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lxt

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  1. lxt

    L'Astrance

    …So Les Ambassadeurs was awarded a second star, a justified promotion; so was L’Astrance, which raised such waves of both support and disagreement that it sparked my interest to go back a year ago (to May 2004) and review my own experience. There is probably no other restaurant that has provoked such disparate opinions as L’Astrance since the time it attracted public attention by gaining one Michelin star only months after its opening, and further so, after it was awarded a second star in the current 2005 guide. Some diners seemed to be irritated by what they saw as Barbot’s superficial modernity unconstrained by the rules of classic tradition while others raved about the harmony of his style, progressive yet sufficiently restrained, without far-reaching efforts at reform. In effect, Barbot created a specific milieu, a proto-bohemian zone outside the walls of today’s standards – a self-conscious and deliberate separation from the classic complexities, an attempt to constitute yet another intermediate space between the orthodoxies of nouvelle and the unconventionalities of post-nouvelle cuisines – which was eagerly endorsed by the public in anticipation of the next Gagnaire, Passard or perhaps a more conservative version of their own French “Adria.” Indeed, it is more difficult to get a dinner reservation at L’Astrance than at Gagnaire, L’Arpege or even L’Ambrosie. Barbot, having spent five years in Passard’s kitchen, inherited Passard’s form reductionism on the plate, but didn’t adopt his model of intensifying ingredients’ inner intricacies. In other words, where Passard applies sophisticated, labor-intensive technique, modifying the flavor concentration and textural pattern of each ingredient in such a manner that no matter whether bay leaf or scallop it would stand on their own (complexities of their characters to be enjoyed either in isolation or in relationships with one another), extended technical elaboration has no place in Barbot’s scheme, his intervention limited to preserving the native flavor, a leitmotif of the dominant ingredient while the chorus of other elements on the plate stays in the shade and performs a supporting, auxiliary role. Barbot attempts to condense Passard’s Minimalism by excluding elements’ inherent complexities, while still continuing making the concept of “less is more” a foundation of his cuisine. Whether Barbot consciously assumed an adversarial role, rebelling against his previous background, or simply attempted to differentiate himself by creating a new style, his cuisine lacks Passard’s symphonic multitude, revealing a more primitive, shy, chamber character. Most of the time, you won’t see techniques associated with hours of slow cooking on top of the stove, nor will you find reliance of ingredients on their accompanying sauces. A limited number of autonomous ingredients, minimally manipulated – more typical of the Spanish movement than of the classic-French approach – along with the chef’s vision of presenting dishes in the flow of a predefined tasting menu, which became the only available option at dinner in 2004 (perhaps as a result of Barbot’s trip to the Basque country, where he spent some time at Mugaritz), represent a style that bounces from primitivism to “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit), replacing elaborate complexity with simplicity and almost clinical observation of detail. The question lies in whether Barbot’s style hasn’t already reached its potential, and whether the static nature of its naturalism/primitivism will prevent his cuisine from advancing – forever staying at the level of perfection within its own parameters, though never exceeding the one-and-a-half star performance I experienced during my meal there in May 2004. Despite my having enjoyed our meal at L’Astrance, I wonder whether, just as the German “New Objectivity” movement in art had a short life, this style may prove to be too inflexible to allow Barbot to advance toward performing at a higher level. Barbot’s signature crab and avocado "ravioli" dish probably would be the most representative of his style. It is not that the avocado and crabmeat combination was a revolutionary idea when Barbot created this dish – the avocado and crabmeat marriage has stirred the imagination of cooks ranging from housewives, making simple avocado-crabmeat salad for weekend parties, to well-known chefs, designing elaborate crab and avocado in tomato soup, as in Gordon Ramsay, or a delightful crab and avocado with pistachio, as in Lucas Carton, for years – it is that L’Astrance’s version became the standard, the benchmark against which other crab-avocado dishes were judged, and which inspired other chefs to explore this combination further, like Robuchon’s crab and avocado “millefeuille,” a tribute to L’Astrance’s signature dish. Finely shredded crabmeat, mixed with tiny chives (almost undetectable), in between two large avocado sheets carved as leaves, a sprinkle of coarse fleur de sel, lime and orange zest on the pinnacle and a drop of warm almond oil wouldn’t necessarily comprise a perfect dish, if not for the essential characteristics of these ingredients along with their carefully chosen amounts. In other words, it is not that the avocado had to be just ripe; it is that the level of its ripeness had to be such as to provide a buttery smoothness, yet still be firm, so that it would mingle with the crabmeat, buffering its gentle sweetness, yet not easily disintegrate in the mouth, overpowering the taste of the crab and altering its texture. Every detail in this composition, large or small, was crucial in achieving the desired balance. Barbot didn’t throw himself enthusiastically into the grandiloquent style of brilliance and power: this sonorously radiant appetizer was hardly comprised of a number of ingredients exceeding the necessary minimum, yet it conveyed a certain lyricism, touching everything lightly, not dramatically. On our visit, this appetizer was not served with the shot glass of yogurt, previously criticized on this board as an unnecessary addition. One of the topics we discussed with Barbot (a charming man, full of sincere and kind attitude) at the end of our meal was the foie gras and Paris (button) mushrooms, served as the initial appetizer, which traditionally would be considered a slightly more robust dish than the avocado-crabmeat signature dish following it. Surprisingly, however, such an approach proved to be quite bold and original, caring the taste percepts to their culmination gradually, from the mild and muted buttery foie gras terrine to the bright avocado-crabmeat dish. In fact, Barbot changed the order of these dishes relatively recently, the decision possibly influenced by his visit to Mugaritz. Indeed the Maître d’ at Mugaritz, during our visit to San Sebastian, made sure to note that grilled foie gras, cooked slowly for 45 minutes to preserve its fat, possessed enough lightness not to distract from the tuna dish following it. The foie gras, served at a perfect temperature, fully exposing its buttery characteristic, positioned on a thin layer of a slightly sweet puff pastry, was layered with Paris mushrooms cut thinly. Though neutral in taste, the mushrooms brought a textural counterbalance to the smoothness of the foie gras, adding a perky and almost crunchy effect to each bite. A lemon-zest purée, accompanying this appetizer, its sweetness merged with the foie gras, added just a gentle note of acidity, which at the same time neutralized the light bitterness of the hazelnut oil. The last touch, of mushroom powder – mushrooms roasted in the oven at a very high temperature until brown and then turned into a powder – completed the composition, whose theme of primal, barely manipulated components, with distinct contours, though not fully free of all bonds, survived once again on the carefully balanced combination of almost bare ingredients and their amounts. I’m not sure whether I, being brought up on French and Russian classics (interwoven through the threads of commonality over the centuries of mutual acceptance and wars) could be identified as a Francophile, but there was a feel of something intrinsically close to my background that made me feel so comfortable in Paris whether in restaurants or on the streets. L’Astrance has a reputation of having somewhat distant and cold service, which some claim to be directed specifically toward Americans. However, we received the most warm and professional welcome from Christophe Rohat, a co-owner and Maître d’, who built his career at L’Arpege alongside Barbot, but the real ice was broken when I noted the most wonderful bread served at the table, something rarely noted by diners. It was as if the spark of light pierced M. Rohat’s eyes upon my inquiry, and enthusiastically he started his saga about the famous Jean-Luc Poujauran, who, unexpectedly, in his pursuit to bake only bread, sold his name and boulangerie, originally located on Rue Jean Nicot 75007, about two years ago, moving to the building next door to his old bakery where he continued to bake and sell bread only to several restaurants, among which was L’Astrance. M. Rohat’s kindly suggested that if we were to attempt to buy the bread directly from M. Poujauran, we could use his name as a reference, but time constraints didn’t allow us to explore this opportunity. No matter how hard Barbot tries to break away from Passard’s style, once in a while, he goes back to his roots, and monkfish, cooked slowly in the oven for two hours at a very low temperature, is created, showing off Barbot’s technical proficiency, which I would’ve enjoyed experiencing more often in his cuisine. The fish was marvelous! Retaining a springy and firm texture when the flesh was lightly pressed, it revealed tender flakes and a mild, somewhat briny flavor. The accompaniments included one asparagus spear (an excellent specimen, sweet and crispy, sprinkled with orange powder), girolles (very lightly sautéed with parsley so that their firm texture wasn’t compromised, but surprisingly, a less harmonious addition); and bizarrely, some mild grilled cheese (Tomme d’Auvergne), which, nonetheless, quite nicely matched the fish. Still, Barbot didn’t seem to have found a medium to bring all elements of this dish together in the same intuitive manner as is usually done by Passard, or, in other words, there was some element of artificial deliberation in the overall design, the relative success of which rested purely on the quality and execution of the monkfish. The last savory course, saddle of l'agneau de Lozère , lost points on the quality of the three-month old lamb. Lozère lamb is generally slaughtered before it turns 130 days old, and its flavors are much more pronounced, compared to l'agneau de lait (suckling lamb), whose age is never greater than two months. The difference in flavor intensity between the two kinds, however, is not so much based on the difference in age, as on the feeding practices. While l’agneau de lait is milk-fed exclusively, which results in the light color of the meat, exceptional tenderness, and gentle flavor, l'agneau de Lozère, though still fed by their mothers, are also grass-fed, the result of which is a strong, gamy flavor similar to l'agneau d'herbe (grass-fed lamb), while retaining the relative tenderness of l'agneau de lait. If the lamb is a pure breed, its meat is denser with almost no fat, which didn’t seem to be the case at l’Astrance – the saddle had a sufficiently large layer of fat between the skin and meat. The meat, dark-red and wonderfully flavorful, was moist but soggy and tougher than I expected, requiring excessive chewing effort – an unfortunate presentation, reminding us of how ingredient-dependent Barbot’s cuisine was. Bright-yellow, thick Parmesan cheese fondue, of a mousse consistency, accompanying the meat, was gentle enough not to overshadow the gaminess of the lamb, adding a smooth counterbalance. Miso-and-caramel glazed aubergine, another condiment, wasn’t offensive, but didn’t seem to interact with the Parmesan fondue well, relating better directly to the meat. As much as I like Barbot and appreciate his sincere enthusiasm, I’m not sure whether his reluctance to use a more time-honored approach will not hold him back in the future – not only from the perspective of his own achievements and creativity, but also from decreased public appreciation, when such a rendition might no longer justify increasing prices – and whether in his pursuit of individuality, his cuisine may turn out to be too weightless, so that his talent in balancing flavors, assembling piquant, witty and delicately colored tastes, savoring the ensembles that make the contrasting simultaneous, and a sense of clarity and perspicacity, will not be suppressed by the prosaic limitations of his current style, which, based on his own words, is oriented toward small portions, elimination of sauces as binding elements, minimal treatment of ingredients and offering only a chef’s menu – a style characteristic of the current Spanish movement. In other words, even though the ingredient relations on Barbot’s plates constitute a composition of a good order, more often than not, the general effect is in the nature of decoration when it comes to auxiliary elements, whose role is just that of detached accompaniments rather than active ingredients, which would enhance the main ingredient’s essential flavor and merge together into one organic whole. However, given his technical proficiency and ability, I look forward to the next steps in his evolution.
  2. Vmilor, I’m joining the chorus of the disappointed regarding the service staff’s unhelpful attitude, which is illogical, considering that revealing product details is to some extent a tribute to the purveyors and acknowledgement of their and the restaurant’s efforts. I had a similar experience recently at ADNY where my simple question regarding the supplier of tuber melanosporum (while deciding on whether to order the truffle tasting menu) was met with persistent resistance from our Maitre d’, who insisted that truffles were delivered by several suppliers and that it shouldn’t matter since they were excellent anyway. He did eventually come back to us with the answer (Platin, who also supplies Daniel) though much later and after we decided to order a la carte – quite fortunately, since the truffles were weak for this time of year, based on the two dishes with truffle supplements I had from the regular menu. It was as if we threatened to alter some immutable theology of indifference dwelling under the roof of the restaurant, which forced me to look around only to note that the majority of the restaurant’s clientele were either young, aggressive Wall Street yuppies, flashing their Prada ties, tamed quickly, however, by the arrival of their important clients (like an elderly lady across from our table, reminiscent of a relic of the Freudian world, whose face, distorted by plastic surgery, had about 20 years ago, reflected a chronic melancholy) or bored middle-aged couples, for whom the food was a plausible excuse not to invest any energy into the conversation, drifting into a world of separation from their legal spousal appendages. It occurred to me at that point that the Maitre d’s reaction was as much a result of his surprise as a lack of his enthusiasm, since most of the diners seemed to embrace the superficial luxury of the surrounding while bypassing the benefits of the cuisine itself, which eventually led to the cuisine’s apathy, a vibe I clearly got from ADNY. A dear friend of mine from my student years, a former Opera singer, currently teaching in Canada, called me recently, and we engaged in a conversation on how deep and broad was the level of public understanding of classical music in Russia, for instance, due to a very well-defined educational system, a set of established standards, or, in other words, “school,” which always started with“ pre-listening” before attending a concert as a means to open the mind, excite the senses, and train the ear. It was as important to educate the public, those ultimate critics, as it was the musicians whose performances and their quality had to satisfy public demand. Yet, in the matters of food, the largest accent seems to be placed on diner’s personal likes and dislikes, based on their intuitive preferences, rather than on any standardized criteria. In our attempt to identify the reasons for the demise of any cuisine, the blame should be placed not only on chefs, whose performance deteriorated, but on diners as well, whose demands were lowered due to the lack of “formal” education. As I was reading your description of the lobster dish, I also remembered that Piege presented the lobster tail on a skewer made of a raw vermicelli noodle -- clever, but somewhat misleading especially for those materialists who tend to advance the slogan “seeing is believing “ to “tasting is trusting what you are seeing.” Both David and I found ourselves in this category. As to Gagnaire, it is not that the ratio of bad vs. good dishes was disproportionate on my visit, but even aside from the dishes whose esthetic virtues were questionable, Gagnaire seemed to have built this meal erratically, in a way that lacked a smooth flow (a step, necessary to deliver a multitude of small dishes in a sequence of progressing tastes). Among the dishes served simultaneously as a theme group, even the temperature of each dish was not calibrated to reflect the time required for the diner to finish one warm dish before starting another. It was as if Gagnaire, in his pursuit to build multi-course mini sub-themes, directed toward showing the same product from different textural and taste perspectives, seemed to estrange himself from the idea of building a centeral dish, concentrating more on a less “fleshy,” group approach, where the individual dishes comprising one composition could not stand alone, performing the role of team-players in the selected theme, which deprived these dishes of their individuality. I enjoyed Gagnaire’s more conservative dishes each proclaiming its masterpiece status and presented as a full-portion main course, like his excellent turbot with malagueta pepper. That is why I was curious whether a meal prepared for a special guest in any way differed from my observations as a regular diner.
  3. Chefzadi, after we verified with the staff that we were charged not for two but one tea (albeit with two kinds of freshly snipped leaves and two portions of honey), I’m not sure there was any further issue to take up with the management. I’m simply presenting an “eG consumer report” so that those diners who are not tea and honey aficionados will have enough information to plan their expense and dinner accordingly. Aside from the tea, Les Ambassadeurs, however, is currently a real bargain for the quality it delivers, and vmilor’s and my thoughts are more of a constructive exchange on what could be improved from our perspective, than a negative criticism. The sea bass in the picture does speak for itself, and I’m glad you pointed it out once again.
