Saturday, May 26, 2007

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Paris

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is above all fun. On Sunday night at 10 pm, the place was packed with the usual assortment of foodies from all over the world and a few would-be models struggling to find a seat. My neighbors to the left and right, struggling in English, urged us to try a glass of the 2003 Segla Margaux whose double magnum our server was proudly parading around the bar. The first sip revealed that classic Bordeaux taste coupled with an element of spice.

We enjoyed a most delicious brandade, somehow eclipsing Le Comptoir’s masterpiece from the previous day, and a platonically good green asparagus veloute soup rivaled only by the chestnut veloute we had there in December 2003. Also outstanding was a variation of the Alsatian La Flammenkuche, a pastry cooked to a crisp in a waffle cooker with shaven old parmesan and young julienned onions. As delicious as it was, without ever having the regional standard, one cannot have a full appreciation of it. I will just have to add Strasbourg to the list.

What is amazing about the place is that with the exception of the manager, a JR lieutenant for at least a decade, not a single employee was 30 years of age, and only one employee’s tenure exceeded nine months. For chefs and servers, the job is highly demanding, both physically and mentally, and 17 hour days are commonplace. With the restaurant’s turnover and stringent hiring requirements, it is a mystery how the restaurant has improved over the past five years.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
5, rue de Montalembert
Telephone :

As a postscript, on a recent return visit to the Las Vegas branch for a business dinner, I can report that there has been significant improvement due to a less ambitious menu which is not so reliant on technical bravado. For example, l’oeuf cocotte and its concomitant pyrotechnics were gone. Most dazzling was the poached baby Kussi oysters served on the half-shell in a small dose of butter. The dish was visually indistinguishable from a plate of raw oysters, which is what I then expected upon being served. The dish, like a great comedian, took me in another direction, and captured so much of the oyster’s plump flavor. Overall though, the restaurant’s atmosphere is still like an assembly line, much like the “city” that is its home.

Friday, May 25, 2007


Astier is a warm neighborhood bistro in the Eleventh which features daily preparations of the house specialty, rabbit, and an affordable 26 € menu for an appetizer, entrée, cheese and dessert. Thanks to Patricia Wells, I also knew that Astier serves that most magical and sapid creation, les filets de hareng, pommes à l'huile, a bowl of herring fillets bathed in olive oil, served here with onions, carrots, peppercorns and fresh thyme, and of course accompanied by warm, olive oily potatoes. My introduction to the dish was in a most memorable meal at Chez Georges when the PM and I shared it. Two years later (and ago), back at Chez Georges, it was equally good and memorable when split with a Nation dead-ender. That les filets de hareng, while not offal, retain the capacity to scare the timid only bolsters their appeal. Astier’s version was not too salty; it did stink, and it was delicious. I ate three fillets, and then yielded the bowl to the adjacent table.

I followed with a solid rendition of sautéed whiting fish. (Deep-fried whiting fish is interesting because it is both Joël Robuchon’s signature dish and a staple of African-American soul food, which only shows that the great distance between “high” cuisine and “low” cuisine is an illusion.) Marisa had a tasty cauliflower mousse with beetroot and pieces of bacon. She then had an excellent preparation of rabbit, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with reblochon along with a side of potatoes stuffed with reblochon. If a dish this perversely cholesterolic is a standard, then there are going to be few compelling reasons not to conclude with a cigarette.

For the first time in years, I gambled on crème brûlée. I have long avoided it in the U.S. for the obvious reasons: the fossilized shells of sugar; and the bland, incandescent, yellow substance underneath. But Astier’s version was soulful, perhaps the best dessert on the entire trip. Its sugary “crust” was browned but by no means required a miner’s assistance. The crème itself had a muted sweetness and its color was a muted brown. The dish was the perfect coda, a delicious and a subdued bookend to everything preceding it.

44 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Gagnaire and Ducasse can suck it.

Gaya Rive Gauche

Pierre Gagnaire’s experimental seafood restaurant on beautiful Rue de Bac has all the charm of an underfunded government laboratory. Its primary dining room on the second floor has a low ceiling that cultivates a nauseating claustrophobia. Moreover, the food itself failed in dramatic fashion. An appetizer of a bed of crab topped with octopus jam tasted flat and forced. The mains—scampi in an esoteric green sauce and scallops in a red sauce—were disappointing, even if the seafood itself was cooked properly. A fruit-infused rice pudding was an unswallowable, visual pollutant.

Aux Lyonnais

As we took our seats and had to endure a waspy, Upper East Side ashkenooz discuss her struggles in freshman philosophy at Bryn Mawr and then debate Turkish entry into the EU, we knew we were in trouble.

Aux Lyonnais’ ersatz Belle Epoque décor and its bright, antiseptic vibe bore too close a resemblance to the Grove’s Morels or any of those Keith McNally theme parks with which New Yorkers are so inexplicably enthralled. Compared to the venerable Le Voltaire or Bistro Jeanty, Aux Lyonnais’ quenelles were Sederic. It is pretty clear to me that Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire can suck it. I am an ass for wasting our precious time and money.

Gaya Rive Gauche
44, rue du Bac
01 45 44 73 73

Aux Lyonnais
32, Rue Saint Marc
01 42 96 65 04

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Guy Savoy, Paris

A lunch at Guy Savoy ranks as one of the finest meals in recent memory. Savoy has a San Franciscan embrace of fresh produce and eschews the egg-and-cream focus of traditional Parisian cuisine. Lucky for Marisa and me, we were there in late March, at the tail end of the traditional black truffle season.

