I have a penchant for dining at places that are about to be bestowed their third Michelin star. Last year, I had a table booked at Sant Pao and within days the word came down of its promotion. This year, it was L'Astrance. I booked a table in December for a date late in January and, soon enough, there were rumors of its promotion. Let's see if I can accomplish the same feat in 2008. But unlike Sant Pao, which had already been promoted by the time I dined there, at the time of my meal at L'Astrance, its promotion was nothing more than a rumor (which was confirmed a week ago). But the circumstance made for an amusing evening and allowed me to joke with Pascal and Christophe, telling them that after the promotion they were going to have to borrow huge sums of money and move to larger and flashier quarters where Pascal will have to fancify his cuisine to pay off his bankers.
So how does a restaurant that seats twenty-five people, has a wait staff of five including Christophe, with a dining room the size of a decent hotel room, and which only serves lunch and dinner on Tuesday through Friday, manage to earn three Michelin stars? The key is in Christophe's answers to my teasing him about moving: "Things are perfect now" he told me. "We work hard for four days, have the weekend to relax and be with our families, and Monday's are for taking care of administrative work." He went on to say that, "we couldn't do it that way if we moved to a larger space." In an era where celebrity chefs are jet-setting all over the globe to open new locations while their flagship restaurants deteriorate in the process, Christophe's and Pascal's commitment to maintaining a high quality of cuisine, as well as a high quality of life, is a breath of fresh air.
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.
L'Astrance, Hotel Lion D'Or, Troisgros, Nicolas Le Bec, Phillipe Rochat
Let me start off by offering my apologies. For the past few months I have been in the process of starting up a new business (details to be announced shortly), and I am woefully behind in posting my meals on the site. Even worse, the fall dining season is upon us and I've just returned from a week in Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest. So before I fall so far behind that the reviews lose their relevancy, I thought that a summary of my meals, one for Europe and another one for the U.S., would be the best way to update the site and make everyone happy. Some of these meals go back as far as the 3rd week of January and run through the beginning of May. The meals are listed chronologically and the photos are posted below the reviews. In addition I have updated the photo galleries with nearly 30 new photos of chefs and dishes. Enjoy!
Among the variables that can impact one's meal, the context of the dining experience might be the hardest one to quantify. Assessing things like quality of the ingredients or the skill of the chef might be an imprecise exercise, but those who are avid students of the craft of dining eventually learn how to make reasonable determinations. For example, one can leasily earn how to determine whether they are eating prime or choice beef. Or with a little practice, one can determine whether the ingredients they are eating deserve the lofty A.O.C. pedigree. One can even learn how to determine if the chef is doing his job properly. Has that sauce sitting under your filet been made properly or is it seperating and coming apart at the seams? All in all, there are numerous ways one can assess the culinary aspects of a meal. But when it comes to things that are ancillary to the cuisine, how does one go about measuring how much they impact your meal?
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that ambience makes food taste better. After all, Bresse chicken of a certain quality tastes like, er, Bresse chicken of a certain quality. But if there was a restaurant where ambiance and environment made a meal more enjoyable, a recent lunch at Auberge de L'Ill stated the best case I had ever experienced. The setting alongside the very delicate river Ill was picture perfect, and if weather was something you could order off the menu, I am certain this is the day we would have ordered. So before anyone says that Plotnicki has gone off the reservation and overrated this meal just because of the glorious day and setting, I thought I'd offer full disclosure that maybe, just maybe, it swayed me a little bit.
I ended up having dinner at Arpege through a circuitous route. My original plans were to dine at the restaurant in the Hotel Meurice. But the response to my email said that the restaurant was going to be closed on the date I was interested in. Since this was going to be my first night in Paris, and I wanted to have a meal that set the proper tone for what was going to be a rather long trip that was focused on dining, what was I to do instead? In my mind I rifled through the other Parisian three stars restaurants to see if I could come uo with an adequate replacement. I quickly dismissed what I will describe as the lower three-star restaurants such as Guy Savoy or Le Grand Vefour. You could eat well at those restaurants, but I was looking for a chef had the potential to serve us an ethereal meal. That really means just three restaurants when it comes to Paris dining: Pierre Gagnaire, L'Ambroisie and Arpege.
The problem was that I had eaten at all three of those restaurants within the last year, and each had its issues. Though Bernard Pacaud is a top-notch chef, his cuisine at L'Ambroisie is stuck in a time warp and we left feeling bored with our meal. But ultimately it didn't matter because we were talking about a Monday evening and I realized L'Ambroisie is closed on Mondays. Then I thought of Gagnaire. My last meal there hit some tremendous heights, but it also had some ridiculously low lows for a restaurant of its stature. And the last meal that Mrs. P and I had at Arpege was downright mediocre, without a single exceptional dish being served in the entire meal. I racked my brain to think of a replacement. I haven't been to Eric Frechon at Le Bristol or Les Ambassadeurs at Le Crillon, but they both seemed like they were going to be too classic to wow us. This was now verging on a crisis.
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.)
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.
My second visit to Michel Bras came on a day in May when the weather was glorious. I flew down on a neat little jet from Orly that was a bit late in departing. But I was lucky to have friends greet me at the airport in Rodez. Food broker extraordinaire Marc Cosnard des Closets, and his wife Nikki, moved to the Aveyron from the 11th arrondisement about a year ago and they were going to join our little group at Bras. The restaurant was about a forty five minute drive from the airport and we arrived at about half past seven. I quickly checked in and threw the drapes open so I could soak in some of the amazing view before dinner.