PARIS - Few things are more difficult to cook than fish and shellfish. They are delicate, fragile, frighteningly perishable, sometimes unpredictable and almost always expensive. Overcook a chicken or a lamb chop by a minute or more and usually no one will notice. Breach the limit on an expensive sea bass and you'll be wailing in despair.
I think one would have to be crazy to open a fish restaurant. Not only are you subject to the weather, to fishermen's whims, to skyrocketing prices, you also must be aware of the fact that you are dealing with a constantly limited resource. In France, add to the downside the nation's numerous holidays, when fishermen don't go out, as well as the threat of strikes that hinder transport.
All those reasons aside, fish and shellfish are of course among the greatest of gastronomic pleasures. So we go ahead and buy and cook them and people will always go on finding reasons to open a fish and shellfish restaurant.
Craving all of the above, I returned the other night to the grand Goumard Prunier off the Place de la Madeleine, with memories of sparkling fresh fish that seemed to have jumped from the Atlantic onto my plate, of shellfish that carried like a fine perfume that distinct, refreshing iodine aroma of the sea, of respectful preparations designed to flatter the fish and shellfish with a minimal amount of culinary fan-dancing.
Alas! From start to finish the meal was bland, boring and dull. From the tiny slender fillets of sardines to the last cool mouthful of fromage blanc sorbet I sat in depression. How could Jean-Claude Goumard, who has been able to capture two Michelin stars since he took over the historic fish restaurant in 1992, let his place slip to such depths.
What's worse, all the problems were quite elementary. Sardines, squid, langoustines and sea bass all suffered from similar problems. Where they should have glistened, shimmered, arriving tender but firm, each specimen suffered either from overcooking or from excessive handling.
Langoustines encased in paper-thin pastry and deep fried were flavorless and mushy when they should have sent one swooning with their richness, their scent of the sea breeze.
Encornets were encased in a batter so thick it destroyed the squid's fragility and flexibility, turning them into bands of rubber. The grilled loup, or sea bass, may have been perfect as it left the kitchen, but once placed on a blazing hot plate and sent upstairs the poor Mediterranean star arrived soggy, overcooked. The sole meuniere suffered the same fate. Even the fine Chateau de Meursault 1992, mellow and just slightly nutty, did little to assuage my disappointment.
I guess I'd better return to the stove and depend on my own fish-cooking skills, for I won't be returning soon to Goumard Prunier.
Goumard Prunier, 9 rue Duphot, Paris 1
tel: 01-42-60-36-07; fax: 01-42-60-04-54.
Closed Sunday and Monday. Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Lunch menu: 390 francs (about $65), including wine and service. A la carte, 420 to 800 francs, including service but not wine.