The weather on my visit to Le Bristol, home of chef Éric Frechon, was impeccable: sunny and warm without a cloud in the sky. But then we arrived at the restaurant for lunch. Perhaps an error on my part, I did not call to check if the main dining room would be available. It turned out to be reserved for a private corporate event; so instead, we were led to a room where spring light quickly turned to winter night. This was the winter dining room, where the sun-worn curtains covered all windows keeping the cheer out and a more solemn coldness in. The oval-shaped Victorian room is lined with wood paneling, and covered with forest green, red, and patterned brown carpeting. Adorning the center of the room is a medieval tapestry depicting a pastoral scene in rural France. The daytime oppressiveness of this room, however, can be easily turned into evening elegance: just return when it's dark and the candles are lit. But while dining at Le Bristol, overall, was a refined gastronomic experience I was left wondering, where was the passion and excitement? Our waiter came to the table flanked by a champagne cart that seemed almost attached at the hip like a much more attractive conjoined twin. He offered an early afternoon apéritif, and, being just past one, I thought a glass of champagne would be more than enough for the next few hours. After being asked which champagne we desired, I wondered if my friend had been pegged as such an expert that he could discern the different offerings solely by their corks, since all eight of the bottles were completely submerged in ice water and covered with a white napkin. Must have been his striped tie. They say geniuses choose stripes, you know. He's good, but I'm not sure anyone is that good. I laughed to myself and chose a glass of Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis.
A small rectangular plate of three amuses-bouche was placed on the table to accompany the champagne. Starting from the left was a smoked foie gras custard covered with a green gelée of what tasted like parsley or similar herb. This had a smokey flavor without a burnt aftertaste, and was very creamy. In the center was a white fish covered in horseradish foam with a very fatty consistency. The foam had the flavor of horseradish without the spice. Last was a cucumber gelatin ball with oysters, also very gelatinous.
My friend and I had a look through the menu, which despite being the beginning of April was still the winter version. We must have been just on the cusp of a seasonal change. This one had two sections, a 3-course lunch menu at a rather reasonable price of 90€, or a more extensive à la carte selection with several dishes at rather unreasonable prices. Before coming I knew I wanted the poularde, so we ordered the lunch menu with two additional supplements from the à la carte: Le Foie Gras de Canard, and Le Poularde de Bresse. Our waiter cautioned us that this might be too much food. He had no idea who he was dealing with.
Before our first course we were given a lardon mousse with beet gelée, a sweet pre-appetizer whose gelée tasted strangely of sweet red peppers. Beets have a very strong, earthy flavor but in this dish the earth was removed leaving only the sweet, almost candied taste of beets. My friend found this a little too sweet, but at first I was too distracted by the texture: a smoky and weightless mousse that instantly dissolved in my mouth like bubbles. It was very fun, and playful. Crowning the light mousse were ultra-light and airy crôutons making each bite crunchy without distracting from the texture of the mousse. Once I got over the texture what remained was the flavor which, I agreed with my friend, was a little too sweet for my liking.
What came next is still a mystery: what was that? I sent the pictures to a few friends who all had a similar response: what is that? According to the menu, maquereau de petit bateau cuit au vin blanc, parfumé d'aromates et de baies de cassis, relevé au raifort. According to me, very tasty: mackerel cooked in white wine and scented with herbs, spices, black currant, and "picked up" with horseradish. The mackerel was eerily suspended inside this perfectly shaped rectangular solid gelée, not touching any of the sides. The dish was served cold and the light smell of white wine vinegar began to hit my nose. A friend of mine's chief complaint of French food, or justification to only eat Asian food, is that in general it contains insufficient acidity for his palate. I'm pretty sure he would have liked this. The fish was soft, creamy, and wet; the surrounding gelée seemed to form an airtight lock trapping all the moisture. With each bite the gelée would meld with the fish making the two textures nearly indistinguishable except for the slightly gritty texture of the fish. The acidity of the white wine was tempered by the horseradish crème which was only lightly spiced. For me this dish had particular meaning as its cold and acidic taste reminded me of Sunday mornings with my father when my sister and I would wake up with freshly sliced sturgeon on the kitchen table served with bagels and cream cheese. Aside from this dish being artistically beautiful, its concept was crisp and clear, its flavors clean, though tepid.
