I wrote this story in January 1991 after a visit for a meal at what had been called at the time the greatest restaurant in the world. Joel Robuchon would soon stop working at the restaurant – in 1993, after 12 years running it – and go into a semi-retirement, before opening another, less ambitious restaurant in Paris, and he also had other restaurants around the world and still does. But this story, while hugely detailed, can still serve as a look into what it is like to dine at certainly one of the best restaurants in the world, and what for me was definitely the best meal I’d had at a restaurant. Jamin as the restaurant was called, had three stars from the Michelin Guide, the highest distinction. I tried selling the story to newspapers and magazines, but no one wanted it. It was perhaps a little wordy, and breaking into restaurant reviewing is no doubt something that requires luck, as well as knowledge. I did go through a period of a decade of reading the top French food and wine magazines monthly, but I was never anything close to an expert. Still, the review has its qualities, and on this blog, a historic purpose:PARIS My wife and I had been aiming to eat at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant for the past three years. The first time we tried was for her birthday, and as I knew the top-rated three star restaurant was in high demand and has only a few tables, I called to reserve a little early: five months ahead. I was told it was a little early. I was asked to try again in three months, which I did, only to be told it was too late. The next year was for my birthday. Three months ahead it was full on that date and for at least two months following. We decided to save up our francs and make another assault the next year.
So last October my wife called with the idea that the restaurant itself should tell us what date was free. We settled for a day in January, three and a half months after the call. We have now had our evening at Robuchon’s, and you might ask, was it worth the wait and effort (not to mention the sky high price)? Read on.
We had expected to step into the black-tie-stiffness of a formal ceremony, since a lot of the fine restaurants in this city are not exactly what you would call laid back. But while everyone was impeccably dressed, it was only the ten or so waiters–there’s a staff of 35 people in all–who were wearing the black ties. The wooden panelled walls are painted pastel green. There are tastefully framed prints of plants, and the fourteen tables are covered with pink cloths, and are large enough for elbow room, without being so large as to dwarf those sitting at them. There are smoked glass partitions placed for intimacy without confinement–you can see your fellow diners from one part of the square room to the other. The ceiling is high without being cavernous. There are large potted plants, which also add to the intimacy. But the really surprising thing was that diners talked, and talked, and talked, freely, loudly, but not offensively. We had expected silence in face of the great works of art of the chef’s food that we had heard so much about.
“Not the least hint of snobbishness,” said my wife.
The service was superb. Within the first few minutes we knew we were in good hands. It was a feeling, as much as a proof provided by action, but a feeling that would last the entire meal, that we need not push, guide, or berate, the waiters on any single point. The one time I felt obliged to question them, I regretted. It was the only point at which my sense of the order of events was confounded. Directly after cheese we were presented with a silver tray of mouth-sized desserts: kiwi tart, almond paste boat, lemon boat, cream puff and other pastries.
I asked the waiter, “Is this the dessert? Or is there something else?”
Nouvelle cuisine has taught us to expect small portions, and as the tray consisted of miniatures, it crossed our minds, that these were ‘it’, the dessert. But we also thought that maybe, just maybe, the waiters had made a mistake and served us, before the real dessert, the tray of petit fours sucres that we were to have with our coffee.
The waiter, looking ever so slightly put off, said, “No Monsieur,” and explained what was to follow. But of that, more later.
While admiring the Christofle silverware and Limoges porcelain, we ate the small appetizer of scallops and mushrooms strung along a toothpick like a shish kebab. The house aperitif was a mixture of orange juice, champagne, and raspberry liqueur, that I feared might be too strong in flavour to start with, but which turned out to be refreshing and subtle.
We chose the Menu Degustation, which consists of more than ten courses if you count the unexpected extras that are thrown in here and there, but of eight written courses. This menu is available only when everyone at the same table orders it, probably for the choreography of the service: should your companions order a three course meal and you an eight courser, good luck. But while choreography is part of the meal, everything else is background when it comes to the cuisine of Robuchon.
The opener was a small double-handled cup of soupe chaude a la gelee de poule, that had the consistency of a cross between jelly and fresh cream, but the perfumed pure taste of the hen.
“It is important that the spoon be extended to the very bottom of the cup,” said one of our four or five waiters, after describing the contents of the dish.
