Saturday, April 16, 2011

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.

No comments: