Spanish Inquisition – Part One

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As a first-time tourist in any country, I’m usually an easy lay. Buy me a drink of good, indigenous hooch and I’ll lift my skirt. Seduce me with the tastiest local vittles and I’m yours for the asking. Show me your historical sites and I’ll show you my…er…uh…you get the idea.

With Spain though, I left my roll in the jamon not so much begging for more, but rather, wondering if what we ate was all it had to give. It did not sweep me off my feet as much as leave me feeling that our first date might be our last.

Which is another way of saying I liked Spain but didn’t love it. Not the way I’ve fallen numerous times for countries as diverse as Germany is from Mexico.

With Japan it was love at first sensory-overloaded sight. China captivated me with its gritty, cacophony, as did London with its starchy-sexy stiff upper lip. Hell, occasionally I even catch myself lusting for Canada, in all its bland, whitewashed politeness. And Jamaica still inspires bamboo levels of turgidity, even though I haven’t seen her coconuts since 1975.

But Spain was different, and maybe my expectations were to blame.

You see, I’ve been trying to get to España for thirty years and through three wives, but something has always derailed me: lack of funds (the 80s) or lack of time (the 90s), divorces (also the 90s), terrorist attacks, Great Recessions and Covid shutdowns have all conspired to thwart my plans. So when the stars finally aligned late last year, we were off on a trip I hoped would have me swooning more than a flamenco dancer in full vuelta quebrada.

Alas, twas not to be, and therein lies a tale as to why I wasn’t hoping for a return the moment I left — the way I always feel when boarding a flight home from Paris or Rome. Was it the cities themselves? Hardly, as they are fascinating and immaculate. The people? You can’t blame them, as Spaniards may not be Mexican- or Italian-friendly, but they’re darn close.

The wine? Well, it doesn’t come close to the polish of French or the varietals of Italy, but it’s a perfect fit with the food. And cheap! More on this below.

Nope, when all my ruminations were done, it came down to the food, which, for all its savor, failed to stir my soul.

Let’s take our Spanish gastronomic capitals one by one, and try to figure out why…

BARCELONA

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We started in Barcelona, a city I’ve been enchanted by (from a distance) since 1994, after seeing the Whit Stillman movie of the same name.

(Actually, we landed in Madrid, grabbed and excellent eclair and coffee at LHardy, and then bombed around Mercado San Miguel for an hour or so before catching the very fast train to Barcelona the same day, arriving just in time to check into our palatial digs at Hotel El Palace (above) and freshen up for dinner on-premises at the Michelin-starred Amar.

The hotel was everything its name suggested: expansive, old and grandiose, with an eye-popping lobby and solicitous staff, we couldn’t have been happier with our choice. It is also a bit off the beaten track (a half-mile or so from La Rambla), but in a nice neighborhood full of sights and sounds of the city, but also quiet, with a couple of hipster coffee bars on the block, and good shopping just minutes away. With this kind of overture provided by the hotel, Barcelona’s opening act would have to be a showstopper, and unfortunately, Amar, for all of its performative appeal, was not.

Amar checks a lot of boxes: the room is as comfortable and modern as its surrounding hotel is classic. Service was exemplary and there was no faulting the provenance of the seafood.

Image(Amar you ready for some Spanish shade?)

What it seemed to lack was sense of place or warmth, or anything evoking the city it claims to represent. As sparkling as our oysters, and as flawless the fish, it was a meal that could’ve been served in a thousand restaurants around the world. Indeed, we’ve eaten such a meal, a thousands times. The only things that change are the accents of the waiters.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Michelin stars are more reliable in Europe than anywhere else, but still need to be taken with a bit of brine. A Michelin one-star in a European capital will have a certain standard of accoutrements and service, and often a menu more predictable than a Waffle House.

Carpaccio to crudo, caviar service, innovative(?) oysters; a little crab here and a free-range there — the progression of courses (straight up the food chain) is so similar they might as well be AI generated. This is not to say the food wasn’t top-shelf, only predictable. And we didn’t travel 5,000 miles to feast on the familiar.

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To be fair, certain dishes did command respect: Peas with cod tripe and Catalan black pudding (above, adorned with truffles which brought nothing to the party); white beans with tuna and pancetta; and red prawns tasting like they had leapt straight from the boat onto our plates:

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Most of it felt like gussied-up peasant fare, and when the formula progressed into high-toned gastronomic fare, it wasn’t for the better.

