Saturday, April 16, 2011

l'AOC, Paris France

For our final proper meal in Paris the decision was made to stray a bit from the tried, true, and traditionally highly recommended. While part of the reason for this decision was based on not wanting another epic meal as we had to pack our bags for an early flight back to the United States another part of it had to do with a phrase I kept reading when researching the pedigree of many of the city’s best chefs – “Maitre Rôtisseur” – a title apparently relating to a society called Le Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and based on an ancient guild of meat roasters. Intrigued by this society and having thoroughly researched our trip (as I am prone to do) the one name that kept coming up was a place called L’AOC – a space according to many that currently makes the best roasted meats in the city and honors the traditions of the ancient guild more formally than any other.

With a charming location visible from the Seine finding L’AOC was as simple as the reservations process by way of the internet, though as it turned out given our early hour of dining the reservation was not entirely necessary – with the bistro well lit and the sun not yet set when we arrived the restaurant would be no more than a quarter full throughout the 65 minute duration of our meal. Making our way in the door we were greeted pleasantly by a middle-aged woman who turned out to be the chef’s wife and after realizing we spoke only English she welcomed us and led us to a two top all the way in the back, near the restroom.

Not wanting to complain as the seat wasn’t bad but at the same time getting the sense we weren’t exactly “welcomed” our menus were delivered and we were pointed to the 3-course prix fixe and explained the choices in single words – main ingredients only – and left to peruse the menu. With our server, a young male who spoke minimal English arriving with a wine list next we declined and requested a bottle of water – Evian for 6EU – and perused the menu for a short while before placing orders. Perhaps sensing her relatively chilly welcome I will note that the chef’s wife did stop by twice during the course of our meal, both times with a smile, to see how things were going and when the chef made his way from the grill room to say hello to all the patrons he seemed quite pleasant and hospitable.

With wooden chairs topped with worn leather padding matching hefty wooden tables with pull-through checked tablecloths the feel of L’AOC was everything one expects from a French bistro and the yellow walls, red curtains, and knick-knacks only served to complete the scene. With a charcuterie and pate island at the restaurant center it would be a short while before our meal would begin and having seen other tables delivered a weighted bag of bread it required a request for ours to arrive – a request that I’d have probably been better off not making as the house bread was a chewy baguette served without butter.

With my sister opting for the 29Eu prix fixe and myself choosing to go a la carte and share dessert as there was only one dessert that sounded pleasing our first courses would arrive approximately fifteen minutes after seating and while mine was excellent, Erika’s was the worst single course we ate in all of France. Titled “Avocat cuvettes en verrine” on the chalkboard and described as “Avocados and Shrimp” by our waitress this dish was…well…it was vile. Served in a glass bowl as promised by the name and with a layer of avocado mousse at its base the dish started out well enough, but what sat atop the creamy avocado ran afoul with a watery reduction of what seemed to be tomato, vinegar, corn, vinegar, pepper and more vinegar. Seemingly an attempt at guacamole or salsa but so stringent that any nuance was lost all we could do was sit and scratch our heads as to how such a thing even happened – or why they even added the shrimp as it most certainly couldn’t be tasted.

With Erika’s dud returning to the kitchen less than 1/3 eaten I was somewhat saddened by the fact that she had no interest in my entrée – but at the same time the selfish part of me was kind of happy. Simply titled “foie gras torchon” on the menu and costing a mere 14Eu my dish featured a large chunk of creamy foie gras lying nude on slate with three thick slices of grilled country bread, pepper, and fleur de sel as its only accoutrements. With the liver slightly firmer than other preparations in texture it was no less lovely and although not quite as refined as some of the port-poached presentations I’d had elsewhere a stunning degree of natural sweetness was naturally present. With this nutty bread substantially better than the baguette and still hot from the grill the foie spread nicely and bite by bite disappeared as I smiled with delight.

With main courses arriving literally moments after our first plates were cleared it was with horror that Erika saw the same admixture of vegetables topping her Sea Bream and Eggplant Puree with Balsamic, but thankfully this time the acidic orange layer was not present and things proceeded much more smoothly. Beginning first with the fish, a large pan seared filet served skin on and dressed minimally with lemon and butter the preparation was excellent though the quality of the fish which was merely average when compared to the version at La Regalade only a day earlier. Accompanying the fish in a baked round was a soufflé of eggplant puree – creamy, light, and spiced lightly with pepper – it’s texture similar to stuffing and very tasty both on its own and with bites of the dourade.

With the nightly special roasted meats consisting of mostly beef in various forms my main course selection was a combination platter of sorts featuring “Traditionally roasted duck breast, confit of leg, and wood roasted new potatoes in duck jus.” Benefitted from our early reservation as there were apparently only a few ducks available that night, this dish was by far the best of the evening with the duck breast tender, moist, and lean while the slow roasting melded fat and skin into a crispy layer sweetened by simple syrup and balsamic. Additionally impressive (and the best confit of the trip) the duck leg served atop the breast was nearly burnt in portions yet the flavor was intact and the meat so supple it literally fell off the bone as I tried to cut the skin. With the roasted potatoes smoky and tender and the jus briny, sweet, and clean the entirety of this plate was a winner and the portion large enough that it could have been shared by two.

With plates cleared, mine still holding some potatoes and Erika’s still with some fish, a shared dessert seemed the best course of action since we’d pre-gamed at Jacques-Genin and once again the order of the day would be Riz au Lait – this time a much smaller portion than those previous and although the caramel and almonds were good, the texture wasn’t as “stick a spoon up in it” as it was tapioca. Sure this may have been better than any rice pudding stateside, but when compared to what we’d experienced over the past week it was a bit of a disappointment.

With the bill paid – a modest 69Eu all inclusive – we bid farewell to our server and on the way out the chef yelled a “Merci et Bonsoire” from the kitchen where he was hard at work, seemingly the only person in the kitchen at all. With the night still young as we made it to the street and a night of remorseful packing before us we opted to walk for a bit along the Seine prior to catching the Metro and reflecting on the night I feel a bit mixed about the experience; on one hand l’AOC seems devout to a simpler way of cooking and a simpler way of life with each ingredient fresh and minimally altered, yet on the other hand they seem to want to be a “go to” space given their inviting website, location, and décor while the service and some of the cooking do not live up to such standards. While I certainly do not regret the visit to l’AOC given the quality of the foie gras and the duck if I were to do it again I’d probably opt to go with someone French who loves roasted meats as this is clearly not a place accustomed to non-natives fish is simply not what they are known for.

Le Pre Catelan, Paris France

Our last full day in Paris would see us visit the sixth of the ten Michelin three-star establishments within the city limits – though to call Le Pré Catelan “within” city limits is almost a misnomer. Awaking early to visit Sacre Coeur and then catching the metro to the edge of Bois de Boulogne we’d originally considered a taxi but after breathing the fresh floral air of the former royal hunting grounds and taking in the glorious weather and beautiful scenery we instead decided to walk. With the sun high above and Erika in a shiny dress while I donned a jacket and tie it should be noted retrospect that the rather roundabout route of jogging trails and grass may not have been the most rational decision of our trip, but at the same time our nearly thirty minute trek was one of the most beautiful stretches of land we saw in all of Paris.

Making good time as we passed by sunbathers and were passed by joggers it was with a bit of effort that we eventually discovered the former dairy farm turned gastronomic destination but after a short detour through the gardens the signage improved and within moments we were greeted by a young man patrolling the grounds in tuxedo and bow-tie who led us directly to the doors of the restaurant where many great chefs including Thomas Keller once trained. With the doors opened in unison by a pair of hostesses a warm greeting welcomed us and within moments our reservation was confirmed bags were checked and we were led through the grand front dining hall to a lovely sunlit lounge overlooking the garden and patio in back.

Seated at a plush two top with me looking into the main dining room and Erika looking into a large perpendicular room where a particularly boisterous party of at least ten were dining it was mere moments before our server and the maitre d’hôtel would arrive to greet us and provide two separate menus – one the a la carte and tasting menu and the other the 85Eu four-course lunch. Assured that if desired we could order different length menus we ordered a bottle of still Evian (unlimited refills for 9Eu) after declining the champagne carte and were left to decide and after weighing the options we each decided on the lunch menu – essentially two choices for each course and all derived from the a la carte menu, including some of Chef Frederic Anton’s most famous items.