  4. vmilor, you made me laugh: “to swallow my tongue” is a Russian expression as well, and it could be used in the same context. It’s hard to know who borrowed this idiom from whom, which might’ve taken place during the Russian-Ottoman war in the 18th century for all we know. I believe, however, that the usual context in which this expression can be used in English is in reference to an epileptic attack, which requires a measure of sticking a ruler inside a sick person’s throat to prevent him from …”swallowing his tongue.” It is certainly impressive that your friend was able to distinguish peculiarities with Comté. Did he mention what he considered to be the difference between the two, other than making a general statement? I assume that since your friend’s palate is trained so acutely and his knowledgebase is so broad, he must live somewhere in Europe or Paris itself, as I don’t believe that two or three times a year of a short visit is enough to master such degree of proficiency…Or perhaps he simply tasted both cheeses within a short period of time, unless he is capable of keeping in his head a library of tastes, a rare talent at this level of detail. Is it possible that this “enigmatic international gourmet” would share his experience at Gagnaire with us? Was his meal consistent? Did he think that this special meal differed from what was available for the general public from the creativity/consistency/performance point, or that the meal was simply prepared with extra care? On a more serious note, the fact that the service staff failed to provide correct information on cheese at Les Ambassadeurs should be noted. However, I’m willing to cut them some slack. It certainly takes time to train new staff, and considering that you visited the restaurant right after Piege took over, as you said, this aspect can change over time. There was a certain dissonance in the dishes’ presentation, however, not only due to their condiments being served separately from the main ingredients establishing an overall remoteness, but they seemed unnecessary, and purposeless, masking the taste of the main ingredients rather than highlighting them and introducing a needless heaviness. In other words, there was no sense that when all these elements were coupled together, the one with the higher output charged the other, as with the eggplant, parmesan and parsley (strong Ducasse Mediterranean motifs), which simplified and overwhelmed the taste of the tiny, delicate lamb chops from a milk-fed Limousine lamb no older than 40 days. There was a certain sense of uncertainty in the whole meal, and, to prove my theory, I asked our Mâitre d’ whether Piege changed his menu often, which may have been an indication of his continuing experimentation. He said that indeed only recently instead of lamb chops, another and what seemed to be a more elaborate dish was on the menu: lamb saddle wrapped in the shape of a lamb chop with a detached bone. The strongest dish during our meal, or rather one element of the dish, was an absolutely excellent spaghetti façon carbonara served with blue lobster, despite a slightly artificial taste of canned black truffle bits. The grandiosity of the room, however, Baroque of the reign of Cardinal Richelieu, almost made me wish I lived three centuries ago if not for the sober consolation that poor dentistry most apparently prevailed at that time. I also have an anecdote to share. My daughter, God bless her, an innocent child (while my husband and I were investigating more private facilities), mesmerized by a large cart, featuring live herbs in pots and multiple versions of honey, rolled to our table at the end of the dinner, upon being asked what tea Mademoiselle desired, replied, “May I please have two herbs in my tea, mint and thyme?” “Certainly,” replied a well-trained waiter and respectfully retreated. The mint and thyme leaves were put in a bawl of cold water first to induce flavor release before being moved to the pot with hot water. On the bill, the tea price read 44 Euros. “What tea did you order sweetie pie?” asked my husband in a slightly broken voice full of indiscreet surprise. We rushed to take last drops of this magic “gold” tea from our daughter’s cup only to find the taste of herbs with chestnut and acacia honey good, but not exceptional. As it appeared each herb or herb/honey combination cost 22 Euros. Beware! On the other hand, though I can’t imagine herbs to so greatly affect the price, perhaps good quality honey could boost it. My knowledge in this area lacks. “Too bad these days came to an end.” I’m sure had you had a chance to glance into the keyhole of your future while younger, you would’ve envied your current self. That’s at least my consolation argument. By the way, did you make it to Arpège or to Paris at all?
  5. Derek, I know that your current responsibilities are concentrated in the UK, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on the following: There are several discussions on this board relating to a potential demise of French haute cuisine, the “sunken cathedral,” which in the minds of some is slowly becoming a “city that chants beneath the waves” (Alex Ross). Such views are not so much a mere reflection on the growing interest in other parts of Europe, such as Spain, as a growing disappointment with the decrease of integrity in some long-standing three-star institutions that no longer justify their high Michelin ratings and maneuver cleverly enough to fool an average diner by maintaining an illusion of luxury and perfection, but fail with a newly growing class of educated connoisseurs who are no longer a reticent fraction of the population, but a class of diners who devote significant resources, time and effort in search of the best. These diners not only educate their palates in familiarizing them with Belon, Bouzigues, Arcachon, Cancale, Marennes-Oléron etc. oysters in general, but also strive to be able to distinguish the flavor peculiarities between Fines de Claires aged for one month and Gillardeau aged for two months. Such perceptive diners can easily detect an “assembly-line” pre-cooked performance, no matter how cleverly disguised, as described by vmilor about his recent experience at Le Cinq. La Tour D’Argent is another example. While retaining its superior rating and maintaining a certain veil of untouchablity, it is now long off the radar of educated diners, a restaurant about which not even one positive report has appeared on this board since inception, leaving the impression that its historical significance overwhelms its actual value. Therefore, reading your comments about the evaluation criteria for the inspectors, with an overwhelming emphasis on food, was somewhat surprising. My concern is that it is not that French haute cuisine is on the decline, but that the Michelin evaluation process has become less demanding, so that a disappointment at a three-star restaurant is not attributed to a possible mistake in the restaurant’s evaluation, but rather construed as a reflection on the overall French dining scene. Lowering the Michelin bar also gives chefs less incentive to strive for perfection. Perhaps diners indeed have just become more critical, which should put more burden on the shoulders of the inspectors and tighten their criteria, but I’d be interested in hearing your observations on whether you and other Michelin inspectors have registered any changes in the high dining scene of France, and if not, why you think the question of decline is so frequently raised? Is Michelin considering any adjustments to the evaluation process?
  6. Vmilor, I can hardly express the thrill of my pampered ego, which hasn’t been showered with such gallantry for a while, though I’m relieved to know that the frequiency of my posts will not threaten your employment. On a more serious note, I’m sincerely flattered and happy that my notes are helpful, and my admission of enjoying reading your posts, which stimulate my thoughts beyond the life of your threads, is not the mere return of a compliment, but rather a truthful confession. I find that the most interesting posts are not so much the ones that justify their existence by the conviction that they will contribute to the knowledge pool, as those that are written for their own sake, because ideas not collected into the written word are like the unburied; they can neither live nor die. In my case, I only hope that these sometimes disparate thoughts are shaped into a coherent whole. Regarding L’Arpège, I am at the disadvantage of not being able to compare it in the past to its current embodiment, but my conclusions rely on objective analysis along with my personal preferences and a little curve based on the performance of other similar establishments. Let me give you heads up on what I mean. 1. The quality and refinement of ingredients are the foremost prerequisite and the basis of my assessment. No extravagant style or technique can substitute for this principal requirement, though, incidentally, a weak ingredient’s skillful integration into the composition may lift the overall assessment, if such an ingredient’s role is auxiliary and/or its use is intentional, as in the caviar in Passard’s Jerusalem artichoke velouté, or the out-of-season tomato in Gagnaire’s tomato and watercress amuse, whose modernized concept could become a textbook for defenders of unseasonable products and molecular gastronomy. 2. The next step is the application: a livening of an ingredient’s inherent intricacy in the dish. It is not even essential that the ingredient be preserved in its original physical state, which reflects a chef’s style rather than is indicative of a superior application, but it is imperative that an ingredient, in any incarnation, not be tarnished. The disrespect with which Gagnaire treated the most delicate, gentle, and regal ingredient – le gras du poisson, in his turbot (a magnificent specimen of no less than 9 kg, judging by the size of its fat deposits and the robust flavor of he tfillet) composition – drowning it in unpleasantly slimy and heavily spiced (with Madras curry) polenta, this violently and artificially contrived conflict robbed the dish of its potential significance. 3. Next comes measuring the achievement of the specific purpose against what the purpose was. In a well-designed dish, the way you come naturally to understanding the chef’s intention without threading a maze, the way you find the center of the dish without signs, should always be crystal clear. If it is not, the dish lacks, no matter how impressive it may be in other ways. The dish that is truly successful works with a certain inevitability, that is to say, that it doesn’t prompt you easily to conjecture as to how it might have worked better. 4. As much as technical proficiency and confidence in virtuosity are imperative in the final judgment, they should not merely be means to satisfy a chef’s ambitions and should be in total subordination to the taste. That is to say that even if technique rests on brilliant engineering, on the perfect knowing application of theory and practice, the technical implementation must be recognizable only in conjunction with the final presentation and only as a means to achieve superb textural and flavor balance. 5. The chef’s ability to build a successful flow of the meal is another important criterion. The chef’s talent to distinguish when in the course of the meal the application of light or heavy dishes would be better suited, when the dish would illuminate, cast shadows, create mood, stimulate overall progression, his ability to decide when a meal should come to fortissimo and when pianissimo is more appropriate, when he should embellish the dish with ornament and when leave it bare, when textures shall be rough, when smooth or when neutral and in what order is a great skill. Gagnaire’s inconsistency on my visit, for instance, bordered on what seemed to be a deliberate indifference, which sadly almost annulled his individual achievements in our meal, being a major turning point of our experience. This inconsistency didn’t comprise the whole, arching phrase, but represented rather dispersed motifs, whereas Passard’s tasting was exceedingly well made; the continuity was smooth, even though there were individual “numbers” imbedded in it. 6. There is one more consideration, which may be a part of the overall assessment: It is the chef’s “mobility,” his fertility and capacity to keep his menu fluid, and not only on a seasonal basis. However, as long as the cuisine maintains its spirit, a drive toward perfection without signs of tiredness, and is still fresh on the palate, this criterion plays a less significant role in my evaluation. My evaluation of L’Arpège was not based on comparing L’Arpège today to L’Arpège yesterday, but rather on whether Passard was capable of revealing the train of thoughts and sentiments of his style through the prism of impeccable performance and whether his cuisine had an assurance of its living strength when compared to its competitors. Passard is straightforward in what he considers his own strengths and where his passion lies, which is a compass in building a meal at his restaurant. It is hard for me to say whether Passard has slowed down in his creative process, perhaps to avoid risk and to be able to maintain the same level of high prices, as well as to please his current clientele, but if this is the case, as some long-timers speculate, such an attitude, at the same time, provides a certain level of solidity and assurance of perfection. Interestingly, the world of performing arts is much more rigorous and less pardoning toward musicians, for instance, who can’t carry their work in one piece on stage than the arena of gastronomy is toward chefs whose meals are volatile. In my view, steady performance, such as Passard’s, is a skill that is not readily obtainable. I can give you countless examples of very talented pianists who were forced to retire or take a break from their performing careers because their talent was betrayed by their imperfect stage skills. The chef’s talent should be only a prerequisite to his good performance, which is to say that if the chef doesn’t deliver at the end, it doesn’t matter how talented or creative he is. Other than the overpriced wine list, what did you find disappointing at L’Arpège and how would you compare its current performance to its past? 7. Finally comes the experience of composition, design as perceived through my own interpretation, which is a subjective factor. The expressiveness of a dish is bound to be somewhat personal since it builds on the accumulated experience of each individual. It is often quite subjective, depending on how the dish affects you, whether you are tired or rested, responsive or callous to its messages. Personal likes and dislikes are thus inevitable, but they should not be confused with the absolute merit of what is liked or disliked; thus, it is reasonable to say of a great restaurant that you dislike it, but unreasonable to call it bad merely because you dislike it. Whether it is good or bad transcends personal like and dislike and is subject to reasonably objective determination. On a side note, I think that dissecting a dish, defining its essence, studying its transition need not destroy the experience as though we were pulling the petals from a flower. Instead, it may enrich it, and that is my prize. I was interested by your statement that Pacaud “himself does not think that he has a style.” The fact that Pacaud is not self-conscious means that he develops an idea first and then the suitable means of expression or his own language is evolved from it, which is actually a standard protocol of creativity. His cuisine is French, undoubtedly; feminine, however, is indeed “a rough and imprecise approximation.” (I’m kidding; I know what you meant). L'Atelier is not in the same league with the starred restaurants, and it is not a surprise that it wasn’t given any Michelin stars in 2004, nor do I think it has any such claim, even if the restaurant achieves a certain level of perfection, since it is just a cozy and contemporary reincarnation of the haute-style, not even exact haute, cuisine in a production-line environment. To use your 20/20 ranking, only one or two dishes could’ve been ranked around 16.5 on my visit, with the rest being in the range 15-16, which in no way means that I didn’t enjoy my meal. The point is that I enjoyed this new concept, “haute utile,” as I once attempted to identify it, much more than the concept of the more acceptable “bistro moderne,” and the fact that the best dishes got such low marks attest not so much their imperfection as to the intentional intrinsic limitations of their original design, just like bistro cuisine. However, for a quick and light lunch or dinner, I wouldn’t have thought of a better place to snack. At the time you enjoyed Robuchon’s cuisine, I was merely a child whose ideals probably lay along the line of asceticism as the root of creativity, and other nonsense, so that I can’t compare the two, though I’d very much like to hear your opinion, if you decide to go. We didn’t bypass the cheese course and I ordered Valencay (goat), which I also had at L’Arpège, since I was curious to compare the two. Both versions were wonderful and the one I had at L’Ambroisie was perhaps more mature than the one from Bernard Antony, since the ash exterior looked drier with multiple molds on the surface and the interior was less salty, with a more complex and sharp finish. Do you know who is the supplier for L’Ambroisie? I found once that it was Philippe Alléosse, but can’t be sure. We also had Cantal de Salers (cow’s milk from Auvergne) and Coulommiers (of the Brie family). "Tarte fine sablée au chocolat" is indeed a much talked-about dessert, but the weather was unusually hot on that day, and we were looking for something other than chocolate. We finally chose “Dacquoise au pralinée, giboulée de frises de jardin” – a solid interpretation of dacquoise, but not exceptional. The reason we didn’t visit ADPA on our trip was just what you mentioned; the change of reign, and since the next time we’re planning a trip to Paris is in the fall, you’ll probably be the first one to come out with a report. I was more curious to try Piege’s cuisine at Les Ambassadeurs at that time, which though it felt at the level of a two-star establishment, didn’t seem to fully find its own tune just yet, leaving the impression of Piege still going through the process of experimentation.
