Posted 12 January 2005 - 11:53 PM
When I booked for 12 o'clock just a few days earlier, I was assured they opened at about 11.40, so I arranged to meet my friend at that time for a pre-prandial ingestation. It happened that we both arrived at the same time, and strolled into the restaurant to be greeted by looks of horror and cries of dismay from the staff. So we decided to stroll round Place des Vosges for twenty minutes, which turned out to be a rewarding experience.
The square is about 80 meteres along each side, and fully cloistered, which is quite impressive. Most of the shops are modern art galleries, with four restaurants a couple of ultra-smart minimalist fashion shops and a church and a museum thrown in for variety. The buskers were preparing their pitches, and we spent several minutes being entertained by a very lively quartet who, judging by the music they played, were a traditional Hungarian-Gipsy-Spanish-Israeli-French group. They obviously sized up the punters and played appropriate tunes. They were very good.
We re-entered l'Ambroisie at exactly mid-day and they were (almost) ready for us. The room is quite small, calm and elegant.
From the moment we entered the room until our departure over two and a half hours later, the service was impeccable. Courteous but warm, precise yet informal. The maitre d' was happy to humour my attempts to practise my French, yet always ready to translate instantly into English the moment my brow furrowed. Glasses seemed to refill themselves miraculously, and food was served and plates removed as if by silent ghosts.
Our aperitif was a glass of Roederer champagne bottled and labelled for l'Ambroisie. Very pleasant.
Amuses were the most superb choux pastry puffs that I have ever tasted .... pipiong hot, light and perfect texture and flavour ... and then a wonderfully delicate chestnut soup. They could have kept bringing more and more of those two dishes all day and I would have been happy.
I had Goujonettes of Sole for hors d'oeuvre. Well I think it was an hors d'oeuvre, but the carte wasn't at all clear on this. There were four groups of dishes, only the first of which was headed with the word entrees, and the stytle of dish made clear that these were indeed starters. Some of the second group were clearly starters (eggs, foie gras) but others might not have been. The prices of the second group were indistinguishable from the third group, which definitely were main courses. My dish when it arrived was either a large hors d'oeuvres or a slightly meagre main course The sole itself was well flavoured, but a little leathery --- maybe overcooked. But the item that accompanied it was out of this world. It looked for all the world like a cross-section of a millefiori paperweight, white with green rods. The green was asparagus tips, and the white was (I think) marrow. This was a miracle of subtle flavours and textures, and simply the best vegetable dish I have ever eaten.
We had heard rave reviews about Pacaud's Poulette de Bresse, so it took little negotiation between us to order that for two. And it lived up to the reviews. The whole small chicken was cooked with what looked like a sage stuffing under the skin, and that is what gives the meat such an extraordinary, rich flavour. The white and dark meat taste quite different. The meat was moist, perfectly firm and not at all crumbly. The crispy brown skin reminded me of perfectly roast goose. I am ahsamed to admit that I can't remember what was served with the chicken, I was so engrossed with the chicken itself. I have a vague recollection that conversation almost ceased while we were eating this dish. Just magnificent.
A Premier Cru Chablis accompanied the poulette, and this was light and pleasant, not at all over-fruity like so many Chablis served in Britain. We finished with excellent espresso and petits fours.
The bill for two, all included, was just over 500 euros. As I write that, the thought of spending £180 on lunch strikes me as extravagant; but you know, at the time it seemed perfectly right. I wouldn't hesitate to return.
Posted 13 January 2005 - 12:05 AM
Posted 13 January 2005 - 02:12 AM
No wonder we haven't a concept of French food. We'll never be able to afford it.
Posted 13 January 2005 - 02:20 AM
Sissies and wastoids
Posted 13 January 2005 - 04:03 AM
M.san - I remember appetizers as being very large (two very thick slices of lobster terrine and a ring of foie flan surrounded by a dozen or many morels)
Posted 13 January 2005 - 09:00 AM
Macrosan - given the time of year, I was hoping they would have the (half-mourning) chicken with truffles on the menu - was it an option?
