It is surprising how few practictoners of the new style of cuisine there are in France. In Spain they abound all over. In the U.S. we have a few of them. But in France? A surprisingly low number given how food crazy they are. So when Wylie Dufresne suggested that I try the cuisine of Jacques Decoret in the spa town of Vichy, his recommendation was taken under serious advisement. After getting my map out, it turned out that Vichy was a mere 70 kilometers from Roanne, and it just so happened that I was planning on travelling to Roanne for dinner at Troisgros. How convenient.
A dreary town it is that Vichy. At least when it is off-season and the thermal baths are closed. I hope the town blooms in springtime or it would be a dreadful place to live. I recall a number of my French friends telling me of winter trips to La Baule in Brittany for "La Cure" and reporting on how lively the town was. But Vichy, on a slightly rainy winter afternoon was stone cold dead. So much so that when we arrived at the restaurant, a small single room affair just down the block from the train station, with a few modern lights hung here and there which is intended to give the restaurant a contemporary look, we were the only diners. I poked around the restaurant a bit, getting up from my chair to look at various articles that they had posted on the wall. Turns out that one of the restaurant’s claim to fame was that the chef Pascal Barbot, did a stage at the restaurant right before he opened L’Astrance in Paris.
You would think that a table of diners in what would otherwise be an empty restaurant would receive a warm greeting. Unfortunately our waiter, who at first did not seem to speak very much English, seemed bothered by our presence and his affect was cold and distant. This had a distinct effect on how much we enjoyed the first phase of our meal which was infected by a condition Americans sometimes run into in France and which I affectionately describe as "le attitude." It seems that two things were at play. First the waiter was likely annoyed that rather than the boss telling him to go home because there were no customers, three Americans showed up and made him spend the afternoon working instead of watching football. But maybe more importantly, because I had a camera and I was taking pictures of the food, they thought I was “le spy”, only interested in ripping off Decoret's creations that I would replicate in my own restaurant. Fortunately as the meal progressed, and as the restaurant learned more about who we were and what we were doing there, they went from cold and distant to treating us like newly made friends which you hope to have for life. And magically, even the waiter’s English improved. What a country it is that France.
They started us with a lunch tray with four separate amuse on it. A small jar holding a friture of some fish, a black and red radish napoleon with tuna hash, dried carrot slice, and a paprika flecked potato chip. A bit on the odd side for my palate. We moved on to a chestnut mousse made with emulsified milk, topped with chopped chestnuts served in a paper cone, and served with burning chestnuts on the plate. You take the contents of the paper cone and you place them in the chestnut mousse (which is more like a cappuccino), and then similar to the lobster with rosemary vapor dish that Grant Achutz served at Trio, as you lean over to take a sip of the drink, you are inundated with the aroma of the burning chestnut shells. It was a nice dish that would have been better of the chestnut mousse had a slightly more intense flavor. But it was fun to eat and it laid down the marker for the whimsy we would experience during the course of the meal. Onward with foie gras topped with chopped red beet, glass of red beet and apple juice with celery and apple compote, pastry wafer and thinly sliced half moons of golden and white Beets. This was right out of the L'Astrance/WD-50 playbook.. Nice dish that could have used a stronger component of sweetness from a slightly more assertive application of the compote. But the ftoie/beet combo was quite enjoyable and rather original I would add.
More whimsy followed. They placed a McDonald’s style carton in front of each diner and when you opened it, there was a brioche in the shape of a ball sitting atop a bed of watercress puree. When you broke open the brioche there was escargot in an herbed butter sauce. While the dish could have been explosive, the filling was sort of ordinary compared to the presentation. So while I am all in favor of novel and interesting delivery systems, they should include interesting gastronomic concepts and this turned out to be more show than substance because. It was at this point that the waiter came to the table and informed me that the chef would like me to refrain from taking photos. But I snuck them in when I could, But excuse the quality because I usually take a number of photos of each dish so I can choose which one I like best later on. But there wasn’t much of a chance to do that here.
No photo of the next two dishes. A grilled mackerel marinated in a citrus zest, mackerel jus, spinach leaves with chopped spinach and sunflower seeds. I’m just not a fan of mackeral. In fact I could live without ever eating it again. But it seemed like a good presentation providing you like the fish. We moved onto bar with fennel, pineapple jiuce, black olive paste and diced and mousse of pineapple. I wasn't particularly moved by the combination of fish and pineapple. It didn't really scream modern if you know what I mean.
I snuck photos of the next few dishes but they are a bit rushed so forgive their clarity or lack of. First is what my friend Toby affectionately titled "Le Blowjob." It consisted of a balloon like device (or condom if you may,) that was filled with an “oyster milkshake,” and it had a thin string of raw potato attached to it. You lifted the object up, placed it completely in your mouth (like putting an egg in your mouth) and pulled on the potato string until the object burst. The result was quite delicious. We all laughed when the balloon exploded because when the liquid exploded onto the roof of your mouth, it gave the sensation that you were going to spit it out and in order to stop that from happening all lurched. It was pretty good theater and the milkshake wasn't half bad either. Blanched vegetables served with an emulsified parmesan cheese sauce and bits of bacon was superb. Reminiscent of the Michel Bras’ gargouillou, the vegetables were amazingly flavorful while being perfectly crunchy while maintaining their tenderness. And the parmesan sauce managed to be oh so subtle, and added a slight sourness to the dish which was an excellent and unusual dimension. Just yummy and exactly the type of modern French cuisine that I prefer to eat. Then pigeon served in a date consome mixed with beef and lemongrass boullion, served with crystalized dates and manioc flour wrapped in sliced yuca. I thought this was one of the best dishes I had on the trip. The quality of the pigeon was absolutely superb. Better than what Michel Troigros served us the night before and better than the pigeon I had at Arzak a few days later. The date broth, added weight and viscosity from the beef broth, and had a lovely tang from the lemongrass, was an ethereal counter to this perfect specimen of a pigeon. Even the manioc flour (yucca which has been pulveried and toasted) was a great foil. I wish more of the modern cuisine strived for this type of result. It was a joy to eat and I cleaned every bit of meat off of those bones.
They end the savoury portion of the meal ends in a funny way. They give you a line of fried tomato with salt and cayenne to suck up through a straw and then you chase it with a shot of tomato water with olive oil. I understand the concept, just not the placement in the meal. Is it to refresh your plate for cheese and dessert? It is very reminiscent of snorting something else. I've written about the "Dynamite" potato dessert elsewhere. Best dessert I had on the trip. Crisped potato tube filled with sweetened potato mousse, parsely ice cream and passion fruit, served with crisp potato slices. Not only clever but delicious. Could be my dessert of the year. Then savory lollipops. There is no wine list to speak of. Since I was driving back to Lyon after the lunch I refrained from drinking anyway. The others ordered a Chinon I had never heard of for something like 25 euros.
A fun experience and I'm glad we went. A worthy addition to the modern dining scene, especially in France where the definition of modern usually means Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Bras. There is a good balance at this restaurant between concept driven cuisine, and expressing top quality ingredients. Too bad the restaurant is out in god's country, slightly too far to describe it as convenient to Lyon. But it is a place definitely worth going to if you are in that neck of the woods. In fact a weekend of Troisgros, Michel Bras (about a two hour drive to the south,) and Decoret would be sublime. The tasting menu was priced at 90 euros for a 12 course extravaganza and is one of the biggest bargains in France. I am looking forward to returning when I go to France early next year.