The Best Restaurant(s) in the World

Image(Restaurant Guy Savoy, Paris)
If you take it as a given that French restaurants are the best in the world, it only stands to reason that the best restaurant in the world will be in France.
Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m not here to dismiss the cuisines of entire countries — only to point out that, like sushi, Mexican street food, and pasta, the places where some food was invented are generally where you will find the highest elevation of the art. And Paris, in case you’ve forgotten, is where the modern restaurant was born in the latter half of the 18th Century.

Of course, the “best” of anything is a conceit and highly subjective. Measuring a “winner” or “the best” of anything — from wine to women — is a nice parlor game, but ultimately a waste of time unless there’s a stopwatch involved.

Whoever wins these accolades usually comes down to who got fawned over the most in a few influential publications — not who objectively gives diners the best food, drink, and experience. Anyone who thinks the several hundred voters who weigh in on these awards have actually eaten at the places they vote for as “the best restaurant in the world” (as opposed to forming their opinions based upon reading accounts of the few who have), has rocks in their head.

“Awards” of this sort are simply a way to give a deceptively false measuring stick to those who don’t know much about a subject. Subjectivity disguised as objectivity, all in the name of marketing to the wealthy with more money than taste. Same as with wine scores and Oscar nominations. The rich need these adjudications to convince themselves they’re doing the right thing, and “The “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” is there for them. As Hemingway puts it in “A Moveable Feast”:

The rich came led by the pilot fish. A year earlier they never would have come. There was no certainty then.

Back when El Bulli was garnering these awards (and I was voting on them), I heard from several colleagues who ate there, and what they described was more of a soul-deadening food slog (an edible marathon, if you will) than an actual pleasant experience.

A close friend (who also happens to be a chef) told me he stopped counting after 40(?) courses of (often) indecipherable eats, and was looking for the door two hours before the ordeal ended. (The trouble was, he said, there was literally no place to go — El Bulli being, literally, in the middle of nowhere.)

But Feran Adrià (like Thomas Keller before him and Grant Achatz and René Redzepi after), was anointed because, as in Hollywood, a few influential folks decided they were to be christened the au courant  bucket list-of-the-moment, and woe be to anyone in the hustings to question these lordly judgments. In the cosseted world of gastronomic beneficence (and the slaves to food fashion who follow them) this would be akin to a local seamstress suggesting Anna Wintour adjust her hemline.

Because of this nonsense, we’ve been saddled with the tyranny of the tasting menu for twenty-five years (Keller, Achatz, et al), disguised foods and tasteless foams (Adria), and edible vegetation (Redzepi) designed more for ground cover than actual eating.

As far as I can tell, neither molecular cuisine nor eating tree bark and live ants has caught on in  the real world — beyond trophy-hunting gastronauts, who swoon for the “next big thing” the way the fashion press promotes outlandish threads to grab attention.

Which brings us back to France. More particularly, French restaurants and what makes them so special. Let’s begin with food that looks like real food:

Image(Surf & Turf: Langoustines au Truffes La Tour D’Argent)

….not someone’s idea of playing with their food, or trying to turn it into something it isn’t. This cooking philosophy alone separates fine French cuisine from the pretenders, and gives it a confidence few restaurants in the world ever approach.

For one, there’s a naturalness to restaurants in France that comes from the French having invented the game. Unlike many who play for the “world’s best” stakes, nothing about them ever feels forced, least of all the cooking.  With four-hundred years to get it right, and French restaurants display everything from the napery to the stemware with an insouciant aplomb that is the gold standard.

You don’t have to instruct the French how to run a restaurant any more than you have to teach a fish how to swim. Or at least that’s how it appears when you’re in the midst of one of these unforgettable meals, because, to repeat, they’ve been perfecting things for four hundred years. Everything from the amuse bouche to the petit fours have been carefully honed to put you at ease with with being your best self at the table.

Image(Gruyère gougeres have been around longer than America)

Having been at this gig for a while, I’m perfectly aware that the death of fine French dining, and intensive care service accompanying it, has been announced about every third year for the past thirty.

I’m not buying any of it. When you go to France (be it Paris or out in the provinces), the food is just as glorified, the service rituals just as precise, and the pomp and circumstance just as beautifully choreographed as it was fifty years ago. The fact that younger diners/writers see this form of civilized dining as a hidebound, time-warp does not detract from its prominence in the country that invented it.