Our classic sole meunière —  was draped with the weirdest, whitest beurre blanc we’ve ever seen; spider crab cannelloni proved, once again, that pasta should be left to the Italians; and the most impressive thing about the cheese course was the expandable trolley it came in.

Perhaps is was the jet lag, but we wanted to be blown away by our first bites in Barth-a-lona and weren’t. We left thinking of it as just another exercise in generic dining, brought to you by the Michelin Guide.

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Things got better when they turned less formal the next day.  The better parts of two mornings were spent at La Boqueria, with its sensory assaults tempting us at every step and testing our resolve not to spoil lunch by chowing down on everything in sight.

Be forewarned: in the age of Instagram, half of the hoi polloi is there not  for the food, but rather to photograph themselves filling their little buckets of narcissism. It becomes a madhouse after noon, so get there at 8 am, so you can cruise around (and chow down on your own, personalized Spanish food crawl) for a few hours before the selfie crowd shows up.

The good news is: this being Spain, no one will bat an eye if you want a cerveza at 10:00 am:

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On day one, we stuffed ourselves silly with jamon:

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By day three, we strapped on the blinders and made a beeline to El Quim before a hundred other vendors could tempt us with their wares.

Think of the world’s most hectic lunch counter, located in the middle of one of the world’s most famous urban markets, and you’ll get the sense of Quim’s cacophony. Only in this case, they’re serving patas bravas and croquetas instead of pancakes and hash.

Quim has been called the best Catalan tapas in Barcelona, high praise indeed from no less an expert than Gerry Dawes. What seems intimidating at first (you hang around the counter waiting for a seat(s) to open up) becomes less so as soon as you catch one of the waiters’ eyes and are directed to a stool, then are handed a one-page menu which will fight for your attention with all of the prepared foods and signboard specials tempting you.

We settled on a pork loin sandwich with asparagus, toothsome deep-fried artichokes, eggs with foie gras, and patas bravas for breakfast, forgoing other egg and potato dishes which looked heavenly, but also would have filled us up for the day. Each bite packed a wallop – seriously succulent pork on incredible bread, seared duck liver atop eggs (a belt-and-suspenders approach to richness which will ruin you for bacon and eggs forever), while the fluffy-crisp potatoes were lashed with two competing mayos — one, creamy white, the other possessing serious kick.

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Quim is the sort of place you need to go with a group and order a dozen things. Two people and four items don’t make a dent in its delectation. But it is the first place I would recommend to go to any first time visitor, and the one locale I wish we could’ve returned to.

Which is probably something we should have done instead of cruising through the Gothic Quarter  to our next venue.

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Dinner at Can Culleretes (the second oldest restaurant in Spain) was punctuated by a surly teenage waitress and a hostess with all the poise of a hemorrhoid. But the historic rooms were a sight to see and the tariff soft – especially wine, where bottles cost what a glass does in Las Vegas. (This held true in both Barcelona and Madrid, in restaurants both humble and hi-falutin’.)

The food, however (a decent mixed seafood grill, lots of stewed proteins), was one b-flat sensation after the next. Anchovies and olives are everywhere (by day three we decided there must be some kind of law against not serving anchovies with every meal); they put a fried egg on everything; and seasonings are remarkably mild. Anyone who tells you there are similarities between Mexican and Spanish food needs to have their head examined. Mexican food is to Spanish what a habanero is to a bell pepper.

The charms of Culleretes’ famed brandade-stuffed cannelloni also escaped us, and with every bite we kept thinking how traditional Catalan must be the three-chord rock of Spanish food.

But I digress.

Can Solé 1903 redeemed Old Barcelona in our eyes with sparkling paella served by friendly folks who seemed genuinely happy to have us. We arrived a few minutes early for lunch and there was already a crowd outside, pretty much split 50-50 between hungry natives and tourists:

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We booked on-line about a month earlier, and, as soon as the doors opened, were shown to the best seat in the house, right under the curtains in the picture above. From there we could watch the steady stream of patrons and various dishes flying forth from the kitchen — all of it washed down with pitchers of white sangria:

Image(Sangria – the official drink of “just one more glass”)

Can Solé is only a block away from the marina so the scents of the shore permeates the food the way it does in all seaside seafood restaurants. (Whether this is an objective fact or simple sensory suggestion is debatable, but briny creatures always seems to taste sweeter when consumed within eyesight of an ocean.)

