PARIS -- So what do you do when you’re a Michelin-three star chef and the renowned travel guide decides that you should cook for a few of your colleagues? Well, not a few actually. How about 47 of the 49 Michelin three-star chefs in Europe. Yes, all the French men and women who share your stardom, along with those from England and Spain, Germany and Holland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Not to mention Italy and Switzerland.
If you are Alain Ducasse – as was the case at a lunch on Tuesday, October 26th at his three-star restaurant in Paris’s Hotel Plaza Athénée --- you don’t try to impress the chefs and the Michelin masters and a handful of journalists with sparkles and summersaults, fireworks and cartwheels. Nor do you play it safe. Much to chef Ducasse’s credit, he chose to create a seasonal menu that was at once classic and creative, ultra-modern and surprising, well-paced, and most of all satisfying.
That morning, as I strolled towards the restaurant along the Seine -- a brilliant, blue-skied day, autumn leaves crunching beneath my feet and happy-making music blaring from the Bateaux Mouches along the river -- I tried to divine what might be on the menu. For sure caviar, truffles, langoustines, sea bass, scallops, and some sort of game. As to not play favorites, the wines would have to include a selection from some of France’s best wine regions. There would for sure be Champagne, the obligatory Bordeaux, and for certain a Burgundy.
The purpose of the lunch was to say farewell to the guide’s director, the Britain Derek Brown, who retired at age 60 this summer, and to usher in his successor, the 42-year-old Frenchman, Jean-Luc Naret. It was also a very nice reason for a very nice party. And that it was.
You would have to be remarkably blasé not to be moved by the sight and energy of all this gastronomic talent gathered in one spot: There was the father of them all, Paul Bocuse of Lyon seated next to the day’s star, Alain Ducasse. The well-known where there – Paris’s Alain Senderens of Lucas Carton, and Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevent, as well as some of the newer, lesser known, such as Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in England, Raffaele and Massimiliano Alajmo of Le Calandre in Italy, and Martin Berasategui of his eponymous restaurant in Spain.
Bubbly nectar poured from clear-glass jeroboams of 1995 Champagne Deutz “Amour de Deutz” got the party going, sipped with elegant bits of smoked, deep-fried eel dipped in a tangy sauce tartare. At table, we began with a tiny turban of raw, glistening pink langoustines topped with an exquisite dollop of the finest caviar, all set in a pool of pungent langoustine jelly. I have gone on record as saying I am not a fan of raw langoustines – I prefer the pillowy fluff of the delicate shellfish lightly cooked – but I think that Ducasse may have made a convert. Here, the sea met the sea, chilled and full of personality, it was a dish that married absolutely perfectly with the 1976 Lanson Champagne, a choice that both surprised and pleased everyone at my table.
“We’ve forgotten the flavor of old champagne,” noted Senderens, bemoaning the fact that few have true cellars anymore, and if you are aging wine, Champagne is probably the last wine you think about.
The nearly 30-year-old champagne had a minor, nutty hint of maderization, but its positive, hugely acidic punch made us embrace all the more.
No one wanted to give it up until along came my favorite sip of the day, a white 2001 Château Pape Clement served “en aiguière,” or out of single- bottle, handled carafes. I rarely think about drinking a wine by itself, but one sip of this elegant, forward wine, made we want to forget food for a minute, or may two or three. A blend of 45% Sauvignon Blanc, 45% Semillon, and 10% Muscadelle, it’s an elegant wine rich with aromas of citrus and orange marmalade and one that surely tastes grand in its youth, but can also age 20 to 30 years.
But eat we did, and the food and wine marriage here was equally perfect: Set upon a foundation of wild cèpe mushrooms, Ducasse planted a trio of the freshest and plumpest of sea scallops, flanked by three precise slices of fresh mushrooms and showered with ultra-fragrant, generous shavings of fresh white Italian truffles. Brilliant in its simplicity, simple in its brilliance, this very original creation harked back to what Michelin CEO Edouard Michelin noted earlier that day: “Creativity is when you don’t have to copy.”
With such perfect starters, this would sure be a hard act to follow, but follow he did with a refreshing rectangle of sea bass set upon a bed of citrus, paired with a 2002 Chablis from Domaine William Fèvre, served in magnum; and a modern rendition of the classic lievre a la royale, roborotive in its traditional versions, here light and surprising in the Ducasse version. Presented in two services – the first in rosy rare strips of “rable,” teamed up with colorful rectangles of pumpkin and rounds of whole baby beets, the second like a soft and succulent jelly of leg meat --- the dish brought gasps of pleasure from top stars at the table.
“He’s in a class apart,” declared Vrinat, while Senderens pronounced the dish “A beautifully modern version of true classic.”
The delicate richness of the dish matched well with the acidity of the 2000 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets from Domaine Bouchard Père et Fils, served in magnums.
Dessert was as light and welcome as can be: A colorful pastel blend of mangoes and passion fruit bathed in a lemon-vanilla cream, and a touch of coconut meringues, paired with a sweet 2002 Muscat de Frontignan, Cuvée Belle Etoile from the house of Domaine Peyronnet.