Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at The Fish Club on September 14, 2013.
All in Paris
Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at The Fish Club on September 14, 2013.
Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at L'Ambroisie on September 13, 2013.
Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at l'Arpège on September 11, 2013.
Ladurée has the finest macarons I have tasted anywhere. Unlike pâtisseries such as Pierre Hermé which pride themselves on constantly introducing new and unique flavor combinations, Ladurée takes a much more straightforward approach. Most of the macarons are single-flavor, with a few being a combination of two, at most. This emphasis on simplicity allows Ladurée to completely focus on ingredient quality and taste, ensuring each macaron is the best of its kind.
Photographs from my meal in France , Paris , at Ladurée, on August 30, 2011.
It seems to be a common theme with Parisian Michelin 3-star restaurants: due to pricing and the general difficulty in obtaining reservations, most are geared towards consistency at the expense of risk-taking. This means that most dishes will be excellent but few will be mind-shatteringly delicious. Lifetime memorable dishes take experimentation, precariousness and uncertainty, three elements embodied by a capricious and whimsical chef. Pierre Gagnaire is one of these colorful chefs. Sure, the restaurant has a menu. But ordering from the menu here is a bit like asking Monet to draw a stick figure: it's restrictive and doesn't take full advantage of the chef's creativity. The best way to experience Chef Gaganaire's cuisine is to ask the kitchen to cook for the table without restriction. At least that's what I'd heard from regulars ... but maybe their last visit was quite some time ago as this is becoming less and less possible since Chef Gagnaire spends less time behind the stove. Apparently this can make the difference between an extraordinary experience and a disappointing one.
I'd always considered French cuisine to be stagnant and unchanging: thick mother sauces blanketing filets of meat and fish with fancy adornments. It was when I actually lived here for a few years that I discovered the new wave of French cuisine led by garden fresh vegetables and lighter preparations. Mother sauces were on vacation. L'Arpège quickly became the restaurant spearheading Paris's back-to-the-garden movement. L'Astrance peaked my interest when I heard of the restaurant's compulsiveness for fresh vegetables combined with its ability to integrate elements of molecular gastronomy: spherification, foams, and non-traditional flavor extractions made this menu really exciting. Here was a young and extremely talented chef, Pascal Barbot, who went from one Michelin star to three in just under seven years.
Ever wonder where the millions of unsold Parisian croissants go? The shelf life of a croissant is about four hours, which is why bakeries should never be visited after 10am: the croissants become hard, dry, and brittle. But the French, it seems, are very good at recycling. A day's old croissant is more often than not turned into a brand new sugared almond croissant by adding a layer of frangipane, sprinkling with confectioner's sugar, and re-baking. And for those who like sweet pastries, they can be quite tasty. For this tour, I visited the pâtisseries best known for exceptional croissants au beurre, with the thinking that the croissants aux amandes would be equally impressive. In general this held true, though there were a few surprises along the way. I started this journey without a sweet tooth and by the end, finished a few pounds heavier. Warning: this is not a post for dieters.
I wrote about L'Ambroisie a few years ago here. At that time I wasn't sure what to make of the restaurant. On the one hand, I experienced tremendous difficulty making a reservation. And when I actually showed up the night of my reservation: I was turned away. The staff didn't seem that friendly. On the other hand, once I actually experienced the cuisine, the black truffle feuillantine haunted me for years after. I've since lived in Paris for nearly three years. While the restaurant may have evolved a bit since my first meal three years ago, it was I who changed the most. My expectations of a Parisian restaurant are different now. In the US, a meal at a three star Michelin restaurant is often reserved for special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, congratulatory dinners and the like. The restaurants cater to the food as much as they do to customer enjoyment: they make guests feel special. Things are different here. Aside from say Guy Savoy, the impromptu gifts and unexpected culinary surprises such as tours of the kitchen, chef handshakes, and take-home goodie bags are severely limited. Ego-stroking is almost non-existent. Here, the fine dining ecosystem is designed for regulars.
Paris has a lot things, but great coffee sure isn't one of them. It's a bit counterintuitive to think that since Parisian café culture is so prominent. Images of sitting outside in wicker chairs in the cold winter under a gas heat lamp sipping a steaming hot drink in the smoke-filled air remind me very strongly of the city. Except that image is all about the ritual, not about the drink. Paris has a strong café culture, but lacks a coffee culture. It's incredible that a food-oriented culture which values so heavily elaborate sauces and delicate soufflés, can completely disregard the methods by which to properly prepare an espresso. Even simple ones. I was once thrown out of Café Amazone for suggesting that the doddering owner/barista use the tamp to compress the ground. He instead insisted on using the tamp as a measuring device, compressing the coffee into a spoon, and pouring the loose beans into the portafilter. Even La Caféothèque de Paris and Verlet, which both have fancy La Marzocco equipment and all Arabica beans disappoint. The city is like a parallel universe.
A lot of blame often gets put to the use of Robusta beans versus the more aromatic Arabica. France is able to import these beans from former African colonies at much less cost than overseas Arabica varieties. But frankly, I'm tired of this as an excuse. Even mediocre beans can taste reasonable when prepared correctly. With espresso, 85% of the flavor comes from the process and technique, not the ingredients.
Before I moved to Paris, I knew most of the stereotypes: cigarettes, fake dimples, accordions, and berets. And there are others, to say the least. Thankfully, with the exception of the cigarettes, they turned out to be inaccurate. One stereotype, however, was so spot-on it was comical: I cannot count the number of Parisians I've seen racing around the city with groceries on one arm and a bitten baguette under the other. The French love their bread. And they should! With the arguable exception of Tokyo, Paris has the finest bread in the world. Fine boulangeries are to France as Starbucks is to America. They're everywhere.
Think about it: a baguette is the perfect accompaniment for any course. It goes with confiture and butter for breakfast, with a "jambon fromage" sandwich for lunch, in a small bowl to the side of a glass of red wine with dinner, or with a cheese board as a snack.
Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at l'Arpège on December 11, 2009.
Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at l'Arpège on December 4, 2009.
Photographs from my meal in Paris, France at l'Arpège on November 17, 2009.
In a country known for its extensive use of butter, it's refreshing to have a meal where butter is scarce. Dinner at Agapé is light and clean making use of only the freshest seasonal ingredients. The name Agapé itself is one of three Greek words roughly translated into English as love. This title is well-suited as the energetic and enthusiastic passion of the entire staff comes through immediately. I'd never seen a maître'd more genuinely excited to put together a tasting menu. He was proud of the restaurant's creations. And it showed.
The meal started with an amuse bouche of mousseline de potimarron avec orange, graine de tournesol, a thick soup of winter squash brightened by orange zest and sunflower seeds. The soup had a strong flavor of pumpkin with a slightly grainy and creamy texture. The raw sunflower seeds seemed a little misplaced at first; but then I began to enjoy the textural contrast it provided to keep each spoonful interesting. I really liked this.