Savoring Michelin-starred cuisine on the Left Bank
It easy to dine finely in Paris, but the best food was served by an angel in a suit at Restaurant Hélène Darroze
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Food alone does not constitute memorable meals, though it is important. Around the flavors of fine cuisine are company and conversation that enhance the dining experience. Setting can also contribute, as it did during a recent visit to Paris but the unexpected added an element of the extraordinary.
Intoxicated by the view
An e-mail to Alain Ducasse arranged a table at Le Jules Verne. While previous visits to the French capital included photographs by the Tour Eiffel, long queues discouraged any plans to go up the famous landmark. That was the first thrill on arriving at the special entrance for guests dining on the second floor of the Southern Pillar.
After the names had been checked on the reservation list, uniformed personnel led the way to the private elevator that rose through the iron latticework. That was privilege enough, to have no lines of people to contend with.
The doors opened to a view of the city that validated the premium of sipping champagne 279.11 meters above the Champ de Mars. Alex Vergara observed that we had the best seats in the dining room, which accommodates 120. Our party of four had been ushered to a table beside the window, looking out to the architectural cityscape on both sides of the Seine.
It was part of the aperitif to be wrapped in the visual sense of history and culture spread out over centuries-old structures now housing museums, shops, offices and Paris residents. The intoxication was not from champagne selected by Moet Henessy’s Olga Azarcon. Tanya Lara’s sigh conveyed the shared sentiment of longing for a similar preservation of our heritage back home.
Opting to forego the menu dégustation allowed a sampling of varied dishes from the regular menu. Each serving was artistry on a platter. The white porcelain plate with crab claws and gold caviar, topped with marinated crunchy turnips, was a canvas for colors from floral petals, creams and wafers that came with the mélange of Pince de Crabe et Caviar Gold.
The elegantly mannered wait staff ceremoniously poured Chateau Chalon the Medaillons de Sole aux Morilles et Asperges Vertes, creating a pool of richness encircling the white fish, asparagus and morel. Escalopes de Ris De Veau dorees au sautoirs, asperege vertes cuites et crues, vrai jus had the season’s specialty of asparagus arranged over the sauteed veal sweetbread, like a small mountain of palatable goodness.
The absence of drama of the Tournedos de Boeuf et Foie Gras Canard, pommes soufflés, Sauce Perigueux did not diminish the attractiveness of the pan-seared beef tournedos with fresh duck foie gras, souffléed potatoes and Perigueux sauce.
If the solicitous maitre d’ was horrified at the sharing of portions at the privileged table, he gave no hint. Service was attentive, helpful and engaging without being familiar. Dessert recommendations were taken, and brought as much satisfaction as the penultimate course.
L’Ecrou au Chocolat et Praline Croustillant, Glace Noisette was a tower bolt, dark chocolate praline with hazel nut ice cream. Citron Juste Confit, Sorbet Basilica et Fine Tarte brought tingling in the mouth with delicate spoonfuls of frosted lemon and citrus zest tart. The Souffle Tout Cacao was the last word in chocolate soufflé.
Images of wild strawberries growing in the forest prompted a request for Vacherin Contemporain fraises des bois/mangue. The variety, smaller than the cultivated red berry, combined with mango as a contemporary vacherin, was refreshing sweetness.
The sweetest ending, however, came when the bill was requested. Inside the leather fold was a note conveying that the meal was compliments of Alain Ducasse. It was an unexpected and overwhelming gesture from a man who, two years prior, extended an invitation to be his guest—and actually remembered.
The opportunity to visit Jean-François Piège’s Thoumieux on 79 rue Saint-Dominique was accompanied by an anticipation of creative modern French cooking at the brasserie gourmande. The Valence-born chef, who worked with Ducasse, Bruno Cirino, and Christian Constantin and helmed Des Ambassadeurs restaurant of the Hôtel de Crillon, is known for cuisine which brings together classics and new recipes. The two Michelin stars only served to validate the success of his culinary innovations.
Arriving at the 79 rue Saint-Dominique, it was obviously too early for the locals to sup. The longitudinal space was still empty when our company settled in one of the tables. Mirrors covered the length of both walls stretching to the back towards the kitchen. It reflected the warm lights from balls of white milk pendant lamps suspended from the ceiling and green bankers’ lamps lining the ledge behind the long cushioned seat.
There was a laid-back feel in the interiors, which had an assemblage of collectibles that might have been picked up on a whim or a fancy. The atmosphere was comfortable and suitable to indulge in an updated version of traditional cuisine.
Langoustine was on the menu again, juste cuite a la vapeur comme une sauce cocktail, une rapee de fenouil.The saltwater crayfish was steamed and lay over a streak of orange sauce, smothered with fennel strips and sprinkled with herbs. The long, slender crustacean was pale pink and sweet, an assurance that it did not come from a frozen pack.
Jean-François Piège highlights food ingredients, creating from its freshness and natural flavors. This might have been the best flavor of the night, save that lamb was also among the entrees. It wasn’t just any lamb but Agneau du Limousin, from the French region Limousin that prides itself in producing quality meat next to none.
There was no contest to the claim as the leg of lamb was consumed to the bone, accompanied by couscous with broccoli and cabbage flower. By the time we were finishing up the desserts of Tarte au Citron pour deux, Cerises en Clafoutes and the Mille Feuille, the dinner crowd had begun to fill up the room. We gave up our seats and stepped out into the shivering night to walk a few pounds away.
The taste of passion—and goodness
Agreeing to a tasting menu by Hélène Darroze did not seem an intimidating prospect. Rather, the sampling of six courses with two desserts and The Oyster to start was a food enthusiast’s dream. The Restaurant Hélène Darroze on the 4 rue d’Assas is a Restaurant of a Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux. This distinction, besides the one Michelin star, promised a gastronomic indulgence replete with flavors of the chef’s native Sud Ouest of France.
The spirit by which she approached food was akin to poetic expression, as it read on her website. “I am made up of its soil and a direct beneficiary of the traditions of my ancestors,” she says in reference to her roots. “Over the years, things have changed but things that are fundamental to me remain the same: sincerity, passion and a tremendous taste for freedom… I am trying to recreate a cuisine that is full of instincts and emotions: faithful and sensitive.”
There was a real danger that capacities would be depleted before the meal commenced owing to the Spanish Tumaco bread set on the table. A trolley with black pork ham was wheeled alongside the table to bestow thin slices of the pata negra.Moderation was a challenge, and only the arrival of a succession of four small tapas curtailed further consumption.
Somewhere between courses, a pre-dinner discomfort escalated, requiring medication. An SOS sent by SMS to the doctor, who was also traveling in some part of the world, yielded no response. It was a friend in Paris who offered her supply of tablets as a remedy for the increasing pain. That her residence was within the vicinity of the restaurant was fortuitous. It was what followed next that set the course to comfort and well-being.
Turning to the gentleman from the restaurant for directions, he printed out a map. When he realized that the excursion a few blocks down was for pain relief, he offered to go himself. Caution was the operative principle of the friend who, besides being in her night clothes and ready to retire for the day, was not wont to open her door in the lateness of the night to a complete stranger.
The solution was to go with the young chap, who had a good notion of the address and cheerfully guided the way. It was a brisk walk with Mr. Saïd Boutaraami, who, it turned out, was the general manager of the restaurant, the information discovered during our ambulant conversation.
Such kindness worked a little miracle even before swallowing the tablet. The company was rejoined, and the dinner was vanquished in a state of wonder and gratitude. It was a memorable meal on all counts, but especially for the goodness that made it the best dining experience in Paris yet.
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