Dining folklore is replete with stories of people who had traveled to Troisgros for a lunch or dinner, and then after finding that they had just enjoyed one of the best meals of their lives, they extended their stay so they were able to have additional meals, and sometimes they even stayed an additional day. But my single favorite among these stories is one told by a friend of mine about her parents, who on a lazy fall afternoon took the slow train to Roanne from Lyon to have lunch at the restaurant. As she tells it, her parents loved their meal so much that they checked into the hotel and stayed for the better part of a week, eating in the restaurant every day (these same people also bought lamps right from Giacometti at his studio but let’s not go there right now.)
Considering I knew that Troisgros had this reputation, which I have to admit, always piqued my interest, I’m sure you will be surprised to hear that I didn't get around to visiting the restaurant until about five years ago. I can’t tell you how big a mistake that was. And even though I have been trying to make up for lost time (this was my third visit to the restaurant in a twelve month period,) I have to be honest and say that since I began this culinary odyssey over twenty three years ago, when while dining at the Paris restaurant Les Celebrities, I lifted a spoonful of Joel Robuchon’s Caviar Egg to my mouth, my failure to visit Troisgros sooner was the single biggest culinary mistake I have made in my entire life.
There is something special about La Maison Troisgros. The minute you step foot over the threshold, some sort of magic spell is cast over you and you sense that you are in the midst of culinary greatness. Sure I know that is a cliché. But aside from Michel Bras, just about two hours and a half hours down the road, I don’t know of another hotel/restaurant that oozes culinary greatness out of every pore the way Troisgros does. I’ve often wondered why it exudes that feeling. Is it because every inch of the place is tastefully done? Is it because everywhere you look there are subtle reminders you that you are there to be a serious diner? Is it the mezzanine that is lurking behind the front desk which acts as a library and which is loaded with cookbooks, or is it the gorgeous cave just a half flight below the lobby where row of after row of grand bottlings reside? Whatever it is, I’ve found that very few three star restaurants actually impart the feeling that they have captured at Troisgros. Somehow, the Troisgros family has managed to create what I believe is the perfect environment for a superb gastronomic experience.
Dining festivities began in a small bar to the side of the main dining room. After ordering glasses of Champagne, they presented the menus and wine list and after a few minutes had gone by, the Captain returned to our table to discuss what we might like to eat for dinner. I inquired about a dish that I had seen on the menu when I was at the restaurant about seven months earlier, and he cut me off mid-sentence to excuse himself for a moment. A minute or so later he returned with Michel Troisgros in tow so that he could personally welcome me back to the restaurant. It was a nice touch and it made us feel like we were important customers. Score one for the restaurant.
We chatted with Michel for a few minutes inquiring about whether Americans were coming to the restaurant given the poor exchange rate, and then we managed to get around to discussing what he thought was good to eat that evening. He excused himself to go back to the kitchen, but now we were armed with a bit of inside inside info. And with our Captain’s help, we plotted out a tasting menu mixing dishes off the carte and truffle menu. Then after enjoying amuse of Comte cheese with shaved cauliflower, cherry tomato with chopped tete de veau, and Jerusalem artichoke with green apple and anis, we moved into the dining room.
Our meal started with flocons de chataigne avec truffe, chestnut "snow" with truffles and butter. Dabs of butter were sprinkled with chestnuts that had been boiled then sautéed, and then grated into what looked like snowflakes after which they were topped with shaved truffles. The dish was presented on a round slab with the ingredients applied ala Jackson Pollock. An absolutely hedonistic dish, in the confines of my own home I could have easily picked up the serving platter and licked it clean.
Tete de veau, head cheese with stewed tomatoes, thin green pepper, pickle, dill and pea shoots in vinaigrette seemed like the right dish at this point of the meal. Actually, my inclination towards the dish was based on seeing wonderful examples of tete de veau on my last two visits to the restaurant. But this turned out to be a completely different preparation right out of Michel Troigros’s cuisine acidulee playbook. A mstake on my part for ordering it as turned out to be the wrong dish given the menu I had planned. Maybe it would have been more enjoyable in the midst of a different type of progression.