The next course came, sole de sable farcie aux girolles, sucs des arêtes réduits à peine crémes au vin jaune, a roll of pacific sand sole stuffed with chanterelles and a fish bone and yellow wine reduction. The first thing I noticed of this dish was the strong smell of rich butter: I was back in France. The fish was beautifully presented with these two sauces that somehow managed to stay separate. A dorsal slice revealed how the fish was stuffed, through its side. Since the surface of the fish was so smooth, unfortunately, the stuffed interior slid together into a dry mushroom paste with most of the moisture being absorbed by the fish. The first bite was overwhelmingly salty and buttery, attacking the delicate flavor of the sole and mushrooms. Aside from salt and butter, the fish bone reduction had a very appealing flavor of fish head and this dish has a lot of potential. I also think the portion of fish was simply too large to enjoy. For me the flavor of fish fatigues my palate after about the 3rd or 4th bite (this is one of the reasons I'm crazy about sushi). This dish approximated 8-10 bites; way too many. By the third bite I decided to cut my losses and leave the dish alone.
For the next course, our waiter came out of the kitchen holding two large plastic bags. Was this a gift from the kitchen to make up for the previous course? Sure was; except I ordered it: foie gras de canard cuit en papillote, huîtres fumées, bouillon de canard au thé vert. This wedge of goose foie gras was cooked in a bag to lock in the moisture and served with smoked oysters and a duck broth with green tea. The bag was cut table side and the oyster smoke released. The warm smoke had the light scent of toasted wood with nothing charred nor burnt. This might be the first time I have liked the smell of smoked food. The cut of foie gras was significant, and its fat melted to the surface of the green tea bouillon enriching the broth. The foie was cooked through enough so that it held its shape and didn't melt completely, yet still remained supple and buttery. To break up creamy foie gras were tender pieces of oyster and cooked brussels sprout leaves which also added the smallest amount of vegetal bitterness possible. This heavy dish was very satisfying.
Next came an egg-shaped pig bladder in which our fattened young hen had cooked in its own little ecosystem of moisture. This was the poularde de bresse cuite en vessie aux écrevises, royale d'abats, asperges vertes et morilles au vin jaune and it was the dish for which I had come. From the entire chicken we were each served a single breast with chicken giblets, crayfish, morel mushrooms, and asparagus. I watched in delight as juice rained from the chicken with each slice -- this was the most tender chicken I had ever seen. Our waiter plated and sauced our breast in front of us, and I once again smelled the richness of butter. Was this the same yellow wine sauce from sole two courses ago, the one I found too salty? Sure was; I guess that's what I get for supplementing something à la carte. But the difference here is that the salt was necessary for the chicken since by itself it wasn't salted. In this dish, the combination worked and the salting was welcome.
While the texture of the chicken was incredibly ripe, I can't say it was the most tender I'd ever had. That distinction is reserved for the Hainanese chicken rice at Boon Tong Kee in Singapore. What I can say is that this is the most tender chicken I have had in Paris, even more than Ducasse's poularde de bresse at Alain Ducasse Plaza Athénée. The combination of morel mushrooms and chicken remains to be my favorite as these two textures complement each other really nicely. I was very happy to have ordered this.
The last course of the savory dishes was a black truffle bouillon served with thin strips of duck. The truffles were very fragrant, particularly when the scent was activated by the hot broth. The smell was complex and earthy combining the truffles and the meat-based bouillon. But the rest of the soup was secondary to everything else -- there was too much going on. The duck almost seemed unnecessary, as did the many other vegetables lurking about. Dispersed throughout the thin broth were cubed pieces of raw black truffle with a texture very similar to raw carrot -- cold and hard. Each spoonful made me question if I had eaten something that maybe I shouldn't have. For this course I skimmed off the top layer and called it a day.
