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stephen wall

L'Ambroisie

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Vedat, thanks for an interesting post. In so many disciplines -- business included -- creativity becomes something "added on" to an otherwise pedestrian and dull product; wit and humour are circumscribed and separated from "business as usual".

Could you say a bit more about how creativity, wit and humour manifest themselves at L'Ambroisie?

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Ok, I agree with everything you said re L'Ambroise except for the "wit and humour" bit. On our last visit we sat in the front room and all was perfect; that is, almost too perfect. When not serving, our waiter stood against the wall, perfectly posed and clearly observing every move we made. In serving, his every move was measured, with no excess motions; almost like a ballet. He did not smile; nor did I see anyone else smiling at the other tables. Food is the focus here and all were clearly intent on their meal. In a way, I had the same feeling that I get when sitting in the front pew of a church. L'Ambroise is a wonderful, but rather religious, dining experience.

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I've only eaten in l'Ambroisie once, and that was some time ago. There was a seriousness and church like pallor that loomed large over the entire restaurant. I thought it came largely from the American, English and Japanese clientele. I couldn't tell if that was typical, but I have heard that the room is more joyous these days. I hope so, because such perfection in cooking and service is really a joy to experience. It's a pity that three stars can bring diners who exhibit serious respect and reverence, but not enough pleasure in eating. I've probably been guilty of this myself and hope I am able to smile and laugh with the food more easily as I get older.

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What's the address of this place? i.e what town?

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L'Ambroisie is in Paris, in the 4th arrondissement on the place des Voges. It's been a three star restaurant for years. Vmilor's post was a paen to a well known and highly respected chef and his restaurant, but also a reminder that chef's who are successful in the kitchen are not always the ones who are in the news.

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I am very sorry for the late reply but it is not easy to get connected from a tiny island in the Marmara sea.

I guess humour is something quite personal. The first time I had dinner there I also felt that we were all attending a funeral. Tourists at the front room whispered to one another and the staff, esp. madame did not smile. Subsequent visits, however, revealed another facet of this establishment. The staff is very quick witted and the back room is usually full of laughter and joie de vivre. The clients there are not all French but they are all repeat clients who speak some French. What impressed me most is that the staff has a knack for understanding what the client wants: if you want to engage with them they reciprocate, otherwise they are very discreet. Besides some jokes(upon my initiation to be sure) center around female beauty but never descend to a level that is lewd or vulgar. Other jokes relate to guessing the identity of after dinner spirits Monsieur Lemoullac will match with desserts. Last time I was sure he had given me very old single malt scoth. It was very old but turned out to be rhum. Given that I had declared myself to be a connoisseur Mr. Lemoullac was very diplomatic in that he did not tease with me :biggrin: Oh I forgot to add that despite the appearances to the contrary dining room personnel is quite capable of self-parody but it may take time to reveal this dimension which perhaps elicit self confidence cum mutual trust.

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When we dined there, I had a question for the sommelier about our wine. My command of French is hardly very great, and I spent a good deal of time forming the question in my mind before I called him over. He responded in French and I did not fully catch the meaning of his answer. I suppose many people, having asked the question, would have been more interested in the information about the wine, but I believe he sensed it was important for me to get as much as I could without resorting to English. I have no doubt he spoke English quite well. Nevertheless we continued in French which I am sure required great patience on his part. If I missed some nuance of the answer, I was still glad to have had the chance to carry on the conversation entirely in French. I'm always leery of telling this story lest someone assume this is another apocryphal story of a Frenchman unwilling to help an American by speaking English, rather than a tale of a man's patience. The moral here is that we all come away from any situation with our own spin and all recommendations, including whether or not to visit Paris, must be weighed with whatever knowledge you can make of the one telling the story. While I found the staff unsmiling, I found them to offer exceptional professional service and of the sort they felt was expected.

