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Monday, October 04, 2004

Restaurant Le Meurice: a fabulous 3-star in the making


My foray into haute cuisine a couple of weeks ago in Paris produced a big hit and a miss. The hit was at the relatively new star on the horizon, Le Meurice, with the talented and seriously cute chef Yannick Alléno at the helm. The miss was at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, yes, L'Arpège. How very sad? Well, I'm not quite in the mood to talk about the disappointment at L'Arpège yet, so shall we start with the delightful new discovery, Le Meurice?

I've been saying for a while now that the two most exciting places to eat when it comes to haute cuisine in Paris are Les Ambassadeurs at the Crillon and Le Meurice at the hotel Meurice. I have not given up on my old favorites, L'Arpège, Pierre Gagnaire, and L'Ambroisie, not at all, but it would take a lot of convincing for me to go to the other old guards like La Tour d'Argent, Taillevent, or other gastronomique restaurants from where one could, as dear Mr.Finch put it, smell laurels being sit upon from miles away.

The reason I picked these two young-ish chefs as most exciting to watch was clearly because of their pedigree and perceptible drive to succeed. Jean-François Piège, the chef at Les Ambassadeurs, came from the top spot chez Alain Ducasse, and is now poised to continue to make huge waves on his own. The other one, the slighter older – yes and way cuter – Yannick Alléno, caused a sensation when he received the very generous, and unprecedented, two Michelin stars after having arrived at the stove at Le Meurice only six months prior.

I had a nice lunch at Les Ambassadeurs a few months back – for which the jury is still out for me, sort of – and plan to wait until I go back for dinner before I really make up my mind. As for Le Meurice, I finally managed to have dinner there the last time I was in Paris just before my birthday.

The run-up to that dinner wasn't exactly great: I emailed the restaurant for a reservation the week before my trip and never heard back from them. I simply assumed that they were full and pretty much forgot about it. Fast forward a few days, I was in Paris, it was Friday morning, in my colleague Jean-Charles's car being driven from the office to a field site, my cell phone rang. Guess who? Yes, it indeed was the restaurant, confirming my dinner that same night. Oh dear. I forgot about that reservation, luckily I hadn't quite made any plan except to meet up with Adrian very late that night for some drinks. I was slightly miffed about it and felt like calling the whole thing off, but I let the curiosity get the better of me and agreed to keep the table instead.

I showed up for dinner by myself, not entirely in a good mood as I was rather tired from the long day at the office. I was prepared to be given the “single diner” treatment, as in being relegated to a tiny table by the kitchen door, and was rather surprised to be led to a very pleasant table by the fireplace in a gorgeous – if a tad opulent in the all golden and marbled style – dining room. The hotel Meurice is one of the oldest and grandest hotels in Paris, and this dining room appeared to have been restored to its former glory.

I was seated and immediately offered champagne comme aperitif while perusing the menu. There were quite a few very tempting items on the a la carte, namely, Turbot rôti sur l'os à moelle (turbot roasted on the bone), Canard sauvage aux dix épices (wild duck with 10 spices), Suprême de Géline du pays de Racan cuit sur l'os (whole grouse), but – as this was my first time at his table – I decided to go for the set menu dégustation to get a good tour around the chef's repertoire.

I had a very nice chat with my wine server, a woman no less, about my wine. I was interested in drinking a couple of different wines to go with my meal, but being jetlagged, tired, and alone, I wasn't in the mood to get completely sloshed. So, we decided that she would pour me two glasses, something white to go with the first few courses, and something red for the meat course. We would see at dessert time if I could still handle anything sticky. This is the standard conversation I always have with sommeliers at these restaurants, because I often find myself either alone or with less adventuresome American colleagues. I find that most of them – the nicer ones anyhow – don't have any problem at all with my request. The sommelier tonight was also very obliging, she asked a few questions about the wines I like so she could pour the wines that would be to my taste. That was a very lovely touch indeed.

LmamuseAs soon as my menu was whisked away, my glass of water filled, a cute little ceramic mold with a toothpick sticking out of it arrived at the table. It was the pre-amuse, a Savarin of sort - at least in the traditional shape of a savarin anyway - if a bit more bread-y. It was crispy on the outside, and soft and gougère-like on the inside. It was delicious, I was hungry, so I dispatched of the whole thing in a bite or two.

Lmcoquilles_1The next item was another amuse, a trio of sweet little coquille St.Jacques, in the shells and bathed in a creamy and delicious sauce. This meal was turning out rather well.

LmanchoisThen came Anchois Frais assaisonnés comme un taboulé : beignets croustillants de légume du sud. A fresh-off-the-boat anchovy that tasted like the sea itself, layered on top of sweet pepper, cucumber gelée, couscous, a few currants, and topped with some green and purple mini basil. My note also said that there was something in there that tasted like Shizo. I wouldn't be surprised if there was any shizo in it – as the chef spent some time cooking in Japan – but I'm afraid I didn't ask. There was also a bit of foam – yes, foam is everywhere – flavored with coriander, and a basket of light-as-air tempura of aubergine and zucchini. What a playful mix of textures and flavors?

The first wine poured for this and the next few courses was a nice 2002 Menetou-Salon, a lovely white wine from a very good year in the Loire. It was crisp and minerally rather than fruity. I quite enjoyed it.

LmfoiegrasNext to arrive was Foie gras de canard rôti au meil d'acacia: Navets à l'aigre-doux, a small round of foie gras roasted under paper thin slices of turnip, perfumed and flavored with acacia honey. The garlic chive flowers that surrounded the foie gras round gave a very soft garlic bite, a nice counter part to the sweetness of the dish.

