PARIS – In almost any field, getting to the top is the easy part. You just work harder and longer and with more discipline than anyone else and the top prize is yours.
Staying there is another story. After time, some lose the energy to keep fighting, age sets in, or maybe boredom or routine or all of the above. And there are no prizes for just staying in the game if the top is your aim.
Well, we could all take a lesson from restaurateur Jean-Claude Vrinat, the perfect example of what one can and might and should do to get to the top and stay there.
The first time I dined at his Michelin three-star establishment, Taillevent, in 1979, it was also the first time a waiter filled my wine glass without my ever noticing it. On later visits, it was the first time someone arranged the silverware to accommodate the fact that I am left handed. Oh, yes, God is in the details.
How else could Taillevent have maintained that three-star rating since 1973? Vrinat does it not only by his own rigid, unfailing self-discipline but by demanding the same of everyone who works for him. And he knows that change --- in some form or another -- is always necessary. You’ve got to keep moving, and moving ahead.
I have to say that his newest change – the employment of the talented Alain Soliveres as chef – is one of his most brilliant to date. Recently, I had two of my finest Taillevent meals ever, and look forward to plenty more in the future.
Soliveres has added a needed light touch to the Taillevent table. The 39-year-old native of Beziers, in the Languedoc, has a fine history, having trained with Jacques Maximin at the hotel Negresco in Nice, at le Chabichou in the Savoy, at Lucas Carton in Paris and with Alain Ducasse in Monaco. Since 1992 he performed brilliantly at the city’s Les Elysees Vernet. There, he introduced the world to his famous (and now much-copied) epeautre (spelt) prepared like a risotto. His cuisine has always been distinctly Provencal, distinctly personal, and distinctly pleasing. (It’s curious that at Taillevent he replaces chef Michel del Burgo , who is now at the La Bastide de Gordes, where Soliveres served as chef in 1989. In a game of musical stoves, at Les Elysees Vernet Soliveres is replaced by Eric Briffard who was basically moved aside when Alain Ducasse moved into the Plaza Athenee.)
But on to the food. Perhaps the best compliment you can pay any cook is to wish for seconds, maybe even thirds. Run, don’t walk to sample his remoulade of truffled celery root topped with paper thin slices of scallops and truffles. This pristine, elegant first course arrived like a pastry shop millefeuille, a neat, crisp-looking rectangle with its infinitesimally chopped celery root laced with truffle bits. Atop it, alternating black and white discs of fragrant black truffle and sweet sea scallops, added a cool, refreshing balance. A tiny mouthful of this creation, followed by a studied swallow of Francois Jobard’s Meursault ought to throw any self-respecting gastronome into fits of ecstasy. I had to hold myself back from asking for seconds, for I knew what was next to come.
He did not disappoint with a gorgeous piece of bar, or sea bass, cut into a big fat chunk and bathed in a bouillon rich with shellfish stock and artichokes. The marriage of sea and land was perfect, oh so light, and oh so satisfying. The moist, perfectly cooked bar was flanked with the freshest of artichokes, and just the right amount of baby clams. Again, the dish did honor to Monsieur Jobard, and vice versa.
I think it’s brave to put something as seemingly homey as rabbit on such an august menu, but Soliveres pays homage to the meaty rabbit Rex from the Poitou, again, pairing it with the tiny violet artichokes from Provence. Here, the red Nuits Saint George of Henri Gouges seems right at home.
On one visit, I was very disappointed by the moelleux au chocolate warm molten dessert. It just did not seem dense or chocolaty enough for me. But on another visit, I was blown away by his crepes craquantes au citron, a tangy, puckery-sweet lemon concoction, a fine play of crunch and cream, and the kind of dessert that simply allows you to get up from the table with fond, sweet memories.
15 rue Lamennais
Telephone: 01 44 95 15 01
Closed Sunday, Monday, and the third week of July to the third week of August. Private dining rooms for 12 or 30 diners. Menus at 130 € and 180 € , including service but not wine. A la carte, 110 to 150 €, including service but not wine.