  7. A recent discussion of L'Ambroisie with a friend encouraged me to put together a couple of thoughts on the restaurant recounting my past experience there in late May. ---------------------------------- 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. There are two features characterizing Pacaud’s cuisine: 1) Pacaud is the chef for whom the inner intricacies of ingredients determine the form, gait, and tone of his composition to such a degree that dishes with the identical main ingredient form separate, very unique sub-styles. For instance, in two different versions of the fillet de bar dish, the fish would be cooked and presented in a similar manner (hence his “sea bass style”), while still lending a different output of flavors, reflecting the accompaniments with which the fish was enhanced. Therefore, it becomes apparent why Pacaud can apprehend with infinite responsiveness individual dishes, but he cannot summon the force of multi-course flow: Such an ultra-refined approach of hanging on details of individual ingredients is typical of miniaturists. 2) The second characteristic is that Pacaud’s cuisine, conveying relaxed mood, exemplified by modest presentation (which still carries a residue of the conventional, but with polished simplicity and pictorial effort) is so complete, that the real marvel is that while the most finicky connoisseur has a chance to rejoice in the quality of the ingredients, the untutored still have a chance to absorb freely the highly artistic and subtle elements without being aware of their nature. Pacaud provides consistency, which can never disappoint to the extent some of Gagnaire’s dishes can. However, not always does the excellence of ingredients guarantee the same esthetic virtue to the dish, and considering that the course of the meal generally includes no more than three or four dishes, it is possible that at L’Ambroisie, an overall meal, though steady, may turn modest and somewhat lacking a thrilling element. Mousseline de céleri aux écrevisses, jus de presse à l’huile de noix– six crayfish out of their shells, with firm, yet tender meat, placed side by side, as if building a tunnel over the off-white celery purée, whose buttery taste consumed any celeriac freshness, and surrounded by a thin yet very strong sauce, based on walnut oil and crayfish stock – was a less successful dish, ordered by my husband. The delicately pronounced sweetness of the crayfish was overpowered by the very distinct, almost throat-scratching walnut oil, whose undiluted toasty taste was almost savagery, so that even the neutral-tasting celery purée failed to offset the oil’s strong characteristics, becoming somewhat superfluous. Perhaps diluting the walnut oil with a lighter oil (a common practice) or offsetting it with sherry vinegar (though the vinegar acidity might’ve compromised the purity of the crayfish taste) would’ve helped, but this dish didn’t possess the necessary articulation, using rather incomplete and strong language that threatened to drown the main theme in undulating words. This was the only disappointing dish, which followed the exceptional amuse. Morels were blooming on the menus of nearly every respectable and less so restaurant last May, having pleased us with a variety of concentrated and light flavors from such dishes as a decent chicken with peas and morels at Mon Vieil Ami, an excellent l’oeuf cocotte a la crème légere de morille at Atelier de Joel Robuchon and at Les Ambassadeurs, a very good morel and asparagus appetizer of morel consommé that continued gaining concentration from a cheese-cloth bag filled with dry morels, infusing the liquid with earthy intensity, as the mushrooms gradually re-hydrated. L’Ambroisie was our last meal in Paris, and, after a two-week gastronomic marathon, we desired nothing more elaborate than just to have a decent meal while maintaining quantity control, so that when our Mâitre d' hinted that Monsieur Pacaud would be able to cook for us, but that the dinner would consist of four or five dishes, we had to respectfully decline, restricting our choices to a conventional three-course meal. In other words, a muse of adventure has already left us…until a fantastic amuse of morel consommé with foie gras awakened our senses again. What made this dish special is the skill with which luxury ingredients were applied. Pacaud didn’t simply combine the immaculate morels and foie gras, but manipulated these ingredients in front of the diner, turning them into marionettes at the end of a string, which he pulled with marvelous virtuosity, adding a touch of designated light and perhaps even satirical chansons, as the dish kept altering its appearance and taste, as if mixing different paints on a palette to create a completely unique color. The dish first made its appearance as a dark-brown consommé with a piece of steamed foie gras in the center, allowing us to acquaint our palates with the most intense morel flavor. After a second spoonful, however, the elaborate “coloratura” started unwrapping as the steamed foie gras began melting in the consommé, forming white foam and thickening the liquid with a buttery richness while taming and smoothing the sharp and concentrated angles of morel taste. A final touch of counterpoint sweetness, in the form of fresh (perhaps slightly blanched) peas, whose clean, delicate flavors were stressed by the foie gras richness, enveloped the somewhat forceful mood of the dish in mysterious and muted tones, capturing the unparalleled sensuality of this pale and amusingly decadent world of luxury – a truly spectacular dish. There is one more dish that I’d like to mention. It was almost touching to see a young French couple, modestly dressed, sitting at the right-hand corner of the room, pet each others’ hands and whisper gently, as if their souls have immersed in the happy melodic world of their French song, with its joyous abandon, and their desires, memories and passions fainted into a cheerful intoxication. Their language could’ve been gauche and blustery, for all I knew, but French, with its suave curves, can be deceiving to the untrained ear, and I simply observed the scene until the motion at the next table was interrupted when sea bass with butter sauce and caviar arrived at their table. The fish, its black skin attached, was glowing and the caviar seemed of good quality from the distance, so that the growing temptation to try this dish forced me to inquire of our Mâitre d’ whether Escalopines de bar à l'émincé d'artichaut, beurre léger au caviar,” would add harmony to my order. His concern was that the buttery sauce on sea bass would echo the sauce in the frog legs appetizer, Royale d’oignons doux, cominee de cuisses de grenouilles (frog legs with sweet onions, butter and watercress sauce) I had already ordered, …and suggested that should my heart still desire sea bass, he’d arrange for a different, off-menu version, which would bring the necessary diversity and balance to my meal. Three small filets of line-caught sea bass in the center of the plate – hiding sweet and buttery carrot purée under their bodies, surrounded by a thinly carved crisp, fresh and almost sweet fennel and fish-fume based sauce, sparked with saffron – was a truly fantastic dish. 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. There is probably no other restaurant of this magnitude that provokes so many disparate opinions on service. From the perspective of some diners, the service at L’Ambroisie is not unacquainted with perplexities; others extend their praise for the restaurant’s professionalism. One could say that L’Ambroisie epitomizes everything that is right or wrong with the French, depending on his individual perspective. Classicism and tradition assume a certain level of formality, which, while possibly viewed by some as buffoonish, cold, and impersonal, would be revered by others as courteous, professional and proper. To some extent, L’Ambroisie doesn’t adjust its culture to the needs of its customers as much as it attempts to adjust customers to the formal mores of the restaurant, which can create a conflict of different opinions. The Mâitre d’ would not be shy to insist on your changing your order to fit his own perception of your perfect meal, which could be construed by some as intrusiveness, while others would view it as professionalism and a welcomed enthusiasm. While the Mâitre d’s insistence on your practicing French at the restaurant could be viewed as nationalistic, others may perceive it as his tolerance and patience and appreciate the opportunity to rehearse their language skills. (Even having acknowledged my inability to communicate in French, our Mâitre d’ continued to insist that I try, as if testing the truthfulness of my admission. I laughed and suggested that I would rather take pleasure in his practicing his Russian with me, after which he conceded that unless I spoke Japanese, our only common means of communication had to be…oh well, English.) L’Ambroisie allows one to experience time in its immobile state, having preserved that which has almost gone – a level of distant respect expressed in courteous but directive care with an element of theatricality obtained through rigorous training. For those whose temperament prevents them from being open-minded in accepting someone else’s authority over them, or those resenting taking their part in a “play” of predefined roles as set by the still life of the restaurant, going to L’Ambroisie may not provide an ideal experience. If one manages to become an integral part of the L’Ambroisie culture, however, then the reward may be significant.
  8. Aside from your main point… Actually, among all the rulers of post-revolutionary Russia, Brezhnev was the only one who was warmly enthusiastic about food, and was quite known for his gluttony. As the Kremlin chef Mikhail Zhukov admits, “[the kitchen staff] worked like crazy under Brezhnev: we cooked for congresses, for meetings, we cooked for him at his private residence, we literally worked non stop.” For all I know, his cuisine may have blended parody of serious gastronomy with outright “buffa” frivolity, but I can assure you that while Brezhnev’s citizens were proudly strolling the streets of Moscow, carrying garlands of toilet paper rolls, gently gathered on ropes around their necks like leis, with a sense of glory and victory, after spending hours in line to get this precious essential only to come home to face a partially defeathered chicken of unknown provenance, of a color, suggesting that it was either born dead or “aged” for months, Brezhnev was enjoying whole sturgeons, partridges, suckling pigs, crabs, cured fish, and caviar of excellent quality. In fact, the Kremlin kitchen in those days used to be similar to Adria’s laboratory, with each new dish to be created by a team of technical specialists, doctors and a crew of chefs.
  9. Vmilor, thank you for a wonderful and provocative post. There are several factors that have been suggested as potential contributors to the demise of French cuisine: the cynicism and complacency that you described of top chefs interested in cashing in on their reputations; the effects of globalization; the urge to incorporate new techniques; and current economic pressures on restaurateurs. The cynicism and complacency are generally taken care automatically by market forces, and the arrival of a new generation of educated gastronomic consumers, though in the short term there may be an adequate supply of the wealthy and uncritical. As to globalization, there is a concern that the phenomenon of universalization, while being an advancement of mankind, at the same time constitutes a sort of subtle destruction of great traditional cultures, the creative core on the basis of which we interpret our lives. There is the feeling that this single world civilization at the same time exerts an attrition at the expense of the cultural resources that have made the great cuisines of the past. It seems as if mankind by approaching en masse a basic consumer culture, was also stopped en masse at a subcultural level. However, even though continuing traditions and rooting in the soil of its past is important to ensure the survival of spiritual and cultural revendication before, so to speak, a world colonization, in order to take part in modern civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical and creative rationality, which very often requires pure and simple abandonment or adjustment of a whole or partial cultural past. Passard (as you mentioned) is indeed the best example. His innovative concept, spotlighting the most vulnerable and shy ingredients (legume) that were never given solos previously in the opera of haute cuisine, resulting in tremendous clarity, rendering such complex tastes in such a simple, minimalist form is not only a living proof of “survival,” but has been thriving uncontested for years now. In other words, the contradiction is by no means an inconsistency. …Or take L’Atelier de Robuchon (from the perspective of concept not necessarily delivery). I think that the original shock that his reentrance to the French culinary scene made was related not so much to the fact that some of the legendary dishes became somewhat obsolete to our tastes, since a buttery potato mousse (his mashed potatoes) was no longer a novelty, whereas the textural elegance of his preparation of this rustic vegetable was revolutionary at the time of its original creation, as the horror the public felt toward the “eccentricity” with which Robuchon decided to reappear, or, in other words, toward that which violated the current code of the “sanctity” of the existing status and pattern. Had he reentered the culinary world with a classical version of a potentially three-star establishment from the beginning, he would’ve been applauded and honored, instead of being treated with suspicion. When I asked the owner of our charming hotel on Saint-Germain, an intelligent woman, sufficiently sophisticated in matters of cuisine, why she thought that Robuchon’s place was filled 90% with Americans, she responded that Parisians didn’t understand his new concept and that she personally preferred to patronize young and unknown chefs in ventures of this nature. Because of her traditional preconceptions, she failed to recognize that what Robuchon had created was a completely new genre, a new movement that could only be compared to a “common-sense school,” or in theatrical terms, “théâtre utile,” whose definition became haute cuisine in a common-sense environment. In other words, Robuchon transformed the whole concept of high-end dining, bringing it one step down to the masses, which puzzled some French critics, who simply didn’t know how to categorize his new establishment, which on top of everything started serving haut dishes in the form of “tapas.” (By the way, the first sip of Arzak’s gazpacho amuse brought out memories of Robuchon’s gazpacho. In fact, the similarity in taste [the level of acidity, concentration of flavors, and texture] was striking.) A movement toward modernizing some areas of French cuisine had already begun with “modern bistro” newcomers, but their concept differs from Robuchon’s drastically in that they attempt to refine and elevate bourgeois cuisine, which sounds more rational to the French public, whereas Robuchon touched the untouchable without any warning. I wonder whether his new, more formal establishments, in which he serves almost identical food to L’Atelier, like La Table (which I haven’t visited yet, nor do I feel a need), are to some extent a simple reaction to the French public’s confusion, but I truly hope that this new genre will succeed. This would be an interesting and positive effect of globalization. What about technical innovations? Could it be that the popularity of technical innovation in Spain led to the “contamination” of French haute cuisine and the minds of French chefs, so that technical proficiency is applied not so much to advance great ingredients, as to show off, often resulting in technically proficient eccentricities? (This question is somewhat similar to the question you posted for Adria.) Sure, but it is a natural reaction to innovation in any sphere of human activity, not only in gastronomy, and as much as I wish that those with lesser talent would cool their temperament and concentrate on what they do best, I also understand that time will eventually wash off the noise, leaving only those chefs who produce the signal. Indeed, one of the greatest draftsmen of his days, Alfred Stevens, who sought to emulate the masters of the High Renaissance and attempted to “clean Michelangelo up” by implementing a superior technique, produced nothing but self-conscious imitation of outward form and “language.” How many people have even heard of Alfred Stevens today? William Blake, on the other hand, pursuing the same goal, failed to achieve Stevens’s mastery, but managed to find his own means of expression that was at one with his ideas so that, paradoxically, an awkward drawing by Blake is of a finer quality as a work of art than a brilliant drawing by Stevens. Draftsmanship alone is not sufficient to produce a work of art, and time will inevitably pronounce its verdict. Take classical music, for example. I can’t even start describing all the shocks and dislocations to which the nineteenth-century framework of values had been subjected in the first quarter of the twentieth century, provoking constant raves about mediocre composers who were finally washed out by time, leaving behind such giants as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Scriabin, Bartok and Prokofiev despite the pessimism of high-end musical critics such as Henderson, who wrote to his friend, Richard Aldrich (for many years, music critic of the New York Times): “…I feel it my sacred duty in these, my closing years, to stand up for the spiritual quality of music, its soul, its imagination, its poignant emotion. That means I am bound to oppose all this formation of methods first and writing according to them afterward. Even Wagner discovered his new paths before he tried to sell maps of them to the world. Chopin and Mozart just wrote as their spirits compelled them to. I’m fighting materialism and its close associate, sensationalism….” Henderson committed suicide several days after writing this letter. I feel more optimistic. The problem is that the current world of gastronomy has been attacked by innovations with such a force that it overwhelmed the “market,” which will inevitably lead to a “market” correction over time. Similarly, I don’t believe that French haute cuisine is going to be permanently crippled by the intrusions of globalization and technical experimentation. However, I wonder whether the current decline in quality isn’t in part due to the hostile economic environment (labor regulations, taxation, etc.), which, if uncorrected, will adversely affect the French restaurant industry long-term.
  10. Chef Adrià, There are two types of regionalism: a more conservative one, so to speak a regionalism of restriction, relying on strict traditions, and the regionalism of liberation, whose manifestation is especially in tune with the emerging thought of the time, and which is called “regional” only because it has not yet emerged elsewhere, whose triumph is in extraordinary awareness and freedom, and whose manifestation has significance for the world outside itself. Your cuisine, abundant with technical and artistic statements, has already been recognized and started slowly altering the very fundamentals of the world of gastronomy. One can clearly see how, little by little, the perception of a three-course meal – with the focus, centered on a main ingredient (its quality and arrangement), and technique, concentrated on enhancing the taste of individual dishes with each bite, so as to keep the diner’s attention intact through the whole period of this one-dish consumption – shifting to multi-course bites with (assuming a chef has talent) stunning visual presentations, which are more oriented toward delivering an overall dining experience, frequently containing an element of surprise, rather than concentrating on the integrity and consistent refinement of single dishes, therefore breaking the whole “signature dish” concept: the whole idea of chefs striving to create individual jewels and preserve them for years on their menu while testing the diners’ tastes over time. Indeed, the thirty-course presentation must be mobile and aggressive enough to keep the senses charged through the whole meal, and concentrating on one dish may tire and wear out the senses. My question is in regard to your philosophy: is the concept of the signature dish still present in your cuisine with each dish as an independent creation designed to stand on its own, or do you instead create signature meals where each dish represents a piece of a puzzle that can be solved only with the last bite? In the first case, could you give examples of such dishes? In the second case, would it be fair to say that it is impossible to fully perceive your cuisine from only one meal (contrary to the experience with the “signature dish” chef, where several best dishes may well reveal his concept and philosophy as well as his talent), and a series of meals is required to form a definitive picture?
