Considering the “15 days in advance at 8:00AM local time” reservation policy, twenty-seats, and one service per four (or sometimes five) nights of the week my dinner on Tuesday evening had everything to do with a fantastic local contact and a bit of luck in the form of a day-of cancellation – located above the bustling Hôtel Thoumieux I’d say it is fair to call Jean-François Piège the toughest ticket in town. Well aware of the nearly instantaneous awarding of 2 Michelin Stars to the tiny jewel box and having heard from a number of people that Piège’s cutting edge cuisine had perhaps been held back during his most recent stint at Les Ambassadeurs I must admit that the eponymous locale this was in my top four “must visits” for the trip and as such both my expectations and excitement were high walking in the door…a door that I walked by twice without even noticing it was there.
After finally realizing the small door and narrow carpeted staircase next to Thoumieux was indeed the entry to Jean-François Piège it was a short climb before I found myself in a room bathed in soft white. Chic and sexy with soft lighting and a cocktail-bar-styled hostess stand I presented my name and after a quick browse of the reservation list I was told it would be a few moments before the room was ready. Taking a seat on a plush leopard-print chair (and a second glance at the Scarlett Johansson look-a-like hostess) it was perhaps 5 minutes of listening to the soft overhead euro-pop before I was led to my table directly adjacent to the viewing window style kitchen.
With the room bathed in light from an enormous overhead skylight the most striking aspect of its design (save for the kitchen) was the sleek intimacy – a product of the narrow room, white walls, wooden tables, and plush patterned seating options. Invariably trendy but at the same time recalling the 60’s in style, sound, and mannerisms I found the room pleasant but perhaps trying a little too hard. Within moments of my seating I would be greeted by a young man of perhaps twenty five who, along with a slender young woman in a lacey tutu, would act as my server for the evening.
With the room now half full and soon to be at capacity I was next presented with the menu and a description of how it works – essentially a list of six ingredients sourced from local markets from which the diner selects one, two, or three at a cost of 70/90/115€ respectively (or 165€ with wine pairings) along with “Les Grignotages, Les Fromages de Xavier, et Les Gourmandises.” With my three ingredients selected I was next asked about allergies and after declining any such issues I opted for the 7€ water service and things began rather quickly. As a note regarding service – it was succinct, helpful, and professional but rather lacking in personality or smiles even when compared to more “serious” spots such as Rostang, Ledoyen, or Le Pré Catelan – a peculiarity to me considering the whimsical nature of the room, platings, and music choices.
With a cut tablecloth laid to cover the wood and unique cutlery plus an ornamental apple full of fleur de sel brought with my water the first flavors to arrive would be presented on a sort of rotating flower. Flavor and fun with items described as Creamy Cod Fritter, Chorizo Pizza, Salmon Belly and Avocado Macaroon with Red Onion, Ham and Cornichons with Lemon and Mustard, plus Rutabaga Chips and Dip I really enjoyed each but most of all the spicy deconstructed pizza puff and creamy fritter with hints of sage.
With the canapés consumed in short order the next item to arrive at the table was the bread basket – literally, a wire basket filled with bread. Featuring two full baguettes, one salted and soft and the other crunchy and loaded with sesame seeds, plus a rustic sourdough with a lovely crumb all were good, particularly the salted baguette which provided ample mechanism to deliver more of Bordier’s blissful butter.
With the outdoor lighting beginning to wane and the small kitchen of five chefs moving in swift silence it would be perhaps twenty minutes between the canapés and the first courses – variable from table to table as the order in which the selections were served was based on chef’s choice. For myself, having neglected lighter ingredients such as Caviar Oscietre, Asperge Vertes de Provence, and Langoustine Vivante, the first course of the evening would be “Turbot Sauvage,” and a large portion of it at that. With the subtle and meaty fish poached in butter and served over a bed of English peas, Lima beans, zucchini, and asparagus it was the sauce that truly stood out – a combination of the pan jus, pork prosciutto, and black truffles – and brought all the flavors together. While not as pure as my previous Parisian experience with Turbot and not as playful as Piège’s other options for the evening I couldn’t have asked for a better opening volley.
Moving on to my second course I will note that this was the first of two notable delays at Jean-François Piège – a lag of approximately thirty five minutes that likely would not have felt so excessive if dining with others but was rather off-putting in my case; thankfully what followed was worth the wait. Denoted as “Pigeonneau de Nid” this course was even more substantial than the fish that preceded it in both portion and flavor and overall ranks as one of the top ten plates I enjoyed in
For my third selection of the meal I was pleased to see the chef had saved the best for last – “Ris Veau de Lait.” Seated next to a “cheese stick” comprised of crystal rice and comte and topped with comte-crisps and earthy morels the milk calf thymus – lightly seared, sweet, and creamy – was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and by far and away the best prepared. With both the cheese and the offal delightful I was additionally pleased by yet another inspired offering from the saucier - a pool of morel beurre blanc sauce abutted by vegetal spinach puree that mellowed the otherwise weighty flavors.
With plates cleared and another baguette, this time raisin and walnut, delivered in a fresh basket I was next delivered an enormous block of wood topped with Quince puree and three cheeses from Xavier Fromager - Castillonais, Brillat Savarin, and Bleu de Séverac plus a shot glass of apple juice and house made yogurt. Having never sampled any of these three cheeses in the past I will note that the smooth texture of the Savarin was quite impressive while the Bleu was one of the most pungent I’ve ever tasted even when paired with a smear of the quince.
What followed next was another substantial delay, perhaps twenty minutes with the empty block on the table and another ten after it was removed before desserts would arrive. While the small kitchen and variable timing of people finishing each course likely had something to do with this, the primary issue was that of my neighbors who insisted on asking innumerable questions about each plate and wine – an unfortunate burden on such a small staff.
With the time now approaching 10:30pm and coffee declined it should be noted that when desserts did arrive it was quite the display – a Gagnaire-esque presentation of five selections with each quite sizable and ornately plated. Amongst the less memorable options were a spicy Bergamot Pot du crème, a selection of Pineapples, Bananas, and Papaya with Lemongrass, and Fresh Strawberries with Chantilly Cream and Mint – each good, none wowing. Fairing better would be a collection of bite sized Pomegranate Beignets served in a porcelain black dove – sweet yet tart, lightly fried – while the star of the desserts was a “free form” vanilla soufflé filled with buttery vanilla bean egg cream and topped with a crispy honey tuille…plus cinnamon crème Anglaise from a small pitcher that I believe was actually intended to be used as a dipping sauce for the beignets.
With plates cleared and no mignardises to be served I sat and relaxed for a few moments before requesting the check – a relative bargain at 122€ – and after paying made my way to the street as Dean Martin played overhead. With the Eiffel Tower aglow in the distance as I walked to my metro stop my thoughts of the meal just passed were a jumble as the food and the room were some of my favorite in the city, yet the service and pace were at times so dull that I nearly fell asleep during the five course/four hour experience. All in all I think Jean-François Piège fits a unique niche in the Parisian dining scene and in that single evening he served me two of the ten best things I’ve eaten thus far in 2011 but without improving the service I simply do not see people continuing to deal with the impossible reservation system no matter how good the food or Michelin ranking.