The next dish, Blanc de dorade Rose de Bretagne aux moules safranées, was also lovely, but it was not to be my favorite of the night. The dorade was perfectly fresh and sweet, served with a sauce with saffron-flavored mussels and lovely pomme charlotte, little potato rounds with lemon thyme. The only problem I had with this dish was the foamy sauce, which was rather thin for foam. I know it's due entirely to my own oddity, but to me, a foam without a good structure is like an emulsion gone wrong!

LmhomardThen the lobster came, not just any lobster but Homard Bleu au vin de Château Chalon: Petites pâtes coudées, emulsion à l'eau de noix. The lobster was small but just perfect, with a very interesting and complex sauce made from a Jurançon wine, with a slightly nutty taste in the sauce. It was just lovely.

I am normally not a big fan of a sweet note in a savory dish – something that came with having been seriously allergic to overly sweet fusion cuisine for so many years – but I was rather surprised to find that, despite the sweet note in the first few dishes, I still enjoyed them quite a bit. The sweetness here was balanced so well with other flavors, salty, astringent, and even spicy, that it didn't feel at all jarring or objectionable.

LmpigeonneauThe next dish was Pigeonneau du Maine-et-Loire: Blettes cuisinées aux lardon, pailles de pommes de terre. The pigeon was not wild, but raised by an artisanal farmer in Maine-et-Loire. It was perfectly rare, with its liver and innards made into pâte and spread on toast, and served with swiss chard cooked with salt pork, and the most addictive and thinnest matchstick fries ever. There was also a glass of red something poured for this course, but I don't remember what it was.

LmfromageI moved on to the cheese next. Despite being completely full, and the time being very close to midnight, I couldn't pass up the fabulous cheese offerings, supplied by the famous and fabulous Fromagerie Quartehomme. I ended up with a plate with five types of cheese, Comté (aged 24 months), Rond de Lusignan (a type of chèvre or goat cheese from Poitou), a ripe Valançay, a new (to me) cheese called Carré du Vissant, and as perfect a Roquefort as there ever was. It was pure heaven. Eating these delectable cheeses actually gave me a second wind to attack the dessert courses, alas the wind would not last long.

LmpredessertsThe pre-dessert arrived – and as though I had not been given enough food – there were two portions of everything: a delicate raspberry/praline meringue with a raspberry hidden inside, a lovely but apparently forgettable sorbet of some sort (I forgot what it was), and a very tasty chocolate shell filled with passion fruit cream and intriguing passion fruit paper. Two more courses still to arrive, and I was beginning to get seriously concerned about my ability to stay on my two feet at the end of this.

LmpoireThe first real dessert was a Coeur de poire rôti à la vanilla : Tuile à la fève de Tonka, glacée au caramel. The pear was meltingly soft, and the tuile cookie absolutely delicate and interestingly flavored with the slightly almond-y and spicier flavors of the fève de Tonka. I inquired about it, and was shown a specimen of the bean , a little black thing with ridges like a mini star fruit. How fun?

LmchocolatebarThe final course of the day, Barre moelleuse et croustillante au chocolat et au citron confit: Crème glacée aux spéculos. The intense chocolate bar was flavored with orange confit, as classic a pairing as there ever was, and very deliciously so. The spiced ice cream in a mini cone made of spéculos was also quite lovely, unfortunately I was far too full to finish it.

The paraded of courses finally came to an end, I decided to forgo coffee, opting intead for Thé à la menthe fraîche, fresh mint tea, to hopefully help with the digestion. It was wonderfully done. As I was finishing my tea, Alexandre, the restaurant director, came by to chat and see how I liked the meal. Both he and my wine server (I forgot her name, sorry!), had been dropping by the table during the courses to chat and keep me from staring at the ceiling all night.

I eat out alone somewhat often in Paris. My schedule is always so unpredictable that I frequently couldn't make plans long enough in advance to invite friends. And more often than not I drop unadventurous colleagues like hot potatoes as soon as I am done with work. Not to be mean or anything, but how many times do I need to babysit people whose main goal in Paris is to climb the Eiffel Tower

Most of the times I am completely doted upon and fawned over when dining alone. I suppose these temples of gastronomy look at me as someone extremely serious about cuisine, otherwise I would not have braved dining alone. At other times I simply ignored, and treated much like a second-class citizen who wasn't even responsible enough to bring a date to fill the empty chair across from me. Needless to say, I don't return to those establishments.

The service here at Le Meurice, I am happy to say, was very nice. Yes, they did fall on the doting and fawning side, but not at all in a patronizing manner. Everyone was competent, and interested in comments about the food and the service. Alexandre came by many times to talk about ingredients, the chef's interesting techniques, and even his own experience as a restaurant manager. He was quite disturbed to hear about my reservation woe, and went to research the problem. He came back a little bit later, with a copy of an email out of a file. Apparently a reply had been sent to me on email, but got lost somewhere in the ether before it would get to me.

It was rather interesting to find out that he had just returned from managing a restaurant in Florida, and that he was keen on applying some of the good things about service in America to his current charge. What I found was the service at Le Meurice was different, quite warmer and friendlier than service at other places. No, It was not in the “My name is Cherie and I will be your server today” style of friendly, but a warmer, perhaps every-so-slightly chattier style of service that is at times amiss at the top temple of gastronomy in France.

It was such a delightful find, a wonderful young chef on the rise, whose cuisine is firmly based in classical technique while not shy about experimenting with new elements of taste, a very young (or young looking at least) restaurant director and staff who are completely devoted to making every single diner's experience a great one. I expect them to get their 3rd star quite soon, and very deservingly so as well.

Restaurant Le Meurice
228, rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris
phone : + 33 (0)1 44 58 10 10
fax : + 33 (0)1 44 58 10 15
E-mail : reservations@meuricehotel.com


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