  11. Vmilor, Your impression of Zuberoa somewhat echoes our experience. We bypassed the tasting menu for two reasons. The first was that the regular menu description, having implied a classical approach, seemed to be more appealing, compared to the tasting, though rather one-sided, heavily relying on foie gras and melanosporum, which made it almost impossible to build our own meal to be diverse enough to reveal all the dimensions of Arbelaitz cuisine, and the second reason was my attempt to avoid several items on the tasting like hake (the fish with which I hadn’t much luck in the past), and tuna (of which we had become somewhat tired, especially after the mediocre versions served at Akelare and Mugaritz). At some point our palates became numb from the abundance of the strong foie gras and truffle flavors, and we were deprived of the ability to distinguish nuances separating one dish from another -- the subject of our discussion with Arbelaitz after our meal. (I should’ve avoided this mistake after our similar experience at Atelier under Kreuther in New York.) When asked whether Basque cuisine has any special features, Juan Mari Arzak has said, “It has four things which distinguish it from the rest: white sauce, red sauce, black sauce and green sauce.” I couldn’t agree with you more that Arbelaitz has surpassed the limitations imposed by this tradition (as did Aduriz, though in a completely different style), and he is indeed a fine saucier; however, I wonder whether his aesthetic expression, bound to the classical style, whatever deep understanding and technique he seems to have, along with his enthusiasm, is enough to compete in today’s market (the restaurant was half empty), and perhaps this is the reason Arbelaitz started exploring other venues. To be honest, if I were to draw a parallel to my impression of Arbelaitz’s cuisine on that particular visit, I would compare it to Messianic sermons – pontifically pronounced, melodiously phrased, spellbinding the diners into believing that such a style alone is thriving and that its continuation is necessary to correct modern “paganism,” yet still missing that which would make it live through the ages. Even such excellent dishes as poached egg yolk on a paste of pigeon/truffle sauce and roasted pigeon didn’t leave a thrilling note of uniqueness. Indeed, the very fact that Arbelaitz relies so much on classics makes him more vulnerable, since inevitably his style draws a comparison to chefs who achieved perfection in the same classical arena, to such masters as Pacaud, for instance, in comparison to whom Arbelaitz loses, which makes him more of a Paul Chenavard, who was considered one of the best nineteenth-century painters, but whom no informed critic mentions in the same breath with Rembrandt, Titian or Rubens. What was your impression of the quality of the caviar in the oyster and caviar with lemon gel dish? I don’t generally favor the combination of caviar with lemon acidity, since it alters their flavor through oxidation. Was the gel hot (a la Adria) or cold? Was it osetra or sevruga, Iranian I presume? I have to admit that caviar is my hot button*, and I have been unhappy with the quality of this product lately in my meals, criticizing the Iranian osetra caviar in Passard’s Jerusalem artichoke velouté, which fell below my expectations relative to the price of the dish, though the melding of all flavors was superb, as well as the osetra caviar at Per Se in Keller’s famous oysters and pearls, which on top of the caviar’s mediocre quality was unbalanced with the overuse of salt (as if no one in the kitchen tasted the caviar for saltiness prior to its application to adjust the seasoning of the other ingredients). The Iranian sevruga at Zuberoa was beyond any criticism. It was simply awful, a poorly processed paste of broken eggs and strong, almost unpleasant, briny flavor, which even if were good, still would not have been necessary in the otherwise very interesting spider crab appetizer. The other disappointing dish was lobster ravioli with truffles. The wonderful lobster (an excellent Norway specimen), cloaked in a thick, unrefined and somewhat slimy dough, conceptually reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay’s signature lobster ravioli, was drowned in a heavily truffled sauce, the small amount of which still overwhelmed the sweetness of the delicate lobster meat. Despite several excellent dishes, these misses were too significant not to affect our overall perception. However, the meal was very enjoyable with highlights of roasted pigeon and a rustic, traditional lamb, and I’d be glad to return. P.S. Your pictures are truly magnificent, and allow the words to be linked to the dishes’ faces, just like it was nice to finally see the face behind the words. -------------------------------------------------------------- *I still remember the time when Russian caviar (specifically from Astrachan) was at its best, when the business of handling it was a way of life for many families, who passed their skills and knowledge from generation to generation, and when each caviar batch was marked with a code containing information on the location at which the fish had been caught, and a batch number, marking the eggs from each fish. Caviar in those days was treated with royal care, involving a certain ritual, which may seem somewhat barbaric on the surface, but makes perfect sense upon a closer look. You would position a small amount of caviar between the thumb and first finger on your hand; lick it carefully (not to break the eggs); roll the eggs in your mouth against the upper gum, examining their firmness; gently pop the eggs, so that their primary flavor could be released, nourishing the taste buds in the front of your mouth; swallow them; and then examine the aftertaste (the secondary flavor in the back of the throat). You would rub and smell the skin afterward to look for any residual odor, which generally indicates poor quality. Only a gold spoon was used with caviar (since reactive metals oxidize it and alter its flavor) placed vertically into the eggs to avoid crushing them, and caviar was never camouflaged by other ingredients (more typical of French cuisine, where caviar is generally either a garnish or a taste enhancer) to preserve its virginal taste from being distorted. (I recently dropped by the Petrossian store near the Time Warner center, and chatted with the manager, Mr. Bourrigaut, who was as nostalgic as I about the past glory of Russian caviar.)
  12. Judith, to address your question: my information regarding the sequence of development of Aduriz’s dishes was volunteered by a member of his staff during our recent meal, confirming my own speculation. Indeed, the dishes in which the main ingredient played the strongest role tended to be his oldest dishes, such as the roasted foie gras and beef.
  13. I generally attempt not to render an opinion on a subject with which I’m familiar only theoretically, which is to say that my first meal at El Bulli will be at the end of May. However, I found this topic to be too compelling to bypass, if only to compare my theoretical assumptions now with practical experience later. Once a chef sets himself down an unknown path and creates according to his own perception, free as far as possible from predefined rules and breaking through the limitations of stereotypical tastes, however sincere such a chef might consider himself to be, there is always a risk that the result may be extremely personal and subjective, with each individual dish somewhat incomplete, a piece of the larger puzzle of his menu, with less emphasis on the “realism” of ingredients, employing rather a dualistic punning forms (infusions, textures, concentrated tastes detached from their hosts’ bodies, etc.). That is to say that conventional criteria may not be applicable to the “abstractionism” of Adria, whose work seems to be more concerned with how it is carried out as a whole meal than what it is about as an individual dish, contrary to Pacaud, whose classicism still so much revolves around individual ingredients and the aspect of taste in individual dishes. It seems that these two cuisines serve different purposes the same way as comparing Picasso to Velazquez will not yield a meaningful verdict. What concerns me, however, after reading vmilor’s thoughts, is whether Adria manages to establish some degree of formalism in his cuisine, which is essential for codifying a new trend in any artistic movement (e.g. realistic flesh and blood in the works of Titian or Rubens; the degree of formalism was high in Egyptian paintings with the same superimposition of full and profile views echoed in the duality of Braque and Picasso later in time, or in the conversion of intangible light into solid paint in Impressionism, etc.). The same academic, formal, synthetic and even abstract (deconstructionism) approaches apply to haute cuisine as well. The question is whether Adria puts in enough effort to formalize his cuisine, therefore creating a definitive style perhaps not out of individual dishes, as he did earlier in his career with hot and cold pea soup, tagliatelle a la carbonara etc., but perhaps with entire meals (which seems more characteristic of his current strategy), or flees a subject matter before exploring its potential, creating a brand-new sand-castle every year, washed out with each tide, which, may still be advantageous from the technical perspective for other chefs, but irrelevant for the ultimate judges: his diners. In that case, the next question would be whether Adria’s future lies in the laboratory, not in the dining room. Otherwise, he may be creating a new form in which the entity is not a dish or even a meal, but a sequence of meals. Thus, as vmilor said, I won’t be able to answer these questions with only one meal, and following this chef’s progression may not be practical, but I’ll keep an open mind.
  14. bleudauvergne, thank you for your kind words and for keeping this subject alive. You and I are on the same wavelength. To my recollection, the size of each piece of foie gras was around 100 grams, which is quite generous for an appetizer. manresa, during our visit, the cabbage leaves seemed to maintain their relative textural firmness and color (which also could’ve been achieved by draining the leaves in cold water right after taking them off the stove), being only slightly wilted, which suggested to me that the information provided by one of the servers regarding the overall blenching time as 30 seconds could’ve been right. However, I am intrigued by your recounting the official version of the recipe (2 minutes for blenching) and would be curious to conduct an experiment, though after my return from Spain. The reports I heard from people whose opinion I respect were not very favorable regarding the current execution of Duck Apicius, and I decided to bypass it. I believe Senderens serves Foie Gras in Cabbage only for lunch now and only as part of the fixed menu (please verify), to which we limited our choice this time. However, both dishes you mentioned are on my next-visit list. It is interesting how many chefs were inspired by the Senderen’s dishes over the years. A dish, inspired by Senderen’s Lobster with Vanilla is currently served at Bouley (NY).
  15. “Neo-Gothic or Neo-Baroque,” was my first impression as we entered the compact lobby of Lucas Carton, until curly heads of cheeky cherubs, emerging from the wood-carved leaves supporting elaborate wall lamps in the main room, caught my eye with their distinctive Art Nouveau motifs of the vitreous interior incarcerated in an elaborate scenography of wood. Somehow the “sweet” vulgarity of Art Nouveau, expressed in a perennial preference for forms with sinuous floral ornamentation, and which more often than not represented equally lugubrious examples of petrified Classicism with heavy Symbolist overtones, was smoothed by the restrained equilibrium of good taste, lacking the overblown rhetoric of the Grand Palais. I will not elaborate further on the décor of Lucas Carton and its smooth transposition of a court-mannered theme into the stout bourgeois if not decadent character, reviving the age of the sipping of absinthe, the smoking of cigars, of silk gowns and the coming of the Ballet Russe, but rather concentrate on the matters of another eternal – the art of gastronomy. Is personal expression of the inner world, influenced by the spirit of the current age – “personality” and “style,” those periodic, transitory characteristics – enough to bypass the boundaries of constantly changing times? Do we not appreciate the culinary achievements of chefs of a certain historical period for their influence on the future development of the culinary art, though we prefer to examine these chefs’ dishes on paper not on our plates? How many dishes survived through the frenzy of different times constantly changing in fashion, tastes, forms, rules, demands and conventions? “Simplicity is an exact medium between too little and too much.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds). Indeed, the minimalism of the “Duck Foie Gras in Savoy Cabbage,” its congruent baldness and visual modesty, featuring two large, perfectly round foie gras “packets,” with small mounds of coarse salt and pepper on the side, which only slightly disturbed the geometric unity of these voluminous “burgers,” residing in their priestly solemnity and wrapped in a swathe of wrinkled drapes of the soothing and buttery-moist cabbage leaves, represented a thread of harmony and figurative order. No gallant elaborateness, no artful pomposity, primitively naïve, this dish, differing strikingly from other more intricate entrées, promised no special worth until the first bite awoke the tremor of elation, and for a moment heaven knelt to earth. Thirty five years ago, Senderens applied cabbage -- known for its ability to absorb fat without losing its own textural consistency -- to foie gras, creating a unique dish, which still pleases the minds and stomachs of connoisseurs. To prevent foie gras from rendering its fat, the concentration of which is considered to be central to grading the flavor and richness of the final product on the plate, not only did Senderens steam the foie gras (the best method to preserve fat), but, not to lose a drop of precious juices, he also wrapped it in cabbage leaves preliminary boiled in slightly salty water for about thirty seconds to soften the leaves’ texture and unlock their pores for fat absorption. The magnificent, bulbous foie gras from Landes (in the south west of France, a place famous for its foie gras and ortolans), freed of veins and refrigerated for 24 hours in a cheesecloth wrap, is then draped in cabbage leaves and steamed for twelve minutes. The dish, the leafy exterior of which looks essentially integral, sealing us off from what we are given to behold, when tasted, disintegrates this illusion into self-consciously expressive evidence of the finest foie gras, with a texture neither overly firm nor overly soft, lavishly rich, creamy and pale, free of any bruises or blemishes, augmented by the soft texture of the wrinkled leaf and its concentrated taste from the absorbed foie-gras essence. When the perspective of time renders style and personality irrelevant, and we can view a work purely as an expression of eternal artistry, as an Egyptian carving speaks to us today more subtly than it did to its chronological contemporaries who judged it with the hampering knowledge of the period, we can identify those who believed in their own impulse to find a suitable form for their creations – whether or not disengaged from the traditions and preconceptions of their own time, using the outer form (i.e. style) for their inner spirit as a springboard to further expression –admiring their works, appreciated by generations across borders and times, the success of which amounted to special exemptions from the verdict of history. I’d like to hear not just a recount of signature dishes of famous or less-so chefs, but your experiences and thoughts on dishes, perhaps as old as you are, which still provoke the fervor of pleasure and are as contemporary now as they were 10, 20, 30 or more years ago.
  16. manresa, as much as I enjoy recounting my experiences, responses like yours make them worth posting. Thank you very much.
  17. If there is one thing that can be stated with a certain certainty, it is that Gagnaire is consistent in being inconsistent. There is little use in comparing Gagnaire meals from one year to another, and the fact that my meal at Sketch about a year ago(?) was nearly the best we had in London during a trip that included Gordon Ramsay, The Fat Duck, Petrus (the worst meal), etc. may be absolutely meaningless in identifying the status of the restaurant today. Sketch is undoubtedly Gagnaire’s child, and both restaurants are affected by whatever Gagnaire’s passion is at the moment. Comparing the two meals, the amuses at Sketch were more interesting and coherent, reflecting Gagnaire’s experimentation combining savory and sweet flavors. Chestnut cookie with foie gras, sauerkraut sushi roll with salmon roe, spiced confit of tomato with Arbusier honey, and caramelized grilled scallops found a permanent place in memory and could each easily become a signature dish. The mains were much weaker overall, but more uniform, without the extreme highs and lows of Gagnaire in Paris. This year, Gagnaire seems to be playing with Middle-Eastern and Asian spices, and the result is not always pleasing. Perhaps next year he will find another passion and his menu will be smoother, but if I do return, I’ll make sure to read carefully other people’s reviews and choose only items mentioned favorably to avoid unpleasant surprises. As to Sketch, based on recent reports, it seems to have become more of a commercial enterprise, just like the building itself, with watered down cuisine to appeal to the widest clientele, and with a chef who spends not enough time with the master to mater his own technique.
  18. Paul, I don’t believe that Gagnaire’s absence was the reason for the inconsistency of this particular dinner, and would be surprised if at an establishment of this magnitude the quality of the meal depended on the presence of the chef. On the other hand, one frequent criticism of Lucas Carton is that Senderens is in the kitchen only once every two weeks(?), resulting in both the lack of spark in new creations and less care in the preparation of the old dishes. (I have to say, however, that my lunch at Lucas Carton this May, comprised solely of its classics, was magnificent.) Going back to your original question, the inconsistencies we observed related to two aspects: 1) the flow of the meal, i.e. the logic of the progression of flavors and tastes and appropriate balance not only within the individual dishes but among them as well; and 2) Gagnaire’s infatuation with unusual spices and ingredients and their application to the traditional French haute cuisine, which seemed on occasion to produce nearly inedible food. These are problems of concept, not execution. I remember 20 years ago I attended a concert performed by Maestro Evgeni Malinin, a known Chopin pianist whom I admired for his unique touch and musical interpretations. Apparently, it was one of those miserable days when the worst fear of every musician materialized, and Malinin simply struggled to remember half of his repertoire right on stage. Of course, his primary goal was then shifted from the high level of logic, musical line, emotional perspective, Chopen-specific sound etc., to the most primitive purpose of “getting back home in one piece.” Occasionally though, the pianist was carried away from his fears, and extraordinary music was born until it would collapse again. These moments were simply not enough to insure my ever again wishing to listen to Malinin on stage. After such a contrast, one has to ask whether the disappointments would be greater than the “return on investment” to proceed with future explorations of Gagnaire’s cuisine. The answer is, of course, strictly personal. ballast_regime, thank you very much.
