Sao Pao, Gaig, Buerhiesal, L'Arnsbourg, Le Cerf, Le Meurice
The second and final installment of reviews of meals in Spain and France which I haven't had time to write up. The meals all took place between late January and May of this year. Looking back at these dozen meals, what strikes me are the significant number of meals that I can easily describe as less than acceptable. I would love to explain it by being able to point a finger at a single cause but unfortunately it isn't that simple. Some restaurants have chefs that appear to be overrated and some restaurants are cooking in culinary styles that are dated. When a restaurant douses more than one dish with a salty and overreduced veal demi-glace, it makes one wonder when the last time the guidebooks who continue to award the restaurant their highest honors have tasted the cuisine. Or maybe the problem they don't know the difference between contemporary cuisine and one that has is long out of style? On the other hand, there were a few bright spots in Spain. But given the price of a haute cuisine meal in Europe, some of these restaurants need to do much better. Or maybe the guidebooks shouldn't be as slow to demote restaurants whose culinary style has become a bit long in the tooth.
Sao Pao really deserves a feature review of its own. Unfortunately we had an abbreviated meal because earlier that day we had a rather large lunch at Comerc 24 where our waiter suggested that the portions were sufficient for just one person when they easily could have served three. We had thought of cancelling but the idea of missing a reservation at a restaurant that had just been awarded its third Michelin star a month earlier was unacceptable unless one was deathly ill in bed. So there we were, boarding a commuter train at the Playa Catalunya that was so crowded that we were packed as tight as anchois in a jar. After a 45 minute ride up the coast (fortunately after about 30 minutes the train began to empty out), we took the short walk from the station to the restaurant. I'm sure that you won't be surprised to hear that as soon as I sat down in the restaurant and they handed me the menu, my hunger started to revive itself. But the others at the table persevered and they limited me to a tasting menu of four dishes chosen off the restaurant's carte.
We started with roasted foie gras, quince jelly, endive and sweet wine from Mataro. It was a nice dish but fairly standard and more French in style than Spanish or Catalan. Than one of the best dishes I have had this year. Espardenyes with potato puree, olive oil, courgettes, parsley and pesto. What made the dish unique was the way the potato puree was incorporated into the oive oil. Typically you would find mashed potatoes with olive oil infused but this was olive oil with a bit of potato puree infused. The result was a slightly grainy olive oil with a bit of body to it. Superb culinary technique. Then sole with pumpkin, courgette, tomato and tea of red fruits which was less successful but not for lack of trying. The sole was a hair firm, and the tea was both applied as a powder and added as a foam. It needed a bit of sweetness in my opinion as it ended up as too much of a study in bitter flavors for my personal taste. Then a super-delicious bowl of red gambas from Denia with a wonderfully thick seafood broth and perfectly al dente rice that I'm still dreaming about. A restaurant I have to visit again so I can have a proper meal. A-
Gaig is located on the second floor of Barcelona's Hotel Cram. Unlike most upscale restaurants in European cities which invariably come off as a bit provincial no matter how modern they are, Gaig has the look and feel of a restaurant that could be located in any U.S. urban center and on a Friday evening the restaurant was frequented by a combination of businessmen and locals. Chef Carlos Gaig (the most recent in a line of chefs operating a restaurant using the Gaig name going back to 1844) has done a good job of crafting a cuisine to match the environment by taking rustic Catalan dishes and refining them in a way that makes culinary sense while still maintaining the soul of the dish.
I started with a soup of chickpea cream with pork chin and caviar which sounded a lot more exotic than it tasted. But things drastically improved from there with a bowl of "Bomba Rice", rice cooked in a pigeon stock and served with chunks of pigeon which was delicious. A square of suckling pig with apple jam and a side salad with citrus and pomegranite made was classicly Catalan with just the right combination of savory, sweet and acid. Gaig's deconstructed crema Catalana, which turned out to be burnt sugar ice cream topped with whipped cream on top, was one of the few interesting desserts I had this year and a nice varation on a classic dish. Not a restaurant worth travelling out of your way for but th best formal meal I've had in Barcelona and a place I would go back to if I didn't want to travel to one of the multi-star restaurants up the Catalan coast. B
Some very good sources, including some very experienced diners and a few top quality professional chefs, told me that Yannick Alleno was a solid two star chef who was on track for his third star. So when my meal at Le Meurice turned out to be a contender for the worst meal I have had over the last ten years, nobody was more surprised than I was. Before I get to the totally uninspired cuisine, let me add that both Mrs. P and I despised the decor of the restaurant. Done up in that faux-aristocratic style of the palace hotels of Europe, it's the restaurant equivelent of being invited to someone's home for dinner where you dine on their faux Louis XV furniture. I can't think of a less appealing environment to eat dinner in.