Our seafood paella was so infused with the sea it was like breathing a spray of salt air with every bite. A steal at 43 euros:

Image(I’m on an all-seafood diet: when I see food, I eat it)

What you’ll find in these old school Barcelona establishments is sticker shock in reverse. The most expensive Spanish wine on the Can Solé list was 34 euros. At Can Culleretes it was 29.50 for a very good Priorat red. Even in fancy joints, the pricier offerings were often well under 100 euros. It didn’t take long to figure out what a bargain wine is in Spain, so our group made no apologies for overspending like a bunch of drunken sailors, since even at their highest, the prices were a welcome respite from Las Vegas’s eye-watering tariffs.

Keep in mind, Barcelona, like Vegas is definitely a tourist town too, but we saw little evidence of price-gouging anywhere, and once you get a few blocks off the tourists paths, you can eat like a local and feel like one too.

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Such was our experience at Gresca — a gastro-pubby hallway of a space so narrow even the vegetables have to enter in single-file. A few blocks west of the tony Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue, this shoe box houses a row of four-tops along one cramped wall, and an open kitchen which straddles a second parallel space. The few waitstaff scramble between tables, while in the kitchen, a half-dozen cooks toil away, churning out small plates (not really tapas, despite what the interwebs say) that were the most compelling dishes we had in Spain. Of course, all of the usual suspects were there on the menu, but with a little guidance we crafted a menu of dishes that showed both ingenuity and restraint. A rarity in “modern” restaurants these days.

Rabbit kidneys, sweetbreads, bacon-thin bikini cheese toast, cod “gilda” pintxos, grilled quail, all of it so toothsome we were fighting over the last bites:

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Everything washed down with excellent wines from regions we barely know made by producers we’ve never heard of — which is why god invented sommeliers.

WINE GEEK ALERT: These wines were some of the best of the trip, and we quickly learned Corpinnat is the new Cava. Much as Valdobbiadene has replaced Prosecco, these premium Corazón de Penedès sparklers were tired of being lumped with mass-produced plonk, and have re-made and re-marketed themselves into world-class bubbly.

Image(Life is too short to drink bad wine)

 If Gresca made us feel like an in-the-know local, Lomo Alto brought out our inner carnivorous connoisseur.

What resembles a slightly antiseptic butcher shop upon entering, leads up a stairway to a second floor of capacious booths designed for one thing: to showcase the best beef in Spain. Before you get to your dictionary-thick steaks, you’ll first plow through some beautiful bread, three kinds of olive oil, “old cow” carpaccio with smoked Castilian cheese,  and some of the softest artichokes known to man.

Then the carving starts and you are transported to a higher level of beef eating:

 

The Spanish way to cook beef is basically to yell “fire!” at the meat as it is leaving the kitchen. Need proof? This is what they call medium-rare:

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Make no mistake, though, it was an aged steak for the ages. We did a side-by-side of two steaks (a vaca vieja chuleta – beef aged both on the hoof and in the fridge), the other a very lean, 60-80 day aged strip of Simmental beef from Germany. Neither was cheap. (145 euros and 118 euros) together amounting to about $300 of European, grass-fed beef split between four people. As compared to an American steakhouse (remember, we practically invented the genre), I’d give it and A- for food (the Simmental was as chewy as overcooked octopus and not worth the tariff) and high marks for service, despite the room exuding all the hospitality of a hospital. But I’ll remember that steak and those starters for a long, long time.

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Was Barcelona worth it after thirty years of anticipation? I wish I could say yes, but nothing we ate was memorable enough to draw me back there.

Not to end on a sour note, but much of the traditional Catalan cuisine left us cold. Bread, stews, olives and anchovies are nothing to scoff at, but when you see them at every restaurant for days on end, the template gets tiresome. Anyone expecting vibrant seasonings, or a little spice with their ultra-fresh ingredients will quickly discover they’ve landed on the wrong shore.

In spite of the gorgeous Gothic quarter, the shimmering seafood, and those steaks, and the tapas of Quim and the precision of Gresca, we left Barcelona feeling there wasn’t much left for us to try.