  19. Formal men’s attire; a cocktail dress and high heels making for an uncomfortable, brisk walk while running slightly late for our dinner appointment; and, finally, the jerky reflection of headlights and the distant rattling of a cab, juddering up the road, stopping swiftly on our hail. A cocker spaniel, napping comfortably on the front seat of the cab, lazily opened one eye, as if expressing her annoyance with a temporary disturbance, only to fall back into the pleasant hue of her dreams under the monotone voice of the provincial-looking young driver, whose enthusiastic manner and rapid speech somewhat contradicted his fine melancholy face, which otherwise expressed reserve and taciturnity. The thought that “Politeness is most acceptable hypocrisy” (Ambrose Bierce) crossed my mind as I watched my consort engage the chatty driver with “oui” and occasionally “oui, oui” whenever his French, limited to only several phrases (“Je ne mange pas pour cinq jours” from Ilf and Petrov’s “Twelve Chairs” being the longest), and his intuition rightfully or wrongly suggested a need for confirmation. I leaned against the window, detaching myself from the amusing absurdity of the situation, feeling a warm vibe of anticipation of the upcoming meal as I recounted the pictures so eloquently transcribed into “poetry” by Francois Simon in “Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry,” which I purchased several weeks before our trip to Paris. “An ingredient does not commit itself immediately. You have to wait for it, catch it,” played in my head as we climbed the steep stairs and entered the restaurant through the relatively narrow and unremarkable door just to the right of the entrance of the Balzac Hotel on rue Balzac near Champs Elysees. “From time to time, it is necessary to slow down, to impose certain serenity. To take an empty space and only fill it with bare necessities.”…And we passed through the gloomy bar area and into the modest, two-level dining room with large, round tables placed at a distance from each other, as if creating a sense of sovereignty for their transient, nightly settlers. The eye lingered from instant to instant, from a striped rug to a light lacquered wood, not caught by any detail, rather considering the whole, which in its bleakness and austerity brought a sense of ever-more-subtly refined substance – compact, gridded and symmetrical – designed for contemplation and ceremony. Each course on Gagnaire’s menu is itself a play of many acts, where the principal ingredient is “acted” in different scenarios and generally presented to the diner somewhat theatrically, in the manner of several small dishes placed on a table all at once, so that the detailed hierarchical presentation of a menu, broken into five sections of Les Entrées, La Mer, La Terre, Les Fromages and Les Desserts, each of which lists the main theme (L’Agneau, for instance) and a meticulous account of all “improvisations” on this topic under it, is quite helpful and serves as a compass among the multitude of plates in front of the diner. I would recommend holding on to the menu during the entire dinner. Following others’ recommendations on the approach to ordering at Gagnaire, we bypassed the chef’s tasting and chose a la carte, which was orchestrated in such a way that any attempt to deep one’s oar into other than his own plate resulted in breaking the rhythm and compromising the palate so that we constrained our efforts to our own choices, to which I’ll limit my description as well. “Amuse whets the appetite without breaking the spell, spoiling it all by being too intrusive, heavy or filling. A prelude should provide the tempo without revealing the score.” …And a profusion of amuses flying in a Mephisto valse, breaking itself into subcategories of bits and bites, confusing and lucid, playful and dull, primitive and exotic, was brought to us in ensemble and separately in, what seemed to be a never-ending narrative. It started slowly, intending to set the mood – a nice refreshment with no intrusion, just a little perk leaving a clear finish on the lips. A small cube of pressed ice shavings, shimmering brightly with its amber color on the white surface of a petite round plate, froze the palate for a moment, as if dispersing any debris of the past lingering in the mouth, only to rupture with a grapefruit tartness softly offset by the clear, subdued aromatic sweetness of passion fruit and fresh figs. Almost buoyant, emboldened by brisk, brazen flavors, this crisp and light amuse was followed by the nearly random juxtaposition of the simultaneously rendered little bites, as foreign to each other in their flavor essences as they were in their roots. Flat sweet-and-salty shortbread sticks; a cigarette-shaped seaweed roll wrapping gently pickled carrot and celery (a variation on the Korean theme?); slightly bitter eggplant caviar in a light, buttery puff pastry (reminiscent of eggplant caponata); a thin caramel sheet sticking to the teeth, the purpose of which remains vague; and a crisp, sweet cone (a la Keller), holding shreds of black radish, all shortly became assertive in their abstractness, for even the refinement of their execution turned immaterial in the modernist context of this cacophonic mix. A fresh breeze came with the next amuse, tomato in a watercress velouté, making a strong, long-awaited statement. The stark, uncompromising visual richness of colors and the geometric proportion of a perfect, burnt-red skinned tomato, “floating” on the surface of a deep-green watercress liquid and appearing to advance toward our eyes while the background of the plate receded, gave a pervasive sense of equilibrium from the balance of color and form. Seasonality is such an important aspect of our dining – encouraging a search for the freshest seasonal ingredients to nourish the palate with what only nature can provide, dismissing farmed, out-of-season products as imposters or mere imitations of works of the real master whose short-lived indulgence is such a treat – that the out-of-season tomato at the center of the dish made our eyebrows raise with suspicion. The tomato was roasted to a point of very concentrated acidity reminiscent of tomato paste, and watercress exposed a pleasant mild bitterness, without the sharp, almost stinging spike of its summer brethren (the pungency of which is more clearly expressed during the hot summer months when the flowers bloom). Yet, when the watercress penetrated each pore of the tomato and the tomato merged its flesh with the liquid, the flavors were unexpectedly transformed to reflect a calm sweetness. Until now, we didn’t understand what made it work, but Gagnaire’s efforts in the area of molecular gastronomy were evident, and this dish would make an excellent case for those defending the use of non-seasonal ingredients in the kitchen. It has become fashionable nowadays to employ theatrical tricks in food presentation: syringes, food transformations in front of the diner’s eyes, peculiar tableware, spoon feeding and other tricks to entertain and amuse trusting patrons, sometimes diverting their attention from the essence of the dish itself with the superficial pursuit. Blumenthal’s spoon feeding arose my dismay; the bonito strips dancing on top of the sea bream, imitating live fins (an effect achieved through temperature contrast) at Gagnaire’s Sketch was entertaining and provoked curiosity, but the strong smoked taste of the tuna was too stark for the delicate fish. Though there were no such extremes during our dinner at Pierre Gagnaire this time, some element of theater was introduced with the next amuse as well. A small, round plate reclining forward, as if standing on its rim, almost perpendicularly to the surface (supported by a porcelain stand from behind), and a small espresso cup attached to the plate in a suspended posture by a magnet, visually defying all rules of gravity and revealing its context to the diner, appeared as a precarious arrangement of awkward and slightly surreal structure. The theme of this amuse was Wagyu beef. The concentrated, dark-brown aspic in the cup, adorned with crunchy dice of black radish, had a rigorous intensity. The cup was crossed by the small spoon, holding a cube of the same savory beef jelly used as a mold to bind meat shreds, which in composition was reminiscent of a Russian rural dish, “cholodetz,” the recipe of which calls for boiling beef leg for no less than six hours (which process also produces enough gelatin for the aspic), after it’s been soaked in cold water overnight, preserving the liquid and shredding the meat into thin strips, which are later covered with the preserved stock and refrigerated until the texture turns gelatinous. The elegant presentation of this rustic dish could hardly dilute its strong flavors, making us wonder about the next course and its ability to clear the remains of the overpowering taste. When the mélange of raw bits of clam, mackerel, haddock, mango and blood orange –the bright colors of which were freshly caught in a small cup, as if by chance, between unthinking brush strokes, like luminous paradoxes of reflected radiance – appeared before us, we couldn’t hide our surprise. Indeed, it was sad to see all the elaboratness and meticulous presentation to be lost on the palate, which was blinded by the lingering beef debris. However, if the purpose of this amuse was to clear the palate, it certainly performed its purging function well, as its acutely biting wasabi sauce washed away all flavors, including those which it accompanied – a pretty but discordant amuse with an amusing placement on the menu. Any expectations of a bridge between the present and the future, a dish that would play a role of viaduct making a logical connection for the palate to smoothly plunge into the next, more expressive chapter of the dinner, were failed with the last amuse featuring a rectangular lasagna sheet imprinted with green, herbal patterns of fish scales, blanketing smoked haddock mousse, dusted with egg yolk and topped with salmon roe. The tender lasagna, of a perfect execution, offset the strong, fishy (but not unpleasant) taste of the smooth mousse (somewhat like an improved version of Zabar’s whitefish salad) making a brawny conclusion to the amuse saga. This perfectly fine amuse, however, required a thorough mouth wash before the next set of langoustine dishes could be appreciated. May is the beginning of the season for Brittany langoustines, which generally continues through summer, and the chance to see how Gagnaire’s imagination embraced these delicate creatures in his cuisine was too tempting to forego. Les Langoustines Tartare de langoustine, jus de pomme verte et navet blanc croquant. Considering that there is a general perception of langoustines being more interesting cooked and that their raw representation may lack the expressive sweetness for which they are praised, so that even Gagnaire admitted that “deep-frying brings out its [langoustine’s] true personality. The constant even temperature reveals its inner character,” I was curious to try this dish. A raw, plump and meaty langoustine, sprinkled with confetti of tiny bits of zucchini and crunchy raw apple, cradled on the plate as if in submission, was wrapped in a thin veil of translucent, green apple broth, slightly viscous and frothed, creating a placid rhythm of tranquility and meditation. The gentle flavors of the langoustine, light and puffy, establishing a pervasive presence of its own against the background of the slightly sour, fresh and earthy mildness of the apple sauce, aided by the unobtrusive sweetness and crunchiness from the thin caramel nougatine encrusted with filberts, and the overall calmness of the dish, despite its unusual flavor collage, made the langoustine entrance very pleasant. Turnip was not utilized in this dish contrary to the menu description and was replaced by the nougatine. Grillée, vinaigre réduit au thym argent et nougatine. The dish of grilled langoustines presented on two wooden skewers in a sweet, slightly viscous and overpowering balsamic vinegar reduction with a strong thyme overtone wouldn’t have registered in memory if not for the small square of pressed bean purée accompanying the dish. The purée lent such a gently sweet flavor that it slightly resembled a parsnip purée, though somewhat denser and more velvety. The Tarbais beans utilized in this dish – a highly praised species cultivated in southwestern France and named for the city of Tarbes, to which its bishop first introduced this crop after his trip to Spain in the early 18th century – contained enough natural sweetness to require no additional manipulation to achieve this extraordinary taste. (Nougatine was not used in this dish.) Poêlée “Terre de Sienne,” lentilles vertes du Puy et jeunes courgettes. Gagnaire’s passion seemed to lie along Moroccan /Mediterranean route in this awkward dish. Gently sautéed langoustine, heavily coated in a thick, sweet, burnt-red-orange “Terre de Sienne” sauce, which, according to the wait staff, was based on a Moroccan spice, was served separately from the French green lentils profoundly spiced with curry. Perhaps his utilization of spices could be praised for extending the horizon of traditional French haute cuisine, but the dominant sauces relegated both the lentils – grown in the volcanic soils of the Auvergne town of Le Puy and having a subtle, rich and earthy flavor – and delicate langoustine to a secondary role of a textural buffer behind the strong spice. Excellent, but wasted ingredients behind inappropriate saucing was my verdict. Bouillon glacé, bavaroise cendrée de caroube. Bouillon glacé, which echoed the beef aspic appetizer with a different main ingredient, was of a dark-brown color, had a very concentrated langoustine flavor and was topped by a langoustine mousse. Though interesting, this dish was not memorable, and the taste of aspic became somewhat tiring. Mousseline, beurre fondue à la melisse. Sweet langoustine on a pillow of intense langoustine mousseline in the crater of the deep, white plate was engulfed by a wash of pale-yellow, frothy butter sauce with gentle, sour notes of lemon grass, sparked by tiny green bits of zucchini. Harsh flavor contrast was not at the center of this dish, every element of which bore different nuances – concentrated and light, bright and subtle – of the langoustine taste against different textural backgrounds. Sometimes – with a little spark of imagination, a tribute to an ingredient that doesn’t take up the space but rather blends with its surroundings unobtrusively, innocently – a dish can acquire an unexpected glamour. The red raspberry sauce, making curved pirouettes on the butter foam blended into the swirling background as if caught in mid-step of its stylish dance, merging the sweetness of the sea and earth, elevated the dish to a considerable grace. In his book, Gagnaire describes a langoustine mousseline dish seasoned with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture. Based on my reaction to the poêlée “Tierre de Sienne,” I was glad this version was not what I was served. Le Turbot Tronçon de gros turbot de ligne rôti-poché dans un beurre mousseux à la maniguette; pok choy, nashi et pointes d’asperges du Pertuis. Une sauce crémeuse au Mac Vin. Waking from the inertia of tailored existence, which breeds apathy from the opiate distractions of modern technology, i.e. television, and promotes gradual decay as the ultimate ideal of bliss, generally opens new choices for one to bring, if nothing else, a slight thrill to his existence. The “place of birth,” however, is something given to him outside of his choice. I wonder occasionally whether I’d be willing to trade some of the dear moments of my youth – watching a candlelight flicker anxiously, distracted from its route by the gentle blow of our breath when reading Gumilev and Akhmatova aloud; the stage anxiety before a performance; the fervent arguments on Wagner; the idealistic rambling on Jean-Jacques Rousseau etc., etc., etc. – for another chance at life on another continent, and I concede that perhaps I’d still be able to live through all these experiences somewhere else, yet, what I would certainly lack is the ability to have a magnificent Black Sea turbot an hour from its being caught in the sunny city Odessa in Ukraine. Indeed, turbot is a European fish, and since it doesn’t seem to retain its extraordinary delicate taste and texture after being kept in a frozen state, turning dull and uninteresting, it became a subject of continuing disappointment in U.S. restaurants over the years, so that I finally found a way out of my relationship with the fish, using a standard it-is-not-you-it-is-me approach, accepting the premise that it could’ve been just I whose tastes changed, though the fish was quite acceptable according to local standards. It took me a trip to Paris to realize that the frozen specimen of turbot served in the U.S. is indeed of a much inferior quality, and the fresh version is as magnificent as I remembered it. (Please mind that Black Sea turbot is a slightly different species from Brittany turbot, despite their similarities.) The month of May and the first two weeks in June are the peak season for wild turbot in Brittany, and the fish is certainly a treat not to be missed. When a plate with two overlapping large chunks of turbot on slightly wilted bok choy mixed with crispy asparagus tips was presented, I made a note that the piece served at Arpège the other night must’ve come from a much smaller fish whose flesh was softer and slightly sweeter without the density and robust flavors of the more mature specimen. Large turbot feeds heavily on larger fish, which changes its intrinsic taste and texture, and is sometimes more desirable due to the extra frills – the fatty meat around the edge of the fish, which Gagnaire utilized in the next course. I was thrilled to try two different versions of turbot within a period of several days, and personally preferred Passard’s interpretation; however, the dish served at Gagnaire was no less glorious. Paprika with turbot, a classic combination, is far from novel, but these red flakes glittering in the foamed cream sauce (served on the side and which you had to pour on top of the fish on your own), only slightly offset by the white wine’s acidity, were larger and lent a slight spiciness with a soft jasmine illusion, emphasizing the mild fish by its silent dissonance and adding spontaneity to the whole composition. The exotic tang of ginger and cardamom, released by that same melegueta pepper – a tropical African spice practically unknown in modern Western cuisine, though utilized extensively during the reign of Elizabeth I – didn’t conceal the strong classical motif of the dish, evoking that which has gone by – a past. In retrospect, how I wish that this wonderful dish had been the logical conclusion of the Gagnaire “tour!” Le gras du poisson enrobé d’une fine polenta au curry de Madras. In a deep white bowl, several fatty turbot strips, coated with finely chopped chives and occasional bits of red onion, wrestled in a mud of slimy polenta, heavily spiced with Madras curry and the same African melegueta pepper and cooked just enough to coat the back of a spoon, but not to form a solid substance, like a watery mousse, the smoothness of which was broken by the tiny corn meal grains screeching on your teeth like sand. I have never seen such a fine ingredient be disrespected in such a direct, uncompromising manner. “Try this,” I asked my consort without providing him with any indication of my own reaction to the dish. “Do you think Gagnaire even tasted this dish before placing it on the menu?” he replied. This was probably the strongest conviction one could give to the dish and the chef. Gagnaire may have used a second-grade day-old shrimp for that matter, and it would’ve not made any difference as the polenta would’ve drowned any ingredient with its straightforward, strong taste and slimy texture. A thought that perhaps I should send it back crossed my mind, but the problem seemed to lie in the composition of the dish, not its execution. I quickly rescued the magnificent turbot strips, and left the polenta nearly untouched. A palate-refreshing bok choy, lightly cooked in butter and freshened by thin slices of raw Japanese pear (nashi) completed main courses and was the last dish before the desserts. I became a fan of Gagnaire’s desserts after visiting his Sketch Parlour in London, and still retain an opinion that Gagnaire’s desserts are most provocative, invigorating and exciting. Hermé, whose desserts I found overly sweet – an opinion unexpectedly confirmed by several new Parisian friends we made during our stay, who indicated that Hermé is popular predominantly among foreigners and less attractive to locals due to the sugar over utilization – was left far behind after the tour de force of the “Le Grand Dessert De Pierre Gagnaire” consisting of 8 courses. We were quite full at the time, and my consort respectfully declined the last course. You should’ve seen how many times a little extra spoon, brought by our thoughtful server, despite my husband’s objections, plunged into my plate! I will not describe desserts in detail in this post, but will continue with my overall observations on the meal at Gagnaire. I was stunned to observe how inconsistent our one meal was, ranging from ecstatic to unbearable. Perhaps, however, a pattern can be traced if the meal is viewed from the perspective of predefined criteria: ingredients, technique, imagination and artistry, balance, and flow. Along with the excellence of the ingredients and Gagnaire’s superior technique, there is a profound desire to “procrastinate,” to put off the day when every experience will seem to have been expressed. He mocks the pretension of the rigid past, without completely dismissing it, improvising, making sense of it with rules and laws that depend entirely upon a human perspective: not of a single system of perspective, but alternative ones, suggesting ways in which they overlap or intersect with totally different kinds of order or structure of ingredients and techniques. He uses perspective in a way that at a first glance disturbs rather than codifies patterns of tradition. A world of this magnitude, whose boundaries seem to have been marked out by instants of experience (Gagnaire’s spontaneous improvisations and fruitfulness are well known) and whose outlines are marked by unexpected encounters, cannot be reduced to any map: This is the most admirable quality of the chef. However, the tension between form and content that makes all creation possible should communicate itself through purpose, which, during our meal, in some instances was quite difficult to identify, inevitably leading us to assume that this particular dish was placed on the menu because “he could”; that another dish was created with an outrageous combination of ingredients or preparation, which clearly tasted vulgar, because “he could.” Where is the minimalism that Gagnaire praises in his book, “Minimalist cooking with the justification of every ingredient on the plate”? The Le gras du poisson dish could not be accepted even by the most tolerant diner. Where is “this caring respect for the ingredient”? The erratic inconsistency among the dishes and the eccentric flow of the meal, specifically the amuses, were the expression of a highly subjective thought process, and we couldn’t easily make judgments about the logic of what was expressed. I would’ve been ecstatic to have the tomato amuse, tartare de langoustine and Mousseline/beurre fondue à la melisse appetizers, and the gros turbot de ligne rôti-poché main, which would’ve been the most invigorating experience without the disturbances of less interesting dishes, but sadly, our actual meal was reduced to a mere “good,” with no desire to rush back. Gagnaire was not in the kitchen that day.