Warm oysters and cumin wrapped in sorrel leaves topped with an almond. I quite like this dish. Someone at our table had it during my last visit to the restaurant and I’ve had the urge to get it ever since. It is almost finger food. In fact in a less formal environment I would probably pick them up with my fingers to eat. The oysters were nice and plump, and when you bit into the sorrel the flavor exploded into your mouth. Somehow this dish is a good representation of Michel Troisgros' cuisine in that it pairs the brininess of the oysters with the slighty sour taste of the sorrel.
Frog's Legs with coriander topped with thinly sliced shaved cauliflower in olive oil, ginger, tamarind, lemongrass and hazelnut finished in clarified butter. For me this is what three star dining is all about. Probably the best frog’s leg dish I’ve ever had. A sauce of clarified butter and spices gave the dish a luxurious quality and it made the dish irresistible. The thinly sliced cauliflower added great texture and flavor by imparting a slight crunchiness. File this away in the category of perfect appetizer. Ridiculously enough,things were going to get even better with the next dish.
Coquille St. Jacques with Truffles, Fish Stock, Butter, Cream and Leeks and topped with crisp Phylo Dough. The quality of the scallops was superb, right up there with the best scallops that I’ve had which were at Arpege. And the broth was to die for. Like a creamy truffle milkshake. I could have eaten bowls of the stuff. Or maybe they should have served it to me in one of those metal whipped cream canisters so I could have shpritzed it all over my food.
Salmon in Sorrel Sauce which is their signature dish. For those of you who have never had or even seen this dish before, the sauce is made from minced shallots, cream, vermouth, fish stock and sorrel. The combination makes for a unique tart quality and it is a perfect foil for the oily salmon. I always thought the minced shallots were the secret ingredient as they give the dish just a slight bit of crunch. This particular version was fairly classic execution of the dish and not really different than the other times I’ve had it. These guys must be able to make this dish in their sleep.
Sweetbreads up next served with endives, grapes, mustard, capers, citrus and thinly sliced lemon. This was the dish of the night for me and one of the best things I ate all year. The quality of the sweetbreads (from Charolais veal according to Michel) was the best I ever had. Beautifully firm and without the any of the off flavors that sweetbreads sometimes have. Another dish where the viscocity of the sauce made the dish seem luxious. When Michel visited our table after the meal, I inquired as to the cooking method of the sweetbreads and he told me that his father and uncle came up with a way of cooking sweetbreads thirty years ago and they still use the same method.
While the pigeon, foie gras and truffles served in breaded and fried cabbage leaves was a good dish, I didn't like it anywhere as much as the other dishes. Compared to some of the other dishes which were riveting, this presentation was a bit classic. Maybe I am picking nits because this was surely a top notch dish. But for me it didn't have the wow factor that some of the other dishes had. Even the pigeon which was very good quality, wan't the best example of pigeon that I had on my trip.
Desserts were a delicious light coffee ice cream with truffle foam, and an assortment of creams, sorbets with and chocolates with four flavor combinations – mint and chocolate, pear-lemon and coffee, yogurt and griottes, and banana-passion fruit.
With three visits within a twelve month period, I think I have a pretty good handle on Michel Troigros's cuisine. Some people find Michel’s obsession with his Cuisine Acidulee a bit tiring and not always to their taste. But I’ve only had great experiences and as a result I am quite fond of the entire approach. And while his cuisine isn't as majestic as Pierre Gagnaire’s cuisine, nor as intellectual as Alain Passard’s, and it doesn’t have the modernity that Michel Bras’ cuisine has, there is a logic to it and it evokes a tradition of great dining like few restaurants do. Looking back on the meal, five of the seven dishes we were served merited three stars. Usually if a restaurant serves two or three dishes that merit that rating, that would be an accomplishment. But five three star dishes out of seven? It’s quite amazing, and more importantly, completely in keeping with their obviously well-deserved reputation. A+