“Wine will not be necessary with this will it?” asked another waiter.
“No,” we responded. We had ordered two bottles of Burgundy from the leather-bound book that presented what appeared to be hundreds of wines by region in a clearly written easily usable way. We had chosen a Chablis 1ere cru Montee de Tonnerre 1987 for the seafood dishes, and the sommelier advised a Savigny-les-Beaune 1986 for the meat and cheese.
The soup was perfectly accompanied by the fresh bread rolls that were so obviously cooked the same day.
After finishing the soup we had time for conversation and digestion. We were served the Chablis and then came the second dish: etuvee de noix de St. Jacques au fumet de champignons–scallops with chanterelle mushrooms, cream and herbs. It was served in the same manner all future dishes were to be served: two waiters brought the dishes, covered by a silver warmer, that was at least three times the height and volume of the dish. Each warmer was removed at the same instant from each dish, followed by a description of what the dish contained. This describing is done nowadays in the simplest restaurants in North America, and the finest ones in France, but at one of the best restaurants in the world, it is really worth listening to, and it is said without pretention.
The coquille Saint-Jacques was surrounded by a bubble bath of liquid and the moisture extended not only to the sauce, but the scallops maintained their moisture in a manner that made me want to extend the duration of the dish by as long as possible: I cut each of the four or five scallops in two pieces and sucked them along with the liquid and mushrooms.
Again we had a space between the dishes that was so perfectly timed that the waiters had to have ESP or be excellent spies to know when we were ready to continue. We had absolutely no sense of being watched–except by the man in the table next to us, who might have been interested to see what comparatively young people were dining there, since the average age of the clients was about 50. The wine was served to perfection. Never did I have the slightest inclination to ask for more, it just came. (We were, nevertheless, asked on two occasions if the timing of the service was to our liking.)
The Rouget-barbet (a red mullet) was my favourite fish dish, while the Langoustine wrapped in spaghetti and sprinkled with slices of fresh truffle was the favourite of my wife. The rouget was crisp outside, moist inside, and served with basil leaves fried to a crispness. The shrimp was curved into a circle and wrapped in rings of spaghetti: the truffle that was sliced over it constituted an extraordinary experience both visually and gustatorily. The black mushroom was cut to paper thin slices that presented the white veiny interior and that melted on the tongue releasing all their earthy flavour along with the cream and sea taste of the shrimp.
The white wine was finished shortly after the last mouthful of shrimp. The red wine was offered for the tasting; it had been sitting open on the table since the beginning of the meal, which was now easily an hour and a half–though we were not tempted to look at our watch until practically the end of the evening, after more than four hours. The red was so much better than the Chablis, it left me wishing I had left the selection of the white up to the sommelier also.
It was time for the pigeon. Having once cooked pigeon ourselves, we knew the difficulty, especially when you do it with a foie gras stuffing. Much was our surprise when we saw the warmer removed to reveal a kind of paupiette the size of a slightly oblong softball, and coloured yellow. The pigeon was inside a wrap of cooked cabbage leaf and this in turn bound in a single belt of bacon. There was a sprinkling of large hunks of salt and pepper, and on the table we were given another plate of salt and pepper to add to the dish if we wished–but the seasoning was done to perfection. We were then served a puree of potatoes like none I have ever seen, touched, or tasted. It had the look of cream, with the consistency of gel. You could slide it about on your plate and it would not separate. But it dissolved on the tongue with the taste of potato and no gumminess whatever.
Above the pigeon was the beautiful piece of fresh foie gras, not a hunk of foie gras like you buy in blocks to eat at Christmas, but a real foie gras that had been freshly cooked for the dish, and prepared that day. The strength of the taste of the foie gras did not mask the taste of the pigeon, cooked to perfection. I had asked for a pigeon cooked medium, my wife, wanted hers rare. Both maintained a moisture that pigeon must have to be a success. The paupiette was so simple physically to eat with all items remaining in their place, it was representative of all dishes in the meal. Not once did we have to struggle in any way to ingest the feast. Though, when shortly after being served the bird we received its tiny legs on a separate plate on a bed of salad–pigeon legs are about the size of frog’s legs–we knew we were to eat those with our fingers because they were accompanied by finger bowls for each of us, with a slice of lemon floating in them. The only error the waiters made was that my wife did not have the time to use the finger rinse before it was taken from the table again. But I did not use the finger bowl because there was so little grease on the leg that the bowl was almost unnecessary.
