Since 2004, Les Ambassadeurs has been the home Chef Piège, the former chef from Alain Ducasse who grew up in the farming hillsides of southeastern france, which perhaps explains his strong devotion fresh ingredients. Located inside the Hôtel de Crillon, however, this is no afternoon farm picnic. The dining room, in fact, might exemplify all of what I dislike about the atmosphere of haute french restaurants: baroque and stuffy. But despite what I believed to be a relatively uncomfortable dining space the food, in all honesty, was brilliant. While Versailles might symbolize the pinnacle of Louis XIV's reign over France as a display of opulence, setting up a table in the middle of its hall of mirrors would probably be a bit uncomfortable. That's how I felt dining here, as this room was laid, floor to ceiling, with marble accentuated by gold leaf molding. There were countless mirrors, each of which making the already large room feel even larger. There was no carpet, or really anything else that might have warmed this room's coldness. Everything felt hard and cold, especially with the echos that spilled in from the adjacent hotel lobby. It was like eating in a grandiose hallway. Beautiful, indeed; just not for a restaurant. Perhaps this room was better suited for purgatory a hotel lobby or large public space as it lacks intimacy.
Things started off sky high with a remarkable amuse bouche titled sur l'idée d'un plateau télé, a platter of five small appetizers on a tray resembling a TV dinner. The serving of this course started with my waiter wheeling over a cart of an iced canister and small cups, the waiter then proceeding to spray carbonated carrot purée and lemonade into a small glass. The rest of these treats were placed on a tray which seemed perfectly designed for this purpose. The other amuses included Gâteau de foie blond selon Lucien Tendret version 2007, a beautifully layered glass of foie gras royale, émulsion de foie gras, and jus d'écrevisses (crayfish). This was the best part of the amuse selection. The warm creamy foie gras royale crowned by the cooler foie gras foam, a textural and temperature mix that indisputably awakened my taste buds. Some of the other items included a cromequis d'une pizza, a small pizza-flavored croquette which did indeed taste like pizza, the liquid contents spilling in my mouth with a single bite. There was also a variation croustillante d'un jambon et fromage, a sweet pastry cylinder filled with a ham and cheese crème. Very delicious, particularly the crêpe-like sweetness of the shell and the saltiness of the ham. Last was a wrapped bon bon of beurre de truffe noire à tartiner, a black truffle butter designed to be spread on the three loaves of bread placed besides me. Not like I accidentally ate this in one bite forgetting that it was butter for the bread; but, the wrapper could, potentially, be a bit deceiving.
The momentum continued with the next course, langoustines and caviar: croustillantes, sushi, bouillon, and with golden Iranian caviar. Some say this is Chef Piège's signature dish. The diversity of this plate was incredibly well-thought out, each preparation equally impressive. The langoustine croustillante was a large langoustine tail encrusted in a langoustine-flavored dough, much like ultra-thin strips of tempura. These crispy strips were ultra thin, allowing for the juicy crustacean to retain its moisture rather than absorb it. They were also slightly salted, further bringing out the natural shellfish flavor. Despite being deep fried there was, remarkably, very little oil and this was by no means greasy, a parallel to some of Japan's finest tempura houses. It should be noted that the juiciness of this seafood, perfectly hovering on the cooked-raw boundary, nearly gave me a shiver. Incredible. The bouillon had a very concentrated langoustine flavor. And while this was a thin soup, the small portioning and dollop of caviar and crème in the center kept it interesting. This was the lesser of the four variations of shellfish; but it was still very good. The third preparation was the sushi, raw langoustines wrapped with thin slices of cucumber and topped with caviar. A very simple preparation, the naturalness of which suggests chef Piège's modesty as a chef, unafraid to let high quality ingredients stand out on their own. The freshness of the cucumber really contrasted nicely against the other preparations. Very fresh. Last, but certainly not least, was the bowl of caviar with a pleasantly salty finish.
The first main course was the turbot two considerable portions of fish wrapped in a galette de Bretagne, a cookie-like pastry with a slight sweetness. This galette drew in moisture from the fish, making it slightly soft but by no means soggy -- this cookie stayed crisp! In many ways, the galette was as a second-skin for the skinned fish, one that was slightly sweeter and more attractive than the original. It even had wafer-scales. Surrounding these turbot pillars was a coquillage of giant clam and green herbs, the more salty oceanic component to this already texturally diverse dish. It should be noted that the parsley leaves garnishing this dish are by no means raw and have been candied in sugar, maintaining their green crispy appearance from a quick blanching. The fish itself was succulent, and the mélange items surrounding this plate prevented this generous portions of fish from becoming monotonous.
