A week in Paris for the gargantuan food expo SIAL was a perfect excuse to see what’s happening in the city’s restaurants, both old and new. After wandering the 8 football fields of foodstuffs at the trade show, we made our way around (and outside) the city to visit some of its culinary luminaries.
Our experience at Pierre Gagnaire was wonderfully playful. The menu is divided by course; langoustines, turbot, lobster, lamb, sweetbreads, and beef have their own courses, each with 5-6 dishes that showcase the ingredient in different ways. (A tasting menu is offered, but those in the know will order a la carte to experience this flurry of dishes.)
Chef de cuisine Michel Nave (who has worked with Gagnaire for 26 years) said that 10 years ago, the components of the 5-6 dishes would have been combined into one dish – but today they like to play with multiple preparations of a single ingredient, serving them on multiple plates, but as a single course.
Langoustine, for example, came grilled and served with a beet puree; it also came raw with raw turnips marinated in Campari. It was pan-seared and flattened atop potato and bacon, and whipped into a mousse with cold buerre blanc and sage. Had all these elements been on one plate, it would have been too much. But as a series of small, dim-sum-like dishes, meant to be eaten one after another, the overall effect is a symphony of flavors, textures, and temperatures revolving around a common element and proving that Gagnaire remains a master of flavor and form. (See for yourself in On the Plate, Gagnaire Edition)
A meal at Alain Passard’s L’Arpege was equally focused on the ingredient, but in a more elemental way. A beet roasted in a mountain of grey sea salt, was extracted from its salty shell, sliced, and adorned simply with 25-year aged balsamico. An egg poached with sherry vinegar and maple syrup was an example of the heights of richness the humble egg can reach. One visual stunner was a lobster dish finished with shavings of vibrant purple cauliflower that added a jolt of texture and color to the dish (check it out in On the Plate, Passard Edition). Each dish was decadent but not pretentious – the meal was totally approachable, but sophisticated in its flavor combinations and intensity.
Chef Jean Chauvel of Les Magnolias is part of the new guard of French chefs who are modernizing the cuisine. The restaurant’s website says “emotion, tradition, humor,” and we couldn’t put it better ourselves. Vichyssoise was served as a “milkshake” with a quenelle of green bean sorbet on top. Lamb was topped with a delicate composed salad that was an explosion of freshness in the mouth. One dessert was a haute push-pop: the guest pushes a rod on the bottom of the custom-built structure, and the frozen dessert is pushed out of an icy cylinder. The tasting was incredibly fun – we laughed while we ate, enjoying the playfulness of the food and its often non-traditional textures. Les Magnolias is outside the city limits, but Chauvel has hopes to move to the city – the majority of his guests come from there anyway.
A visit to Grand Véfourgave a taste of old France – the restaurant in the Palais Royal dates back to 1784, and much of the décor is still intact. Guy Martin has made his name as chef for over 2 decades, and his dishes are utterly nouvelle French (they remind you of the 60s-80s in France) in their flavors. A dish of lamb with thyme, lemon, and parsnip crust with mushroom puree, carrots, and artichokes is a perfect example.
As such, dessert came as a total surprise. Pastry chef Thierry Molinengo’s chocolate dessert held a wild flavor combination: Manjari chocolate, raspberries, fromage blanc, and piquillo peppers. The austere box of chocolate held a wild interior with cubes of smoky piquillo cremeaux, chocolate, raspberry sorbet, and olive sable. Learn more about the dessert (and Thierry) here.
France was long the pastry capital of the world, but in the last few years, America has caught up. Generally speaking, desserts in America have gone in three directions; there’s the hyper-creative, sweet-savory avant garde, there’s a seasonally driven modern American dessert, and there are those that are looking back to childhood and comfort food for inspiration. The delectable desserts in our Holiday Baking article come from two Chicago pastry chefs firmly rooted in that last camp. Their sticky toffee pudding, spiced krispie treats, and chocolate-peanut butter confections are the perfect mix of maturity and nostalgia.
The first hurdle to get over before the holiday season really gets underway is, of course, Thanksgiving. Like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving has never been one of the best restaurant holidays – but we’ve found that the handful of restaurants that are open on T-day (about 20%, by our count) are looking forward to a successful business day this year. Find out what Chefs Peter Hoffman (Savoy, NYC) and Frank Brunacci (Sixteen, Chicago) are doing to boost business, and get some great pointers (and recipes) from Chefs Suzanne Tracht, Todd Gray, and Alex Guarnaschelli in our annual Turkey Tips feature.
We’ll be back with more holiday features soon: an elegant dinner menu from Daisley Gordon of Campagne in Seattle, sumptuous brunch recipes, plus a chef gift guide and our re-cap of the best cookbooks of the year.