With the off white tablecloth held flat by steel brackets and a signature charger, fine silver, and salt and pepper shakers alongside a single flower in a low vase decorating the table the setting of Le Pre Catelan was surprisingly modern for such a storied building yet by utilizing marble and mirrors with aplomb the room managed a fine balance between its heritage and the modernity of Anton’s cuisine. With tables well spaced and service professional yet friendly I will note that this was one of the few places where our server engaged us in conversation about where we were from and shared some tidbits about himself and the chef throughout the meal – for instance, I of course knew of Anton’s time at Jamin with Robuchon, but I had no idea that he’d previously been at Les Crayères.

Sitting and taking in the room it was approximately fifteen minutes after seating that the meal would begin, interestingly with the bread basket preceding the amuse. With breads made on premises and served warm in a large silver bowl there were two choices – a crunchy baguette with a good crumb and a nutty cereal bread with great chew. For the butter, shockingly it was not Bordier, but rather from a supplier called Beillevaire – the embossed one unsalted and smooth while the other was dotted with fleur de sel and almost honey tinged in its flavor.

With the bread barely buttered our amuse would arrive in a deep vessel with the aroma greeting my nose before it even reached the table – it was onion, no doubt. Described first as Onion Veloute and then finished with Leek Cream at tableside this hot/cool combination was a textural wonder with both mouthfeels entirely different and the flavors surprisingly subdued. While I personally would have preferred a single temperature as opposed to the luke-warm amalgam that resulted after a few bites there was no arguing with the effect of the flavors in awakening the palate.

With a spot of bread to clear the palate our first courses would arrive after a bit of a delay as the large party was enjoying the full tasting menu and a procession of waiters was required to deliver each course. When our items did arrive, however, both were well worth the wait. Beginning first with my selection, Port poached Foie Gras dusted with dried lentils, Foie Gras Cream with black truffles, and toasted country bread – it was everything you would expect with such an ingredient profile. Served on three separate plates with the soup at center I began there while it was still warm and was rewarded with a velvet potage featuring a nearly meringue thick centerpiece laden with the sapor of foie gras and topped with black truffles and a rim of buttery foie gras foam tinged with peppery tones. Moving on to the terrine itself – a textbook example, easily spreadable and nearly melting at room temperature with sweet boozy tones throughout and both fleur de sel and the crunchy lentils to add contrast. Spread thick and thin in varying combinations on the toasted bread (refilled without even having to ask) I stretched the course for quite some time as my sister ooh’d and ahh’d over her selection.

While the Foie was good, as it normally is, my sister’s selection was definitely worth the auditory show of appreciation. Titled Cold Poached Egg perfumed with celery, Remoulade of Celery Root, Rocket Salad with Anchovy Vinaigrette and Aged Balsamic the only thing better than the way the dish tasted was the way it looked – as a matter of fact, in a trip full of visually stimulating food it is this dish that wallpapers my computer even a month later. Meticulous and precise with the egg actually sous-vided in a bag with celery jus and then chilled prior to plating the visual effect was almost that of the egg arising from the sweetened custard beneath and when cut the yolk was untouched – pouring forth as though entirely raw. With the centerpiece plate delicious its accoutrements were not quite as impressive, yet at the same time the spiral of poached celery root in eggy spiced mayonnaise and the bitter salad with heady dressing proved a nice point/counterpoint to the subtlety of the egg.

With the entrees cleared it would again be a leisurely delay spent chatting and watching the parade of gorgeous dishes brought to the tables around us before the main courses would arrive – this time each harkening of Anton’s days with Robuchon in both preparation and presentation. For my sister’s plat, a troika of flavors on two separate plates detailed as Langoustine Ravioli served in Olive Oil Foam with White pepper and Mint and Fried Langoustine Spring Roll and Tempura romaine lettuce with peanut sauce and romaine lettuce jus. Beginning first with the Raviolo, quite large and stuffed with sweet crustacean I loved the way the tender meat was lightly accented by pepper and mint while the “sauce” was almost barely there – a glassy mouthfeel more than anything – allowing the protein to truly shine. With the ravioli quite similar to the one at Robuchon’s Vegas flagship, the tempura shrimp on the slate was a dead ringer for the one at L’Atelier with the fresh tail wrapped in crispy basil and citrus before a visit to the fryer. Served along with the Langoustine in a separate crispy shell was the pure flavor of romaine lettuce – intense and vegetal – and for dipping there were two sauces; one a bitter chlorophyll tinged lettuce juice and the other a thick peanut sauce with flavors of smoke, sugar, and something slightly acidic.