Before you take me to task, I know all cities are full of surprises, and a single visit barely scratches the surface. Perhaps next time someone like this big guy will show us a range of flavors we didn’t experience.

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After all, some of the world’s greatest romances started with a whimper instead of a bang.

This is the Part One of a two-part article.

The Best Restaurant in Town

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Quality is always inversely proportional to quantity. – Lionel Pôilane

There are passion restaurants and there are money restaurants.

Passion restaurants are imbued with a feeling — a personal connection between staff and client — which is palpable. The people behind them are to the kitchen born, and can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

Restaurants in it solely for the shekels betray themselves with a vibe (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so) which says, “you’re just a number to us.”

Ferraro’s is a passion restaurant; Raku is a passion restaurant; Tao is a money restaurant. Esther’s Kitchen began as a passion project but is now about to morph into the Denver Mint.

To be “The Best Restaurant in Las Vegas” you have to treat cooking as a religion, not a job. To be the best at anything, you have to be driven by something other than profit. When you think about things that way, the field gets very narrow, very quickly.

Before you jump down my throat faster than slippery bivalve, no one has to remind me that all taste is subjective and “the best” of anything is a concept more nebulous than a Donald Trump stump speech.

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My idea of what makes a restaurant “the best” are probably far different from yours. By “the best”, I mean an eatery of quintessential excellence, which brings a spiritual intensity and machine-like consistency to the table. Decor means little or nothing to me; service is important, but not primary; and the dazzle factor must all be on the plate.

Your idea of the best in town might be a plush, no expense spared beef emporium, dripping with umami and testosterone. Or it could be an elegant Italian, smooth as Gucci leather, where they always know your name and the pasta is nonpareil. Perhaps you put a greater emphasis on intensive care service, or cartwheels in the kitchen. Some of us seek adventure in eating; others crave familiarity. But there are standards, and we at ELV are here to uphold them.

So, for purposes of this discussion, these are the essentials…

Things it must be:

Singular, i.e., not part of a chain, a group or empire

Chef-driven

Food-focused

Made-from-scratch-centric

Quiet

Comfortable

Seasonal

Small

Serious (but not too)

Things it must not be:

Too big

Too popular

Too corporate

Too commercial

Too many recipes

Too many clowns – as customers or in the kitchen

Filled with men showing off or women whooping it up – but I repeat myself

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Twenty-four-seat Japanese restaurants (with seven-seat sushi bars) are as far from a money restaurant as the Fountainebleau is from VRBO.

Which brings us to a sliver of a space, impossible to see from the street, tucked into an obscure corner of Chinatown. It sits behind a tire shop and to the left of an obscure Persian restaurant. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can be standing right in front of it and not know you’re mere feet away from a gastronomic trip to Japan –without the language barrier or a 13 hour plane flight.

Beyond the noren, the front door at Kaiseki Yuzu leads you into a dark, narrow hallway, decorated in spare, Japanese style, leading to the 30 seat kaiseki restaurant at its end. To your left (inches from the threshold) is a curtain leading to those six seats (above) and the most personally-crafted meal you can have in Las Vegas.

What chef-owner Kaoru Azeuchi (pictured at top of page) and his wife Mayumi have done since moving into this shoebox four years ago is remarkable. Not only have they garnered a James Beard Finalist nomination, but they have raised the bar for Japanese food in Las Vegas in a manner not seen since Mitsuo Endo opened Raku back in 2008.

Group_SabinOrr_014_For_Web.jpg(Soy good you’ll be wasabi yourself)

The kaiseki menu (above) — hyper-seasonal and glorious in its own right — is the main point of the restaurant. For the uninitiated, kaiseki is a very particular form of Japanese prix fixe dining (originally for the nobility), centered on precious ingredients, sourced at the peak of flavor, and fashioned into minimalist, edible art. Kazeuchi is a master of the craft, using the food chain (from the humblest of vegetables to the most exotic beef) to provide him a palette from which he creates masterpieces both visual and edible. If more beautiful food exists in Las Vegas, we haven’t found it.