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You are absolutely correct about our own spin to things. Last time at Gagnaire(june 29) they insisted speaking in English, out of respect for my wife I guess. I kept replying in French and getting the message they converted to French and they were very patient having me translate the whole menu to English for my wife. I do not even know my own motive why I prefer to speak in French--I suppose a combination of some silly and other perhaps more valid rationales. My point here is that how resilient and considerate the staff at Gagnaire was. 2 weeks prior to this and at L'Ambroisie Monsieur Pascal spoke in French to my wife the first time. This was very basic conversation and something like "how are you madame" but the remarkable thing here is that we had something like a meeting of the minds with Pascal, I am kind of eager to have my wife utter a few sentences in French given that she respects some French institutions and people very much and the feeling seems to be reciprocal. Anyway my point is that somebody else may put a very different spin to these 2 incidences and consider the staff to be dismissive or arrogant, esp. out of context. But the truth is that body language and eye to eye contact are also very important and in some 3 stars the staff really rises to the occassion and adjust their behavior to match the expectations. I suppose creative food and creative interaction complement one another beautifully and this is the essence of 3 stars experience.

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I'm even willing to consider our endeavor to speak French to be little more than an affectation, but it allows me to enjoy myself a bit more at times. In a way, I feel I'm lucky to have been introduced to France via considerably less than plush hotels and restaurants where no one spoke English. The rewards for making myself understood were a warm bed and warm food. I associate that communication with the simple pleasures of life in France, that I hold on to. Of course over the years I've held it as a sign that separates me from the tourist. The tourist is always a bit clueless, the traveler is not. The French are both a formal and a reserved people and there's a clubiness about traveling there. What others see as cold indifference, I see as a reserve that rewards the effort one makes to get closer. My earliest contacts with the French as a student and again as a budget traveling newly wed were remarkably warm and friendly.

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We went to L'Ambroisie for our first wedding anniversary (thanks to Lizziee and Bux for the recommendation).

Shamefully I have not yet posted a full write-up. Nor, without remortgaging my house, can I aspire to racking up sufficicient visits at 650 Euros a pop, to comment with any authority.

But a few things chimed in your post.

The first was the your use of "perfection". I have had some sensational dishes in my time at some well regarded restaurants. But L’Ambroisie was the first occasion that I have ever had a dish that I thought was ‘perfect’. The Chocolate Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream was absolutely unimproveable; I nearly cried.

Second were your comments on what was driving that perfection. The fact that it was something as simple as chocolate tart that was being raised to such dizzy heights speaks volumes about a cooking style that does not trumpet its brilliance of technique but understates it. It is there to be discovered and revelled in, if you choose to look. But you don’t have to stand in awe of Pacaud's brilliance in order to enjoy the meal. The chef does not interpose himself between you and your plate. (One of the side discussions encapsulating a lot of this was the earlier thread about how much work must go into the shelling of the soft boiled eggs without creating a blemish in their form. But, for me the awe inspiring bit was how he had persuaded a sabayon that thin to adhere evenly over the whole surface of the egg....)

Third about the approach of the waiting staff. All I can say is that, without exception, they responded with grace and charm to the violation done to their language by my holiday French. Allowing me to converse sufficiently in French to show appreciation of my efforts and to permit me to save face but switching gracefully to English whenever communication threatened to stifle, or simply to allow them to convey a more rounded hospitality. I did find that the setting and decor encouraged a bit of a “hushed temple of gastronomy” type atmoshpere, but the waiting staff did not. The upshot was a relaxed lunch.

The final plus point you didn’t mention was the perfect situation for summer lunch. On your way out you have only to stagger surfeited a few yards from the door before your can stretch out on the grass of the Place des Vosges, kick your shoes off and doze it all off...bliss !

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Gareth:

Please do post your write up. Unfortunately I have not done but decided to highlight Pacaud's overall significance esp. because it contrasts with the gurus such as Veyrat and Adria who are more in fashion nowdays. I guess most people prefer to be awed and shocked and such tactics work in Haute Cuisine. Please see Robert Brown's excellent post in the El Bulli lab in the Symposium. It gave me shivers, and to think that a chef will concoct dishes to suit the new gadget (rather than the other way arouund) reveals a philosophy which is perhaps more in tune with the times. Pacaud is clearly roving against the tide. The typical reaction against him is that people(at least in the gourmet sites) are underwhelmed. Bux and Lizzie are in the minority in the US. Probably not in France as l'Ambroisie is very hard to reserve.

