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Saturday, May 29, 2004

Les Ambassadeurs: I can't quite make up my mind yet

April 29th, 2004

truffledsole2One of my lunches in Paris last month was at Les Ambassadeurs at L'hôtel Crillon. I wanted to go back to the hotel Crillon to try the new chef, Jean-François Piège, who came from Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée.

He's one of the hottest young chefs in Paris at the moment. I was curious to see how he did outside of chef Ducasse's shadow. Unfortunately, my schedule only permitted a lunch.

The day started out with a lovely walk in the Marais. I intended to show Doug and Tamar the Musée Picasso, but by the time we were done with our walk, which included a few stops at various lovely shops in the Marais and a promenade around the beautiful Place des Vosges to glance longingly toward the general direction of L'Ambroisie, we were so late that we had to skip the museum and jump into a cab to Le Crillon.

Unfortunately, this being the high season of protests, around May Day, there were at least two huge manifestations in the city, wreaking havoc on the traffic and turning Rue de Rivoli into a veritable parking lot. We were almost late to our lunch reservation.

By the time we got there, I was ravenously hungry, not to mention severely dehydrated, that I quaffed down the champagne I was offered as an apéritif in practically one gulp. Bad idea, as I later realized.

The restaurant is on the gound floor of the ultra-luxe hotel Crillon, on the fancy Place de la Concorde, at the other end of the fame Champs-Elysées from L'Arc de Triomphe. True to the luxurious surroundings, Les Ambassadeurs is opulently decorated. The new decor—it had just been redecorated—felt lighter than before. The room was more airy and brighter than I remembered. This was the first time I was there at lunch though, so I wasn't entirely sure if the changes were a result of the new décor or simply of the beautiful Spring light that poured in through the large windows.

We finally settled down to order some food. My two lunch companions decided to take the Menu Déjeuner, so I followed suite. The Menu Déjeuner had two choices each for the entrée, plat, and dessert courses, with an additional option of cheese instead of dessert.

soupamuseThe amuse, strangely enough, arrived in the form of a soup, a light consommé of flavorful dried mushroom. This was definitely the first time in a fancy French restaurant that I've ever been served soup, in a bowl, not a shot glass, as an amuse. The soup came with a small packet of dried and slightly woody tasting mushroom, hanging like a tea bag at the edge of the bowl. It was slightly odd looking but cute enough. The soup tasted fine, but nothing spectacular really.

herbedbutterWe were also given a few toasted breadsticks with herbed butter, which again was just nice. This was not a very impressive start.

springpeasoupLuckily, things began to change when my first course arrived. I opted for the starter of Fin velouté de petits pois, royale/emulsion. The name of the dish was so simple, but the actual soup was far from that. The frothy and smooth soup hid a thin layer of the silkiest custard flavored with foie gras, and garnished with a few pieces of crunchy lettuce cut to look almost like basil leaves. In fact, those mini lettuces so resembled basil, they confused even our waiter. I had to assure him that they tasted nothing like basil, so he was forced into the kitchen to ask the chef what they actually were. (This was the only glitch in the service during the whole meal.) To get back to the soup itself, it was simply perfect, perfectly conceived and executed. I was in heaven.

hiddenfoirgrasThe other entrée at the table was Foie gras de canard en transparence de navet, sucre de vieux Porto (Foie gras hidden under transparent turnips, sweet Port sauce). The presentation of this dish reminded me a little of Alain Passard Lobster dish, also served hidden under paper thin slices of turnips. That, however, was where the similarity ended. The pan fried foie gras was tasty, though I found the sauce to be slightly too assertive and sweet for my taste. My companions seemed to like them just fine though.

truffledsoleMy second course was Sole de petit bateau, févettes/oignions/côtes de sucrine, jus truffé. The day-boat Sole was filet and served with young fava beans, onion, sweet romaine lettuce, and asparagus. The accompanying sauce was flavored with plenty of black truffles. More sauce was served on the side in a small porcelain bowl.

The fish was impeccably fresh, so fresh and just perfectly cooked that the flesh fought a little with me as I tried to cut into it. It was undeniably firm, even elastic, yet so soft and practically melted on my tongue. The sauce was a perfect compliment, with the earthy flavor of the truffle accentuating the sweet sole. The side bowl of sauce was an overkill though. There was such a thing as too much of a good thing. The side of vegetable, on the other hand, was quite lovely, a nice expression of Spring.

pigeonstuffedfoieMy two companions both had the pigeon. I'm not sure how it tasted as I didn't try it. It looked quite pretty, but not compelling enough for me to risk the rich taste of the pigeon and its sauce ruining my perfectly delicate fish.

I had a nice glass of white wine with my food. I'm drawing a bit of a blank on what it was. I remember it tasting quite nice, but I lost the paper on which the sommelier wrote the names of all my wines. Sorry.

desserttableSo ended our savory course. Before our actual dessert arrived, we were served some lovely pre-desserts of fraises des bois (wild strawberries), vanilla macarons, and something resembling mini churros with raspberry coulis. They kept us happily busy until our desserts arrived.

vanilledessertsI had the Dégustation autour de la vanille, a tasting of vanilla desserts. The plate arrived with Griesflammerie, which is an Austrian dessert similar to flan, and millefeuille with vanilla custard cream. This was something of a let down, actually. Not that it tasted bad, but I was expecting something as grand as the name “Dégustation autour de la vanille”. What I was expecting was a Gagnaire-esque treatment of vanilla in all its glory (and, occasionally, defeat), not just a couple vanilla flavored desserts.

chocomousseMy companions had the gâteau croustillant of milk chocolate, banana, and lime. It didn't look very appetizing, actually. There was a bit of a glossy, plastic-y, look about it. The bite I had wasn't so impressive either, tasting simply of sugar but little of other things.

Doug and I had a very nice sweet wine with our desserts, and finally finishing with a nicely pulled shot of espresso.

My final assessment of chef Piège at Les Ambassadeurs is still somewhat inconclusive. There were some true sparks of brilliance in this meal, but also some real disappointments. One factor could be that it was lunch, and so I really didn't have enough opportunities to decisively make up my mind. There was a lot of positive things about the meal, the service was, mostly, impeccable, and the food largely satisfying. The wow factor, the velouté de petits pois, was absolutely fantastic. The very good bit, the sole and truffle sauce, was also wonderfully executed.

There was something missing, however. A better pastry chef is one, but also something else. I cannot quite put my fingers on it. Would I go back? Absolutely. I will be back for dinner next time, and see how I really like his cooking at the new place. I'll keep you posted.

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