The sushi bar at Kaiseki Yuzu wows you in a different way. The menu is the same price ($165/pp) as the $165 Chiku kaiseki, with fewer proteins than or the more luxurious Shou ($210) set. The emphasis at the bar is on Osaka-style sushi and pristine fish — an omakase experience where you sit back and enjoy the ride, because each of the ten or so dishes placed before you will concentrate your senses on the sublime expression of each ingredient.

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Chef John Mau (above) — a Michael Mina veteran — has commanded the sushi space since it opened last August. With a helpful assistant at his side (shout-out to Olivia!) he slices, dices, and explains everything from the five Zensai bites which start your meal to that impeccably chosen sushi to the Kanburi (yellowtail)  in a hypnotic shabu-shabu broth, whose crystalline appearance belies its potency.

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Deceptively simple is a phrase often used to describe Japanese cuisine — where much more is always going on than meets the eye. So it is here with everything from the translucent rice to the immaculate fish. Even something as prosaic as a spicy tuna handroll is given new definition by being chopped before you, and barely folded into napkins of nori — echoing the sea in all its vegetal, sweet and saline glory.

Having a chef  in such close proximity, in the presence of such unsullied seafood, makes this a personal experience unlike any other in town.  The windowless room (very Japanese that) wraps you like a warm hug, and the gestalt of all three combines to make you do one thing: think about sushi like you’ve never considered it before. Every nuance is heightened; every bite attains a higher purpose — a commiseration between the animals which sustain us and the humans who enhance their taste. All done while making food delicious enough to send a happy shudder up my spine.

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There is an intimacy born of a great Japanese dining experience which the West rarely approaches. It is born out of trust and respect between chef and customer. You are placing yourself in their hands (literally), and both sides recognize a bond created by what the chef will hand-craft to please, enlighten, and nourish you. The rawness of the cuisine, and its insistence upon absolute freshness, coupled with the hand-molding of almost every course demands this level of faith.

Japanese chefs make food taste most like itself, all while making it appetizing and beautiful. There is a distillation to the essence of things which informs their cuisine. There is no place to hide in a Japanese meal. If you give yourself over to it, you start appreciating why French chefs in the latter part of the last century flocked to Japan. It wasn’t only because the Japanese were micro-plating food decades before any Frenchman had heard of tweezering micro-greens. It was because this is high amplitude restaurant food in its purest expression. Kaiseki Yuzu is the closest thing we have to a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, and it is right on our doorstep. There is no more unique, delightful, or passionate restaurant anywhere in Las Vegas.

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Paris 2023 – Lunchtime in the City of Light

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(Ed. note: It seems half the people we know are heading to Paris this year (Can you say: “pent-up demand”?), so we thought we’d suggest a few places for them to eat, particularly for those looking for the classic over the au courant.)

DEJEUNER ALL DAY  – Lunchtime in the City of Light

Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half. – Charles de Montesquieu

I like to break into my Parisian tours de degustation slowly, first as a tourist, then as a persnickety critic, and finally as a unapologetic sybarite — the kind  who likes to bathe in hedonism like asparagus in Hollandaise. Before completely surrendering to unfettered omnivorousness, it’s fun to play tourist for a few days, and there ain’t a more touristy way to dejeuner the day away than floating down the river on a sightseeing boat.

After that it’s batten down the hatches and and all hands on deck as we stormed Paris’s cathedrals of fine dining like a sans-culottes at the Bastille. Finally, we visit an old friend who, at 123 years old, is more ravishing than ever, especially at midday when dappled with sunlight streaming through her magnificent windows.  hese four iconic experiences explain why we love lunching the day away in Paris these days, rather than dining ourselves into a stupor at dinner.

BANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

Our Bateaux Parisiens lunch cruise was booked by our staff (aka #1 Son), who wanted his family to get the full visite de la rivière checked off toute suite, before they settled into a week of museum-hopping and crowd-battling.

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Amazing but true factoid: despite being crazy about Paris (and this being our twelfth visit in thirty years), this was the first time we have ever been in Seine about it.

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The sights, as one would expect on a sunny, cool Spring day, were glorious. What was unexpected was how good the food was. For 109 euros/pp they served four courses (and unlimited wine) that would be right at home in an upscale bistro.