Despite the decor, good food could have saved the meal but it was not to be. Things started out well with a delicious spring pea soup with a meringue topping that was slightly caramelized. But things went very far downhill from there with cod cooked with seaweed and served with sauteed green asparagus and curry. You know a dish is bad when Mrs. P takes a forkffull of food and pushes the dish aside proclaiming that it isn't worth eating. Then grilled blue lobster with coral vinaigrette with mashed eggplant which was terrible. Why would anyone in their right mind serve lobster with bitter mashed eggplant? Blech. Things deteriorated even further with a duck foie gras poached in Chambertin wine served with elbow pasta stuffed with green pea puree which Mrs. P ceremoniously proclaimed as the "worst foie gras dish I ever ate". Things improved a bit with a dish of sweetbreads flavored with nutmeg served with green asparagus (the third course that included asparagus), peas and broad beans. Actually it was on the plain side but light years ahead of the other three dishes which were absolutely poor. I don't know if I was there on an off night or something but Yannick Alleno was there prowling the dining room. Ridiculously poor. D
As opposed to the kitschy center of town, full of timbered buildings evoking images of sausages and beer steins, Buerhiesal resides in a discreet 19th century mansion in the Strasbourg neighborhood where most of the embassies are located. The two neighborhoods make for quite a contrast and before I tasted his cuisine, it caused me to speculate if Antoinne Westermann had crafted a cuisine that somehow split the middle of refined haute cuisine with an Alsatian cuisine that was hearty and full-flavored. Instead I found an exceptionally subtle cuisine that somewhat relied on Alsatian culinary concepts, but not to the extent that made it especially interesting.
We started with a scallop carpaccio with Jerusalem artichoke and black truffles (not pictured) which was acceptable but rather ordinary. But then we had the house signature dish of Frog's Legs which was just fantastic. And I mean fantastic. Something everyone should eat at least once. Then a sole with fava beans and morels which was less successful. Not a bad dish but a three star restaurant needs to pack more wow into their cuisine. Then a much too subtle Barbary duck liver in a ginger bouillion with a pot au feu of vegetables. To me this dish epitomized what I didn't like about Westermann's cuisine. It had great potential but it was much too subtle in terms of how it was executed. Then a Bresse chicken prepared backeoffe style with lemongrass. This dish should have been exploding with flavor but once again it was so subtle that it almost appeared to be plain boiled chicken. Worth visiting for the frog's legs which would make a perfect lunch along with a bottle of wine and some crusty bread. Save dinner for that hearty choucroutte in the center of town. B-
Are we in Germany yet? We were in a taxi that originated in Strasbourg and the drive seemed like it was taking forever. Finally we pulled up in front of the restaurant as we were hitting the 50 minute mark. Literally in the middle of nowhere, L'Arnsbourg is housed in a small manse that is out of three star restaurant central casting. Given the remote location, a few kilometers down a one lane road outside of a tiny Alsatian town, the restaurant had little to do with the local architecture and it could have been located anywhere in France. More surprising was finding a large restaurant with every table full. To say that the room was buzzing is an understatement. I can't remember the last tine I was at a three star restaurant that had that much energy in the room.
A number of my friends had reported that L'Arnsbourg had "really delicious" food. I found this was true in part. Some dishes worked really well and some were just drab. What I found most disconcerting was the schizophrenic nature of the meal. The amuse were as if they were served at a modern restaurant in Spain and included things like chocolate covered bacon and thin strands of spiced and candied rhubarb. But the set courses on the Chef's tasting menu were far more conventional. Carpaccio of veal with white truffle honey, small cubes of feta and granny smith apple was clever but a tad subtle. Raw veal isn't exactly the most flavorful of foods and it made for an awkward transition after the amuse which were bursting with flavor. Then the best dish of the night. Lobster in a lobster broth with gnocchi of potato and a foie gras and truffle combination which was formed into the shape of ravioli but which melted when the lobster broth was poured into the bowl. Then more foie gras. Grilled and served with amaretto, potato and oil made out of prune pits. Very reminiscent of the way the foie is prepared at the Fat Duck but not as delicious. Then one of the worst dishes I've had this year. Sole in a eucalyptus flavored veal jus with topped with a rosemary and sage flavored cubes which again, melted into the broth. God it was awful. Like eating sole that was prepared in Vick's Vapo-Rub. Though the meal was mixed, I wouldn't mind giving the place another chance as the good dishes showed lots of potential. B
I had wanted to eat at Le Cerf ever since Patricia Wells wrote about the restaurant in the first edition of "The Food Lover's Guide to France." Wells wrote of a dish that combined salmon, bacon and lentils and I had pined for it ever since I first read about it. Now twenty odd years later, before taking a late afternoon flight back to Paris, I saved scheduled my last meal in Alsace for Le Cerf because if its proximity to the Strasbourg airport. We arrived close to 2:00 because of a detour on the Route Nationale but we recieved a warm greeting when we entered the restaurant despite the late hour.
The best way to describe Le Cerf is old fashioned. Both in terms of the food and the look and feel of the restaurant. It is a protypical example of a restaurant in the French countryside that was awarded a Michelin star, or two in this case, over two decades ago and which has done little to change to adapt to modern times. This goes for the clientele as well which is probably the same core of people that frequented the restaurant in the 1980's. And while that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, in Le Cerf's case, the cuisine, the physical restaurant and the clientele all seem a bit tired. The salmon dish Wells wrote about wasn't on the menu so I had a platter of gratineed oysters. The oysters were plump and juicy but the gratinee couldn't make its mind up between being refined or hearty. Sweetbreads with asparagus and morels were a bit more refined although the sweetbreads were a tad gamey. Then St. Pierre from Quiberon with an intense bouillabaisse sauce which wasn't bad but which was a mistake to order as it didn't fit with the rest of the menu. Le Cerf is the type of restaurant that visitors to France used to dream about eating at. But since the day Wells wrote about, access to top quality cuisine has gotten much wasier for people who live outside of France and that has nearly eliminated the need to visit this type of restaurant. C