  20. Robert, Thank you very much for your warm and encouraging words. Some diners, who have experienced Passard’s cuisine over the years contend that it currently suffers compared to what he served before changing course to concentrate on vegetables and exclude red meat. What is your take on this? Would you be able to share your impressions on the signature sweet-and-sour lobster dish? This dish was somewhat of a disappointment during our dinner and seemed to be slightly out of context with other less aggressive dishes on the tasting menu. I’d like to see whether it is worth giving another try. I’ll attempt to put together a post on Gagnaire first since he doesn’t allow photography, and some less remarkable dishes have started fading from my memory. Unfortunately, my current workload may extend the time of finishing it indefinitely. manresa, Tony thank you.
  21. “Bonjour, I’ll be away in Paris for the next two weeks. Please leave a message …,” I heard the animatedly thrilling voice of my daughter (recording a greeting message on her cell phone) mingled with the noise of the impatient crowd, airport announcements, falling bags and the screeching, mechanical sound of the luggage carts. An innocent, sweet face with the gentle, seraphic smile of a child was gazing up at us from her passport as the airport clerk firmly moved her finger across the expiration date and almost whispered: “I’m sorry; your daughter’s passport has expired.” There was an exasperated raising of the eyes, and as if emancipated from his courtly discipline, my husband relaxed his controlled face in the beginnings of an anxious half-smile, faintly showing amusement at the preposterous difficulties of the circumstances. Reaching a conversational impasse, we asked the next logical question, whether anything could be done, but the immaculate, impassive clerk pursed her lips and shook her head over the prospects of our situation so that even my husband’s ability to see two sides to any question resulted in nothing but the darkest of pessimism. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- The smell of stale smoke, impregnating some corners of the Charles de Gaulle airport; cheerful Pedro, a taxi driver of Spanish descent with marvelous, dark, wavy hair, rotten teeth and a hefty bare belly peeping out of a tight shirt; the lovely hotel, built around 1817, in the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés on the cozy Rue des Saint-Pères and a charming receptionist – her face permanently illuminated with Buddhistic peace, who seemed to be without a care in the world; the hotel’s delightful Monet-like Jardin with a small pond and four goldfish burping air bubbles that rushed to the water’s surface, and the calming sound of a tiny fountain we could fall asleep listening to from our relatively large room on the first floor, furnished with plain, sober, but good taste. “There will be no problem…. We can switch your dinner from Tuesday [the day we had to meet our delayed daughter] to Monday,” a polite voice replied on the phone, to our sincere surprise, as we made our original reservation two months in advance. At 8:30 p.m. sharp, we evocated the taxi, with the cab driver leaning forward to catch a glimpse of the restaurant he claimed he never heard of before, and were the first ones to enter a relatively small, deceivingly minimalist room with a young, perky hostess walking briskly while taking us downstairs to the basement level of the restaurant. If inexplicably affected by a stroke of imagination you ever contemplate on having an haute meal in a confined environment, here is your chance to enjoy a wine-cellar-like, windowless chamber – a modernized, underground dungeon, polished slightly to acquire a more acceptable appeal, with white brick walls and low vault ceiling – that would compete with the Bastille’s dungeons in architecture and décor if not for the lovely wooden Lalique panel at the back of the room, spacious round tables, and the lack of tiny squint holes to allow viewing of the prisoners. 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. Watching the color returning to my consort’s face, I finally relaxed and took a closer look around. A small, contemporary room, with a relatively low ceiling, requires concomitant simplicity, minimal intervention to produce a desirable visual affect with a grain of sophistication. Any expensive, complicated intrusion, even in small details, results in the impression of unsupportable compressed mass lacking in air. Otherwise interesting hand-crafted Lalique glass art work, depicting encrusted trios of the beautiful, graceful images of dancing women and men were inserted in the wooden paneling that blanketed the wall, opposite the entrance, to within several feet of the ceiling, and cut the corners of each wall with curved shapes, thereby suggesting a conflict between their circulatory logic and the symmetrical layout of the original Classical rectangular structure of the room. This roundness and the decorative adornment on the ceiling, mimicking the curves of the panels, took away precious space, and a gorgeous split violin sculpture by Arman was too large for its location and broke up the central focus, disintegrating concentration on the whole space, replacing it with what looked like a peripheral dispersion of incidentals. The total impression of the décor was that of dismembered fragments, which was quite contrary to chef Passard’s cuisine… but one thing at a time. Bretons like their butter salty. A generous portion of a tall, trapezoidal mountain of golden-yellow butter from Saint-Malo, epitomizing the essence of the rustic, rural spirit, was placed in front of us along with roughly cut, warm slices of pain au levain as if contradicting every notion of sophistication or elaboration that Passard’s cuisine offers, with its bold, direct statement. The rich butter, intensely saturated with sel de Guérande – that same famous gray sea salt from the Brittany coast, harvested manually from mid-June to mid-September by paludiers – looked almost porous and flaky and was more intensely salted on the edges than inside its gentler belly. The bombarding flavors of buttery salt and yeast almost blinded our taste buds so that if not for the detoxifying amuse, two tiny pâte brisée tartelettes – one filled with undressed baby greens, a thin round of radish and a sprinkle of edible flowers for color, with no particular taste other than the taste of Spring and freshness, and the other filled with soft, downy, and rather light whipped parsley butter, with the accent on the buttery pastry shell which was crumbling, delicate and slightly salty, encompassing the filling nicely – the first course, the signature L’oeuf, poached egg with maple syrup and cherry vinegar, with all its delicacy and subtlety, would’ve been lost. There was no mound of coarse salt serving as a decorative pedestal allowing the eggshell to show off. There was no “bonnet” made of luxury ingredients topping the egg to visually smooth the edges of the decapitated shell. The small, brown egg (from a little Loire village called Bigottière) was displayed in a purposefully dispassionate, unsentimental way, plainly, in a graceful setting (in a silver eggcup on a small red-rimmed plate placed on top of a matching larger plate), immobile and vulnerable, lacking any external adornment, with minimal intervention to its exterior only to surprise the palate when its lightly warm contents, filling about three quarters of the shell, was finally revealed. The word “poached” applied only to the yolk, which, separated from the discarded white, was very lightly poached for several minutes, maintaining its liquid, viscous nature only to be bound to the inside of the shell by the “glue” of its slightly firmer rim. The unseasoned yolk, embellished with one tiny ring of chive, was hidden on the bottom of the shell under a fluffy blanket of exceptionally airy and bubbly cream, whipped so lightly that there was just enough firmness for it to support a one-stroke splash of Canadian maple syrup thinned with a drop of cherry vinegar for contrast, subduing the syrup’s sugariness. The sweet notes, which were extremely delicate and added a focus to the natural sweetness of the cream, were completely absorbed by the more powerful, chive-sparked yolk, while diluting the yolk’s intensity, as the contents of the shell finally mingled together, giving the dish a different body and taste. There were no more than three small spoonfuls to what seemed to be a simple dish, but it truly brought one to a moment of almost spiritual reverie in the face of the exceptional balance. 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. Collection legumière (automne-hiver). Betterave rouge au sel gris de Guérande (aceto balsamico tradizionale 25 ans d'âge) If I were ever to prove that minimalism — the use of simple geometric forms on the plate with simple ingredients, the modular principle, addition rather than composition, the rejection of element-based hierarchies, which negate any character of hand-made dependencies — can deliver, despite its apparent simplicity, complex tastes and flavors, then this signature dish would be the best representation of the style. Rough skin, carved off the quartered slice of beet, like a surfboard holding the unsteady, burgundy-red pulp positioned on the skin diagonally and appearing at turns realistic and almost abstract with its plump, meaty body showing off its bulging veins, and a thick, rich balsamic vinegar poured at the table, carving a wake in a static composition, were arranged in a precise configuration of bold relief against the shallow background of the plate. The beet was baked for about an hour(?) at high temperature inside a pyramid of coarse, gray Guérande salt, in a strictly controlled environment, where any unattended detail could’ve spoiled the dish (e.g. excessive heat around the sides of the beet would force it to release juices and absorb more salt than intended). The weather must’ve been cool and favorable to produce this superior quality beet, which was accentuated by the cooking technique, allowing the dark internal flesh to preserve its gentle crunch and bring out the extraordinary sweetness, and the tasty, firm, taut skin, with salty crust, to provide a beautiful contrast. The 25-year old balsamic vinegar, with its dark-brown color, full of warmth, and a thick consistency, lent a complex aroma of wood and grapes, and the nose was attacked by vanilla and ripe fruit with perfectly proportioned sweet and sour tastes complementing the pulp and offsetting the skin of the beet wonderfully, wrapping the sugary taste of the pulp with fruity sweetness and accentuating the earthiness of the skin. Passard, who keeps his own two-hectare farm in Sarthe, supplies Arpège with fresh vegetables delivered to Paris by TGV on a daily basis. This simple, unpretentious dish, with direct contrasts, which hardly provokes one’s imagination, left an indelible mark as one of the most unforgettable dishes on our trip, which included meals at Pierre Gaignaire, Lucas Carton, L’Ambroisie, Les Ambassadeurs, L’Astrance, l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon… Homard des îles Chausey au mile d’acacia (radis noir). Very thinly cut, large rounds of black radish, resembling membranes, alabaster skins transparent enough to reveal spider-web patterns on their snow-white petals adorned with a thin, black ribbon, covered precious, lavishly pink chunks of lobster sprinkled(?) with rosemary. A lightly viscous emulsion of cherry vinegar mixed with acacia honey, not thick enough to stay on top of the composition “mountain,” ran down the hill, wetting the radish, leaving pale-beige trails and collecting into puddles on the surface of the plate. Two small branches of dill and flakes of black pepper, added at the table at the last moment, completed the composition. This was yet another signature dish, proclaimed to be “one of the best” by nearly all guides recommending Arpège, and which served as an inspiration for other chefs to launch their own experiments with sweet-and-sour blends. The gently sweet and extravagant notes penetrated every taste bud bathing each corner of the mouth with exotic and smooth flavor with a flowery perfume traveling all the way up the nose only to strike the back of the throat with a sharp vinegary acidity so abruptly that an extra gasp of air was required to catch one’s breath. The sauce was unbalanced, too stark, drowning the tender, slightly briny and truly excellent lobster meat in its sharpness. The black radish, soggy and very pungent, didn’t seem to help either. I am familiar with black radish, known mostly in Eastern Europe and utilized extensively in salads, very well. Its flesh is generally crisp and slightly drier than that of other radishes, which could be preferable, if not for the mood-swings in taste this root vegetable exhibits, which can vary from relatively mild and pleasant to very strong, pungent and sharp. One way to tame it is by first salting and rinsing the radish or blanching it; however, either method, if overdone, may result in soggy petals, which is exactly what happened to the specimen I was served. It seemed that the radish was blanched for too long, to alleviate its peppery starkness, and lost its crunchiness, subsiding like a withering flower, chewy and lacking a fresh crunch. Having taste for pedantry, I wasn’t satisfied with my impressions of this dish, considering its reputation, and launched a search for a possible picture or another more detailed description to compare with the version served on our visit. Luckily, I came across an excellent picture, which may prove the version of the dish I tasted to be if not inferior then at least different. Our version. Other version. In this picture, the sauce looks to be thicker, indicating more generous utilization of honey or less vinegar, and the turnip petals, though of a different type, are perky and crisp, keeping the sauce in place on top of the hill, and apparently providing a crunch which should complement the tender lobster meat. I may give this dish another try the next time I’m in Paris. Coquillage de la cote d’Emeraude (parfum d’epices et d’herbes fines) One bite of scallop, and I rushed to clear my palate with water from the strong flavor left by the previous dish still lingering in my mouth, subduing the delicacy of the superb scallops and blocking the appreciation of the current dish, as neither the scallops, nor the vegetables accompanying them, with all their brightness of taste, were strong enough to compete with the previous vinegar/honey composition. At this point, we thought a small delight of a palate cleanser would be desirable to ensure natural progression of courses. Two scallops, on a cloth of slightly wilted cabbage, unattached scallop roe, fried bay leaf, caramelized large, elongated onion with its skin on (Passard doesn’t waste any part of his vegetables), and thick parsley purée were rendered on a plate plainly, without excessive liberties and elaborate chiaroscuro effects, though with a certain theatricality to all elements, which although few in number and visually simple in form, were artfully arranged in an ordered manner celebrating the prosperity of nature and representing a carefully modeled still life that reclaimed energy through their perfect technical rendition and complex relationships of flavors. This dish was simply fantastic! The middle of May (the time of our dinner) was supposed to be the end of the scallop season in the Emerald Coast in Brittany, but not just yet, as the chilly weather prevented scallops from spawning, when they lose their firmness and other sublime characteristics. Scallops, being a sedentary species, are not able to migrate like other fish to a location favorable for spawning in response to the yearly variation in water conditions. Their only response to cooler temperatures is tuning their reproductive schedule, which can even lead to the failure to spawn in a given season. Fortunately, we had an opportunity to sample scallops in all their glory: springy but not tough, tender but very dense and meaty with enduring texture so that a slight chewing effort was required, extending the pleasure of lingering sweet juices inside the mouth. The medium-sized scallops had a lemony, brown crust, and their caramelized, slightly nutty-flavored exterior wonderfully enhanced their natural sweetness. The pink roe, condensed and plump, briny with a distinctive taste, was good, and the utilization of it in the dish indicated the freshness of the scallops, since scallop roe is very perishable and is usually discarded. The surprise, however, was still ahead. Gagnaire teaches you everything about fish and meat without wasting any giblets. Passard shows you everything about every vegetable and herb without dismissing any of them as inedible, opening up a whole new world of tastes and flavors closed to our consciousness by our stubborn preconceptions. This is not mere extravagance to write a contemporary book of innovations or hunt for fame; they are excellent discoveries with sublime execution. Bay leaf. Who could’ve thought that this herb, used primarily in bouquet garni to give flavor to soups and gravies and always discarded at the end, could taste so good! Crunchy, intensely salty, bursting with strong flavors of mint and piquant bitterness, tickling your mouth with a ripple of herbal mist evoking the spirit of spring, the bay leaf wrapped the scallops with its earthy intensity without disturbing their briny sweetness. Don’t be bashful: crunch on the deep-fried bay leaf to add a bitter spike; splash the unseasoned, but intensely grassy parsley purée on the scallop to offset the bitterness of the leaf; take a bite of the sweet caramelized onion and its crunchy skin (cooked for five hours on top of the stove!); and enjoy the merged flavors of both worlds – earth and sea – coming together in the most unexpected tunes. This dish was inspirational in its mathematical precision where no element was excessive and there was nothing one would contemplate adding. “You look a little bit like Chef ‘s grandmother,” said Laurent Lapaire, Maître d', looking at me somewhat intently with a faint smile and a twinkle in his eye, while placing Turbot sauvage au naturel (emulsion de savagnin) in front of us. I haven’t noticed the large picture of the chef’s grandmother hanging on the wall to the right upon entering the restaurant, and since the view of the picture was blocked from my sight, my dismay from the thought of being compared to a “grandmother” apparently was expressive enough for M. Lapaire to realize that the intended compliment had not produced the desired effect, and he quickly retired. “How does his grandmother look?” I asked my consort, somewhat puzzled, (after a short pause after M. Lapaire retreated) hoping that he had a better view of the picture from where he sat. “Darling, I can assure you that every second woman in this room ‘looks like the chef’s grandmother’,” he responded laughing while patting my hand lovingly, with no intent to insult Passard’s grandmother but to console my fears. Meanwhile, still under the influence of the recent incident, I took a piece of turbot in my mouth almost mechanically, only to break away from the world of tangible thoughts into the euphoria of the astounding balance. The schematic simplicity of the presentation – a fantastic piece of tender turbot with a slightly woody flavor, quickly browned on a hot grill and then cooked slowly on top of the stove for two hours; one long branch of crispy asparagus, sprinkled with fleur de sel; velvety parsnip purée, gently sweet and fluffy, complementing the buttery taste of the fish wonderfully; a pile of tiny fresh chive rings, placed on the side; and a Savagnin emulsion, with the distinct flavor of fumet delicately balanced by the placid acidity of yellow wine and adorned with a thin stroke of asparagus sauce – created such compactness and clarity of taste that its quiet dynamic quality and expressiveness went far beyond the idea of “least is most” and the minimalist vocabulary here became part of a more complex context. There was a certain aesthetic sensitivity, elegance, and natural link between the woody, supple, sinuous flavor of the fish and the bounding sauce – made of vin jaune (yellow wine) from Jura region (the same sauce is served in the signature