Tastes from the Top

PARIS -- In these days of French anxiety, it is always reassuring to know that when all else fails in this country, one can always be assured of a certain gastronomic bliss. Recent lunches at my two favorite restaurants in Paris --- Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire - reminded me of what several hours of pure pleasure can do for the soul.

Since finally receiving his well-deserved and long-delayed third Michelin star, Guy Savoy has been giddy with joy. His staff acts as though they are in perpetual training for a non-existent fourth star, and we the diners are the fine beneficiary of all that unleashed enthusiasm.

Guy Savoy has always been a brave, modern man, a trendsetter in the kitchen and the dining room. He was the first chef I ever saw use such an array of ultramodern white china bowls, so perfect for tiny tastes, with the edges acting as a blank canvas for a chef's creativity. His penchant for modern art took fine restaurants out of the obligatory oversized vases of flowers and a touch of red velvet.

Savoy's latest act of bravery is to serve a single green asparagus on a plate. But not just any asparagus. Imagine the plumpest spear of green asparagus cooked to perfection, with a little rectangular notch carved out of it. In that little rectangle he poses a finely fitting portion of a foie gras royale, a creamy compact, smooth-flavored foie gras, all bathed in a forward-flavored truffle vinaigrette. Not a bad way to start a lovely meal!

I have had the pleasure of twice sampling his turbot trio, a combination of gently poached Brittany turbot paired with ratte potatoes poached in the turbot water (picking up a gentle brininess along the way) and bathed in a touch of turbot butter. This is followed by his "petit ragout des cuinsiniers" tasty bits of turbot quickly pan fried. It is hard to imagine how such simple ingredients can be elevated to more than the sum of their parts, and at the same time left seemingly untouched. In this presentation, flavors are pure, almost intense, textures are clean and well-defined.

Guy pulls off the same success with his "agneau de lait dans tous ses états" combining brochettes of shoulder and roasted leg of lamb allowing us to admire all the ways a single tiny piece of lamb can taste.

He remains faithful as ever to his classics: the ever-soothing artichoke soup topped with black truffles and Parmesan, paired with a rich brioche buttered heavily with a truffle and mushroom butter.

A wine I have loved here is Jean-Luc Colombo's Saint Peray, La Belle de Mai 2000, a beautiful example of one of my favorite grape varieties, Roussanne, which has the ability to offer a wine with a fine balance of acidity, with complex floral notes.

I confess that it is rare that a dessert remains my strongest food memory of a meal. But I can't stop thinking about how pure and pleasurable I found Pierre Gagnaire's chocolate dessert. When the sweet, dark, extravaganza arrived as part of a procession of "quelques" desserts our table burst out with a laughter of joy. It was like a candy store on a plate: four or five rounds of chocolate cookie the size of an Oreo all filled with a smooth chocolate mousse, stacked up like a dark brown millefeuille. The dessert was streamlined and simple in its own right, pure decadence in another light.

Like Savoy, Gagnaire is at the top of his form, and that's saying a lot for both. Somehow, these two classically trained chefs have managed to always keep up with the times, always remain passionate and true to their art, and make us all feel that they are having a good old time at it as well.

Gagnaire's food has always been complex and full of fireworks, but once you think through a dish of his, it really is all about the purity of flavors, with am emphasis too on beauty, on the progression of colors, of varying essences of varying power. Even his butter looks like the more beautiful thing you've ever seen, the color of brilliant lemon zest. Sometimes I think that his food is about all sensations, all the time, and you have to step back from the table and think about what is going on to digest it all in your mind.

But nothing is lost if you just dig in! He is into processions these days, especially during his market menu at lunch time. You will find things like a tiny bouquet of asparagus green and asparagus white, enhanced with a egg yolk pate that looked as though it was applied to the bowl with a putty knife. An incredible gelée of varied vegetables --- peas, snow peas and white Tarbais beans - is a riot of color, texture, spring flavor. Lieu jaune - a generally less than noble codfish --- arrives warm and has a rich herbal essence to it. Here we have the smoothness of the fish offset by the Gagnaire's original 'sel cuisiné," his own varied mixtures of fresh herbs and sea salt that he sprinkles atop his dishes like we use common salt and pepper. Here the mixture is one of chives and salt, and this simple addition creates a texture that common salt could not. Finally, his curry de racines (a mixture of varied root vegetables paired with bean sprouts and pistachio oil) create a colorful, spicy climax to his lineup of starters.

The main course - a perfectly cooked saddle of lamb, pan-fried with oregano and served with a timbale of lamb sweetbreads and sorrel - has an almost a calming effect as it follows the fireworks of the complex first course.

Wines I have loved here include Rossignol's 1999 Volnay Chevret, a fine example of the 1999 red Burgundies that are drinking now with a certain youthful beauty; and Thevenet's 1999 Macon Villages, an always welcome well-priced example of a classic Chardonnay.

Guy Savoy
18 rue Troyon
Paris 75017
Tel: 01 43 80 40 61.
Fax: 01 46 22 43 09.
Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday, Monday, and August. All major credit cards. Menus at 170 and 200 euros, A la carte, 135 to 175 euros, including service but not wine.

Pierre Gagnaire
6 rue Balzac
Paris 75008.
Tel: 01 58 36 12 50
Fax: 01 58 36 12 51
Closed Saturday, Sunday lunch, holidays and the last two weeks of July. All major credit cards. Lunch menus at 83 and 85 euros and 182.94 euros. A la carte, 155 to 215 euros, including service but not wine.