For my main course, again clearly an ode to his mentor, I was served a trio of plates titled Foie Gras Stuffed Quail roasted with Truffle Honey / Buttered Potatoes with Asparagus Tips / Risotto with Parmesan, Quail Jus, and Nuts. Having had Robuchon’s tiny Quail only five months prior the first shocker in the presentation was the sheer size – each leg perhaps three times as large as that at Robuchon and the breasts easily twice the size. Served bisected with a thin layer of liver beneath the skin and the legs coated in honey and black truffle with the breasts honey and green onion the bird was flawless, complex, and nutty. For the sides, the potatoes were apparently dehydrated and rehydrated in butter and subsequently topped with butter poached asparagus tips and a drizzle of honey – as one might imagine with so much butter, these too were great. For the final member of the trio, the risotto was texturally excellent and while the parmesan was almost too potent it surprisingly found levity in the honey sweetened game jus and interestingly textured nuts that appeared almost as though they were pushed through a garlic press.

Realizing that our trip to Paris was coming to a close and that this could be the last time in a while that I would enjoy any cheese, let alone cheeses of the quality we experienced in France, I was admittedly a bit remorseful when the black carte arrived with twenty-one options. Deferring to our server asking for whatever was best this was the third time we were served the lovely four-year aged comte of Bernard Antony along with nine other selections including epoisse, an intense raw Brie that we were told can only be obtained at Le Pre Catelan, a peppered goats cheese, and a very specific form of Morbier utilizing white ash. With each cheese “telling a different story and serving a different purpose” according to our server this was perhaps the most well-culled collection we experienced in Paris and although not the biggest, each choice was exquisite.

For our desserts there were two selections on the lunch menu and although we originally considered adding Le Pre Catelan’s take on Robuchon’s Sphere De Sucre entitled “Pomme” the size of the desserts made us reconsider – this is not a place that skimps on the sweets. For my selection, something we’d seen a lot of on the trip was all dressed up with gold and candied nuts to produce “Le Paris Brest with Praline Cream.” With expectations high for what a 30Eu Brest (if ordered a la carte) would offer this gussied up version was not the traditional wheel but instead a nearly 8inch by 4 inch by 4 inch sandwich of buttery choux and the most intense praline cream of the trip. While I cannot say it warranted the 30Eu pricetag, it was by far the best Paris Brest I’ve ever tasted which is saying a lot on a trip that included nearly ten.

For my sister’s dessert she received an updated look at Escoffier’s classic “La Poire Comme Une Belle Helene.” Served in similar fashion to Le Sucre this dessert featured sugar poached pears, smooth hazelnut pastry cream, and vanilla meringue inside a floral crystal shell. Topped tableside with molten dark chocolate with the shell dissolving slowly this dessert was further complicated and nuanced by crunchy bits of hazelnut and tiny balls of chocolate within providing a dynamic experience to go with the tableside show. With my sister not particularly fond of pears in general even she noted that this dessert was one of the best on the trip and having experienced Le Sucre in two forms in the past I have to say this version was every bit on par in texture and quality while the addition of high quality chocolate really never hurts anything.

With desserts thoroughly enjoyed our final treats of the afternoon were a quartet of Mignardises and complimentary coffee for myself and tea for Erika. Amongst the candies served in a piano-finish and silver box matching the room’s décor were two Vanilla Marshmallows, Raspberry Pate au Fruits, Cocoa Nougats with pistachio, and butter caramel with salty peanuts – each good, but none terribly memorable. With coffee refilled, again included on the lunch tasting, and check delivered we were asked if we would like another round of mignardises while we waited for them to hail us a car – an offer we declined to the puzzled look of our server who seemed confused when we explained to him that we had walked. With the bill paid and a copy of the menu requested we were wished a “beautiful and happy day” and thanked for coming before being walked to the door where a lovely walk through the park to the Musee Marmottan awaited.

