Before coming to Paris I had never eaten in a 3-star Michelin restaurant. Last week, I had lunch at two of them.
Before you start throwing stale baguettes at me, I should point out that we were hosted. We had some friends in town, staying on Ile St. Louis, the island in the middle of the Seine. They were two couples doing a week of Michelin starred dining, either a lunch or a dinner each day, and they invited us to tag along.
The first lunch was planned months in advance; we were to be hosted at Pierre Gagnaire in the Hotel Balzac just off the Champs Elysées. We walked over (I quickly slipped my espadrilles into my purse and exchanged them for heels,) were greeted at the door and joined our friends at their table. The room was full. We had been told there would be many courses, so we had skipped breakfast and were ready to indulge. Everything starts with Champagne in Paris, and a lunch like this was no exception. We enjoyed our coupe over six or eight different amuse bouches sent from the chef (who appeared, like an apparition, at our table to say hello). Then came the appetizers - the first dish arrived and we all took up our forks.” Please wait, there is more,” said the waiter, and sure enough, five more two-bite dishes came and were arranged in a circular pattern in front of each of us. We were instructed to start at the top left and work our way through them clockwise. There was tuna wrapped up like a candy in a potato wrapper that looked like cellophane. There was a single hazelnut, roasted and coated something delicious. There was goose rillette, trout eggs, tartare of seaweed from Croisic.
The main menu had so many choices that we we had option paralysis initially but had eventually decided on the seasonal 3-course lunch. Each course came out as a selection of separate dishes, the most memorable of which was a rich pot-au-feu of veal knuckle that paired beautifully with the red Burgundy our host had chosen. Finally, dessert (we were well into our third hour at this point) which again was a procession of tiny dishes that seemed to never end. I counted 20 or 21 plates over the course of the meal (not including the cuttlefish breadsticks and 3 kinds of butter) but it really could have been more. We contemplated the size of the dish pit. The number of tastes was almost overwhelming, and we were still talking about the meal well into the next few days.
The second lunch was more spontaneous. Over a glass of Champagne on Ile St. Louis on a Sunday, our hosts invited us to join them the following Tuesday at Le Bristol hotel. Do you know it? they asked. Do we know it? We only walk by it twice a day taking Emmanuelle to school. It’s on Rue de Faubourg Saint Honoré, and I’ve often wondered what lay behind the grand entrance, on one of the most haute couture shopping streets in Paris. There are two Michelin starred restaurants inside, and we were being taken to Epicure, the one with three stars. This being the beginning of Paris Fashion Week, there were some models in the bar when we entered. And a stuffed peacock. Our host was well known to the staff and we were seated at a circular table in the dead centre of the restaurant with a view out to the beautiful courtyard. Also in the room were lots of very young Asian couples. One pair of girls in their early 20s were dining with their stuffed animals.
As we were contemplating the menu (much more straightforward, but like at Pierre Gagnaire, with no prices) there was a sudden flurry of activity. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French President, and an entourage were ushered to a corner table. As far as I could tell, it was a business meeting over a bottle of red wine and they left an hour later in a similar rush. (We learned later the lobby had been full of his security detail).
Our hosts had tried almost everything on the menu over the years, including some particularly showy dishes like a Bresse hen cooked in a bladder that gets pierced tableside producing a grand plume of steam. I opted for the chef’s famous whiting fish and Murray for a head-to-toe pig dish that was lined up anatomically on the plate, starting with trotters and finishing with a pink piece of snout. One of our group ordered a whole black Perigord truffle that arrived baked in salt and hay, and was carved à la minute beside us.
I tasted a bite of a gift from the chef that was sea urchin foam atop its roe. The room suddenly disappeared, the conversation dissipated and I was sitting on a dock somewhere smelling the salt air with my feet in the water. It was that transformative. Similarly, Murray declared the glass of white burgundy we were drinking was the best he had had in his life (it was 2002 Meursault). One of the standout dishes was langoustines from the cold waters of Normandy, napped in a sauce of Corsican lemon and thyme.
The thing about Michelin dining at this level is that everything is perfectly executed, from the symmetrical service to the light-as-air stemware. The waiters lifted the cloches from our dishes in perfect unison, like a ballet, and when we rose to leave, 5 staff members stood in the entryway, each with one of our coats.
The sun was coming out again, and we walked up the 5 blocks to our apartment in a state of bliss. These were two meals we will never forget, two large exclamation points in the story of our year in Paris.