Friday, April 8, 2011

La Bigarrade, Paris France

…as is the case with almost any flight I take we arrived late to Paris – 55 minutes late to be exact and with the hassles of customs and transportation our expected 9:00am arrival had us running dangerously late for our first meal of the trip – a lunch I’d originally planned as a dinner only to find out that 12:30 on April 8th was the last seating at La Bigarrade for the duration of our visit as the team was taking a vacation Italy. Slightly frustrated but undeterred and never one to be late let alone miss a meal a decision was made – we’d hop the RER-B and head to the restaurant before the apartment – luggage in hand; as good fortune would have it we’d arrive at 12:26 and be the third table to fill with the rest of the twenty seats packed less than fifteen minutes later.

Greeted with all smiles and seated at a lovely two-top in the middle of the room with our bags stored in the broom closet I opted for the seat facing the open kitchen while my sister faced the street – an ideal for both of us as I would watch Chef Christophe Pelé and his team craft each dish from start to finish in silent harmony while my sister people watched the street outside and the delightful French waiters working the room. …and speaking of the room, quaint and charming to say the least with electric candles suspended from the ceiling, hues of green and yellow dominating the color scheme, and fresh cut flowers decorating vases throughout – I imagine the space is actually quite romantic at night.

With the “menu” delivered and explained – essentially a carte blanche chef’s whim 8 course option for 45€ or a longer 12-course experience for 65€ the decision was simple and after confirming we had no dietary restrictions and ordering a bottle of still water we sat back and let the staff take care of us for the next 170 minutes – a nearly three hour ride that was nearly perfect save for the opinionated couple seated next to us who seemed dead-set on nitpicking every detail of the meal and interjecting their comments and suggestions into our conversation – a situation that was unfortunately unavoidable due to the restaurant’s small size, but certainly not a fault of Chef Pelé and team. (**interestingly we’d run into this same pair again at L’Arpege 3 days later but would thankfully be all the way across the dining room…call me crazy, but I just don’t understand people who seem to want a meal to fall short.**)

With myself hungry and wide awake after a great sleep on the plane and my sister a bit jetlagged the first item to arrive would be a golden square of Focaccia with Fleur de Sel and a small bowl of aromatic and fruity olive oil that we were told was pressed only 5 days prior – an excellent little bite that I’d have invariably overindulged on if more than a single serving were offered.

With the bread slate cleared the second course to arrive would be a “special” only received by three of the tables – a Fried Softshell Crab with grilled lime and white truffle infused sea salt. Instructed to drizzle the lime over the crab, dip it in the salt, and take a bite this margarita inspired bite of crustacean was absolutely outstanding – the protein’s intense sweetness easily shining through the citrus and salt and whetting the appetite for what was to come.

Course three would be my least favorite of the afternoon from a team that otherwise executed balance at a very high level. Served in a small glass Razor clam with grapefruit granita and radish was a textural masterpiece of smooth shellfish, icy citrus, and crispy bitter radish – unfortunately the grapefruit simply overwhelmed everything else in flavor and the overall scope of the dish was lost (a theme I’d see ad nauseum five days later at L’Astrance.)

Moving on at a nice pace our fourth course would arrive as a duet – on one plate a sous-vide slice of Veal with cod roe and persimmon and alongside it a small bowl with a poached quail egg in dashi broth topped with dried shrimp and sansho pepper. Clearly showing his fascination with Asian flavors we were instructed to first eat the veal and then take the egg as a shot – instructions that were followed to great effect as the mild veal (especially for two people who don’t eat much beef or veal) melted in the mouth with the briny eggs balanced nicely by the persimmon. Equally impressive was the second portion with the mild egg and briny dashi brought into full effect by the pepper’s characteristic biochemical effect – a sort of savory palate cleanser, if you will.

Dishes five and six would arrive separately, one warm and one cold, but it was explained that they were both composed of the very same animal – a single langoustine per diner. For the first dish the tail of the langoustine was presented steamed over sorrel jus and topped with “mashed caviar” and cowslip stem alongside lemon gelee and a sesame almond croquette – a mélange of flavors that touched every part of the mouth and presented something new with each bite. Having never tasted cowslip before I was surprised by its sweetness, but what impressed even more was oddly the mashed caviar – a paste with the texture of a dried fruit but the briny essence of caviar that worked beautifully with the springy crawfish.

Following the first dish in short succession would be a chilled custard of langoustine roe topped with warm langoustine foam – a savory panna cotta that reminded me of a similar dish I’d experienced at Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist. Briny, eggy, and slightly sweet I really liked both presentations of the langoustine while my sister did not fancy the second and allowed me to finish hers as well.

Having been promised a menu heavy on seafood from the start our seventh seven would serve as a break in the action with two hefty spears of Green Asparagus dipped in miso presented simply with a sliced kumquat and crumbled chicory – an simple yet elegant course that would prove the first of many encounters with asparagus on this trip and aside from a few prime examples all I can say is that it when it comes to asparagus the United States has a lot of catching up to do.

