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GLORY? DINING DELUXE IN PARIS AT
CORNER: 15 EAST by Mort Hochstein
WHAT PRICE GLORY? DINING DELUXE IN PARIS at Les Ambassadeurs
by John Mariani
The obnoxious cliché, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it," originally uttered (in a slightly different form) by American financier J. P. Morgan, has become a kind of knee-jerk defense mechanism for things that are a) worth every penny, b) patently exorbitant, or c) not at all worth the money.
It was Oscar Wilde who, more pointedly, wrote, "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
Les Ambassadeurs at Le Crillon
The anemic state of the U.S. dollar has put both these observations into sad focus for anyone visiting Paris these days, not because you can't eat relatively cheaply at a small bistro (figure $50 per person), but because the Michelin star-rated restaurants are among the most expensive in the world: An appetizer can easily run $85, a main course $120 (service and tax included). To dine at the three-star level is going to run a couple, with, say, a $100 bottle of wine, at least $400, and easily more. And for that, exactly what do you get?
The answer once was easy: The glory of French haute cuisine was, until recently, to be found at the star restaurants, where the owner or chef might employ 25 people in the kitchen and 20 in the dining room (including a sommelier or two) to serve no more than 40-50 people a night, one sitting, beginning at eight P.M. and ending at 11. Such a restaurant might serve lunch, and if so, the price for a meal was the same. There would be the finest in furnishings (not necessarily the same thing as taste), and the wine cave would stock hundreds of selections and thousands of bottles, mostly the greatest of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and plenty of Champagne.
These were always celebratory places for Parisians, once-in-a-lifetime places for tourists, and de rigeuer for a serious business lunch or dinner. The food, if not always exquisite and imaginative, was always correct and always extremely rich, with oceans of butter-based sauces, trawlers of caviar, pails of foie gras, and shovels of black truffles. All the classics were on every menu, all made from the most expensive ingredients--Bresse chickens, Dover sole, Charolais beef, and Gevrey-Chambertin in the sauces. And it all cost a fortune.
What has changed in France, as elsewhere, is that you can dine splendidly and with more excitement and spirit at smaller, chef-run restaurants that offer a very personalized cuisine without always resorting to foie gras, caviar, and truffles to bulk up their checks. Some of the finest eating in Paris right now is at charming places where you can feast on lesser cuts of meat, fish like red mullet and sardines, guinea fowl, regional cheeses, and wines carefully selected to go with the food. Even the Michelin Guide lists some terrific places under the category of "Bib Gourmand"--restaurants with quality cuisine for a maximum price of 35€," including darling spots like Chez l'Ami Jean, Graindorge, L'Épi Dupin, and Aux Lyonnais.
Why, then, spend ten times that amount to eat at a two- or three-star restaurant (which, more than a little ingenuously, Michelin contends are based solely on the food on the plate, not the atmosphere or service)? Having had too many mediocre or dull meals at such restaurants--most recently a dreary repast at the ugly two-star Senderens--it is a question I keep always in mind, especially since it is the question my readers ask most often. The answer is not to quote, once again, J. P. Morgan, but to say that there are two- and three-star meals I have enjoyed immensely--not just for the food on the plate but for the breathtaking beauty, refinement, finesse, and wonder of the entire evening.
Restaurants like Le Bristol in the Bristol Hotel, Le Cinq in the Four Seasons Georges V, Arpège, Michel Rostang, Taillevent, and Guy Savoy, are, each in its own way, sumptuous, memorable dining rooms with exquisite food and wine. Most recently this glory was evidenced with exceptional savoir-faire at Les Ambassadeurs in the Hôtel de Crillon (above). (These days no individual chef can afford to open up an haute restaurant without the benevolence of a grand hotel's backing.) The Crillon itself, right on the spectacular Place de la Concorde, next to the American Embassy, and backing onto the Rue Faubourg, is one of Paris' true château hotels, commissioned in 1758 by Louis XV and in the Crillon family until 1907, when it became a hotel, opening in 1909. Since then its guest books have been crammed with the most famous names of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Theodore Roosevelt to Jennifer Lopez, and it has never been in better, more elegant shape, with a concierge and reception staff in a gorgeous lobby that is first class in every degree.
Les Ambassadeurs has always had a good, if sedate history, serving a classic menu with a few flourishes--at least until the arrival of Chef Jean-François Piège, 38, (left), previously one of Alain Ducasse's acolytes. Piège, from the Drôme region, also worked at the Crillon some years ago under long-time chef Christian Constant, so he knew the run of the place and how he wanted to change the cuisine. His focus is on deceptively simple plates--a few perfect ingredients composed in such a way that they appear like novelties of form but retain every bit of their essential, enhanced flavors.
One evening with two friends, I let Piège compose menus of several entrées (appetizers), seafood, and meats, followed by a "variation des grand desserts à la Française." It would take a great deal of space to describe everything we ate that evening, but a few of the highlights included a salad of beets in fizzy "limonade," with the beets providing the sweetness to the tartness of the citric. There was a cromesquis of brandade de morue--the ultimate baccalà!--with a bonbon of truffle butter to pop in the mouth.
Perfect, translucent scallops came with a little pizza-like tarte flambe, and wild turbot done "viennoise" style, with a side of tomato spaghetti and diced truffles--typical of the way Piège has a little fun with old concepts turned on their head to make something wondrously new. Equally witty and delicious was his take on "spaghetti carbonara" with lard de ferme (right), in which the bacon mimics the guanciale used in Roman spaghhetti alla carbonara, while pork head cheese added a Gallic touch.