Having now dined at more than half of Paris’ 10-Best (at least according to Michelin) I can say without hesitation that Le Pre Catelan is definitely deserving of it’s accolades and Anton’s Robuchon-esque precision produced some of the most beautiful food I have ever had the privilege to eat – yet at the same time, compared to the other restaurants in the category the experience of Le Pre Catelan simply didn’t have that feeling of a special occasion to me. Sure the service was prim and proper – even friendly at times – and yes the grand room as well as the back salons are prestigious, clean, and classic yet modern, but everything just felt so formulaic, like they’ve done this a thousand times to the point where everything is now too easy and there is no impetus to change. With that said – certainly I’d go back and likely this time to order the full tasting – but I probably would not do it at the end of such a trip because while Le Pre Catelan’s light certainly shines brightly it was simply outshined by so much else on our trip.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Le Regalade St-Honore, Paris France

After feasting at Michel Rostang for lunch and spending a long afternoon shopping it off at Printemps and walking it off at Centre Pompidou our dinner on Friday would remain in the 1st Arrondissement at yet another member of Paris’ Bistronomic movement; this time at the second iteration of Bruno Doucet’s famous La Régalade. Having initially considered the original location in the 14th but eventually opting on the Saint-Honoré setting based on recent reviews, location, and the fact that Doucet was spending less and less time at the original it was with minimal difficulty that we found the small storefront and having opted for the “early” seating at 7:30 when we called to make reservations a month prior it was no surprise that when we arrived the space was nearly vacant allowing for a swift greeting by one of four young females circulating the small room.

With reservations confirmed and coats hung along the wall we were led to a small wooden two-top midway along the wall looking into the small kitchen and moments later menus were presented and chalk-board specials described. With service certainly more abrupt than other meals on our trip I will note that our server, a cute British lass fluent in both French and English, was excellent throughout although the tag-team style of service did at one point lead to a substantial delay in refilling our carafe de l’eau. Left to explore the menu and browse the room it would be little time before decisions were made and although as it turned out Doucet was out of town and cooking at neither Régalade that night the meal that followed would represent the best “bang for the buck” we found in Paris.

With the 30-seats all packed by 8:00pm and the noise level steadily increasing to something between a hum and a buzz as we watched the young team work frenetically yet quietly in the open kitchen gleaming with copper pots and all sorts of shiny pipes and gadgets the first item to arrive at our table was the complimentary loaf pan containing the night’s “terrine du porc, veau, et canard” with a jar of cornichons and freshly sliced baguette. Instructed to “enjoy as much as you like” I’m rather certain that our server did not expect two diners of our size “enjoy” the whole thing, but with slice after slice full of meaty flavor and heavy aromatics including onion, pepper, garlic, coriander, paprika, and more it was hard to stop. While the entirety of the composition was not quite as complex or smooth as that at L’Ami Jean, the more charred top layer was absolutely fantastic and when paired with the warm baguette and semi-sweet cornichons it was a great start.

Eschewing the up-charged nightly specials as most were beef based our 33Eu three-course journey would begin perhaps twenty-five minues after seating with “Gambas sautees ail et persil, jambon d’Espagne, risotto cremeux a l’encre de seiche” for my sister. Served in a large both of impressive depth and vastly larger than one would expect for an entrée the base of this dish was an intense creamy risotto tinged with squid ink yet still maintaining its nutty essence topped with an admixture of chopped prawns sautéed in garlic and parsley and crisp cracklins’ of Spainish ham. Certainly more “Pan-European” than strictly French the quality of the risotto itself was one of the best I’ve ever tasted and while the garlic prawns may have been just a bit “too garlic” for my tastes they certainly did not obscure the flavor profile of the other ingredients leading to a plate my sister considered one of the best of the trip.

For my entrée the day’s selection would be one of my favorite foods in one of my favorite styles of presentation – “Oeuf de poule bio facon cocotte, epinard, pointes d’asperges et tomates confites.” Delivered in a screw-top glass jar and popped open tableside with the warning that it was very hot, this bubbly soup of poached organic egg in “casserole” was the very picture of early spring. With the smooth and creamy egg plus sautéed spinach forming the backdrop of flavors and crisp snappy asparagus speckling the each spoonful, the most interesting component of this dish was actually the duck fat confit tomatoes – intensely sweet and slightly leathery in texture providing juxtaposition to the otherwise vegetal and subdued flavor profile.

With entrees cleared the plats would arrive quickly on their heels as the steady stream of plates from such a small kitchen was a sight to behold. For my sister’s selection, “Filet de dorade dries sauvage a la plancha, legumes fins et croquants a l’huile d’olive, emulsion a la coriander et au gingembre” featured an imposing fillet of slightly over-cooked grilled sea bream that none the less flaked apart nicely and had a great flavor. Topped with bitter greens and resting on a bed of pine nuts and snappy vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, and zucchini poached in olive oil the dish was finished with an aromatic sauce of coriander and ginger that although tasty was also slightly overwhelming of the fish.