Posted 13 January 2005 - 01:26 PM
Yep, I was momentarily struck dumb. That doesn't happen terribly often.
The meat was moist, perfectly firm and not at all crumbly. The crispy brown skin reminded me of perfectly roast goose. I am ahsamed to admit that I can't remember what was served with the chicken, I was so engrossed with the chicken itself. I have a vague recollection that conversation almost ceased while we were eating this dish.
The chicken was accompanied by a quenelle of extremely finely shredded marrow(?), and a heap of exquisitely braised salsify in a black olive-y sauce. Both sides were delicious, and well-matched to both the impressive meat and the under-skin stuffing (which I'm fairly certain was sage-y duxelles).
I selected an egg dish for my starter, which turned out to be a kind of haute cuisine twist on boiled eggs and soldiers; two perfectly soft boiled eggs, each encased in a fine, crisp crust and propped in a pool of almost-black, truffley puree. On the side, an attractively criss-crossed pile of toast fingers spread with more of the puree. This was an extremely simple dish, but beautifully executed.
The chablis was gorgeously fragrant. I could have happily kept my nose buried in it for the rest of the afternoon.
Petit fours were extravagant - more a platter of mini-desserts than the standard bits-with-coffee - and I'm delighted to say my dining companion left them all to me.
Posted 13 January 2005 - 09:00 PM
Orik, we had dinner at L’Ambroisie last May, which I never had a chance to report. My husband and I had slightly different impressions, which I tried to combine and analyze below.
Perhaps it is just an old habit of mine to attempt to characterize all establishments through a prism of current and historical stylistic influences, interweaving threads of commonality among the arts, music, and food, or perhaps style is what defines any creation, and it, or rather its presence is not only a hallmark, an imprint of imagination, but a clear representation of a personal expression and philosophy, but I’m not generally settled until I identify a chef’s style. For instance, Passard is the most vivid representative of Minimalism in food, while his former student Barbot (L'Astrance) is primitivist. While Berasategui’s cuisine gives the impression of a French contemporary influence with his overuse of quiet, cautious flavors, Gagnaire’s contemporary style is more vocal and is closer to Glen Brown’s approach (not Kandinsky’s, as Beaugé suggested in Francois Simon’s “Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry” nor is it minimalist as stated in the same book) in how he treats “savage” recipes and ingredients (the beef aspic dish), eliminating the element of “rough brushstrokes” while introducing a gracious refinement of “lines,” and in how both of them use the historical context (e.g. Gagnaire’s classic turbot in buttery cream turned modernistic with a spike of African melegueta pepper). Piege seemed to be struggling to stray away from the Baroque of Ducasse’s style on my visit to Les Ambassadeurs, and Senderens (Lucas Carton), the father of minimalism, aside from an occasional tiredness, maintains some elements of restrained Art Nouveau, just like the décor of the restaurant itself.
L’Ambroisie, however, seemed to be the hardest one to “file” not due to its lack of style – to the contrary, there was something very personal and expressive in Pacaud’s cooking – but because it didn’t seem to fall under any of the existing categories of predefined stylistic formulations. His cuisine doesn’t posses that indefinable “animalism” that cannot be resolved intellectually because it is addressed not to our intelligence but to our senses only, nor does it rely on a theme and thirty variations, with set forms and complicated constructions built on key relations and symbolism, nourishing our curiosity more than our senses. Neither conservative (with classical grandeur and heaviness of individual dishes) nor avant-garde (gathering together smaller, interlocking units [dishes] of shorter breath while corresponding more closely to the overall tasting flow), with a good instinct to weave all components of an individual dish into an enjoyable unity, his style seemed to represent a work of “realism” composed by a romantic whose imagination and invention were accompanied by the supervision of an alert critical mind.
There are two features characterizing Pacaud’s cuisine:
1) Pacaud is the chef for whom the inner intricacies of ingredients determine the form, gait, and tone of his composition to such a degree that dishes with the identical main ingredient form separate, very unique sub-styles. For instance, in two different versions of the fillet de bar dish, the fish would be cooked and presented in a similar manner (hence his “sea bass style”), while still lending a different output of flavors, reflecting the accompaniments with which the fish was enhanced. Therefore, it becomes apparent why Pacaud can apprehend with infinite responsiveness individual dishes, but he cannot summon the force of multi-course flow: Such an ultra-refined approach of hanging on details of individual ingredients is typical of miniaturists.