Two minor points. I mentioned that more than one visit may have been necessary to fully appreciate this place because in my first visit there I failed to detect all the qualities I am now championing. This was my fault as we ordered too much and all the heavy dishes. Because there is a risk when you order a la carte(l'Amb.does not have a degustation menu) I just wanted to bring to the readers' attention that Monsieur Pascal is more than willing to offer advice but one has to ask. Apparently you fared very well and chances are that you are wiser than me in ordering strategy.

As to the cost: Alas it is not cheap, 700 or so euros for two. My own take to the issue is that, for people with upper middle type disposable earnings(both of us are in academics) the best strategy is NOT to buy an expensive house instead of talking about mortgaging it. IMHO Americans are made to spend far too much for homes which are owned by banks and then they get stressed to earn enough to pay the mortgage and property taxes. . At any rate we are just too happy to rent in Atlanta for the monthly price of one meal at a 3 stars and then budget a few special meals when traveling. :smile:

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I am usually in the minority. Those members who usually find themselves in the majority, should take fair warning about heeding any of my advice and recommendations. :raz:

I am passionionate about dining, but rather enjoy the outrageous avant garde as well as the traditional, assuming they are both done well. "Done well" is a bit more difficult to define in terms of creative cuisine as it necessitates risk. Risk necessitates a chance of failure, and such chance guarantees a certain inevitable failure at some stage. The ultimate failure at the avant garde end -- that of a evening spent wonder why each course was so unpleasant -- is intolerable, but so is a level of perfection of banal cuisine.

I wouldn't find Pacaud's cuisine banal. It would be interesting however, to put our fingers on the reasons why we find perfection of such conservative cuisine anything but banal. Paqcaud's cuisine has an edge that makes it three star food for me. It may not be my first choice, at least not often and I don't eat three star meals all that often in the first place, but it's superb food. Still, it's probably not the best recommendation for everyone and I think your point, assuming that was your point, that it takes some effort on the diner's part to fully appreciate the food, is worth noting. To some extent, I think this is true about all great restaurants, even those whose food hits you over the head, are not fully appreciated by many who are nevertheless wowed. However, it's particularly true for a restaurant whose forté is finesse.

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I guess it is harder to be traditional and creative than be avant garde and creative. In this sense I think l'Ambroisie is taking more risk than El Bulli. We all have some idea about a classic lobster navarin or truffe en croute in sauce perigourdine or what not so it takes real guts to distinguish oneself executing these dishes with an edge. But when confronted with tubes and cubes all disguised as something else we are at least vowed and appreciate the concept if not the taste. Maybe we have to rethink what creativity means. I need help here from those who are experts in other art forms( such as John Whiting) to advance the discussion.

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Vmilor, I could as easily support your contention as argue against it. I think we run into problems of both semantics and subjectivity here. It probably takes talent and not guts to distinguish oneself however one manages to impress a qualified audience. It is no easier to be creative than it is to be traditional, or more truthfully, it depends on the milieu in which one is working. It also depends on the definitions one uses for creativity and how one measures success.

To actually be avant garde requires not that you be creative, but that others follow in your path. Yes, sometimes the first lemming over the cliff is part of the avant garde, but generally, trends become movements or they die. In any event it's difficult to attract followers and easy to do what's been done before (the nature of being traditional) but difficult to distinguish yourself doing what's been done before. Pacaud, for instance, doesn't really do what others have done -- or at least it appears that he accomplishes what others have tried to do. :biggrin:

What is worth discussing, is the place for creativity in food. As for experts in any art form, their expertise is often challenged by creative works and the experts are often among those who sneer at creativity. There's no doubt that creativity was the catchword of the arts in the twentieth century beginning with the impressionists in the art of painting. They were refused recognition by the establishment critics and their follows were called by such names as "beasts." That a beastly (fauvist) painter's hues would one day set the palette for fashionable colors is the nature of creativity. It redefines the standards.