The restaurant has a few dining rooms of varying sizes that have a subdued and clean décor that is livened by colorful modern paintings. After sitting for five hours in Per Se’s arena-cum-boardroom the previous week, it was a relief to be somewhere with a sense of intimacy, style, and comfort.

The kitchen served two amuse bouches. The first, an unofficial amuse, the amuses’s amuse, was a miniature, thinly sliced, triple-decker foie gras sandwich with black truffles and a light truffle and pepper vinaigrette, all held together with a toothpick. The sandwich’s delicacy and those truffles made it a delightful and most propitious start.

The actual amuse was a double espresso shot's worth of fresh carroty, carrot soup. The soup was a textbook example of Joel Robuchon’s postulate that “[a]s chefs, we don't have a right to make a mushroom taste like a carrot. Our job is to make a mushroom taste as much as a mushroom as we possibly can.” Lifting the soup’s cleverly designed demitasse off its ceramic saucer revealed a deliciously sweet spoonful of crab salad.

Savoy’s next preparation or preparations, as it were, was tuna and asparagus served two ways, or “crus-cuits.” He served an impeccably fresh tartare with beetroot, olive oil, and a little black truffle. In his second preparation, the tuna was sliced and seared so slightly that the edges’ resulting fraying was barely detectable. While these two preparations were flawless, these staples of Los Angeles cuisine would have been just that if it were not for the dish’s counter-intuitive emphasis on the raw asparagus which showcased Savoy’s vision and his raw potential as a surgeon. He served three tall razor-thin slices of asparagus, which were cut vertically and appeared as an illusion in light of how asparagus is normally viewed. Savoy’s dexterity with a knife doubtless would have impressed an incarcerated Paul Cicero. More importantly, the raw asparagus’s intrinsic sweetness was so delicious that it rendered the tuna’s two preparations as the playful complements. One day after eating an entire bloody entrecôte and fried potatoes and drinking almost an entire bottle of Bordeaux at the venerable Chef L’Ami Louis, it seemed improbable that a veritable comrade, intentional or not, of Alice Waters was a premier chef in Paris.

More sliced vegetables followed, a mild disappointment in itself. Carrots, celeriac and others were served in concentric circles with the raw slices circumscribed around the roasted ones. The vegetables were dressed in a superfluous light (and slightly malodorous) oyster sauce that concealed the high quality of the vegetables and, frankly, made Marisa gag a little. Basically, Savoy’s dish was redundant.

Savoy’s grilled lobster claw served in two preparations also adhered closely to Robuchon’s postulate. He served it by itself and unadorned, which emphasized the purity of its flavor, and down-home succulence and tenderness. Its texture was critical: it was not so soft as to be flaccid, and allowed us to gleefully sink our teeth in it. The second preparation was with a panure d’herbes, or breadcrumb “dressing,” which was like a slightly spicy, even zesty purée made with tomatoes that had the consistency of a coarse hummus. The lobster was served in its own consommé, which tasted like unvarnished, undiluted lobster. Perhaps Robuchon’s postulate was a lesson learned from Savoy. In the rarefied world of “haute cuisine,” Savoy was not afraid to bring out raw food and was not afraid to provide some spice, in marked contrast to the Per Se scandal, which is as out of place in New York as Gay-rod, pre-April 2007. This grilled lobster was outstanding, as measured by the high and the low, and Marisa offered her first reprimand of the day for smacking in a three-star.

Shaking off the Alice Waters influence, GS now asserted his Gallic authority in the form of his signature item, a robustly flavorful artichoke soup brimming with black truffles and accompanied by a rich and thankfully not-so-light brioche feuilletée with champignons and still more truffles. Truffle season supposedly ends in March, and with this meal taking place on March 30, Savoy did not exactly mask his desperate zeal to cook every last truffle in France. Needless to say, Marisa and I were not going to complain.

The final savory course was a roasted veal so tender that I used to a spoon to cut it. Its complement was tiny cabbage and just enough foie gras not to overwhelm. In keeping with the afternoon’s theme, Savoy also served a demitasse of what was described as a veal consommé, but based on its consistency and flavor was more of a bisque.

The dessert courses were for the most part excellent. Rather than bring multiple separate course, the kitchen brought out a continual array of small desserts, starting light, moving toward the richer end of the spectrum, and then settling back down. Trying to provide symmetry to the meal, we first had a carroty, carrot ice cream that while interesting did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that a dish with a pure carrot taste does not belong exclusively to the savory realm.

A moist twin chocolate fondant with praline feuilleté and chicory crème was presented like corresponding halves of a candy bar, the richer chocolate counteracting the saltier, spicier chicory and praline. The texture had a certain graininess that prevented the fondant’s richness from overwhelming. For any lover of the sweet/salty juxtaposition in desserts, this creation was also textbook.

The desserts then ended with a kaleidoscope of small desserts: small portions of two types of rice puddings, and, inter alia, an absolutely divine chocolate mousse and crème caramel with caramel ice cream.

Guy Savoy made a brief appearance during the meal to greet our neighbors and check on things in the restaurant. After a minute or so, he scurried back to the kitchen. He possessed a jovial physiognomy and good sense of humor, but clearly wanted to be in the kitchen doing his thing. Which was good, because I wanted to be in the dining room doing my thing.

Guy Savoy
18 rue Troyon
Telephone 01 43 80 36 22.