miserable, but this isn’t unique to Arpege.

      In short, from a relatively casual 3 star, serving innovative cuisine at very low prices (I actually have a check for 2800 FF including 1000 FF for wine), Arpege has become one of the most expensive restaurants in France, yet its cuisine, service and decor did not evolve significantly. Still a destination for someone who hasn’t tried Passard’s cuisine. Fortunately we were never seated in the basement ;) “

  • L’Arpège (2006): A review from Vedat Milor. http://www.gastromondiale.com/2008/10/arpege.html
    • “Is Alain Passard a near magician who can cook with his left hand, so to speak, and still concoct absolutely perfect dishes?  Probably. Few can compete with him to create such elegant and amazingly harmonious dishes, which look simple on the plate but reveal so much intensity and complexity with each bite without losing focus.  His Fin gazpacho a la moutarde onctueuse d’Orleans,  Homard des Iles Chaussey “Arpege”, and Turbot de Bretagne  are all culinary masterpieces. They are masterpieces because the raw materials are perfect or near perfect (somehow the lobster meat had perfect texture but lacked the sweetness we associate with great blue lobster), the balance between acidity, nuttiness and sweetness in each dish is optimum, and all of these dishes are original and express the inimitable style of a great chef in bringing out the full range of flavors hidden in his ingredients without torturing them or subjecting them to senseless experiments with texture, as many Passard  imitators do. In fact, when he prepares a risotto du potager with various root and other vegetables from his garden, one feels that all our preconceived notions about luxury and “grand dining” can be laid to rest for a while. Sometimes the most simple (but not simplistic) is also the most decadent.”
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