Perhaps the most ostentatious dining room in Paris, Le Meurice transports diners to mid-eighteenth century France when the city was at its peak of opulence and excess. Lined with marble, gold leaf, and mirrors, the walls of Le Meurice give the space a large, palatial feel. Twenty-foot ceilings and crystal chandeliers amplify the grandeur. But while regal and lavish, the large south-facing windows remind diners of the real world on the other side of the glass. It's a beautiful restaurant, both elegant and grandiose. Yet I found that the food, refined though it was, simply lacked flavor. I decided to order à la carte.
To start I was given some canapés: carré (fromage de chèvre) et tomate confite along with hareng fumé et pommes de terre. Goat cheese and sweet tomato confit wasn't a particularly interesting combination, nor was the smoked herring and potato. Both bites, however, offered a pleasant meeting of cream and crunch in a cute geometric package.
The second amuse bouche was a bavaroise poireaux, oeuf de truites, mousse de tomates which was a lightly acidic combination that cut through the oily mouthfeel that lingered after the herring. Leek and trout roe were noticeable, but the flavor of vinegar dominated, reminding me of something canned and preserved. The fact that it actually came in a can didn't help.
The last amuse bouche was an interesting concept, gelée de pot au feu avec mousse de cornichon, a light gherkin mousse covering a pot au feu gelée. A different presentation of this classic stew was appreciated, but three cold and acidic starters were enough.
My first course was morilles étuvées au vin jaune, five morel mushrooms with a cabbage leaf stuffed with carrot and turnip brunoise. The vin jaune sauce was bold, heady, and nicely absorbed by the spongy texture of the morel mushrooms. The cabbage and its contents were soggy and dull, neither appealing for flavor nor texture.
Not ordering asparagus in the spring is like skipping sushi in Japan -- it's just not the wisest decision. So I was practically obliged to choose the asperges vertes du midi en chaud-froid de saumon fumé. Two plump spears of asparagus half-dipped in a smoked salmon crème and topped with three small dabs of ossetra caviar made for a striking and beautiful presentation. The salmon crème was ever so lightly smoked, a nice counterpoint to the bright green flavor of the asparagus. The caviar, however, showed signs of drying, a sign of either inferior eggs or the improper treatment of them. This dish was served slightly cooler than lukewarm, so I'm not particularly sure why it was called a chaud-froid.
Next came the langoustines vivantes cuites à la minute au court bouillon, which were extremely tender and lightly pasty. But aside from the skilled cooking of the crustacean, I found little about this dish to love. The sea of capers and butter weren't particularly attractive. And, surprisingly, all the flavors of this dish were muted. I picked out the langoustines and left the rest.
Homard bleu, or Brittany blue lobster, is a creature that I find nearly always overcooked in Paris, which is particularly sinful given its already-firm texture when compared to the Maine lobsters I know and love in the US. But I was really happy when I saw two fat chunks of lobster bordering on raw -- this dish had potential. Then I noticed that somebody in the kitchen got a little overzealous with the curry powder. The lobster tasted like Madras curry, alright, but nothing anything else. The texture was fantastic, but the flavor, one-dimensional.
The second part of this course was a lobster bouillon containing several pieces of the more thoroughly cooked claws. The simplicity and intensity of flavor here made this dish my favorite of the meal -- the pure taste of lobster. This was also the only course of the afternoon that was served hot, which at this point was a welcome change.
None of the desserts struck me enough to order them. So I decided to skip out on sweets and return at a later time, possibly for the strawberry and rhubarb dessert they call la vie en rose.
Some small mignardises were placed on the table: sablé mousse framboise (raspberry mousse on top of a butter cookie), beignet avec confiture fraise (strawberry-filled donut hole), financier au betterave et meringue citron (beetroot financier with lemon meringue), and a macaron aux framboises et violette (raspberry-violet macaron). The sablé mousse framboise stuck out for its sweet and tart flavor ... also looked pretty. The beignet tasted fresh from Dunkin' Donuts.
Also had a small rice bowl filled with sorbet pommes verte et raviole de fraises, green apple sorbet and a strawberry raviolo, which was a really fresh and clean flavor to wrap up the meal. Placed atop the lid was a guimauve citron verte et framboises, a small raspberry-lime marshmallow that didn't pack much flavor.
The last of the mignardises were small tarts of raspberry, anise, and hazelnuts, all of which were quite good. The licorice flavor of the anise combined with the tart raspberry made the flavor interesting. So did the light crunch from the anise seeds themselves. This plate was empty in no time.
Throughout the entire meal chef Yannick Alléno sat with various diners in the dining room and chatted away. He seemed very friendly and sociable, even striking conversation with me when I took a few pictures. Too bad this means he wasn't in the kitchen for most of my meal.
Although I can't point to any dishes that I really disliked, I can't point to any that I particularly liked, either. Everything was forgettable, except for the beautiful dining room and kind and flexible service. I think the next time around, I'd like to come in for breakfast in the beautiful space, or perhaps for dessert after dinner ... elsewhere. Both those situations seem like the optimal way to take advantage of the restaurant.