2) The second characteristic is that Pacaud’s cuisine, conveying relaxed mood, exemplified by modest presentation (which still carries a residue of the conventional, but with polished simplicity and pictorial effort) is so complete, that the real marvel is that while the most finicky connoisseur has a chance to rejoice in the quality of the ingredients, the untutored still have a chance to absorb freely the highly artistic and subtle elements without being aware of their nature. Pacaud provides consistency, which can never disappoint to the extent some of Gagnaire’s dishes can.
However, not always does the excellence of ingredients guarantee the same esthetic virtue to the dish, and considering that the course of the meal generally includes no more than three or four dishes, it is possible that at L’Ambroisie, an overall meal, though steady, may turn modest and somewhat lacking a thrilling element. Mousseline de céleri aux écrevisses, jus de presse à l’huile de noix– six crayfish out of their shells, with firm, yet tender meat, placed side by side, as if building a tunnel over the off-white celery purée, whose buttery taste consumed any celeriac freshness, and surrounded by a thin yet very strong sauce, based on walnut oil and crayfish stock – was a less successful dish, ordered by my husband. The delicately pronounced sweetness of the crayfish was overpowered by the very distinct, almost throat-scratching walnut oil, whose undiluted toasty taste was almost savagery, so that even the neutral-tasting celery purée failed to offset the oil’s strong characteristics, becoming somewhat superfluous. Perhaps diluting the walnut oil with a lighter oil (a common practice) or offsetting it with sherry vinegar (though the vinegar acidity might’ve compromised the purity of the crayfish taste) would’ve helped, but this dish didn’t possess the necessary articulation, using rather incomplete and strong language that threatened to drown the main theme in undulating words. This was the only disappointing dish, which followed the exceptional amuse.
Morels were blooming on the menus of nearly every respectable and less so restaurant last May, having pleased us with a variety of concentrated and light flavors from such dishes as a decent chicken with peas and morels at Mon Vieil Ami, an excellent l’oeuf cocotte a la crème légere de morille at Atelier de Joel Robuchon and at Les Ambassadeurs, a very good morel and asparagus appetizer of morel consommé that continued gaining concentration from a cheese-cloth bag filled with dry morels, infusing the liquid with earthy intensity, as the mushrooms gradually re-hydrated.
L’Ambroisie was our last meal in Paris, and, after a two-week gastronomic marathon, we desired nothing more elaborate than just to have a decent meal while maintaining quantity control, so that when our Mâitre d' hinted that Monsieur Pacaud would be able to cook for us, but that the dinner would consist of four or five dishes, we had to respectfully decline, restricting our choices to a conventional three-course meal. In other words, a muse of adventure has already left us…until a fantastic amuse of morel consommé with foie gras awakened our senses again.
What made this dish special is the skill with which luxury ingredients were applied. Pacaud didn’t simply combine the immaculate morels and foie gras, but manipulated these ingredients in front of the diner, turning them into marionettes at the end of a string, which he pulled with marvelous virtuosity, adding a touch of designated light and perhaps even satirical chansons, as the dish kept altering its appearance and taste, as if mixing different paints on a palette to create a completely unique color. The dish first made its appearance as a dark-brown consommé with a piece of steamed foie gras in the center, allowing us to acquaint our palates with the most intense morel flavor. After a second spoonful, however, the elaborate “coloratura” started unwrapping as the steamed foie gras began melting in the consommé, forming white foam and thickening the liquid with a buttery richness while taming and smoothing the sharp and concentrated angles of morel taste. A final touch of counterpoint sweetness, in the form of fresh (perhaps slightly blanched) peas, whose clean, delicate flavors were stressed by the foie gras richness, enveloped the somewhat forceful mood of the dish in mysterious and muted tones, capturing the unparalleled sensuality of this pale and amusingly decadent world of luxury – a truly spectacular dish.