While this meal was progressing really nicely, this next course is what really stole the show and remains such a memorable preparation of sweetbreads. These ris de veau were prepared three ways, lait blanc, brun, and spaghetti carbonara. Michael Mina would have been proud. The first thing that struck me was the variety of colors and preparation for this single ingredient. What a beautiful plate: a heavenly spectrum of sweetbreads, the sauces melding together into a colorful gradient of flavor. There was also a gradient of textures, with the most crispy croustillante on the left, the semi-crispy carbonara with a crouistillante topping, all the way to the soft and rich white milk. The croustillante preparation was perhaps the lesser of the three, a creamy oblong encrusted in bits of dough rife with clarified butter. The textural contrast was fantastic. To the right was the sweetbread pâte wrapped in spaghetti, a tribute to the more classical yolk-based carbonara, although Aaron was quick to point out that this sauce was startlingly white for one based on egg yolk. The line of ham flavored brittle sitting atop deftly kept this dish texturally interesting and diverse. And last, but certainly not least, was the white milk. Oh god. This rendition was spectacular; but certainly not for those trying to save a few calories. The velvety milk accentuated the buttery sweetbread, adding a slight hint of sweetness which was countered by the little circular bacon-flavored crisps sitting on top. Wow.
Following this pinnacle course came the cheese, two large carts of cheese wheeled over by three people. Each cheese had an individual glass dome covering it which was certainly pretty; still, this did prevent any aromas from the fine cheeses from surfacing. I was still pretty hungry getting kind of full from all the food, particularly the heaviness of the sweetbreads. I selected five cheeses; Livarot, Fourme D'Ambert, St. Marcelin, Abbaye de Citeaux, and Comté. I enjoyed the light caramelization of the 4-year-old aged comté very much, though it was not quite so intense as in Guy Savoy. Though, my host mother was quick to inform me that the correct pronunciation of comté leaves the "m" silent. The apex, however, was in fact the Fourme D'Ambert, an incredibly creamy blue cheese that's relatively light on the tongue. I generally like strong blues, particularly Bleu D'Auvergne and Bayley Hazen; but this was really fantastic.
After finishing my cheese, I was handed a light popsicle of chocolate and almond coated almond sorbet, which cut through much of the cheese flavor left behind in my mouth from the previous course. Nothing particularly interesting; but I did feel surprisingly fresh afterwards.
Next up at Per SeThe French Laundry was a selection of mignardises which, starting from the bottom up, included a biscuit moelleux sangria et noisette, a selection of quite a few macarons pomme Granny, as well as miniature pastries described as paille d'or framboise. Even though I sent it back empty, this silver mignardise container was startlingly heavy. It's always a good sign in my book when I have to handle macarons carefully, which was the case with these granny smith apple treats. The top and bottom meringue layers began to slide around each time I lifted one, a sign of their freshness. The tart apple flavor with slightly grainy texture was surprisingly nice, too. I didn't much like the sangria and hazelnut cookies, that flavor combination seemed a little off to me. As for the gold and rasberry pastries, very tasty; though, I would have liked to see a little more of a rasberry center so the flavor wasn't so overwhelmed by the dry pastry.
I was also given a box of 35 dark chocolate truffles. It wasn't clear whether or not I was able to take this home with me, so I finished all of them right then and there tasted a few and moved on to some of the other goodies. I will say that I was very curious to find out if all of these were the same and, as it turns out, they were. Surely an excessive amount of chocolate.
The next course, still before dessert officially arrived, was particularly interesting. A cup of miniature "baguettes," with liquid chocolate and popping sugar. The waiter recommended that I dip the bread stick into the chocolate, and then coat with the bursting sugar. Definitely an interesting sensation in my mouth, tiny explosions with each bite; but the flavor of the chocolate was slightly disappointing and I ended up having my cracking sugar fun with just a spoon.
Alas, the dessert. And a beautiful dessert it was: a cylindrically-shaped verbena leaf sorbet with strawberry center surrounded by a meringue cage. A generous scoop of frais des bois was added at the table. The cage was decorated with gold leaf flakes which, visually, contrasted beautifully against the bright white cage and luscious red strawberries. The fresh lemon flavor from the verbena leaf sorbet added a nice hint of citrus with each bite of sweet meringue and wild strawberries.
After my dessert, in Japanese style, I was brought a hot towel to cleanse my hands before the tea cart rolled over. I've never seen this done in a French restaurant before; but I'm a firm believer that every restaurant should adopt this: a warm towel before and after each meal. This cart contained a variety of fresh herbs, my decision boiling down between mint and verbena, where I ultimately chose the verbena. The waiter cut the leaves in front of me and placed them into the pot to steep. About 5 minutes later, he poured a bit into my glass, as if I was tasting a fine wine, and asked me if it was "ready." I opted for a few more minutes, I like my tea strong. This was a light and soothing way to end a substantial meal.
This was a marvelous meal. Chef Piège's creativity and culinary craftsmanship really came through in every course. Despite the somewhat awkward dining room, it is indeed beautiful and truth be told, my attention was so focused at what was on my plate that I didn't pay much to my surroundings. For all visitors to Paris, I would definitely recommend taking a visit to Les Ambassadeurs. I left that night with an enormous smile on my face.