PARIS – Anyone seeking the height of food fashion in the capital today would do well to visit three of the city’s most solid, appealing restaurants: Joël Robuchon’s La Table de Joël Robuchon, Le Pré Catelan, and Pierre Gagnaire. Several recent meals at all three give diners a perfect example of what’s cutting edge today, not to mention, where to go to find food that’s truly satisfying.
From the whipped foie gras starter to the strawberry heaven dessert, La Table verged on culinary perfection. A seemingly simple opener of whipped foie gras in a tiny glass, topped with a concentrated, reduced port sauce and a Parmigiano-Reggiano foam was quiet music for the palate, a soothing blend of tart and sweet, soft and gentle, a first taste that just makes you want to go on for more.
The now classic Table dish of crabmeat with avocado cream arrived as a bright and fashionable statement in red, white, and black: The ethereal combination is tucked into a shiny white egg on a jet black volcanic rock stone, offset by a red lacquer spoon. Too pretty to eat? Not at all, the pleasure to the eye just precedes the pleasure on the palate.
Young chef Frédéric Simonin is sure-footed, as is the restaurants director and longtime Robuchon sommelier Antoine Hernandez, sure to find you just the right wine to highlight the experience. If all I found on the last visit was the outstanding Pouilly-Fuissé Les Carrons 2002 from the vineyards of Robert Denogent, the trip would have been well worth it. Denogent - who fittingly describes his wine as “Zen-like” - makes one of the most perfect textbook white Burgundies, a wine from old vines and aged in new oak, the epitome of pure Chardonnay with just the right balance of acid and fruit, a long finish and a food-friendly wine that seems to shake hands with what’s on the plate.
The most exceptional dish of the evening included all of my favorite foods: plump green asparagus, tiddly winks of white and black truffles, fresh morel mushrooms and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The dish was warm, spring-fresh, and rich, united by a drizzle of deeply colored, reduced meat juices.
Both simple and sublime, a serving of fresh sea bass, or bar, cooked à la unilateral – seared on the skin side only, but cooked evenly through – was firm, moist, cloud-like, and heavenly, flanked by tiny ravioli that resembled sliced rolls of sushi maki, some filled with red tomato, others with green olives. Original, fun, light, and delicious.
Near the end of the meal, strawberry heaven came in the form of a multiberry sorbet, a mix of fresh raspberries and strawberries all separated by glass-like sugar fence. My only disappointment was the chocolate dessert topped by a strange saffron foam.
Chef Frédéric Anton and the staff at the classic Le Pré Catelan are all in top form, as the menu continues to reflect the riches of the season, all the while allowing the chef – a former Robuchon second – to demonstrate his creativity and innovation. Reserve a table on the flower-filled terrace or in the dining room filled at lunch time with the most flattering natural light, and you won’t be disappointed. One can almost always be sure to find his rendition of deep-fried langoustines (a Robuchon classic), here served on a crisp folded napkin, offset by a festive, deep-fried Romaine lettuce leaf and served with a bowl of Romaine lettuce gaspacho, as well as paprika-flavored whipped cream, for dipping the rich, crunchy, ethereal wonders.
Anton manages to create surprising combinations, as in his pan-fried fresh morels set in a purée of celery root and cinnamon, all topped with a tempura of tiny fried garlic flowers. Equally energizing is his rectangle of fresh turbot, set in a bed of watercress pesto, topped with pine nuts and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
On one visit he surprised us with the tenderest, most perfect trio of lamb chops, set on a black stone and served with a gorgeous herb bouquet – fresh rosemary, thyme, sage, and parsley – elegantly and beautifully entwined on a trio of bamboo skewers. Who said food is not fashion?
The wine list here offers some real treats: Try the rich, creamy, full-bodied 100% Chenin Blanc Montlouis Sec from the Loire Valley, the Cuvee Remus 2000 from Taille aux Loups, at 64 € ; the seldom-found in France, Austrian Gruner Veltliner 2000, a mineral-rich, spicy and muscular wine from the house of Kellerberg, priced at 58 € ; the 100% Syrah Languedoc Domain de Thou, at 64 €; and Geantet-Pansiot’s 100% Pinot Noir Marsannay Champperdrix 2002, full of the flavor of red cherries, at 66 €.
Pierre Gagnaire’s energy never stops. His table offers more creativity and innovation in a single meal that most chefs offer in an entire year. Granted, the results are not always perfect, and you have to come to his soothing, grey-toned dining room to Pay Attention to the food or you’ll be mired in confusion and probably walk away with asking “What was that all about?”
I always tell people to just sit back, relax, and enjoy. Don’t try to make notes or try to remember everything you ate, or you’ll be sure to depart in a cloud of confusion. Just go, savor the moment, trust me.
Gagnaire IS audacious. Who else would tempt you, lure you, make you fall in love with a simple giant raspberry rolled in sugar? Or a single wild strawberry, or fraise de bois, set on a wooden spoon? Gagnaire makes us sit up and take notice, become reverent in front of two of nature’s most perfect, most beautiful, full-flavored fruits. Pop the single morsels in your mouth and you wonder why we cook at all!
His starter of a hot seared ball of foie gras served with a tiny square of Japanese dried seaweed is another special moment: a miniature mouthful that offers big-time pleasure.
He almost lost me on the caramelized popcorn at one lunch, but why not have fun while we’re at it?
But Gagnaire was dead serious with his tiny clams fried in polenta and set on a bed of mushroom purée; wowed us with a Mediterranean fish flan served with a slice of monkfish cooked in tandoori spices; and made us all sit up and take notice with his tiny serving of grated coconut paired with bits of cauliflower, all linked with a purée of celery root.
Gagnaire has done away with the cheese trolley and now serves a single amazing plate of many different tastes. On one visit, the offering included a thin slice of rich cow’s milk Beaufort set on a dab of almond cream, and a slice of cow’s milk blue Fourme d’Ambert set on a slice of raw pear. Another time, the cheese plate included a dollop of fresh goat’s milk cheese topped with a red beet sauce; a single soft mound of creamy Fourme d’Ambert; a slice of Beaufort on a slice of crispy buckwheat bread; and a welcome trio of pears, including a slice of fresh pear, a paper-thin slice of dried pear, and a dollop of pear purée.
Service here is always discreet and professional, and the wine list, as well, a treasure trove to discover. Recent loves include the rich and full-bodied 100% pinot noir champagne Egly Ouriet Blanc de Noir priced at 98 € ; Vincent Dauvissat’s flinty, flowery, 2000 Chablis, at 55 €; Olivier Guyot’s 100% Pinot Noir Marsannay La Montagne 2002 at € 69; and the 100% Chenin Blanc Montlouis Les Choisilles 2002 from François Chidaine at 52 €. And if you are celebrating and want to do it up right, order the 1995 vintage Gosset Célebris, Gosset’s jewel in the crown, an aromatic champagne, well-balanced and full of finesse, dominated by the pinot noir grape and priced at 145 € .
La Table de Joël Robuchon
16, avenue Bugeaud
Telephone: 01 56 28 16 16
Fax: 01 56 28 16 78
Open daily. About 100 euros per person, including service but not wine.
Le Pré Catelan
Bois du Boulogne
Telephone: 01 44 14 41 14
Fax : 01 45 24 43 25
Closed Sunday and Monday (except for summer months.) 135 € lunch menu. A la carte, 120 to 140 € , including service but not wine.
6 rue Balzac
Telephone: 01 58 36 12 50
Fax: 01 58 36 12 51
Closed Saturday, Sunday lunch, holidays, and mid-July to mid-August. 90 € lunch menu. A la carte, 200 to 300 € including service but not wine.