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Thursday, December 04, 2003

Encore chez Robuchon, Hermé, Mariage and Hévin, all in a day's work

Martin and I met early in the morning at Waterloo for our Eurostar trip to Paris for the day. Our plan for a gourmandise day included a lunch at Pierre Gagnaire or l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, pastry at Pierre Hermé, tea at Mariage Frères, and chocolate at Jean Paul Hévin.

I'd also invited Robin to join us. Martin had told me not to let Majumdar come but I assumed he only meant Simon. :-) Unfortunately Robin decided against it at the last minute, after finding out at the station earlier that morning (poor Robin!) that his impromptu ticket would have set him back 300 quid!

So Martin and I went off with only each other as company. The day was cold and the wind raw when we arrived at Gard du Nord. Our attempt at a last minute table at Gagnaire failed so we used our contingency plan, which brought me back yet again chez Robuchon.

Martin hadn't been there before and found the missing external door knob quite puzzling. The hostess appeared to open the door and took our names, telling us to come back for our seats at ten past one. This was a new system, when I was there in the summer they didn't even take names but let a queue form outside. I gathered the winter in Paris wasn't terribly conducive to queuing outdoor. I like this new system, as it felt a bit more civilized than the old one.

We went down the street for a pre-lunch beer, or a fizzy water in my case. We were seated rather promptly after returning at the appointed time. I looked around to see if my server from the last time, Christophe, was at work that day. Unfortunately he wasn't.

We were seated to the left, where I had a bad experience one day in August. Luckily this time was different, the service was attentive and our seats were conveniently at a corner, making it quite easy to sustain a conversation without straining our necks.

We ordered a number of dishes to share, crème de châtaigne (chestnut soup), ravioli de langoustine truffe (ravioli of langoustine and white truffle), the same anchois dish that I had in the summer, suprême de pigeon au choux et foie gras (pigeon and goie gras wrapped in cabbage), and the plat size dishes of côtelettes d'agneau de lozere (lambchops with thyme flower) and a foie de veau (veal liver). To drink, Martin chose a very nice bottle of St.Esteph, but of which year I didn't remember.

The chestnut soup was fantastic, light and frothy yet ultra-creamy soup with chunks of fried foie gras and sweet chestnuts. It was a perfect dish for a lunch on a cold day. I liked the ravioli but didn't find it earth shattering. It was rather light on the white truffle, which, due to the reported shortage this year, I didn't find it surprising. I thought the anchovies were quite nice, but then again I am a big fan of anchovies. Martin thought them rather pleasant as well. Neither one of us liked the suprême much. I didn't like it the last time I had it either, but this was the dish that got our friend Steve swooning after his first bite, so Martin insisted that we had it. I was fine with ordering it again, but I definitely gave him the “I told you so” look after we each had a bite. It was rather dull tasting, and the foie gras wasn't de-veined.

The two main dishes were great. The flavorful lambchops cooked just perfectly medium rare. The delectable veal liver was cooked just right, with a perfectly brown thin crust on the outside, and the creamiest and perfectly red and soft interior. The veal liver was served with a light vinaigrette, and plenty of chives on top. Each dish was also served with Robuchon's fabled pomme purée. I'm sorry I simply can't translate it for you, calling that dreamy and delicately creamy concoction “mashed potato” is just far too severe. Luckily, Martin and I each had a portion to ourselves, we may not have otherwise remained friends afterwards.

Martin didn't want any dessert, and I was full and not sufficiently inspired by anything on the dessert menu, so we opted not to have any. I was planning ahead to go to Pierre Hermé's patisserie nearby to buy something anyway, so I wasn't so disappointed.

I must say that Robuchon's Atelier is rapidly becoming my favorite place to lunch in Paris, especially when I'm in town alone for work. I love the format, small plates and sushi bar seating, which got even the recalcitrant French talking to their neighbours. The food is always very good, if not quite up to Robuchon's old 3 star standard, but then again the price is not quite as expensive either. The bottom line is you get what you pay for, a very good meal, with very good ingredients prepared lightly by skillful hands, what more does one want? The wine list also carries quite a variety of by the glass, a perfect compliment to the small plate format.

We decided to take a walk, or a waddle rather, to rue Bonaparte to Hermé's shop. Though it was still rather cold, I had so much to eat at lunch that I really could use that walk! After a wrong turn, I finally got us through the cold to Pierre Hermé's jewelry shop-like patisserie. I bought his famous (and my favorite) Isaphan, an assortment of Macarons, including a rather odd tasting white truffle macaron, a tarte au chocolat and tarte au citron. I also scored a few jars of Christine Ferber's delightful confitures. Martin was duly impressed.

The next stop, as the day was getting late, was Mariage Frères to buy tea. Mariage is my favorite teashop in the world. I have been going there for a while, and know them somewhat well. Martin wrote about our day for our other friends and described our time there as only he could. Here's the passage on Mariage and my tea buying expedition..

Our third taxi of the day took us to the Freres Mariage tea shop. Now for the English folk reading this, that's not tea-shop or teashop but tea shop. This place (founded 1854) sells tea and almost nothing else apart from some very interesting and exotic teapots and accoutrements. The walls of the shop are lined floor to ceiling with shelves containing tins of tea. Chinese, Sri Lankan, Indian, Russian, African (yep, just try their Zulu Special !), South American, and heaven knows where else. And dozens of varieties of each, and each of those with variations and sub-options. As a wild guess, they probably had a thousand different teas on display, and quite a lot more in the cellar (for their special customers, you understand)

Pim is one of those special customers here, and she had several discussions with her appointed server about flushes (first and second, not hot !) and he would recommend something they just had in and let her sniff a ladleful before she chose. I just watched in awe. I used to think that tea was the stuff that came in little filmy bags which you threw into a cup and poured hot water over. Now I know better, especially after I saw the prices !!! Tea is just like wine. It's a whole field of expert endeavour, where an expert knows which are the good tea plantations, which are the good years, what are the best months to buy from one or the other, what teas blend well with which others, and probably what is the best shape to cut each different kind of leaf. Pim can taste tea and tell you what it is, where it came from, and all those other things too --- just like a wine taster.

I love Martin!

We still had a bit of time before our train was scheduled to depart at Gard du Nord, so we cabbed to Jean Paul Hévin's chocolaterie in the 1st. I bought some truffles and some hot chocolate for our January hot chocolate tasting.

So ended our sojourn to Paris, with full tummies and bags full of pastries, chocolates and teas. Martin and I promised to do it again next time I'm in town. Hopefully we'll make it to Gagnaire then.


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