For my main course the selection was easy – I simply can’t turn down duck and although “Margret de canard epais roti sur la peau, petites pommes de terres roties au jus de viande” was perhaps the most straight forward item on the menu it was also very well done. Yet another sizeable portion with the honey lacquered skin fatty and supple and the flesh pink and moist the flavor of the duck was quite good while the roasted fingerling potatoes intermingled with fibrous mushrooms in beefy gravy were a nice savory contrast. While I generally prefer the skin slightly more crisp than this presentation I had to tip my hat to the chef as the quality of this particular duck was actually quite distinctive and less oily than I’d expected and as such despite the skin being slightly “tough” the preparation preserved the quality of the flesh.

With our plats cleared it would take perhaps twenty minutes for desserts to arrive largely because of my selection; just when you thought my soufflé fix would have been satisfied by the double header at Rostang, Le Regalade offered a version of their own entitled “Souffle chaud au Grand Marnier.” For the third time following the assumption that if a little is good a lot is better, this towering soufflé arrived tall and teetering, a mountain of white topped with a snowfall of confectioners’ sugar. Simple, sweet, steaming hot, and punchy with notes of cognac and orange it was a classic done well and compared to previous experiences with Gran Marnier soufflés it was understated – a good thing for someone who doesn’t fancy too boozy a preparation.

Furthering her newfound love of Rice Pudding that began at L’Ami Jean, Erika’s dessert selection arrived in a latched jar and although I cannot be certain my gestalt is that pound for pound the portion may have actually trumped even that served to us by Jego. Titled “Riz cuit au lait et a la vanilla comme le faisait ma grand-mere, caramel laitier,” and served with a liquid salty caramel so buttery that it put those at Jacques Genin to shame, the pudding itself was thick, toothsome, rich, and heavily accented with vanilla. Again with the wooden spoon working slowly it was once again to our waitress’ surprise when she arrived later to find the jar empty and both of us smiling in a near comatose state. To be completely honest I can’t say whether the pudding at Jean or Regalade was better – but I’d gladly do a blind taste test again if only to have another chance to taste both once more.

Sitting and chatting (and trying to digest all those carbohydrates) after declining coffee it is notable that the tables seated to our left and right had both already settled their bills and been once again filled as a small line was developing in the street despite being 9:30 – even after eight days in town it still amused us how late Parisians choose to dine. With the bill requested, delivered, and settled our last bites of the meal would be a pair of perfect golden Madelines – warm and slightly tinged with lemon – a textbook ending befitting such a lovely day.

Making our way from Le Regalade St. Honore into a throng of Parisian youths out celebrating the impending weekend it was a quick walk to the Metro and with both of us quite stuffed I was glad to have my sister along as I fell asleep not once, but twice en route back to our apartment and with a mere 30 hours left on our trip I slept like a log for the first time in ove r a week. Having dined at five of the more notable “bistronomic” restaurants in Paris I can say without doubt that Le Regalade St-Honore was at least on par with Chez L’Ami Jean on that particular evening in terms of fun and while the food was not quite as careful or soulful at times, once you take into account price and ‘experience’ this is a spot well worth the reservation as the chef’s seasonal focus, liberal portions, and inspired flavors should command at least twice the 33Eu prix fixe.

Michel Rostang, Paris France

When someone asks me about the very best meal I had in Paris Michel Rostang is not the first name to come to mind, yet at the same time if I were asked to explain the most “classical French dining experience” of the trip our lunch in front of the kitchen window at 20 rue Rennequin is precisely what I would describe. Family owned and operated since inception and garnering 2-Michelin Stars the year I was born I was told by friends that this would not be the most revelatory experience in the City of Lights, but that if one ordered correctly it could be a stellar meal at a comparatively good price and while Rostang’s kitchen may not produce items as delicious or distinctive as Gagnaire or Barbot I can say without batting a lash that my friends were right.

Located slightly off the beaten path in the 17eme but easily identifiable by its patron’s name on the building outside we arrived to our 12:30 reservation a few moments early and within seconds of entering the door were greeted by a young man who introduced himself as the Maître d’Hôtel and Chef Rostang’s daughter, a pleasant yet serious woman who was very clearly in charge of many (if not all) aspects of the front of the house. With coat and bag taken we were asked if we would prefer a seat in the more “intimate” portion of the restaurant or if we should prefer a seat before the large picture-window looking into the kitchen – an obvious choice and given the situation of the table an opportunity for both of us to watch every aspect of our meal’s preparation without hearing a sound from the kitchen staff.