They keep it simple, but there was no faulting our four courses of chilled broccoli soup; pâté en croûte; beef cheeks (they offer multiple choices which change seasonally) including chicken supreme below, salmon steak with pilaf, buckwheat with pesto and desserts from Maison Lenôtre — each course demanding pleasant enough attention on its own (as did the more-than-serviceable wine) which is pretty hard to do when you’re competing with the world’s most eye-popping architecture.

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The staff even did me a solid when I, in typical ready-to-overspend clueless American mode, was ready to grab the wine list and throw down a hundred euros for a bottle.

“Monsieur, your wine eet comes with zee meal eet eez pretty guud; you might want to try eet before you order somezing else.”

Image(Chip off the old Bordeaux)

And we did, and he was right and eet was. So much for taking advantage of ignorant tourists. In Vegas, they would’ve up-sold you a bottle in a New York-New York minute and never thought twice about hosing you.

You can sense the pride the French take in their culinary heritage with meals like this. In almost any other country, on something so touristy it practically screams “fanny pack”, they would slapdash something onto a plate and call it a day’s gouge. Here, the meal would pass muster at almost any gastro-bistro. It may not be inventive, but it checks all the boxes for an introduction to the cuisine. And the sights are unbeatable.

IN GUY WE TRUST

At the top of gastronomy with Guy Savoy, in pursuit of the fourth star - The Limited Times

From the elevated to the ethereal is the only way to characterize lunching on the Seine one day and then heading to the warrens of Guy Savoy the next day in search of a seasonal tasting menu of the sort you only find in Paris. (Ed. note: my disdain for tasting menus is well-documented, but I make an exception in Paris, at Guy Savoy.)

You walk up immense stairs to the entrance to five separate rooms, each holding four tables and illuminated both by the sun reflecting off the river below and the luminescent modern art hanging from the walls — themselves worth a room-by-room viewing once the tables start emptying. The effect is one of dining in a private club, cosseted by muffled sounds, subtle but attentive service, and nothing to distract you from what appears on your plate.

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Savoy retains his excellent standing in the Paris pantheon of destination dining despite losing a star in the last Michelin Guide, and absorbing the occasional jabs from bloggers like Paris By Mouth, who found the food bland and boring. Meg Zimbeck’s palate is one we respect, and there is a back-story to her not recommending the restaurant, involving reservations, cancellations, and terrorism(!) which we won’t get into here. All we know is we’ve eaten Savoy’s food multiple times on two continents over twenty years, and with the exception of the iconic Parmesan-Truffle soup (above) and few standard amuse bouches (like the silver-skewered mini-burgers), we have never had a bad bite, or the same bite twice.

Having sung Savoy’s praises so many times before, it almost seems redundant to comment on the effulgence of his cuisine — such as sea urchin so bracing in its haunting, dusky salinity you feel like you’re eating it straight from the Atlantic floor.

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As if to guild the lily, Savoy then dresses the mahogany-colored organs of this echinoderm with scallops and caviar in a confluence of flavor which somehow merges into a single gestalt of ocean intensity:

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He follows this brininess with a slice of sweet, in this case a Daurade Royale (gilt-head bream), which is cooked and sauced as all seafood dreams of being:

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Each of our courses in the tasting extravaganza toggled between acutely focusing the palate and then soothing it. It’s as if you’re eating more of something than the thing itself. Vegetables were treated simply and given their due, and nods to seasonality were everywhere, such as in a spring lamb chop, no larger than the base of a thumb:

Image(Mary had a littlest lamb)

It takes a rarefied skills to make food like this work, and to our palate, Savoy never fails to hit the mark.

Lunch is the right move, because even after clocking in at three hours, you still have plenty of time for sightseeing, and walking off all those calories from tous les fromages, in the afternoon.

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Tariffs start at 250e for three courses (which is more like six courses once you factor in all the extra tidbits they bring you) but you can get north of that quickly if you opt for the full tasting Monty, or go nuts with wine.

The wine list is comprehensively French and full of bargains, if you fancy finding bottles in a restaurant for only double what they cost in a shop. In Las Vegas, the big Strip hotels think nothing of charging throat-clutching 4-500% markups, making every other wine list in the world look like a good deal to us. Be forewarned: if you’re looking for wines under a hundy in these Michelin-starred temples, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

This high-toned, exceptional cooking is perhaps not as innovative as it once was, but there is no faulting the recipes or their execution. And I’m still dreaming about the urchin and that lamb chop.