lobster dish) with a delicate, nutty richness binding all subtle flavors together – that elevated the dish to a work of art. This is the dish that changes one’s idea of perfection and balance, setting an unsurpassed example and lifting the bar of one’s expectations to a new level. This is the dish that is carried through all other experiences and years to be remembered, and this was certainly the dish of our evening. It was stifling hot and stuffy inside the restaurant, as if the room had absorbed the fumes breathed out by the flickering, long, skinny candles, suffocating the inhabitants of the building. Even an open door didn’t let in the fresh, cool air, but rather let the building belch the oppressive heat out. A woman at the table behind us weakly hailed a waiter and was taken for rehabilitation outside, my consort finally released his neck from the oppressive tie and blew out the candle on our table, and I was just right, ready for the next course. With a little stretch, Passard’s tasting could be compared to the standard musical sonata form, with its three distinct sections comprised of exposition, with a closing codetta ending in presto and on fortissimo (lobster in a sweet-and-sour sauce), which might be a pleasing contrast to the next moderato section for the ear, but numbs the palate, as it doesn’t seem to be able to recover as quickly as the ear; development, expanding and further exploring the world of herbs, vegetables, and sea; and reprise, in this case Volaille de pâturage poelée au sésame noir et soja (aceto balsamico tradizionale 25 ans d’age) , with almost every vegetable introduced during the meal collected on one plate, though presented in different preparations and arrangements – two delightful, tiny, fried ravioli, treasuring very peppery confit of onion under their crunchy but extremely delicate skins; caramelized round onion, fully dressed in its crunchy skin, reminiscent of the onion in the earlier dish but of a different variety; fried sage, sprinkled with coarse salt, crispy and bitter, echoing the fried bay leaf; a slice of a pseudo-Pissaladiere with no crust, made of turnip and red beet; and a deceivingly beautiful chive flower, fried just long enough to bring out its concentrated flavor, first biting your tongue with garlic sharpness and later with onion/chive bitterness. However, what would’ve been a logical and expected recapitulation in music didn’t seem to be as pleasing to the palate. The dish lacked a surprise element that could’ve brought new, revitalizing flavors at the end, and even though the vegetables were done superbly, a sense of déjà vu and fatigue from the repetitive theme couldn’t have passed unnoticed. The chicken didn’t help either. Cooked for two and a half hours on top of the stove on a very low heat in almost no liquid, the chicken, though not tough, wasn’t moist and was somewhat flavorless. It was as if the chicken wasn’t cooked enough for the meat to break down after it toughened, which generally happens somewhere in the middle of a slow cooking process, and regain moisture, tenderness and concentrated flavor. We were then served a plate of cheeses from Bernard Antony: Saint Nectaire fermier ( cow’s milk from Auvergne, appearing first during the reign of Louis XIV, with a very distinctive rotten smell and nutty, spicy taste revealing a slight acidity as it melted in the mouth); Valençay (goat’s milk from the province of Berry, the cheese that was originally shaped like a perfect pyramid and was deformed by the sword of Napoleon, who stopped at Valençay castle after his fiasco in Egypt and became upset seeing a cheese in the shape of the Egyptian pyramids); Brebis Corse (sheep’s milk from Corsica); Brillat-Savarin (cow’s milk triple cream); Persillé de la Tarentaise (goat’s milk from the Tarentaise area of Savoie, with the very acidic tang of a young goat cheese, usually aged one-and-a-half months or less.); and Abondance (cow’s milk hard cheese from Haute Savoie, with a nice, complex flavor and a balance of sweetness and light acidity). After a pre-dessert refreshment of blood orange soup with floating droplets of argan oil, which scratched the back of the throat with its dry bitterness until mixed thoroughly with the soup, we finally reached the coda of our dinner and a cart, with a pan in which two medium-sized red tomatoes were bathing in bubbling caramel, was rolled to our table. Perhaps when Passard first introduced this signature dessert, even the concept of using anything other than conventional fruits and limited herbs in desserts was revolutionary. However, as time went by and other chefs stepped over the boundaries of tradition, matching vegetables (beet, red pepper), herbs (paprika) and even bacon with sugar, Passard’s tomato dessert began to appear ordinary, in my opinion. In the version we were served, the tomato flavor seemed to have evaporated from the skinned tomato, after being cooked on the stove for two and a half hours and constantly basted in caramel. It was further subdued by the cloying sweetness of the dry fruit mélange and strong spices (clove, cinnamon, ginger etc.) with which it was stuffed, losing its identity and giving the dessert a Middle Eastern overtone. It seemed that the ripeness and the natural fruitiness of the tomato were not central (indeed, the signature tomato soup with mustard ice-cream was not on the menu, as this was not tomato season), and only its body, with its soft flesh, was used as a container to hold other ingredients. A mint-liquor ice cream slightly offset the cloying sweetness of the dessert, but I am afraid my high expectations were not met. Around 450 euros was the price per person. I don’t think that such a price is unacceptable since people’s willingness to pay is and should be the only justification of cost in a market-driven society. However, from an objective perspective and in comparison to other similarly rated establishments, the ambience, service and even some ingredients or their rendition at Arpège suffered. Therefore, the question still remains why people are willing to patronize Arpège and pay such high prices. Is it a mere reflection of hype or a combination of overexcitement and energy-of-the-crowd syndrome? Is it that their hopes to achieve high standing among “knowledgeable diners” forces people to sponsor Arpège year after year and therefore continue encouraging Passard to keep prices up, which otherwise would never be acceptable? When “connoisseurs” admire the “skill” and enjoy the “quality of cuisine,” and the vulgar herd pronounces the food “nice” or “splendid,” but hungry souls leave unfulfilled, the art becomes art for art’s sake. The neglect of inner meanings, the lack of passion and rhythm, this vain squandering of artistic power is called art for art’s sake. The artist seeks material reward for his dexterity, his power of vision and experience, and his purpose becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed. The question “what?” disappears; only the question “how?” remains. There are chefs who seek only some new technique, and produce, without enthusiasm, with hearts cold and souls asleep, technically proficient dishes with no life. Yet, Passard’s emotional power overwhelms the “how?” and gives free rein to his finer expression of a clear minimalist form, as if concentrating on the complexity of the inner beautify of one object instead of its relationship with the rest of the world. When his passion is engaged, Passard is a virtuosic performer, and his dishes, taking on greater complexity and exuberance, are simply transcendent -- alive, breathing, and passionate in their austere, but nonetheless elegant, rendition. When he is bored, a dull chicken will creep into the world of balance and fervor. You pay for hours and hours of careful cooking, requiring constant attention to every detail, allowing no mistakes. It is a huge responsibility, and no wonder that not many followed in Passard’s footsteps, as there is nowhere to hide a mediocre performance with such a minimalist art – straightforward, precise, with an extraordinary balance of flavors. The risk is too high and a special touch, patience and passion are required to achieve such mastery. This uniqueness or the lack of competition is what you pay for. As long as Passard does not rest on his laurels at the expense of excellence and innovation, it may well be, in my opinion, worth paying the price he commands.
  22. lxt

    Bouley

    Stone, I suppose I should've added "...what looks beautiful on the surface [and tastes so good] is more often than not born in sweat, hard work, hot air [and sometimes dirt.]" This is a variation on the dish we ordered, except ours came with halved red grapes and little else. The waiter told us the rhubarb was "in the sauce" and offered to bring us some extra rhubarb "on the side." When we told him there was no rhubarb in the dish, he disappeared to the kitchen, then came back to tell us we were right, that the ingredients did not meet the chef's "quality standards" and a substitution was made. Well, it was nice of them to tell us after we brought it to their attention. The man at the table next to us had the same dish and didn't notice the mistake; I suppose it was assumed we wouldn't either. I believe that changing dish elements on the fly, when the quality of the ingredients listed on the menu do not correspond to the chef’s standards, is common. Moreover, I’d warry to visit a restaurant that is willing to sacrifice the quality of the product only to adhere to the menu or due to a restaurant’s inability to change the printed version of the menu on time. I would probably be displeased that the service staff wasn’t aware of the replacement, but I would not consider the replacement itself or the lack of its description on the menu to be a mistake, nor would the service staff’s unawareness dramatically affect my enjoyment if the dish otherwise fulfills my expectations. In the end, the question always lies in whether you were satisfied, and whether the replacement was well balanced and played along with all the elements on the plate. If the dish succeeds after the alteration, extra points go to the chef for creativity, in my book.
  23. lxt

    Bouley

    Bouley treated me in a chameleon-like fashion in the past with wild “mood swings” that either charmed with unexpectedly marvelous delights or distressed with dishes that diverged in directions barely perceived acceptable. To our surprise, our average expectations this time were not met, and the dinner left a mark as one of the most enjoyable meals of this year. There is a common expression in Russian, describing early autumn, “babie leto” (translated as “women’s summer”). Indeed, the tantalizing smell of apples, taking me aback every time I enter Bouley’s small foyer, welcoming and warm, rustic and sophisticated at the same time, reminds me of Balzac’s favorite women of grace and elegance yet also the comfort and confidence of their life experience, with naturally rosy tints on their pallid faces from the excitement of cotillons past, and eyes kindled by the knowledge of love and pleasures of life just like the sight and scent of perfect autumn apples. It puts one in an appreciative mood and forces him to halt for more of this alluring fragrance only to be awakened by the restaurant guests following him behind. I actively dislike the pink glossy ceiling of the main room, but at night, it takes on a rich, plush Bordeaux color and stresses the occasional sparkles of the stained glass chandelier, gracing the room with rustic flair, decorated with glass fruit and vegetables occasionally making a gentle ring as they clash in the current of air created by rushing waiters. The big, round table for four, with a flattering view of the whole room, was set for two side-by-side, and was, I thought, the best in the house, located right across from the kitchen by the window. We decided not to choose dinner prix-fixe or the chef’s menu and built our own tasting consisting of five appetizers, two mains and two desserts. I did not enjoy the strong notes of citrus acidity that dominated some of Bouley’s dishes on my previous visits, and attempted to choose items seemingly lacking a citrus element or offset by other ingredients. However, I need not have been concerned as the balance of almost all dishes was well equilibrated. Homemade Silk Tofu with Heirloom Tomato Coulis, Raspberry-Mustard Oil, Yuzu Sorbet and Oscetra Caviar was an unexpected, gentle delight, a tension releasing prelude -- a lyrical passage of all the ingredients merged into one atmospheric solo. A small rectangular tofu competing in shape with off-white oval sorbet and a generous dollop of black caviar “pearls” rested in a vibrant tomato soup, sweet and thick, almost gelatinized with a very distinct taste of tomato, foreign sweetness of raspberries and placid herbal fragrance of lemon thyme. If you let the dish absorb its flavors in silence without disturbing each flavor individually, the chorus would turn into a unison of one, new, unidentifiable essence of spring, freshness and delicacy. Hurry, and before the amalgamation completes, try each element separately and watch how the sharply acidic yuzu sorbet with strong herbal tones melts and integrates with the sweetness of the tomato coulis, and the salty caviar loses its brine, balancing the other flavors and adding additional body to the silky, smooth but bland custard (similar to Citarella’s tofu with uni dish one could order from the sushi bar). This dish epitomized balance and elegance -- a “performance” I wished would never end. Braised Japanese Yellowtail with Melon, Hon Shimeji Mushrooms and a Ginger Aromatic Sauce. There was nothing in this dish, existing on Bouley’s menu for years, that screamed for attention. All ingredients, in their alliance of sea and earth, gently enlivened each other creating a result that was not under or overexposed. A round, thin cut of braised, smooth, light hamachi was soft in texture but failed to retain its natural buttery sweetness and would’ve been bland if not for the tenderly spiked ginger foam, gentle touch of several thin, sweet, fresh pieces of melon, and perfectly-shaped, firm hon shimeji mushrooms -- mildly sweet, earthy and nutty. If you stop for a second, and let all flavors mingle, the result will be beautifully modulated; if you rush, the dish may turn out to be plain. It was a very pleasant transition after the silk tofu appetizer, but I am not sure I would’ve enjoyed this dish as a solo starter as much. Seared New York State Foie Gras with Whole Roasted Organic Rhubarb, Pearls of Organic Mango, Foie Gras Terrine and Red Wine Rhubarb Purée. This was a more robust appetizer with the full-bodied flavor of perfectly done foie gras, revealing smooth, tender flesh under the thin, lightly crisp “skin” accented by its own juce with the tingling acidity of wine offset by the temperate sweetness of the beige rhubarb and apple purée. Tiny pearls of mango, mingled with the purée, exhibited only a slightly firmer texture than the purée but didn’t fully echo the compact feel of mango. As it appeared, the mango went through some substantial processing before achieving its final “pearly” state: From the description given by our captain, it was puréed and processed through a screen into a slightly acidic bath which completed the formation of the perfectly rounded, tiny pearls. It was clever and delightful. A small cut of flavorful goose foie gras mousse wrapped in a thin, almost transparent sheet of puff pastry on the side of the plate rounded out the composition. I enjoyed this appetizer, which burst with flavors, after the subtleness of the tofu and braised yellowtail. Let purists forgive my seditious thought, but I sincerely believe that the common Russian saying, ironically, “Don’t look in your neighbor’s plate” shouldn’t apply to restaurants as it would deprive one of the pleasure of observing, which represents such a natural propensity of man, a tiny world of contentment concentrated in one place at one time. Discreetly, of course, I tend to enjoy observing the room and plates, inadvertently overhearing my neighbors’ chat and absorbing the energy of other diners’ vibes of pleasure and happy times promoted by good food and pleasant environment. One of my not so successful experiences at Bouley included an order of soft shell crabs drowned in a highly acidic and vinegary(?) sauce adding unexpected dissonant notes similar to spoiled Tabasco. Naturally, I intended to avoid crabs that night, but the subtle veil of a pleasant scent trailing behind the plates with crabs, which looked monumental in their stony architectural posture, carried by waiters from table to table at a regular interval, as soft-shells seemed to be the most popular dish of the evening, provoked my curiosity strongly enough to order an additional crab appetizer. The dish of First of the Season Chesapeake Bay Soft Shell Crab with Cape Cod Gooseberries, Texas Pink Grapefruit, and a Cannelloni of Jumbo Lump Crabmeat and Avocado was divided evenly and arranged skillfully on two plates. For some reason, cannelloni was not a part of the dish as described on the menu, but the appetizer was just wonderful, with a very restrained character and minimalist approach accenting the crab (with its sweet juices and softness under a harsh-looking, but tender and gently crisp shell) with the juicy, lemony-acidic grapefruit pulp offset by the delicate, exotic sweetness of fresh golden gooseberries, which were smooth and waxy, with orange-yellow skin and juicy flesh, reminding me of the ground husk tomatoes I bought from the Union Square market last fall. This dish was a perfect and logical conclusion of the round of appetizers. I remember my astonishment the first time I tried poached salmon at Bouley: The barely cooked, plump, buttery flesh with tender, softly suffused flavors changed my perception of salmon, which I generally avoided ordering in restaurants previously. Naturally, I was intrigued by the salmon main course on the menu this time, and decided to repeat the experience. What a disappointment that was. Wild Washington State King Salmon with White Hon-Shimeji Mushrooms, Pencil Asparagus, Ragout of Early Spring Fava Beans, Razor Clams and White Truffle Sauce would’ve been absolutely delightful had not the fish – resting in a wonderful fava beans purée with chopped razor clams, surrounded by fresh and crisp thin asparagus, which lackedthe deep flavor of thicker spears, but had an intense, wild, grassy and very pleasant taste, complemented by the sweet and nutty mushrooms – been slightly overdone, and drowned in a strong truffle/garlic flavor from the mashed garlic splashed across the fish and sautéed in truffle oil. A light, foamy truffle sauce accompanying the fish would’ve been just right, but the strongly flavored garlic and almost bitter taste of the truffle oil in which it was cooked literally killed this dish. I pushed the garlic mash aside, and enjoyed the fish with greater pleasure. My consort’s choice of Line Caught Chatham Cod with Organic Sweet Garden Peas, Roasted Wild Kumamoto Oysters and a Sauce Basquaise was more successful. A subtle combination of tender, perfectly done cod (not as sweet as one can find in the winter, but pleasant nevertheless), and mildly sweet peas in a flavorful sauce was understated and balanced. The silky potatoes, served on the side, brought comfort and reassurance to the dish. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Among six desserts, aside from the gently sweet and sour apple/celery soup with fromage sorbet served in an eye-shaped dish and the green-tea crème brulée – almost liquid with just a touch of torch-burnt sugar coating on top – none deserved special notice, being mostly heavy and too sugary. Perhaps Bouley does not epitomize fidelity to consistency and the idiosyncrasy of the dining experience may not justify the cost, but his ability to apply meticulous technique, elevating a dish to the heights of artistry with either simple or subtle palette of ingredients and imagination, where a dish, gently frilled, seems to be formed by a single stroke of effort, only slightly challenging classical canons, worth taking the risk. We had a small kitchen tour at the end, and yet again the thought crossed my mind that what looks beautiful on the surface is more often than not born in sweat, hard work and hot air.