Both Adria and Pacaud redefine our standards, but they do it in different ways. Those who have the greatest ability to appreciate the greatest number of standards have the chance to appreciate the most. I know I could get more out of life if I could only learn to appreciate MacDonald's. :biggrin:

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Bux,

I guess we have more in common than we differ. If I understood you correctly you are claiming that it is as difficult to be avant garde and creative as it is to be traditional and creative. I can live with that even though definitions are tricky. I may follow you less if you are arguing that a measure of creativity for avant gardes is the ability to spawn followers. Why should that be so? Take Robert Bresson. He is as avant garde as one can be in terms of his narrative rigour. As far as I know he did not have any folllowers because it is very hard to replicate him and this is a reason to salute him more and not less.

Your Mc. Donald joke is very classy and perhaps reveals an irreconcilable difference in philosopy. You seem to revel in diversiity and have a very open mind. At least on the surface these are the hallmarks of a wise and genuinely nice person. On my part I revel thinking how "stupid" people are because they may fail to appreciate Bresson, or Iberian bellota ham or the beauty of my start up business plan. :laugh: Conversely I may sneer at them if they like the wrong political leader or the wrong fries. I mean, in the end, both subjectivity and open mindedness and elitist opinionatedness result in a feeling of well being which we all need.

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Deep down inside, I'm as hypocritical as the next guy. :biggrin: When I post here, it's rarely to convince anyone that my opinions are right. I have facts that I am eager to share and there are things I come to learn, but when it comes to opinions, I am unconvinced and hope to remain that way as long as I can. Of course I have to make up my mind before the election and I have to place my order before I can have dinner, but for the most part I post to make others think and most appreciate it when others can make me think about what positions I currently hold.

We'll bog down in definitions here. My point was to propose that creative people who have no following are less a part of an avant garde, than they are outsiders, but I'm just defining terms, not making a real point. To be creative and not have a following takes more guts, or maybe just more determination. It's a difficult issue. People draw, paint, sculpt, write and even cook creatively to communicate. It's unrewarding sometimes not to be understood, even if you do not have followers recreating in your footsteps. Sometimes the goal is not to have imitators, but to inspire a new generation to think for themselves and be free of the stranglehold of tradtion. (The stranglehold of tradition is not the same as tradition.) I don't know Bresson's work very well, but he's certainly affected how many people see cinema and make films, even if they don't try to imitate him.

There is an element of seriousness in my MacDonald's joke, and it ties in with my sense that often the greatest experts in a field miss the next wave of creativity precisely because they have too much knowledge of the past and what is good when judged by old standards. I've learned to eat and enjoy some of the foods I've sneered at in the past. As a francophilic snob, I watched French dining habits incorporate not just American habits, but those of California. It was the French who pulled the rug out from under my snobbism. Intellectually, I must remain open to the possibility that I am missing something at Mickey D's while I must sneer at their food to fully enjoy my food. :biggrin:

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If I may interject...

We are in danger of praising creativity as the leading virtue in cooking and therefore having to justify Pacaud's skill by reference to creativity within a traditional framework.

I was struck by a comment that the UK critic Jonathan Meades once made "Cooking is not an art; it is a craft. The purpose of art is to continually re-invent itself; the purpose of craft is to continuously replicate."

I didn't think the cooking at L'Ambroisie was creative at all. It was, however, damn near perfection and the more enjoyable for it. Pierre Gagnaire was stunning in its creativity and a wholly different experience - an intellectual exercise, as much as a visceral one. I compare the two meals to the contrast between engaging in literary criticism and reading a good book. Each has its attraction and its place.

So the answer to Meades is, yes...mostly. Cooking would stagnate without creativity but it is not the only virtue. And sometimes a palatte jaded with the new can find fresh delights in the neglected.

One of my favourite cookbooks is by Simon Hopkinson: "The Prawn Cocktail Years". What's more I no longer cook from it as a statement of 'post-modern irony' to amuse my friends, but simply because so much of it tastes so good !

Now, on to my holiday in Spain. Do I choose Can Fabes or El Builli....?

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Gareth, well said. If I were to disagree or argue about any point, it would only be to get further involved in semantics and definitions. I think I'd add, if I haven't said, or implied, it someplace before, the value we place on creativity seems to be a contemporary focus. It was the watchword for the creative arts in the last century. In terms of food, I think it must be accepted that French food began to stagnate a decade or two after the war and needed something to revitalize it. What's going on in Spain is something else again and something I find fascinating. The Catalans have a history of very personal artistic expression -- Gaudi, Picasso, Dali, etc. The Basques, on the other hand, seem to have a reputation for conservative tradition.