TALLY HAUTE

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Most temples of Parisian gastronomy are famous for their chefs, but Le Taillevent has always been known for its owners. The Vrinat family opened it in 1946, and moved to the present location (formerly a duke’s mansion, later an embassy) a few years later. For decades now, it has kept the gourmet flame alive as the most classic of sanctuaries — a refuge for those seeking the finest cooking in the most subdued of rooms.

People can be taken aback by the simple decor. At first glance, it is a bit tan on tan bland, but the welcome — from the smiling doorman to the maitre’d to the waiters — is so charming you quickly forget that you’re dining in what used to be a Paraguayan reception area.

You will also come to see your surroundings as a frame designed to showcase the cuisine, which is more modern than you might suspect from the oak-paneled rooms.

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The ladies menu don’t have prices. Which is a throwback in all the best ways if you’re a traditionalist. If you’re not, I’m guessing they size you up quickly and let everyone in your party share in the sticker shock. But no one in the room looks like they’re taking in laundry to make ends meet, and most booths are populated by well-suited businessmen who know their forks:

Image(Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup? The backstroke, sir.)

Places this tony probably aren’t used to excitable Americans whooping it up over whatever they’re eating and drinking, but we were paying (through the nose) for the privilege, and the staff was more than happy to let us enjoy ourselves. So much for the supercilious French. A sprinkling of gastro-tourists completed the tableau, which was anchored by our corner — two couples out for a whale of a time who didn’t mind spending a house payment on lunch.

And the menu couldn’t be easier to navigate: three or four course lunch menus are offered (from 90-210-275 euros), or ordering a la carte from five starters, six mains, and five desserts, with unlimited cheese from the outstanding trolley being another 30e (more on this below). The simplicity is deceptive, because what seems straightforward soon becomes a lesson in kitchen choreography, as variations on a theme appear with each course, as dishes are bestowed and cleared with almost magical alacrity.

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Consider our appetizers: skipjack tuna with cabbage atop matelote sauce; langoustines “boudin” with coral butter; and smooth chunks of cuttlefish and small crispy shrimp suspended in a puddle of squid ink (above) — all of them accompanied by a separate riff on the same subject, calibrated to expand your thoughts about each ingredient.

This is high-wire cookery, and in less skillful hands might be a mess on the plate and a discordant assault on the senses. But in the hands of Chef Giuliano Sperandio every ingredient sings in harmony.

Image(Here’s a tip: eat more greens)

Almost on a dare, someone ordered the “green vegetables” — and what arrived was a melange of asparagus in an extraction of fava beans (above), served with another bowl containing a scoop of pistachio mousse floating in a sea of sorrel sauce — each bite a study in veggie intensity. The combination of greenery needed to achieve this level of chlorophyll-laden lusciousness is more than just a patronizing nod in the direction of vegetarians, it is a celebration of all that they hold holy, and a prime example of why vegetarian cooking is too important to be left to vegetarians.

Before we leave them, though, we would not be worth our gastronomic stripes if we didn’t mention food and wine pairings,  such as the aged Comté gougeres (of which we could’ve made a meal), sipped with a Henri Giraud rosé, while a fragrant, citrusy Didier Dageneau Pur Sang played the role of a complimentary sauce to those langoustines and shellfish. (None of these bottles was cheap — our wine tariff came to about $1,000 for four bottles — but on this side of the pond, our indulgences would cost three times as much.)

We stuck with the white wine theme through the mains, as a Hubert Lamy Saint-Aubin ’17 married well with turbot with caviar sauce, roasted blue lobster, John Dory with peas and bottarga, and a rabbit loin and rack:

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…the lagniappe in this case being a stew of thumbnail-sized kidneys in mustard sauce:

Image(I kidney not, you mustard try these)

…from an animal so young it could’ve been frolicking with Guy Savoy’s preternatural lamb.