There is one more dish that I’d like to mention.
It was almost touching to see a young French couple, modestly dressed, sitting at the right-hand corner of the room, pet each others’ hands and whisper gently, as if their souls have immersed in the happy melodic world of their French song, with its joyous abandon, and their desires, memories and passions fainted into a cheerful intoxication. Their language could’ve been gauche and blustery, for all I knew, but French, with its suave curves, can be deceiving to the untrained ear, and I simply observed the scene until the motion at the next table was interrupted when sea bass with butter sauce and caviar arrived at their table. The fish, its black skin attached, was glowing and the caviar seemed of good quality from the distance, so that the growing temptation to try this dish forced me to inquire of our Mâitre d’ whether Escalopines de bar à l'émincé d'artichaut, beurre léger au caviar,” would add harmony to my order. His concern was that the buttery sauce on sea bass would echo the sauce in the frog legs appetizer, Royale d’oignons doux, cominee de cuisses de grenouilles (frog legs with sweet onions, butter and watercress sauce) I had already ordered,
…and suggested that should my heart still desire sea bass, he’d arrange for a different, off-menu version, which would bring the necessary diversity and balance to my meal. Three small filets of line-caught sea bass in the center of the plate – hiding sweet and buttery carrot purée under their bodies, surrounded by a thinly carved crisp, fresh and almost sweet fennel and fish-fume based sauce, sparked with saffron – was a truly fantastic dish.
It is hard in general not to fall in love with this aristocratic and refined fish, whose tender meat seems to be pampered by nature as if only the best of two worlds – hermaphroditic, the fish produces eggs, claiming its female origin, until later in life its ovaries dry up and it switches hormones to produce sperm – can deliver this extraordinary softness and piquant, delicate taste, but when it is a line-caught specimen, delivered the same day and handled with extreme care, sea bass becomes a real treat. The extraordinary preparation of the sea bass at L’Ambroisie secured its fluffy texture – characteristic of extremely fresh fish, the flesh of which generally becomes slightly firmer the day after the catch, which is not always a negative, since its taste still remains superb, providing the fish was stored properly (another advantageous quality of sea bass compared to other no-less-glorious species like turbot, for instance, whose taste and texture deteriorate rapidly with time) -- and the skin tightly embraced the flesh so that every cell of its pattern was glittering in the artificial light almost decoratively, while the moist, tender and cushiony meat added a sensual legato to the tableau.
There is probably no other restaurant of this magnitude that provokes so many disparate opinions on service. From the perspective of some diners, the service at L’Ambroisie is not unacquainted with perplexities; others extend their praise for the restaurant’s professionalism.
One could say that L’Ambroisie epitomizes everything that is right or wrong with the French, depending on his individual perspective. Classicism and tradition assume a certain level of formality, which, while possibly viewed by some as buffoonish, cold, and impersonal, would be revered by others as courteous, professional and proper. To some extent, L’Ambroisie doesn’t adjust its culture to the needs of its customers as much as it attempts to adjust customers to the formal mores of the restaurant, which can create a conflict of different opinions. The Mâitre d’ would not be shy to insist on your changing your order to fit his own perception of your perfect meal, which could be construed by some as intrusiveness, while others would view it as professionalism and a welcomed enthusiasm. While the Mâitre d’s insistence on your practicing French at the restaurant could be viewed as nationalistic, others may perceive it as his tolerance and patience and appreciate the opportunity to rehearse their language skills. (Even having acknowledged my inability to communicate in French, our Mâitre d’ continued to insist that I try, as if testing the truthfulness of my admission. I laughed and suggested that I would rather take pleasure in his practicing his Russian with me, after which he conceded that unless I spoke Japanese, our only common means of communication had to be…oh well, English.)
L’Ambroisie allows one to experience time in its immobile state, having preserved that which has almost gone – a level of distant respect expressed in courteous but directive care with an element of theatricality obtained through rigorous training. For those whose temperament prevents them from being open-minded in accepting someone else’s authority over them, or those resenting taking their part in a “play” of predefined roles as set by the still life of the restaurant, going to L’Ambroisie may not provide an ideal experience. If one manages to become an integral part of the L’Ambroisie culture, however, then the reward may be significant.