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Bux,

That Creative Writing class seems to have paid off; have you ever thought of applying your skills to a real subject? They could use you at the NY Times. :cool:

To introduce myself: Daniel Aleman. I worked for Alain Chapel for two years before the Foodie craze took hold in the UK, US, Japan, etc. (Thank you Julia, et al.) Chapel did not like the words "creative" or "perfection" when describing what came out of his kitchen, he used "inventive"; perfection is unobtainable and creativity is vain-ish. He was full of pride about what he did for a living (feeding people is an honorable profession) and showed it to all. Chapel considered cooks as mechanics, leaning over their stoves and tasting, as a car mechanic leans over an engine, listening. Out in Mionnay (the boonies) we had to pull vegetables out of the dirt, kill and gut our rabbits, poultry, and fish...

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I'm not sure how to take that. :biggrin: Let's see, you worked at Tour d'Argent and Alain Chapel and you're now teaching creative writing to grad students. :cool:

Hmm. Actually I'm replying mostly to note that Atelier, as used in L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is the same word used to describe either an artist's studio or an auto mechanic's workshop.

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Bux,

Dang, you've got a good memory for resume. Back in the '70s it was a lot easier to get work in 3 stars, I also did time in two 2 star German kitchens. Paris was just stunning for a young man wanting to learn, especially from that generation of chefs who were then in their thirties. The memories of that time and the love of that great food never leaves me...

Over a span of fifteen years I obtained a PhD. in English, now I am an Associate professor. I teach French cooking techniques to those that are interested during the summer.

I enjoy reading this website for the same reasons as others. But I really enjoy your writing, makes me smile.


Edited by BigboyDan (log)

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A remarkable lunch a L'Ambroisie on Saturday. Called on Friday, and was lucky enough to get a table (for 1) at short notice. I was in the middle room with the drapes. Overall I was impressed at how unostentatious the food was. There was no fancy crockery, no overly-architectural or vertical presentations. Everything was classical, surprisingly simple, and when a dish worked - perfect. The table next to me, a family of several generations, ordered a couple of Bresse Chickens with herbes, and I was incredibly envious to see the classical presentation of bringing the roasted birds to the table, removing them for plating, returning the plates simply dressed, bringing the side dishes (everything in polished copper). All of the food seemed composed of simple elements, done perfectly. And if you're reading this as I did the above, not having been there, and thinking it doesn't sound all that impressive, you should reconsider. This is old school dining, somehow, at it's most luxurious. You know what it is? This restaurant has no bling. I think Ducasse/Athenee has bling. It's that nouveau riche thing. This place has a classical finesse.

I'll keep this short, as most of my opinions have been covered by previous posts.

An amuse of Royale de romaine. This was a dark, dark green warm mousse - I guess of romaine lettuce and spinach maybe, on top of a warm royale of foie gras ("Oook hiver" said the waiter. "What?" I said. "Dooook Leeeever" he repeated), with an emulsion of mustard. This didn't really work. The green mousse with the emulsion over-powered the foie.

Then to start with, the 'Feuillantine de Queues de Langoustine aux graines de sésame, sauce curry.' An incredible but flawed dish, for all the reasons previously stated. To start with I've never had better, fresher, or more tenderly prepared langoustine. The pastry was magically delicate. The layer of spinach beneath was good, but I thought there was an absence of anything - usually nutmeg - to take away those tanin-like after tastes. And the sauce was exceptionally light, but the curry powder tasted uncooked to me. It tasted as if it was prepared by someone who didn't really know what to do with it, beyond its superficial application. It's interesting to me, as I've come across many dishes in cookbooks, from Robuchon, to the Roux brothers, to Girardet, all of which use curry powder in a similar way, and I had wondered how it might behave in such a classical format. I think someone above, or in a different thread, said it was a mistake. I believe it was. There's a far more pure dish here not contingent on the use of curry powder. I hope one day he finds it.