With Erika and I still discussing our fantastic vegetal intermezzo the next dish to arrive would be my favorite of the afternoon not only because it was delicious, but because it gave me a whole new appreciation for two ingredients I generally would not order – Mackerel and Capers. Described as Mackerel, Cocoa, Lardo, Capers, and Cowslip Flowers the dish featured a warm 2-3oz slice of meaty skin-on fish draped with a thin shaving of lardo and dressed with briny capers and fruity cowslip flowers. Salty yet restrained what truly brought this dish together was a reduction of cocoa powder and butter drizzled over the fish and providing a smooth foil to the otherwise hefty flavors – if a fish dish could ever be described as “perfumed” (as many American Menus describe duck or lamb) this was it.

Our final fish of the meal would be another successful plate, though honestly given its constituents it would have been nearly impossible to fail. Described as Turbot, Butter, Chives, Leeks, Morels, and Bonito Flakes a simple look at the ingredients and a picture is really all you need to imagine how impressive the dish was – flawless turbot poached in butter, melted leeks, earthy morels, and salty bonito – like I said, impossible.

For our “main course” Chef Pelé actually emerged from the kitchen to discuss the sourcing and to deliver the two-part presentation himself – the first half a shocker (Raw Lamb Liver, Espelette Pepper, Radish, and Salt) and the second a stunner (Corsica Lamb, Citrus, Peanut, Spinach, and Anchovy.) Bearing in mind my sister’s feelings about “meat flavored jello” I could tell immediately that I’d be enjoying two bites of the liver – a surprisingly mild metallic flavor that was reigned in by the bitter radish and given some texture by the salt and pepper.

Moving on to the second presentation – quite frankly I had no idea that a lamb’s flesh could be so light, a nearly Kurobuta pork pink that we were told originates from the animals’s milk-only diet prior to slaughter. Expertly prepared and impressively lean the lamb itself was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted while its accoutrements of a lemon cube topped with anchovy, citrus poached spinach, and a crunchy peanut were all tasty but largely stood as textural contrasts and visual stimuli neither enhancing nor detracting from the centerpiece’s marvelous flavor.

Acting as the segue from savory to sweet our cheese course came pre-plated along with slices of Poilane bread and a smear of lemon compote. A small selection but well culled and described at length the days selections would be our first of many tastes of Comte on the trip – a somewhat soft two-year aged version whose affineur I neglected to write down and a pungent and creamy fresh Crottin goat cheese that went nicely with the yeasty and hearty bread.

Moving forward to the sweets – all told there would be nine divided into four courses – the tasting would begin with a troika of small bowls, Pineapple, Caramel, Celery / Passion fruit, Celery Root, Pastry / and Lemon Cauliflower Panna Cotta. With each bite working left to right a balanced exploration of fruits and vegetables of various textures, flavor, and color I actually found these desserts far more successful than previous such attempts in United States restaurants such as Momofuku Ko and I particularly enjoyed the cube of fresh pineapple atop warm caramel with “celery caviar” providing a bitter and vegetal note that lingered on the palate. Were they the best desserts of the trip – hardly – but considering what followed they definitely “fit” the progression.

For our next triple-bill working left to right we would receive a flavorful Goat Milk Ice Cream with Chocolate Shavings and Kumquat, a grassy and thick Green Tea Crème Brulee infused with Coriander and topped with Edamame, and an outstanding sweet meets savory combination of smoked soy sauce and honey meringue that literally evaporated on mastication leaving behind a flavor that I’d have gladly ended any meal with – but there was still more.

Offered coffee which we both accepted (and were not charged for) the next offering to arrive was a pair – on one plate a thick ganache of Domori chocolate cake topped with a smoked almond and fleur de sel that seemed to go only to those opting for coffee and on the other a cube of mango dusted with curry and a raw peanut.

Sitting and chatting (and as yet unfamiliar with the French custom of having to request the bill) it would be approximately thirty minutes before it was only ourselves and another table still filled. With the chef and two additional members of the kitchen staff stopping by to say hello and thank us for coming in “all the way from Ohio” it was only then that we thought to request the bill – a total clocking in at a mere 135€ including water, tax, and tip that was delivered with the single best Macaron of our trip – a crackling bite of vanilla bean pastry dusted with powdered sugar and filled with aromatic white truffle infused cream.

Bags collected and bid farewell by our server we returned to the streets of Paris refreshed, awake, and rejuvenated by our meal at La Bigarrade and even after nine and a half days of outstanding eating at some of the world’s best restaurants the flavors, textures, and presentations we experienced there still hold a special place in my memory. Strictly “French” food it most certainly is not, but fusion executed at a very high level it absolutely was – and compared to other similarly leaning chefs (both in Paris and at home) it was an outstanding experience at a bargain price – I’d recommend it to anyone and considering other meals we had on the trip would certainly not be surprised to see Chef Pelé and team garner a third star some day down the line.

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