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Michel Vignaud in Chablis


Pan
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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times? No, not quite. Rather, it was a wonderful time and then a very disappointing time.

My parents, brother and I went to Michel Vignaud at the Hostellerie des Clos in Chablis (Rue Jules-Rathier, Tel. 03 86 42 17 11) twice, about 6 days apart last June. The restaurant was given one star by Michelin and 16 of 20 in Gault Millau.

Our first meal there was splendid, and we couldn't figure out why it hadn't been awarded more stars by Michelin. My brother and mother thought it was better than Grand Vefour; I thought Grand Vefour (the food but especially the overall decor and choreography of the service) was superior, but not drastically so. My brother and mother and I split only on whether the restaurant deserved 3 or 2 stars. My mother got the lobster salad as an appetizer, and this was at least as good as the lobster salad at Grand Vefour, if not better. I got probably the best green salad with mushrooms and hazelnut oil imaginable (though the lobster salad was better than my green salad!). My brother had a salad with foie gras, IIRC, which was very good. My mother got a terrific magret de canard cooked with kir, just a great dish, perfectly cooked. My brother and I enjoyed a fruity modestly-priced white Chablis (much better than the typical California Chablis, of course) that had been recommended by our friendly sommelier. (We were impressed that he hadn't tried to sell more expensive Chablis, but chose as his favorite one of the less expensive ones.) The cheese course was good and quite worthwhile, though distinctly inferior to the wonders at Grand Vefour, and I forget what the dessert was, though I liked it at the time, nor do I remember every dish everyone ate. I do remember that excellent pates de fruit were brought to us.

But the other thing was that it was a lovely, relaxed, rustic location, and the service was also relaxed, though attentive.

On our return visit, things were drastically different. The mushrooms in the lobster salad were full of water as if they had just come out of the bottom of a basin, the rest of the food was clearly inferior to the first meal we had there, and the service was disorganized. We sent the salad back. They comped us for the salad and made a different one for us, but it was still inferior to the first time. My brother inquired at the front desk of the hotel, and was told that all the line chefs were absent that day. I don't know much about the functioning of a restaurant's kitchen, but my brother explained that, while the sous chef prepares whatever can be prepared in advance in the morning (marinades, stocks, and certain other kinds of sauces, e.g.), the line chefs are the people who actually cook everything to order and compose salads. (Perhaps those of you who are more knowledgeable about the inner workings of this type of kitchen would like to comment further and correct anything I wrote that's incorrect.) So if all the regular line chefs were off, it's no wonder that nothing functioned properly. So the conclusion we came to is that the greatness of a restaurant may depend as much or more on great line chefs than on the chef whom the restaurant is named for.

We also had to wonder whether the one Michelin star Vignaud got reflects an average between the restaurant's 2-3-star days and no-star days.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I didn't visit any winemakers, nor did I stay in Chablis; we were staying in Auxerre when we made our first trip to Vignaud and stopping for dinner to break up a long trip from Autun to Orleans the second time. This wasn't a vinicultural trip, but an artistic trip. We were there to see Romanesque and Gothic churches with great tympana and such-like.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Clearly the restaurant can be inconsistent and that alone should keep it from rising above one star, until they can overcome that. The line cooks are doing the actual cooking. The sous chef is really an over chef in terms of the rest of the kitchen. The line chefs are cooking to his orders. The sous chef may be plating or cooking, but generally he is overseeing. The sous chef is under (sous) the chef or executive chef.

Chef, or executive chef is very much a management job. To a certain extend that of sous chef is as well. If all the line cooks are great, the chef gets credit. If the line chefs screw up, or if they're not there, it's the chef who is to blame in the same way as the general is to blame if the soldiers don't do well in battle. The chef is the manager and the strategist. If you can't hire and train good help, you're not going to be a great chef no matter how well you can cook. It's my contention that the better the chef, the less reason there is for him to be in the kitchen. Leslie Brenner's book on Daniel in NYC, discussed in a Q&A on the site, and William Echikson's Burgundy Stars both about a year in the life of a restaurant are good sources for those with some interest in behind the scenes of a restaurant. Burgundy Stars is about Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu. It's more concise and less focused on the daily routine of the kitchen as well as about France and may be the more interesting in this context, but Ms. Brenner's book will give you more of the sense of being in the kitchen.

Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Thanks for the info, Bux. I do recall discussions of Brenner's book.

We stopped in Saulieu. Lovely little town!! But we didn't stay there, and it sounds like we may have missed an opportunity for a fine meal there, except that my father undoubtedly wouldn't have been thrilled. :| (That's a sort of smirk there.)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Loiseau has come in for some criticism here I believe, but I loved the meal we had there quite a few years ago. It was the middle of the winter and we came north through a driving snowstorm from the Languedoc through the Massive Central. At one point in the trip we were on the Autoroute driving single file on the one lane that was partially clear from the cars and trucks. My windshield wipers froze and my windshield glazed over. I had to lean out the open window to get any kind of a look. You can imagine how little progress we made and how frustrated I was. By the time we reached Saulieu a day or two later I was still sorry we had made the drive, but after dinner I was a new person with a new outlook.

I don't remember Saulieu as a lovely town and it may have been because Loiseau's hotel and restaurant are on a corner that has one or two gas stations and a fairly large road. There is a wonderful church with excellent captals on the columns. Romanesque, or maybe very early gothic. No I'm sure they are too early to be gothic. I trust you saw them.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I now realize that I was thinking of Semur when I wrote that Saulieu was a "lovely little town." To get to Semur, one drives on a bridge over a stream, past fortifications with a crack in them, and there's a wonderful cathedral on the hill in the centre-ville. We went off the Autoroute to stop at Semur on our way to Dijon and went off to visit Saulieu on the day we drove in stages from Autun to Orleans.

We did indeed visit the basilica of Saint Andoche in Saulieu. It was in the process of being restored but was nevertheless open for visits. Here's a link to a fine page (in French) about the basilica: Saint -Andoche. There's a second page, too; just press "Page suivante" at the bottom of the page.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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