One of his signature dishes is a beautiful rendering of langoustines, sushi, shellfish, in a bouillon laced with "caviar d'Aquitaine," with both sturgeon and lobster roe. Squab came with duck foie gras and olive juice, as close to something classic as Piège's menu gets.
All around us, at widely separated tables, were Parisians having a grand old time, a few very quiet Japanese, and some eastern Europeans who seemed delighted merely to sit in the splendor of this richly marbled, beautifully lighted, baroque dining room, once the Duke of Crillon's ballroom and recently refurbished by interior designer, Sybille de Margerie, who has brightened the room and given it far more warmth than it used to have.
The service staff could not be more attentive--there are two dozen in the room!--the pouring and selection of wines, under sommelier David Biraud, the service of cheeses and desserts and petits-fours and chocolates all conspiring to make this grand and very expensive meal worthwhile--but certainly not for the splendor alone: Piège is one of Paris' finest chefs, and author of a cookbook showcasing his style, Côte Crillon/Côte Maison, coming out in English this fall as At the Crillon & Home.
So, is it worth it? Yes, I believe it is, in the same way a great performance by a great actor in a great play is worth paying for expensive tickets. Les Ambassadeurs is, indeed, a great night of theater with many fine players.
NEW YORK CORNER
by Mort Hochstein
15 East 15th Street
212-647-0015 (near Fifth Avenue)
Japan a few years ago my wife and I dined luxuriously at a rooftop
restaurant high atop a five star hotel. We perched at the bar and
watched as chefs prepared miniature gems of food, small plate after
small plate, and passed them across the counter to us. I cannot
recall how many artful morsels of fish, meat and vegetables we enjoyed
but that evening is forever a high among my great culinary
Hochstein, former editor and producer for NBC News and the Today Show,
and former managing editor of Nation's Restaurant News, has
written on wine, food and travel for Wine Spectator, Wine Business
Monthly, Saveur and other food and wine publications.
FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Business of Wine—Not Romance--Is the Subject of Wine Politics
You mean you really believe wine is about God
and Nature, family sagas, and romantic reveries of a year in Provence?
GREAT IDEAS IN WESTERN FOOD CULTURE
Yorker of a certain age, the first sip was a rite after nursing: from
mother’s milk to Manhattan Special. Those little glass bottles may as
well have come with nipples. And brother, what a sip. . . . It
muscles its way around the mouth, making itself at home, before
bounding down the throat like a big, goofy kid going to play in the
basement.--Michael Wilson, “A Modern Comeback for a Taste of Brooklyn,”
NY Times (July 7).
THAT'S HOW THEY
A Japanese brewery Sapporo Holdings plans to make "space beer," using offspring of barley once stored for five months aboard the International Space Station in 2006. The company teamed up with Okayama University biologist Manabu Sugimoto to explore ways to grow edible plants in space. First production will be only about 100 bottles. Researchers said the project "to prepare for a future in which humans spend extended periods of time in space -- and might like a cold beer after a space walk."
* On Aug. 2 & 3 the Great American Seafood Cook-Off will be held at the Louisiana Foodservice EXPO at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center, with cooking demos and judging throughout the day. $10 pp. Chefs prepare their dishes utilizing exotic seafood indigenous to their states incl.. For details, visit www.GreatAmericanSeafoodCookOff.com
* From Aug. 9-10 Alden-Houston
Hotel features a “grape escape” weekend package, hosted by
*17’s sommelier Evan Turner, and Houston sommelier Kim Wallace,
followed by a 5-course ‘farm to table’ dinner by Executive Chef Wes
Morton. Sunday brunch with guest winemakers Rick and Diane
DuNah of DuNah Winery. $287 pp. Visit
www.aldenhotels.com. Call 832-200-8843.
* From Aug. 13-31 the official Swedish crayfish season is
celebrated at London’s Fifth
Floor Restaurant and Café with Swedish Executive Chef
Jonas Karlsson serving a sharing dish of 12 boiled crayfish
priced at £15.95 for two people sharing, or £19.95 with the
addition of two shots of Schnapps. Visit www.harveynichols.com or
call 020 7823 1839.
* On Aug. 16 the fifth annual Toast of Ohio will take place in
Sandusky with help from the Ohio Grape Industries Committee., to
be held at the Sandusky Bay Pavilion. $1.00 admission fee, which
will feature 15 Ohio wineries. Live entertainment by the Bare Bones
Jazz Quartet. There will also be an Underground Railroad Trolley Tour
at 11 am. Visit www.shoresandislands.com.
* Royal Hideaway Playacar on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is offering a $7,000 Wine Class incl. a private wine class with wine expert, Olivier Cramail, a bottle of 1986 Petrus, and paired dinner on the beach. Call 1-800-999-9182 or visit www.royalhideaway.com.
* Now thru Jan. 31 in Weggis, Switzerland, the Park Hotel Weggis centers on its
extraordinary wine collection with a Parc & Wine package,
with rates starting at $1,790 per room, based on double occupancy and
season. Package incl. a complimentary bottle of Champagne
Perrier-Jouët upon their arrival. For a pre-dinner soiree,
aperitifs with the sommelier in the hotel’s wine cellar, a 5-course
dinner at the Restaurant Annex, two 4-course dinners at the hotel’s
Sparks Restaurant, and the Sparkling Breakfast Buffet daily. Visit www.phw.ch.
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." To go to his blog click on the logo below: THIS WEEK: An Interview with Angler Tom Ohaus
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contrinbutor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). THIS WEEK: A Report on The Four Seasons Jackson Hole. Click on the logo below to go to the site.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Suzanne Wright, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.