Posted 13 January 2005 - 10:17 PM
I really can't remember, Moby, for three reasons.
Macrosan - given the time of year, I was hoping they would have the (half-mourning) chicken with truffles on the menu - was it an option?
Firstly, as soon as I saw the Poulette de Bresse on the menu, I didn't much bother with reading the rest.
Secondly, the table conversation was absorbing, the relationship with the maitre d' became a side entertainment, so I had no idle moments to look at what I was msising on the menu.
And lastly, because I had to catch a train, I forgot to ask for a copy of the menu to bring back with me.
But I will be more attentive next time
Posted 01 February 2005 - 12:56 AM
A split of '99 Leflaive Pucelles helped waken our senses, and we were off.
Crispy sea bass with olive/truffle tapenade
Breaded softboiled eggs with bread sticks and truffles
Langoustines with sesame and curry sauce
Roasted Bresse chicken with truffles for two
St Marcellin, Epoisses, Vacherin Mont d'Or
What a wonderful and substantial amuse. A nice piece of fish, lightly seasoned, and sauteed until crisp accompanied by a killer olive/truffle tapenade. The olive component was rich but not assertive and married well with the black truffle. Gone too soon.
The wine list is superior to Arpege's, with respect to both price and selection. We settled on a '91 Faiveley Latricieres Chambertin that was wonderful on the nose but a bit thin on the palate. Seemed quite young.
The eggs made for a lovely looking dish. Two softboiled eggs, tops ajar, breaded and fried, placed atop two pieces of slightly hollowed toast, with a rich truffle-based sauce and four smaller toast soldiers. Well, this is a substantial dish. A bit too substantial for my taste. Delicious but after eating a bit under half of it, I was ready to make use of my sauce spoon and move on. Just too heavy with all that bread and breading for me. That's not to say it's wasn't worth ordering--a bit of bread with some runny yolk and truffle was delicious, but there were probably better options on the menu.
The langoustine dish was top-notch--ingredients of the highest quality and a composition that really sang. I think it might have been SCS's dish of the trip, though I could be wrong. And as my memory is fading and I have lunch to attend shortly, I'm going to leave it up to SCS to round out the description.
On to the main reason we booked L'Ambroisie--poulette de Bresse rotie au beurre de truffe. Oh my. I'd only had Bresse chicken on one other occasion, a year earlier at Taillevent, and while very good, it didn't really blow me away. The chicken dish at L'Ambroisie, on the other hand, is simply the best chicken I've ever had. The chew, the flavor, the incredible texture of the skin, and, oh, those truffles. Superior in quality to the truffles we had the night before at Arpege--more depth and pungency. Bite after delicious bite... a piece of flavorful meal, unctuous fat, crisp skin, perfectly seasoned stuffing and earthy truffles. My god, man.
Cheeses were quite enjoyable, esp the hay-like St Marcellin.
Chocolate tart was great--wonderful depth of flavor yet still light.
Stuffed as we were, we decided to spend the afternoon exploring the city on foot. Which of course included visits to Pierre Herme and Marie-Ann Cantin. tongue.gif
Overall a great meal, if not at the level of Arpege. Less creativity on the menu but with ingredients and execution like that, it will remain on my shortlist.
Sissies and wastoids
Posted 01 February 2005 - 01:20 AM
A little history? Anecdotes?
Posted 01 February 2005 - 02:13 PM
If you know what I'm sayin'.
Posted 01 February 2005 - 02:19 PM
authenticity is a fog that recedes just when you think you may be getting near it - R Schonfeld
The most political act we do on a daily basis is to eat - Prof J Pretty
this city without boundaries we all share - zigzackly
Posted 01 February 2005 - 02:42 PM
In more scientific terms, the British chickens were much, much larger than Pacaud's poulette (and yes it's a poulette rather than a poulet), and not quite as fine textured.