The rhythm of the wine service was accelerated now since we had no more meat coming. But there was still the cheese trolley. My immediate impression was that it was smaller, and the cheese less appetizing than I had thought they might be. But the visual impression was cancelled out by the quality of the cheese, which was superb on the whole. Our favourite being the Vacherin, served, as it should be, by the spoonful. Coming in second was not the slightly weak Reblochon, which sounds like the name of the chef, but the Brillat-Savarin (a cow’s milk cheese high in fat, from the pays de Caux) and which is the name of one of the most famous gastronomes in history, the author of the PHYSIOLOGIE DU GOUT. (He would have been a regular customer chez Robuchon if he did not die more than a century and a half ago.) Served with the cheese were two different kinds of pain de compagne. We took the plain bread, leaving the one with nuts and raisins for the nuts who like to dilute their creamy cheese.
Now came the tray of assorted petit fours sucres that we mistook for a mistake. Our fear that perhaps nouvelle cuisine had invaded the dessert end of the meal in terms of being served minuscule proportions was soon to be proved groundless. The petit fours were simply an appetizer that opened the dessert end of the meal. They were followed by a ring of chocolate biscuit cake topped with a swirl of chocolate sorbet ice cream–homemade, of course–and a bed of coffee flavoured cream with a border of heart-shaped drops of fresh cream.
“The best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life,” said my wife, who is not an amateur of ice cream, “Me too,” said I, who am.
Then came the main dessert course: a trolley from which we could choose what we wanted. By this time we had realized that we had not stepped into a bastion of miniature helpings of nouvelle nothing, but au contraire, were beyond the point of being full and reaching the point of explosion. But we knew that as long as they kept bringing on the food we would keep ingesting it.
I asked for “A very, very small bit of Ile Flottante.” I chose this dessert you find all over Paris for comparison. Consisting usually of a mountain–or rather, island–of beaten egg whites floating on an English custard and adorned with a sprinkling of caramelized sugar, the Ile of Robuchon was different in that it was adorned with a pinky-coloured praline sauce which was lighter and welcome after the preceding dishes. The egg whites were softer and fluffier than any I have ever had, and the custard too was light.
My wife had an apple pie that resembled a crumble, and it was topped with a vanilla ice cream that was specked with fresh vanilla.
We were now ready for the digestif. And I do not mean liqueur. I mean the last dessert course: creme brulee a la cassonade. It was so delicately done–no scabby exterior coating of burnt cream–that we had difficulty recognizing what it was. And it was so light we gobbled it down and still had room for the chocolate truffles and orange peelings coated in sugar that accompanied the coffee. The espresso was so good it made me wonder if it was flown in from Italy.
By this time we were one of the last two tables in the house and no one was asking us to leave. And neither were we being asked if we wanted an alcoholic digestif to crown the whole. In fact we had drunk enough, and did not need anything to help digest the finest meal we had eaten in our lives.
Nor did we need any help in digesting the price we paid for it, which was the most expensive we’ve ever paid. It was not only worth it, but we knew that it was cheaper than some of the other three star restaurants in Paris.
The only let down we really had was not being able to meet the chef after the dinner, which is a tradition in many French restaurants of quality. We have no doubt that Mr Robuchon was directing the meal in his kitchens, but we suspect that if he did not come to the table it was more out of a dislike of the limelight and modesty than anything else. Unlike many other fine French chefs, Joel Robuchon spends more time in his own kitchens than time on the road in self-advertisement. But he has recently announced that in order not to burn out in middle age, he is going to retire from his kitchen at 50 years old. He is now 45, so there’s not much time left for you if you want to reserve – considering the time that takes.
Restaurant Jamin, 32 rue de Longchamp, Paris 75116. Tel. 126.96.36.199 Closed Saturday, Sunday, and July.The price of the menu de degustation is 890 francs a person. The wine was 360 francs for the Chablis, and 400 francs for the Savigny-les-Beaune. The coffee was included in the price of the menu, the aperitif was not.