The cheese cart was rolled out: pouligny St. Pierre, cabécou, mimolette, fourme d'ambert, époisses, comté de 24 mois, and some other common cheeses. Nothing incredibly exotic or that wasn't available at my cheese store (or Artisanal for that matter) so we passed. Sure was pretty, though.
Our pre-dessert was served, a grapefruit sorbet with grapefruit wedges and a black cherry gelée. After a traumatizing experience, I am now very cautious with bitter ingredients, particularly bitter citrus ingredients. But somehow this worked. Though still bitter, I enjoyed it. The completely bitter assault of grapefruit, the main reason why I don't enjoy a glass of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, was moderated by the sugar leaving behind only the bitterness not the tongue-clenching acidity. It reset my entire palate.
Then came the dessert, amarena sorbet acidulé, crousti-fondant au chocolat par Carïbes, a geometric semi-crispy Caribbean chocolate fondant covered with acidulated amarena cherry sorbet. Amarena cherries are sour cherries grown in northern Italy, mostly in Modena and Bologna, my Genovese friend was quick to point out. The chocolate fondant was sandwiched by very think layers of chocolate wafer, making the smooth center a little crunchy. I generally do not like chocolate desserts particularly when I am approaching fullness, as they tend to be heavy and one-dimensional. I especially dislike chocolate when it is served cold and takes three times as long to melt in your mouth; it just doesn't taste good. This dessert, on the other hand, was nothing of the sort. The texture was nothing of chocolate, more like a a light mousse with a light crispy shell. The flavor was pure and dark, but not so intense as to monopolize my tongue. The combination of the sweet fondant with the slightly sour sorbet was interesting, though a tad bit cloying, a harmony of yin and yang resulting in a happy palate. The plating was beautiful.
Some small petits-fours were wheeled out, two caramel macarons and a spherified citrus gel. The macarons tasted more like butter with raw sugar than caramel, and lacked salt which I think would have made the macarons less cloying. The texture was very fresh, though, as the two halves slid around in between my fingers very easily. I hoped the citrus gel would "pop" in my mouth, but instead leaked a very sweet liquid that could have been skipped.
Our waiter offered us some Armangnac; no thanks.
Lastly came the bon-bon trolly full of nougat, dark and milk chocolate, marshmallow, and mango-passion fruit caramel. I took a few pieces of everything, but nothing jumped out as particularly memorable. The M'aître d'Hôtel then offered us a small box of red fruit macarons to demolish right then and there take home. Take a look at the color and see if it looks familiar. Anything yet? Yeah I didn't get it either; but it was to celebrate Le Bristol's reception of its third Michelin star, a truly impressive feat. What better way to celebrate than with macarons? I surely can't think of any. The texture of these macarons was even fresher and lighter than the caramel ones I'd just eaten. I had trouble taking them out of the box they were so delicate; the two halves were gliding all over the place. The flavor was slightly sweet; but the subtle sourness helped to control it.
I left the restaurant confident that Le Bristrol had rightfully earned its three stars for its refinement of dishes, service, and ambiance. I just felt like they just lacked the inspirational spark that some of the other Parisian 3* restaurants have. Like other 3* restaurants lacking soul, this restaurant operated like a well-oiled machine, except most of the flavors were old news.
In a way I wish I had gone last year before the third star was awarded. Some of the dishes seemed to have unnecessary plays on textures making them really gelatinous, which make me question if this was artificially done to make some of Frechon's more classical cooking seem more modern and innovative. Perhaps this is his way of keeping things "new" to hold on to his third star. Leaving out this play on textures could have made the first three courses even more appealing and seem more natural.
The other thing I noticed was what seemed to be a discrepancy between the main courses ordered from the lunch menu, and from the à la carte menu. It was like two different restaurants, and made me wonder if there was a separate lunch menu chef who was preparing those items. The majority of the courses for which I had qualms came from the lunch menu. Could be a coincidence,and maybe I'm just too idealistic, but I feel like a three star restaurant should have consistency between the two menus. At least that's been my experience.
Aside from those concerns, this was a very polished experience and represents what is meant by haute dining in Paris twenty years ago today. I look forward to returning eventually; but not too soon, and definitely not for lunch.