Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Paris Dispatches: Robuchon

Paris, France- It is 10 a.m. on December 27th. The sun has just risen over the rooftop of the Place des Vosges. It is cold. It is overcast. We have a date with L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon for lunch. Lindsay is eating an omelet for breakfast, but I can only nibble on a few tears of hot baguette slathered with salty, cool butter.

I hustle Lindsay along through the early morning rituals. She needs to take a shower. After that, there is hair to straighten, outfits to choose and discard, temperature checks, selection of the final outfit, and then covering it all up with a big thick coat, gloves, and a scarf. We are out of the apartment at 11:15, shattering all previous land-speed records.

The goal is to walk from the apartment to L'Atelier near the Rue du Bac in the 7th Arrondissement. It is a good walk. The air, though cold, is dry, and we pass by the shops on Rue Rivoli, the Louvre, and in the distance the spires of Notre Dame. We get off off track and walk a little further than we intended. This builds character and more importantly, appetite. Halfway there, we realize we forgot the camera.

Ohh come on, like you expected good photos anyway.

At a little after noon, we enter a black and red sanctum with approximately 40 seats wrapping around a completely open kitchen. The design and service of the scheme reflects Japanese sushi or Spanish tapas  rather than a classic French restaurant. This is on purpose and works incredibly well.

A glass of Champagne arrives as we look over the menu. But we have come all this way and picking two or three dishes just would be about as sensible as reading Playboy just for the articles. We are here to eat. To eat well and beautifully. We ask for the tasting menu.

First course is an amuse bouche of Jerusalem Artichokes pureed into a chilled soup incredibly fine and smooth in texture. On top of the cream colored soup is a sprinkle of Espelette powder. The potage managed to taste hearty due to the sturdy flavor of the Jerusalem Artichokes (which are neither Jerusalem nor Artichokes, discuss).

Next course was a scallop carpaccio, sliced to the width of a dime and topped with a citrus vinaigrette and fines herbs. Crowning the dish were dollops of sea urchin roe. Just a stunning dish, with the clarity of the scallop shining through and the richness of the bright orange urchin roe providing a nice contrast. Nothing bold, nothing out of place, no two ingredients fighting for the lead role. This would prove to be a theme.

Now came Lindsay's favorite dish of the lunch. A slice of potato was boiled just until done, then topped with a piece of smoked eel, a fine spoonful of caviar, and a horseradish cream. Due to a slight mistranslation, we originally thought the fish was smoked salmon. So imagine our surprise when the sublime, smoked but still moist fish turned out to be eel.

The real star here was the caviar. Tons of chefs place caviar on top of dishes in an attempt to give it an air of luxury. Most of the caviar employed in the dolloping and gilding is banal stuff - dry, chewy, and gross. This caviar popped into a rush of salty harmony with the smoky fish and pungent horseradish cream. This dish was so good, halfway thru I asked it if it was on birth control.

Here is the reason foie gras gets all the press. A half inch thick - as big around as the filet mignon peddled by many restaurants - seared crispy on both sides, and the interior just beginning to turn molten. It was plated very simply, with a few white beans underneath, an apple chip on top, and a ring of demi glace. Believe in the power of man to turn a fattened duck's liver into something surreal.

Next up an ode to the egg. Now, I try not to get all philosophical but this dish seemed to be an impressionist cook painting a field in spring. Let me explain. At the bottom of a martini glass was a bright, tart, and green parsley puree (grass), then a layer of soft poached egg and silken whites (sun), surrounded it all was a white cream (clouds) studded with mushrooms (dirt). It was freaking fantastic.

All of the above were accompanied by a bottle of Raveneau Premier Cru Chablis. I really liked it, but it is best to let Lindsay explain, "Normally, you pick these white wines and my reaction is 'whatever', but I really liked that wine." After this course we stayed in Burgundy, but went to Gevrey-Chambertin for a barnyard, modest fruit masterpiece. 

If the last dish was an impressionist painting of a spring field, the next one was a cleverly put together puzzle of the cuisines of the Mediterranean. A square of rouget (a Mediterranean fish) was topped with some "aromatics"- olives, tomato, eggplant, then a pistachio oil. As someone who is not a fan of fish, in general, I found this plate of food remarkably interesting. There was a slight hint of heat (from more of the Espelette powder), a savoriness from the aromatics, and then in the center of it all, but not lost, a well-cooked piece of fish.

There was only one choice presented to us: lamb chops, beef cheeks, or quail. We chose one beef cheek and one quail. The beef cheek was pure luxury. A moat of deep purple reduced braising liquid surrounded a fortress of braised beef, still juicy and well-seasoned. Little nuggets of bacon and pearl onions spaced at equal intervals brought the dish back to it's routes: beef bourguignon.

Now, part of the reason we ordered the quail was because it came with an order of Robuchon's world famous pomme puree. That is French for "ridiculously good mashed potatoes." Here they came topped with a few slices of black truffle. Talk about gilding a lily. The quail was stuffed with a foie gras mixture, grilled and sauced very lightly. But those potatoes. Holy Christmas carols. We asked for a small side of them and they brought us a serving in a small casserole dish. We ate the buttery, rich, and silken potatoes with the sauce from my dish and Lindsay's. But they were best standing on their own.

(Robuchon's secret is he uses half the amount butter per pound as potatoes. The cook in charge of making them, then furiously whips the puree before service. So discard everything I said about making mashed potatoes.)

A palate cleanser of sorts arrived next. A cream of "exotic fruits" - think Kiwi, passionfruit, etc. - sat on top of a granita of rum. This was all fine and well, but it just set the stage for the knockout blow.

A simple apple tart, in essence with caramel ice cream. Perfectly flaky crust filled with the deep, rich taste of stewed apples and then a delicious, rich caramel ice cream. Then a Fernet Branca (to ease the digestion), and we were out the door.

This meal didn't change our lives. We didn't walk out the door and feel like we won the lottery. We didn't uncover any essential truths of man's struggle against nature. None of that. What made it so great was that we looked forward to it, we hyped it for months, and it exceeded our expectations. But it did not exceed our expectations by giving us mind binding riddles of guess the ingredient or flavor's fighting to the death, rather it did so with subtlety and grace. All of the flavors were demur, which isn't to say dumbed or watered down but rather acoustic, elegant, and natural. On the way out, the hostess asked us how we enjoyed our meal, and the only thing I could ask was where I could find a cigarette.

It was that good.


Jeff Abbott said...

Damn. If my French publisher brings me over again this year, I may have to go try it. It sounds incredible. Also, I'm pretty sure it's easy to find a cigarette in Paris.

Double Chin said...

Sounds orgasmic. I'm sure this is the first of many Parisian entries that will make all of us extremely jealous.

Anonymous said...

He said: Very nice. Love the birth control line. Wish I'd written it. Where is/was your apt? We stayed in the 6th last January. Apt versus hotel was the smartest move we ever made.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of the winter I spent as an ex-pat in Paris in ’08—1908, that is. I told Jacqueline we should go try Robuchon for the good spuds with the caviar, but that bastard Picasso would have none of it. It seems that awful Gertrude Stein said something nice about Cezanne and Pablo was taking it out on the rest of us, the diva! Anyway, he said if we didn’t go to this Gypsy borscht/goulash joint in the 9th arrondissement he would, quote, “break you all up into little cubes!” WTF was he talking about? But, Pablo being Pablo, we tagged along, slumming in the 9th and ended up getting trashed on absinthe and forgot all about Robuchon until your post just now. To be young in the City of Light!

Anonymous said...

so who needs pictures with a description like that.