Paris - The death in early January of Jean-Claude Vrinat, the longtime owner of Taillevent, left a big vacancy not just at the celebrated Paris restaurant but in French gastronomy.
Practically until the weekend before he died (on January 7 after treatment for lung cancer) Mr. Vrinat made that temple of haute cuisine the very epitome of a grand French restaurant. He paid relentless attention to every detail of the service and especially to the comfort of his clients. Whether you dined there frequently (as Walter and I had the great privilege of doing) or were a one-time visitor making the splurge of a lifetime, Mr. Vrinat put his customers at ease. He wanted to assure that every diner had a memorable experience.
Mr. Vrinat’s presence is certainly missed, but returning there recently – both to pay our respects and to celebrate one of those “passages” birthdays – we found that nothing else had disappeared. While his daughter, Valérie Vrinat d’Indy, is now in charge of the business, she will not have a presence in the restaurant. That role will continue to be filled admirably by Jean-Marie Ancher, Taillevent’s long-time maître d’hôtel.
Mr. Vrinat was not a chef but a businessman. There have been a succession of chefs over the years, but with the current one, Alain Solivérès, Taillevent now offers a truly splendid table. In several visits over the last year we found the new chef’s preparations inspired and dazzling, while still very much in the Taillevent tradition of the purest flavors extracted from the best ingredients. And of course the pre-eminent Taillevent tradition of ultimate discretion.
On our most recent visit we had a starter of risotto d’épautre aux truffes noires, a creamy and rich combination that made the utmost of the elegant earthiness of seasonal black truffles.
Next came a triumvirate of juicy scallops, each dissected with a slice of black truffle and served in a light reduction of fish fumet.
And finally we were served tiny perfectly round noisettes d’agneau, like little filets mignon, accompanied by delicious slices of fresh baby artichokes and the airiest tiny gnocchi I have ever tasted.
In other words, all is well at Taillevent.
Following are excerpts adapted from the obituary I wrote for the International Herald Tribune’s Jan. 9 edition:
Besides the grand restaurant, the enterprise that his daughter now directs includes the Caves Taillevent, a wine store, and l’Angle du Faubourg, another restaurant. All three addresses are near one another in the elegant 8 th arrondissement.
Mr. Vrinat built his business on the foundation left to him in 1962 by his father. From 1973 to 2007, Taillevent held the top rating from the Michelin Red Guide - the coveted three stars. In March 2007, in a controversial decision by a new editor of the guide, the restaurant was demoted to two. It was a blow that came without clear justification and that Mr. Vrinat - and his clients - could not understand.
Taillevent was unique in that Mr. Vrinat modeled his enterprise on the image he aspired to, one of constant perfection. In an age in which chefs and owners are frequently absent from their kitchens, it was a rare day that Mr. Vrinat was not present and paying attention to every detail - the silver, the haircuts of the staff, the lighting, the menu and wine list and, most important, the satisfaction of his clients. He was a taskmaster, and he demanded the highest standards of his staff.
Always impeccably turned out, sharp and smiling, Mr. Vrinat treated customers as friends, moving from table to table with grace and focus to make sure people were satisfied.
Taillevent is in an elegant townhouse near the Arc de Triomphe in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. The restaurant was not noted for innovation, but it set standards that few others could meet. In many quiet ways, it was the most advanced restaurant in the city.
The menu and extensive wine list are printed on a single folded sheet, so one never needed to balance two heavy tomes while trying to make conversation. And Taillevent set wine prices that were among the best in the world. Although it is a grand restaurant with an enviable cellar, Taillevent's wine prices are among the best in the world.
Born April 12, 1936, in Villeneuve-l'Archevêque, near Chablis in Burgundy, Mr. Vrinat graduated in 1959 from l'École des Hautes Études Commerciales.
In 1962 he joined his father, André Vrinat, at Taillevent - named after the court chef to King Charles V in the 14th century - and helped to turn it into one of the most respected restaurants in the world.