PARIS – The city’s best tables may be suffering from a loss of customers – atypically almost every grand restaurant currently has at least an empty table or two – but that does not stop the top chefs from continuing their ongoing bursts of creativity.
Is it spring that’s in the air that gives the chef’s such cognitive energy, or the fact that spring ingredients just look, smell, taste better than at any time of the year? With some chefs, I’d give them three stars just for coming up with the ideas they do, even if they weren’t executed.
Often, it’s the simplest idea, a little twist or extra touch that make my enthusiasm jump off the charts. At the elegant Michelin two-star Laurent – hand’s down the best place for romantic dining outdoors in Paris – chef Alain Pegouret almost made me leap from my chair when the waiter set down a trio of giant langoustines cooked “tandoori” style, accompanied by a glistening green, perfectly formed mound of finely shaved avocado, drizzled with almond oil. The langoustines had been gently marinated in a not-too-spicy tandoori marinade (a blend of cumin, ginger, chili pepper, quatre épices and salt) then quickly pan seared. Gratefully the spice did not overwhelm the delicate, deep-sea flavor of the langoustines, served with a welcome tangle of well-dressed herbs. The gorgeous avocado dish appeared as perfectly formed curls of the rich and meaty fruit, stacked cautiously one atop the other, almost too pretty to eat. Pegouret sets the curls atop a spicy guacamole, and seasons it all with mixture of lime and orange zest, for a colorful and flavorful contrast. The langoustine/avocado pairing was brilliant, the dish a symphony of texture, color, flavor, aromas.
With the dish we sampled a delicious white Château de Cazeneuve from the Languedoc, a blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, and rich with flavors of honey, acacia, pears and ripe fruit.
Guy Savoy’s three-star creativity knows no boundaries, and his recent creation of a carpaccio of Daurade royale – the Mediterranean sea bream – was smothered in a cream made of oysters, creating a delicate but brightly flavored starter.
In the same vein, at the three-star Ledoyen, chef Christian Le Squer offered us a startlingly delicious pairing of giant oysters with a tiny bowl of oyster cream topped with a welcome dose of caviar. At the same meal, he surprised us with what the waiter called “pain de crevettes” and lo and behold the bread did taste as though it had been infused with shrimp. In fact, it was prepared with a healthy dose of mixed dried seaweed from the Brittany coast.
One can always count upon three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire to come with something new and different: At a recent lunch he created no less that eight dishes I had never sampled before. The two most amazing were a dish he simply called aubergines braisee and it consisted of a mix of eggplant that had been reduced to a purée so rich it was as if he had completely captured the smoky, dense essence of this versatile vegetable, almost multiplying its flavor, then topped the little round with a shard of very thinly sliced, dried eggplant.
If there is an upcoming trend to follow what I call “shot glass cuisine” – the proliferation of tiny mousse-like concoctions served in a clear shot glass – it will be the gelatin mode. Gagnaire’s rendition hit the spot: Cubes of bright green zucchini were folded into a pale golden wobbly jelly made with the fresh lemons from Menton, all topped with a soothing fromage blanc ice cream.
Finally, at the two-star Pre Catelan chef Frederic Anton’s creative combination of beets and Comté cow’s milk cheese wins raves. Who would combine beets and cheese? Here he combines paper-thin shavings of cooked beets perfumed with a touch of nutmeg, with equal-sized rounds of aged Comté from the Jura, drizzling it all with meaty cooking juices. The starter opens the palate, soothes, and makes one salivate, getting ready for even more to come.
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