  24. It wasn’t just a mathematical model of a cleaned-up, rational, emotionally hygienic décor so often presented in modern architecture. All conflicts resolved geometrically where harmony of lines, surfaces and volumes with individual and precise forms allowed tension to exist and to be balanced by the consistency of the surrounding. It was the close association between logic, expressed in high ceilings, traditional dark leather columns resolving themselves at the roof, and pure playful forms, represented by the clear glass panels “wrapping” the ceiling and white-brick walls, which had no practical function other than introducing an illusion of transparency and lightness imposed by the reflections from a glow generated by the beautifully elongated, long-cord white lamps. To those seated in the center, the room, surrounded by rhetorical exuberance of modernity, poetry of sharp technique arising out of a daring inversion of the traditional elements so that where one would have expected solid one found light, looked extravagant to the point of folly. It was stripped from the middle-aged “blanket” of comfort and instead was filled with youthful breath, making the diner dissolve in its vigorous “air” and become its integral part. A startling change of perception comes, however, when seated at a side table, facing a pale wall whose glass “makiage” becomes suddenly revealed imposing a cold air of structural boldness. “Mix is about mixing two cuisines, American and French,” explained our captain, an enthusiastic, handsome, young French gentleman. His eyes lit up as I inquired about the chef’s tasting. “You can’t see this menu. I keep it in my brain,” and after a short pause, “Let me consult with the chef,” he continued with a tone exuberating an air of importance. Add to it a slight charm of French accent, and you’ll understand our involuntary smiles. Our first introduction to the American cuisine at Mix started with bread/butter/grape jelly/peanut butter presented in an appealing structure, combining individual compartments for the slices of sour, slightly toasted, warm, dark, sourdough bread and three small cups, with spatula-like knives, filled with home-made very soft, salted butter, grape jelly conveying strong concentrated notes of ripe grapes or grape juice, and buttery, coarse peanut butter with just the right proportion of salt and sweetness. As much as I enjoyed the bread with butter, the jelly and peanut butter seemed out of place. “The bread is too hard,” said my consort. Indeed, for the peanut butter/jelly to work, perhaps the bread should’ve been airy and soft and lent sweetness and a spongy texture instead of being sour, dense and relatively hard. New England clam chowder with crackers was served in a small (approximately 3-inch diameter) soup cup with an adorable cover lifted as soon as the dish was placed in front of us. Relatively thin, dark-beige broth hid in the bottom of the cup a mix of thinly shredded clams, tiny cubes of potato, celery and onion and provided a mild, pleasant flavor of the ocean and clam juice, not too obscured by the richness of cream and a slight perfume of bacon. “It’s clam chowder,” said my consort as if confirming the menu description. It certainly was clam chowder: no doubt a very good one, but anyone expecting the dish to have evolved into anything other than clam chowder will be disappointed. Tiny crackers, about a half-inch, shaped as cute sunflowers, were served in a separate bowl. The crackers -- crispy, plump raviolis stuffed with herbs-- became soft upon absorbing the liquid and reverted to their original doughy texture without dissolving into the broth. It was a very interesting touch and a nice presentation. Foie gras terrine, brioche, grapes, walnuts. A wide cylinder of uniformly pink terrine was surrounded by toasted, tenderly crunchy brioche and chutney made of white grapes, white raisins and chopped walnuts on one side, sliced walnuts in balsamic vinegar on the other, and topped with transparent-yellowish jelly. I had to get used to the concept of not necessarily enjoying the whole composition together, but rather splitting the “orchestra” into duets and trios. Taste the sweet, mild foie gras, offering its silken, sinful richness, with either lightly cooked white grapes and raisins or the vinegary walnuts, and enjoy different nuances brought out by each of the ensembles. The jelly added a pleasant cooling effect to the dish: Made of duck stock, almost bland if eaten separately, it enhanced the foie gras, adding a “breezy” aspect to the room-temperature dish and, with its gelatinous texture, enlivening the foie melting in your mouth. Elbow pasta, ham, butter and black truffles. I did not enjoy this dish. Perhaps I didn’t enjoy the whole idea of pasta as a separate dish in this particular tasting, or perhaps the taste and the aroma of fresh black truffles (from Umbria) was too subtle, if not nonexistent, preventing the dish from being elevated to the next level of enjoyment. All I can say is that I didn’t enjoy either the concept or the presentation of this dish the same way I didn’t enjoy the Japanese sticky rice at Jean George. The generous portion of pasta curls was saturated with butter and occasionally revealed flat, tiny slices of ham. Several wafer-thin slivers of fresh blackish-chocolate truffles, topping the dish, marked with a fine, reddish (not white)-lined marbled pattern, lacked any aroma as if their reservoir of fragrance just ran out. I took several bites and left this dish unfinished. Scallops, boneless chicken wing, chicken breast, russet potatoes. Two attractive, elegant, superbly prepared scallops -- adding a touch of sophistication and a delicate luxury to an otherwise rustic and pastoral dish – transparent-pinkish and sweet, cooked just to the point of resilience, and small flavorful pieces of chicken with crispy skin and moist, supple interior, lay on a mound of mashed potatoes washed by sauce Grenobloise swarming with capers and tiny, dark, sour croutons. I enjoyed the nice and vivid textural contrast of the wing and the breast; however, the delicate taste and springy texture of the scallops were completely “devoured” by their much stronger counterpart when both the chicken and the scallops were eaten together. Split the dish into chicken/mashed potatoes and scallop/mashed potatoes combinations and enjoy much more successful shades of flavors. The potato purée, slightly grainy with tiny “stones” melting with each gentle bite, was not seasoned and upon absorbing the acutely acidic sauce achieved a smooth texture and balanced, slightly spiked seasoning. I enjoyed this dish though I would probably have preferred not to have two contrasting main elements, as I almost needed to flush my mouth with water to feel the splendor of the scallops after enjoying the strong rusticity of the chicken. I moved my head up away from my plate and noticed that my consort had disappeared. Several minutes passed before I became concerned about the length of his absence. A frantic light in his eyes, upon returning, indicated that he had just experienced something other than a mere acquaintance with the restaurant's facilities. "When you go to the restroom, make sure you press the floor pedal to make the water run," he whispered in a gentle, caring, but somewhat agitated voice. Apparently, solving the first puzzle of flushing the toilet by pulling the rope hanging from the ceiling did not present a challenge. However, a "shy," small, metal ball, hardly sticking up from above the tub-like floor, the purpose of which was to unleash the water from the faucet, appeared to be an unsolvable conundrum even for a man with multiple degrees in science and math who rarely surrenders to a challenge. "No matter what I did, the water wouldn't run," he said laughing at himself. I can't possibly imagine what went through my husband's head while he was holding his hands, soaked in soap, under the faucet waiting for the photocell to register or patting the long nose of the familiar device gently or firmly while examining its surrounding area for salvation, but he gave up and finally begged for help a woman standing guard in front of the bathroom, whose job apparently was nothing else but helping lost souls like my husband. The whole scenario reminded me of a Mr. Bean episode, and though we both had much laughter, selfishly, I was grateful it was he who had to face the challenge first. The last dish of Tenderloin of bison, shallot confit, bone marrow and sauce bordelaise was certainly the most enjoyable of the evening. There was nothing in this dish that would suggest yet another copiously adorned preparation. Its simplicity made a telling contrast and brought an amply regal conclusion to our dinner. A tall cylinder of dark-brown fillet of bison (delivered to the kitchen three times a week from Virginia), with distinct twine marks, sat on a cushiony shallot confit in a rich-burgundy bordelaise sauce adorned with rounds of sweet, crunchy parsnip. The perfectly done (with almost rare interior) lean meat had a slightly wild flavor and was stuffed with tiny “grapes” of beef marrow bringing a subtle trace of richness, though serving mostly as a decorative gilding, as they rolled out of their safe inner nest when I cut through the center of the tender flesh. The sauce – thin and gentle, whose mild acidity was offset by the caramelized sweet shallots -- provided additional moisture to the meat without changing or overpowering its natural flavor. Simplicity and harmony were the keynotes of this excellent dish. I won’t even describe the desserts as I found them profoundly lacking on the two occasions I visited the restaurant. Unbalanced, cloyingly sweet and heavy, where the lemon sorbet, for instance, had an artificial, acidic flavor that provoked involuntary facial convulsions, they were not on a par with the earlier courses. I wasn’t impressed by the chocolate pizza with a puff pastry base and chocolate coating either. It reminded me of a semi-finished base for a dessert yet to be made. In fact, as we left the restaurant, my husband started extemporizing on the subject of making smaller size pastries of that “pizza,” which would hold chocolate mousse and a lighter counterpart similar to whipped cream. “You want Le Bernardin’s chocolate mille feuille,” I said. “Exactly,” he answered. “Mixed” was our impression after the dinner, with my consort favoring it more then I did. From a conceptual perspective, I was left quite indifferent to the idea of pairing home-American cuisine with more sophisticated French cuisine holding a “fragrance” of old-fashioned classics, and the idea of elaborate composition with main elements competing on the same plate seemed to distract me from fully appreciating a dish. However, the perfect ingredients and simply outstanding preparation of meat and fish made me curious so that I returned in several days for lunch. For this lunch, Chef Psaltis agreed to do a tasting for us accommodating our request to exclude pasta and red meat to satisfy my and my companion’s dietary preferences, respectively. One bite of Steamed shrimp with tomato syrup, horseradish royale and small hearts of salad and my objections concerning incorporating American dishes into the classic French menu were washed away like a sand castle by the tide of new flavors of the deconstructed, or rather reconstructed, shrimp cocktail. Served in a cocktail glass, the dish was composed of three layers with shrimp sandwiched by bloody-red, slightly sweet, thin tomato paste and crème fraiche, spiked with the crisp tones of horseradish gently enough not to overshadow crème’s mild sourness. A softly sweet lime chip encrusted with seeds of black pepper completed the composition. Scoop from the bottom of the glass and enjoy the merged rainbow flavors. Simple, light and airy, a perfect equilibrium of contrasts, reminiscent of an undemanding flip-flopped shrimp cocktail yet exuding posh delicacy, the dish was a perfect way to perk our palates and start our lunch. I’ll skip the description of another nice appetizer detailed elsewhere in this thread, Thinly sliced tuna, seasoned with blood orange, fennel, olive oil, and jump to the next dish. Steamed vegetables with pomegranate seeds. Austere in its restraint and direct in its simplicity, a mix of beet root, cauliflower, baby carrots, apples, pears, pomegranate seeds, spinach, fennel, parsnip(?), a small amount of baby salad and squash purée was served in a heavy, round casserole, presenting a pure tension of multiple acute and concentrated flavors, opening up a world of refined balance “painted” with astonishing immediacy and presence. This dish was simply astounding. It was if the fruit and vegetables assumed monumental quality as a result of their meticulous depiction. Each vegetable was cooked or prepared separately at a different temperature with a different approach to adjust to its needs and texture, combined with its brethren right before being served, and seasoned simply with olive oil, salt and pepper. A thin, round chip of semi-dry beet root full of concentrated sugary essence with a bite of bitter vibrancy; buttery spinach, lightly cooked only to obscure the borderline of freshness; almost raw baby carrots and their cooked, peppery and sweet “parent”; warm and agreeably aromatic fennel disseminating its subtle licorice scent to the fruit and vegetables; a dry, yellow carrot chip, with a less sweet, though more pronounced earthy tang; and a butternut squash purée -- thick, sweet and grainy from bits of chestnuts and croutons -- comprised one perfect setting. Bind the vegetables with the mush of the syrupy squash purée, and enjoy your senses being wrapped in a mysterious aroma of earth and a freshness and perfumed bouquet of plain, simple and concentrated natural flavors. This dish should not be missed in my opinion. Filet of sole “Normandy” style, leeks, mussels and white mushrooms. A youthful thrill, ever present while reading Russian classics of the 19th century describing in painful detail the aristocracy’s daily feasts of French delicacies (“oysters, …turbot with sauce Beaumarchais and capons a l’estragon” (“Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy), was resurrected as the plate containing a cylinder of poached sole filet, stuffed with pale-pink whitefish and shellfish mousse, resting on a bed of lightly cooked, finely chopped shallots and surrounded by one shrimp, three mussels and one long fat scallion was placed in front of me. The fish, in a “hat” made of a firm-fleshed, spindle-shaped, slightly grooved, brownish, perfect champignon, rested in a butter-cream sauce, with tiny croutons, augmented by several puddles of very intense, dark brown-red lobster sauce. The mild, supple, tender but plump fish was as delicate as the velvety mousse filling its crater; the mussels and lightly cooked shrimp were unblemished; every single detail in this dish was flawless, stressing the magnificence of each element small or large, and yet when they were tried all together, their individuality was drowned in the tidal wave of the communal ocean flavor and multitude of sauces. It reminded me of the gilded Baroque style, with pouring shower of gold, garlands, cascading waterfalls ornamented with shells, chubby cherubs, waving tree fronds, goddesses adorned with jewels and very little else, fluid brushworks and luscious coloring all in one -- beautiful and light in every individually portrayed detail, but quite heavy overall. Having assumed that our meal consisted of five dishes, I leaned back comfortably, preparing to fully devote my mental and physical energies to the digestive process when the last and least-expected dish, Poached farm raised chicken, foie gras stuffed potato, sauce albufere, arrived. It echoed the same classic motif, was rich with sauces and ingredients, and was executed perfectly. Three tender, but slightly firm, extremely flavorful chicken fillets, generously wetted with an albufere glaze lending a strong foie gras scent with the gentle sharpness of port and Madeira, rested in a strongly flavored veal(?) consommé and shared the plate with caramelized, sweet and biting shallot confit mixed with tarragon(?) and spiced with tons of black pepper. The shallot mound served as a bed for a “mushroom” composed of a baby potato “stem,” stuffed with finely chopped chicken liver, and a perfectly done, tender, sumptuous and flavorful, tiny sautéed foie gras “hat.” Eating all elements together masked individual ingredients to the point of unrecognizability, though each bit was delicious in its own right. Psaltis’ “...mind and hand went together, and what he thought, he uttered with...” care, technical wizardry and enthusiasm. His French classical repertoire was based on elaborately prepared, rich, luxurious and perhaps to some extent dogmatic dishes with a generous utilization of butter, cream, and fat, going back to the reign of grandeur and the glory of czars and kings. As to the critics of Duccasse, interestingly, Voltaire, whose genius is hardly questionable, once said about Shakespeare: "Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada…, “ and further, “Shakespeare is the Corneille of London, but everywhere else he is a great fool." I can’t predict the future success or failure of Mix, but though the style of the cuisine, based on my limited exposure to it, may not be my favorite, I enjoyed my second meal at Mix very much, and for those who “take pleasure in Shakespeare,” Mix should be absolutely and undoubtedly a destination.
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