Seated and greeted by our server, a young man perhaps my sister’s age who spoke perfect English, three distinctive menus were presented and after a couple of questions we both decided to opt for the lunch special – 78Eu for three courses, plus to split an additional appetizer and a cheese course. Having heard impressive things of Rostang’s famous truffle sandwich it was somewhat disappointing when we were informed that they were not currently offering the item because “the current truffle selection is best suited for garnish and sauces” but given the breadth of classics on the menu we certainly were not left scrambling for ideas.

With orders placed and water filled it was a short wait before the meal would begin and during that time we each made a visit to the gilded downstairs restroom largely to see the two separate wine rooms – one quite enormous and rustic with the other well appointed and behind glass showing off some of their more esoteric selections. With the restaurant less than half full throughout our meal we also were left time to remark on the how charming the room was with its heavy wood paneling juxtaposing delicate lace curtains and a collection of ornate statuettes and dolls displayed along the wall – the whole feel like dining in a stately mansion, or as the case may be, the private residence and vision of Monsieur Rostang.

With thick linen napkins unfolded and heavily padded wooden chairs beneath us the meal would begin with a trio of canapés – all three tasty and one utterly outstanding. Beginning first with the simple, a slice of house cured Jambon with truffled vinegar, pistachio, and parmesan was plenty savory, a little sweet, and nicely accented by the nuts. Moving next to the sandwich, described as a club sandwich of hand-picked crab, truffle, and brie this selection was buttery, sweet, and aromatic with each ingredient coming forth with aplomb – I’d have gladly accepted a full portion of this sandwich in place of the truffle sandwich had they offered. As good as the sandwich was, the showstopper of the troika was the Butter tart with onion cream and foie gras – an unctuous amalgam of smooth liver and onion that was even more so plus mildly sweet top notes from the pastry.

With canapés consumed the next item to arrive at our table was the house bread – a single option in the form of a crunchy demi-baguette served with salted Bordier butter. With bread replenished with a warm roll each time the prior version was within a bite of completion I, as usual, enjoyed plenty and the butter was as good as any save for that at l’Arpege.

With Chef Rostang in the kitchen (apparently something less and less frequent these days according to reports and his daughter’s comments towards the end of the meal) largely as an observer and coach as the young team worked convivially our amuse proper for the meal would arrive in a rather sizable bowl described as Fennel Soup with Lobster claws and Lobster coral Crème. Impressive in portion and in taste this medium-warm potage was the definition of “velvety” and with the aromatic blend of spices and fennel balanced against the butter poached lobster and briny cream it was better than most lobster bisques I’ve tasted stateside. While I personally would have preferred it to be hotter and I jokingly mentioned this to the server it was a minor quibble given the quality.

For our first course of the afternoon there were six choices and all but one sounded enticing but in the end my love of foie gras won out and my server would soon arrive with “Fresh Sea Scallops and Foie Gras Ravioli in a broth of algae, root vegetables and herbs.” Ever professional if not a bit too serious I was warned that this soup was “hot – as you like it” completely straight faced and indeed it was; it was also wonderful. With the scallops caramelized on the exterior and nearly raw within and the pillows of foie lightly kissed with balsamic the sweet proteins melded nicely with carrots, turnips, and rutabaga while the savory broth sang of Asian inspired umami – an admittedly surprising flourish considering the chef’s classic stylings.

For my sister’s first course her decision, like her main course, was “Le Plat du jour proposé par le Maître d’Hôtel” – in this case described as “Chilled Fisherman’s Stew of Calamari, Razor Clams, Sea Bass, and Belotta Ham.” Expecting a broth-thin cioppino or gazpacho but instead delivered a buttery and smooth veloute loaded with briny seafood, savory ham, and bitter greens balanced against onions and peppers the most impressive part of this dish was the heterogeneity of it all – each bite a new experience with the acidity of the tomato providing an anchor to the diversity of flavors.

For our added appetizer a third soup was selected and though we asked for it to be split in the kitchen we were instead served two full bowls of the “Egg cream with fresh black truffles and Jerusalem Artichokes.” Again served hot and thick this velvety soup was the best of the trio and as a 30Eu supplement well worth the expense as the chopped egg blended seamlessly with the hefty vegetal tones of the Sunchoke and aromatics of the truffle.

