Quatre MacaronsJuly 5, 2007 at 5:17 pm | Posted in food | 3 Comments
This spring has been exceptionally busy for me, with wave after wave of visiting family, plus the trip to Japan, and tomorrow I am set to leave again for a week in Italy. But it’s also been a lucky time for me, since my two sisters visited (separately), and each insisted I join her for dinner at the grandest restaurant where I could get a reservation.
Rising to the challenge, I swung and missed with Astrance and Le Pre Catelan, eventually settling on Apicius, an elegant and long-standing two star, and the world-renowned but recently demoted Taillevent.
The meals had much in common — both featured some truly excellent food, but both were unfortunately a little inconsistent.
At Apicius, the food was uniformly good but lacked the spark of invention that turns a meal into an event. The service, as well, was amiable enough (perhaps even too amiable) but a little careless. Apicius did score big points with me, however, for their cheese course.
Cheese courses were once de rigueur in France, even at simple restaurants, but sadly the tradition seems to be dying off — these days more and more restaurants are opting for two or even three dessert courses over cheese. So I was please and impressed when Apicius rolled out a huge and extremely diverse cart of cheeses. Better yet was the care, attention, and good humor employed by the very well-informed cheese boy as he introduced us to all our options and gave various tidbits of advice. He was friendly and helpful without being overbearing or condescending, which, as we shall see further down, is a sufficiently unusual combination.
Moving on to Taillevent, I found the food a little uneven.
This crab remoulade, for example, gets a 10/10 for presentation — I couldn’t help exclaiming over the charming rosette as soon as the waiter put it down. However, the remoulade itself was disappointingly akin to the imitation crab salads of my youth — sort of mayonnaise-y and bland.
This mushroom ravioli, on the other hand, may not be a real looker, but the assemblage of flavors was subtle, well-balanced, and delicious. The only problem with this course, then, was the waiter: as the plates landed in front of us, he announced the dish, but I couldn’t quite hear him. Exusez-moi, I said, je n’ai pas entendu. So he repeated himself, but still I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. Then I realized — he was speaking English! Kind of. And what he was insistently repeating was, “mushroom ravioli”. Well, duh — anyone could see that. But I wanted to know what type of mushrooms they were, and since mushrooms are different in different places, he was going to have to tell me in French.
After a little more badgering, I finally got him to switch to French, at which point he told me that the dish before me was “Raviolis aux Girolles.” Fine, I thought, and I let him go. But in fact, not fine, because I checked the online menu when I got home, and apparently the dish is actually “Raviolis aux mousserons des pres”. Of course, they could have switched up the mushrooms at the last minute, which is no big deal, except look at that picture. Do those look like girolles? No, they look exactly like mousserons des pres. And exactly how is it that a waiter at Taillevant doesn’t even know what kind of mushrooms are being served? It’s a bit disheartening.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only misstep of the evening. Taillevant has a veritable fleet of waiters — even though the restaurant was full, it seemed there might be more waiters than diners on the floor. But rather than assign our table a team of its own, we were faced with new waiters (and a new sommelier) at nearly every course. Which meant that we had to have the old French vs. English battle again and again! Wearing. I wish someone would inform these waiters that there are a few Anglos out there who speak and understand French perfectly well, and if we speak to them in French, they’d do well to answer us in the same language.
But waiters are waiters, and we go to a restaurant for the food, not the companionship, right? Fair enough, most of what we were served was excellent. Sadly, though, things fell apart at the cheese course.
That’s a scoop of chilled Fourme d’Ambert, and what amounts to a stewed prune. The flavors were actually interesting together, but the overall effect was far, far too rich. I only managed a bite or two before it started to make me feel ill, and — horrors — rendered me unable to eat the desserts.
Perhaps others would not have been affected so strongly, but I did feel that it was a poor choice. At that point in the meal, I really wanted something light and palate cleansing, whereas the flavors of this concoction haunt me even today.
Am I being too hard on these grand restaurants? Perhaps — in all fairness, I ate some wonderful and memorable food on both occasions. Still, I feel justified in holding institutions such as these to higher standards than your average corner bistro. It is attention to these little details that make the difference between a truly memorable experience and a simple nice meal out.
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