Next - the 'Escalopines de Bar a l'émincé d'artichaut, buerre léger au caviar.' Sea bass on a bed of thinly mandolined artichoke heart, with a butter sauce with caviar. Could anyone tell me what "léger" means in this context? There was a little wine and fish stock, I believe, in the background.

This was a perfect dish. The very generous amount of caviar mixed with the perfectly cooked sea-bass and light fragrant sauce to create an explosion of the sea in the mouth. Once again, an immensely understated dish. Just remarkable on every level.

Then 'Pigeon glacé aux sucs de fenouil, étuvée de carotttes a la coriandre.'

This was the let down of the meal. The pigeon , though perfectly cooked, and beautifully pink, was a little tough. Not enough to complain about, but not of the Gagnairian standard I was hoping for. The glaze was over sweet. The carrots also were very sweet for my taste. And this was in stark contrast with a quenelle of fennel purée which was much too strong and clashed with the sweetness of the other elements.

I decided not to have any cheese, and went straight onto 'Dacquoise au praliné, giboulée de fraises de jardin' - which, much to my surprise, was a slice of cake, with some warm strawberries cooked in syrup on the side. I thought this was hilarious - I've become so used to monoliths and avant guard pieces disguised as desert plates. I've seen cakes in pictures from old 3 star restaurants, but I never thought to be served one today. This was - even more surprisingly - also perfect. A miracle of lightness, and texture. Of taste, and comfort.

They sent enough mignardises for two, and so I finished them bravely. With one glass of champagne, a half bottle of Chateau Bellegrave 2000, and a couple of half-bottles of evian, this was the most expensive meal I've ever had. It was so much, I'm embarassed to write it here. It made a dinner at Ducasse seem like a bargain.

But I would go again in an (incredibly expensive) second. Probably best that several hundred miles, and a few lengths of ocean separate us.

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Moby,

Your description of the courses doesn't seem to square with your overall assessment - there seemed to be so many flaws. For the most expensive meal I had ever had I would expect few or zero flaws. Is there something intangible here I am missing?

Gavin

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The only real let down was the pigeon. The amuse failed, but failed at a rather high level.

If this was indicative of a general standard of cooking or conception, then I'd be dubious about returning. But the langoustine (curry powder excepted), the sea bass. and the desert were so exceptional, and the rest of the menu so interesting, that I wouldn't hesitate to return.

Back to the pigeon - I very much got the impression that it was cooked and presented exaclty as was meant - so I'm unsure why it fell so far short of pleasing me.

The service, also, was efficient, and kind. When I booked, they didn't insist on a Parisian number (as some do), and just asked that I reconfirm the morning of. The only let down was when I told the sommelier that I was inexperienced in wine, a mist of boredom fell over him and he immediately went to the cheapest half-bottle on the list and suggested I might find that appropriate. A shame, also, that there weren't more wines by the glass - but understandable given the size and style of the place.

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Regarding the Feuillantine de Queues de Langoustine aux graines de sésame, sauce curry, it's doubtful that Pacaud will find a replacement without curry powder. This dish seems to be almost a signature dish of his. In any event it was on the menu years ago when we ate there. I have also been a great defender of the dish as it was served that day. It was in fact, the highlight of an altogether lovely lunch. I have no way of knowing if the curry powder was any more or less uncooked on the day you had lunch. I felt it was thoroughly cooked and added a sublimely rich flavor to the sauce--a flavor that complimented both the langoustines and the spinach. Peter Hoffman of the Savor restaurant in NYC, was outspokenly critical of Pacuad's use of curry in that dish. I, on the other hand, find Hoffman's food all too eclectic for my taste. It may be that Hoffman is true to the foreign background of the spices and flavorings he uses, but that in the end they don't meld on my plate or in my meal, while Pacaud totally sublimates the foreignness into his classic French style. There's a long history of this kind of incorporation of foreign foods into French foods with the resulting dominance of the French style. I wonder how much one's own history with curry affects how one receives the taste when used as the classic French chefs do. I have more familiarity with curry as a flavoring in American and Food, than I have experience with eating Indian food and thus no fixed conception of how it should be used in a dish.

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