As mentioned, the kitchen loves to sneak in these little plates alongside the main event, each carrying through the theme: in the rabbit’s case with those kidneys, and with the roasted lobster, another helping of crustacean under a shell of charred coffee mayonnaise which genuflects to the classic Newbergs of yore:

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Each dish an example of the French art in making things taste like more of themselves. Which was also present with one of the most stunning desserts we’ve ever eaten, made from an ingredient we don’t even like. In this case baked grapefruit blanketed with a grapefruit gelee — giving this overly tart, often acrid citrus fruit a whole new dimension, and single-handedly changing our minds about it:

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Lest you think this stuffiness translates to the staff, consider my attacking the cheese cart with all the gusto of Homer Simpson at a doughnut shop:

Image(It doesn’t get any cheddar than this)

All of this is being served so seamlessly you barely notice the passage of time. The mood of the restaurant is convivial, but civilized. If you want to geek out over every plate, the bi-lingual staff is there to help. If your conversation whips from food to wine to whatever suits your Parisian fancy, I can’t think of a more luxe place to indulge. If you missed the point: none of this comes cheap (our final tab came to $1,100/couple with about half of that being wine), but experiencing food this perfect is an indulgence every galloping gourmand owes themselves at least once in a lifetime.

A final word about stars: In recent years both Savoy and Taillevent have been demoted to two stars from three by the famous Guide Michelin. Having eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants for thirty years, I am fairly conversant (at least for an American) in the distinctions which goes into these coveted awards. In France, these ratings are gnashed over with archeological precision. However, to customers (even experienced ones) the distinctions can be hard to parse. The difference between a one and three-starred establishments are fairly easy. A solid one-star experience (like the Burgundian Les Climats) the fuss and accoutrements are a little less fine, the cuisine isn’t as inventive, nor the techniques quite so bedazzling.

Figuring out what the inspectors look for in three-star establishments (and why they knock some off that pedestal), is much harder to discern, but my guess is a lot of it has to do with who is the most “modern” in their approach to cuisine. (Only one of the current three-star Parisian restaurants – L’Ambroisie – could be considered “traditional”.) In that vein, Savoy and Taillevent are traditionalists with a twist, with one foot in both worlds, and all the better for it, no matter what a bunch of trend-chasing arbiters say.

CHOO CHOO-ING UP THE SCENERY

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 Ah, understatement. The French are known for it. Such minimalists, dontcha know? Brutalist architecture, earth tones aplenty, all cinder blocks and right angles…sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in East Germany, circa 1972.

I kid. I kid.

But a point needs to be made here: modern restaurant design — all hard surfaces, exposed beams, and flat color palettes — is about as interesting as a barndominium.

Which is why we dine in Paris: as salve for the soul and to soothe our senses. For if there’s a cure for everything that is wrong with 21st Century decor, it is lunch at Le Train Bleu — the most spectacular (and Instagrammed) restaurant in the world.

Image(Toto, we’re not in Taco Bell anymore)

We don’t just go for the eye-candy, even though it is so dazzling they could probably get away with serving rancid headcheese and still be packed to the rafters.

The food — which has always been better than it has to be — seems to have gotten an upgrade. The tartare de boeuf, which used to be huge, is now is more hockey puck than small football, and garnished like there’s a micro-green aficionado in the kitchen. Thankfully, it has lost none of the beefy tang we remembered from a decade ago. Our bread was warm and fresh and served with Échiré butter, and even the side dishes — a bright green salad and thick-cut, creamy-crispy fries — were exemplars of the form:

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The Food Gal® — perhaps because her liver was rebelling from a steady diet of foie gras and pâté de campagne —  swooned over her tightly-composed Spring salad, and called it  a welcome respite from all the charcuterie we had been force-feeding her:

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And the staff surprisingly cheerful for a place that expects to turn your table over at least five times a day. All of this is happening in a huge restaurant in a bustling train station with a constant flow of famished travelers, curious tourists, and gawkers traipsing through — a place that could easily get by with thoughtless service and indifferent food, but instead seems to take as much pride in what is on the plate as in what is overhead:

Image(Work. Work. Work.)

One lunch for two is hardly a reliable sample size, but from our vin rouge colored glasses it looked like everything about LTB had been spruced up, both in and out of the kitchen, since our last visit in 2012.

Cuisine this polished from such a large operation, in such an overwhelmingly beautiful space, catering to thousands of people a day, is a mind-blowing achievement. Instagram, Tik Tok and the like have obviously been good for business (in years past, the place always felt slightly forlorn to us), but this grande dame of Parisian dining has come roaring back. As have all Parisian restaurants.

Vive la France! And Happy Bastille Day!

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