With plates cleared we were next visited by both Michel and his daughter (acting as translator) who thanked us for coming and commended our main course selections – “one a classic, the other my new take on surf and turf.” Beginning first with the Plat du jour, “Truffled John Dory with blood sausage wrapped in bacon lardons and black olive puree” – it is hard to imagine more polar opposites. Beginning first with the fish – 2 slices, both pan kissed but moist and flakey with a layer of black truffles atop – it was mild, aromatic, and lovely. Serving as counterpoint to the fish, the very definition of savory – briny bacon, aromatic and heavily seasoned sausage, plus the essence of olives. With a silver sauce-pan of truffled potatoes along side adding a creamy aspect to the plate it was perhaps the best “surf n’ turf” I’ve ever tasted thus making it a classic in its own right.

For my main course, a classic by any definition as it was handed down from Escoffier by way of his father, the selection was easy – La Quenelle de Brochet soufflé a la crème de homard “comme le faisait Jo Rostang” – a serving practically half the size of a regulation basketball and nearly as orange. Plated tableside and served with nutty saffron rice this admixture of pike, egg, and bread was impossibly fluffy and delicious on its own, but what truly raised it to its legendary status was the buttery lobster sauce which was baked to a leathery dome atop with more added not once, not twice, but thrice during the course of it’s consumption. While everything at Michel Rostang was delicious this dish was alone worth the visit and undoubtedly one of the five best savories I had on the trip.

Wiping the rest of my plate clean once again with some baguette we were again visited by the younger Rostang who seemed very pleased we’d enjoyed our meal and cleaning the table herself mentioned that the cheese cart should not be missed. With Erika again growing full I suggested perhaps splitting a course which was agreeable to all – even though as it turns out I’d be eating 90% of it myself. With the two boards unloaded from a clever refrigerated space in the wall and described at length I unfortunately do not recall all of the selections from the Goat-heavy board, but of those selected my notes include “Two year Comte, Epoisse, Ashed Lyon Goat, Raw-milk sheep, Blue, Roquefort, Brind amour” and all were quite tasty paired with slices of toasty house-made Walnut Raisin Bread.

Having missed out on my soufflé the night before and already bearing witness to the sort of products coming out from under the kitchen’s Salamander our dessert selections were similar but entirely different – for my sister the Hot Chocolate Souffle with Cocoa Ice Cream and Black Pepper Whipped Cream and for myself the Salty Butter Caramel Souffle with Williams Pear Sorbet. Larger than expected and with outfitted in silver both I can only note that both were beyond reproach – tall, proud, piping hot, and a cloud of sweet balanced by the nuances of their respective sauces. As an added bonus it should also be noted that the ice creams at Rostang are every bit as good as those at Berthillon – particularly the dark chocolate which is trumped only by Philadelphia’s Capogiro for best Chocolate Ice Cream I’ve ever tasted.

With soufflés finished (and Erika stuffed) the final treats for our meal would arrive on the flowing dress of a marvelous silver statue. With nine mignardises in total including an overly soft Canele, a perfect boozy Baba, and other flavors including Candied Currants, Almond Nougat, Apricot Gelee, Rhubarb Tart, Almond Cookie, Chocolate Ganache, and Lemon Marshmallow all were quite tasty but none truly exemplary – more or less the standard despite the lavish service ware. With the kitchen drapes now pulled and the staff making their way downstairs to change clothes and head home our check was requested as we enjoyed the bites and after noting a double charge for the cheeses that was instantly corrected the bill was paid and a copy of the menu requested while we lingered and chatted with our server for a bit before making our way to the sunny streets.

Having already noted my overall thoughts about Rostang at the start of this review I think it is important to say that although the meal wasn’t “the best,” it did fall in the setting of a shear embarrassment of riches unlike any trip I’ve ever taken…in almost any American city Rostang would be the best restaurant in town by leaps and bounds. While the food was perhaps “old school” there were certainly flourishes that made it stand out and additionally, while the service and room were a bit stodgy and not as much fun as that of Le Cinq or Guy Savoy both were every bit on par with that of LeDoyen or Le Pre-Catalan. In the end I’d gladly go back not only for the quenelles or the soufflé, but also because by being “old school,” Michel Rostang represents something quite unique in the new world of Barbot and Bistronomy.