Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 04:54
So this week the plot thickens as I find myself doubling back to two tables that I've recently reviewed here, and with very different results....
"Sustainable eating is no longer just one element among many to be considered when we design a menu, it's become the most important consideration in everything we do now," says Alain Ducasse about the bold new menu he's just debuted at Spoon. When Spoon opened a decade ago, it was intended to be the showcase for Ducasse's experiences of other cuisines, and as such, a way of stimulating the French to appreciate food and wine from beyond their borders. Now Ducasse wants to use the space to teach a different lesson, which is that healthy, environmentally responsible eating can also be delicious.
To be honest, I was slightly skeptical about the new menu before going to dinner here the other night. How sincere was this commitment to ecologically correct eating? And would this menu avoid the austerity that often makes such cooking more virtuous than delicious? Things didn't get off to a particularly good start with a gimmicky amuse bouche of a small blinis served with eight little porcelain ramekins filled with various incoherent sauces and a first glance at the menu didn't set my pulse racing either, because as I'd expected, it was admirably conscious in terms of good health and environmentalism but read like a Puritan primer.
Then the first courses arrived, and all of them had an impressive Zen beauty. My soft-boiled organic egg served on a bed of bulghur wheat with shaved mushrooms and long Marmite-smeared wands of toast was ecstatically good comfort food, and I also loved several of the other starters I tasted, too--a casserole of quinoa with a delicious crust like a good paella, mushrooms and ribbons of root vegetable; an excellent citrus-spiked mackerel tartare; and a brilliantly homely, Shaker style soup of wheat and buckwheat with fresh cheese.
Main courses were similarly delicious. A thick steak of lieu jaune (yellow pollack) was perfectly steamed, glossed with creme fraiche and elegantly punctuated with cracked pepper, sprigs of dill and coarse gray sea salt to create a dish that had a sort of Venus de Milo beauty, with a couple of crunchy vegetable filled gyoza making it only slightly less innocent. Daikon and red radish cooked with duck civet was sublime and one of the more original main courses I've seen on a menu recently, and rotisseried veal ribs came with a well-made sauce diable (made with tomato puree, fond de boeuf, dry mustard and Cayenne pepper) and crunchy potatoes Anna.
By this point, I reallzed that I was in the middle of an impressive and important meal. If a chef of Alain Ducasse's stature is making such a serious and successful commitment to rewiring French gastronomy so that it not only provokes pleasure but is also healthy and environmentally conscious, then the 21st century has finally begun in France.
Oh, and aside from a gimmicky and sickly sweet chocolate pizza, all of the desserts I tried--an impeccable cheesecake, a nice baked apple rather incongruously served with a slab of what I'm sure was Ocean Spray cranberry jelly, and a classic floating island, were pleasant but lacked the striking originality of the rest of the menu.
From a recent chat with Jacques Maximin, the head chef at Rech, the Ducasse group's seafood brasserie, I know that Ducasse asked him to "get Parisians to eat fish they never ate before, not the traditionally noble fish like turbot and cod, but instead mackerel, conger eel, etc.," so I can't wait to see the why that this new commitment to the 21st century parables of health and gastronomic environmentalism play out in his other restaurants in France and elsewhere. One way or another, what's going on a Spoon is a very important and surprisingly delicious first step.
Now that talented chef Jean-Francois Piege has left his post at Les Ambassadeurs, the restaurant at the Hotel de Crillon where he won two Michelin stars, to cook full-time at Thoumieux, the old-time Left Bank brasserie he took over with nightlife maven Thierry Costes, he's been getting absolutely rave reviews across the board in the French food press, so another visit to a restaurant I'd found very disappointing a few months ago was inescapable.
Arriving, I was impressed by the cordial welcome, a big change from my last meal at Thoumieux, and then Christian, Wendy and I were dumbstruck by the beauty of the dining room, which has been magnificently remodeled and now has some of the best lighting of any restaurant in Paris. Instead of the dark and rather gloomy look of old, the new room absolutely shimmers like a Manhattan supper club circa 1928. Terra-cotta twill banquettes line both walls, the gorgeous art-deco moldings overhead have been picked out in matte gunmetal paint, and lovely fifties style wall sconces send soft light everywhere from the mirrors they're mounted on.
The place was also packed to the gills, and the crowd seemed to take be taking a puckish communal pleasure in the shared and slightly self-conscious knowledge that they were in the most fashionable restaurant in Paris.
The new menu made very sexy reading when we sat down, too, but we dutifully ordered the dishes that had been crowed over by other scribes--the "pizza souffle" and the wild squid prepared carbonara style. The former came to table blown up like an Indian poori made from pita bread dough and was garnished with several very fine slices tuna, some buratta cheese and a thatch of arugula, and though it was pretty to look at it, had no almost no taste whatsoever. The latter was a thunderblot of Piege's sporadic brilliance, though, and one of the most delicious dishes I've had in a longtime--squid so tender it performed like tromp l'oeil pasta with a requisite garnish of an egg yolk and delicious grilled lardons. Shrimp steamed in white wine, however, were overcooked and had an insipid Florida country-club garnish of avocado and cocktail sauce.
Lievre a la Royal, one of the most aristocratic dishes in the whole French kitchen, shocked all three of us by arriving at the table in a soup bowl with a tiny fluttering piece of gold leaf--what on earth for, if not perhaps to taunt the bling-bling crowd with their own bling-blinginess--and was a drab, muddy mess with very little flavor. Pig belly had to be sent back once for being greviously overcooked, and was little better in a subsequent rendition, which meant that the only successful main course were my scallops, perfectly cooked and cleverly garnished with little individual pyramids of buttered bread crumbs and a side of pleasantly wilted frisee salad with baby onions and lardons.
Desserts didn't much appeal, so we shared an unpleasant portion of churros, those extruded deep-fried Spanish pastries, with a rather sickly chocolate dipping sauce and good vanilla ice cream.
All told, a frustratingly uneven meal, with thrilling flashes of Piege's talent lighting up a culinary spectrum that otherwise ran from average to mediocre. Figure a very expensive wine list into the equation, and you'll understand why I won't be tempted again by this beautiful room.
If only Piege had gone the route of a chef like Pascal Barbot and opened a small restaurant where he and his many fans could have been comfortable, instead of listening to the siren song of a Costes and creating a Monte Carlo like brasserie in Paris. There is talk, however, of a second restaurant on the premises of Thoumieux, where a hotel is being constructed upstairs, and if this pans out, I will look forward to rediscovering Piege's culinary wit and charm with the usual pleasure.
Thoumieux, 79 rue Saint Dominique, 7th, Tel. 01-47-05-49-75. Metro: La Tour Maubourg. Open daily. Avg 50 Euros
Spoon, 12, rue Marignan, 8th, Tel. 01-40-76-34-44. Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org. Open Mon-Fri, Closed Sat. Sun. Avg 50 Euros.