Whether you’re in Tokyo or Copenhagen, the style and performative aspects of big deal meals still takes their cues from the French. Only elaborate Mandarin banquets or the hyper-seasonality of a kaiseki dinner  match the formality and structure of haute cuisine.

These forms of highly stylized dining follow a path straight up the food chain. There are rules and they are there for a reason, usually having to do with how you will taste and digest what is placed before you. Light before heavy; raw before cooked; simple before complex — you get the picture
You usually begin with something fished directly from the sea. Oysters and other shellfish are a natural match, as is a shrimp cocktail. (A good old-fashioned American steakhouse has more in common, with high falutin’ French than people realize.)  Their natural salinity stimulates the appetite without weighing you down.
Man’s evolution into a more cultivated forms of eating is represented by bread, as is the domestication of animals by the butter slathered upon it. (If you want to stretch the symbolism even further, look at olive oil and the fermentation of wine and beer as representing mankind’s earliest bending of agriculture to his edible wants and needs.)
Image(Early man struggled with the whole pommes soufflé-thing)
From there things get more elaborate, depending on whether you want to go the seafood, wild game, or domesticated fowl route. Vegetables get their intermezzo by using salad greens as a scrub for the stomach to help digest everything that precedes them. (The French think eating a salad at the start of a meal is stupid, and it is.) You finish of course with cheese (“milk’s leap toward immortality” – Clifton Fadiman), and then with the most refined of all foods: sugar and flour and all the wonderful things that can be done with them. A great French meal is thus every bit the homage to nature as Japanese kaiseki, albeit with a lot more wine and creme brûlée.
As I’ve written before, French food is about the extraction and intensification of flavor. Unlike Italians and Japanese, a French cook looks at an ingredient (be it asparagus, seafood, or meat) and asks himself: “Self, how can I make this thing taste more like itself.” All the simmering, searing, pressing, and sieving in a French kitchen is as far a cry from leaving nature well enough alone as an opera is from the warble of a songbird.

With this in mind, we set our sights on two iconic Parisian restaurants: one, as old-fashioned as you can get, and the other a more modern take on the cuisine, by one of its most celebrated chefs. Together, they represent the apotheosis of the restaurant arts. They also signify why, no matter what some critics say, the French still rule the roost. Blessedly, there is no chance of encountering Finnish reindeer moss at either of them.

LA TOUR D’ARGENT

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If experience is any measure of perfection, then The Tower of Money should win “best restaurant in the world” every year, because no one has been serving food this fine, for this long, in this grand a setting.

A restaurant in one form or another has been going on at this location since before the Three Musketeers were swashing their buckles. What began as an elegant inn near the wine docks of Paris in 1582 soon enough was playing host to everyone from royalty to Cardinal Richelieu. It is claimed that the use of the fork in France began in the late 1500s at an early incarnation of “The Tower of Silver”, with Henry IV adopting the utensil to keep his cuffs clean.

Apocryphal or not,  what is certainly true is that Good King Hank (1553-1610) bestowed upon the La Tour its crest which still symbolizes it today:

History, of course, provides the foundation, and the setting continues to provides a “wow” factor unmatched by all but a handful of restaurants in the world. No place but here can you dine with the ghosts of Louis XIV, Winston Churchill and Sarah Bernhardt, all while seeming to float above Paris on this open door to the city’s past — all of it available to anyone with the argent to book a table.
But the proof is in the cooking — that has been, on our last two visits, as awesome as the view. It’s no secret that the glory had started to fade twenty years ago, and that Michelin — the arbiter of all things important in the French food world — had taken notice, and not in a good way.
A reboot of sorts was announced over five years ago, and by the time we visited in 2019, the kitchen was performing at a Michelin two-star level at the very least. Independent of the view, the service, and the iconic wine program, the cooking (and presentation) was well-nigh perfect. It was all you want from this cuisine: focused, intense flavors put together with impeccable technique and an almost scientific attention to detail.
When we returned this past winter, things seemed be have gotten even better. This time we showed up with a party of six. It was a busy lunch, filled with local gourmets and some obvious big business types, but also a smattering of tourists who (like us) had to keep picking their jaws up off the table as spectacle of Paris and its finest French food was spread before them.
I have never been to La Tour at night, but for my money, lunch is the way to go. The food is unchanged (lunch specials are offered, but you can order off the dinner menu and we did), and the sight of the Seine River stretching beneath you and Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite in the distance are worth the admission all by themselves.
I suppose the ideal time to dine here would be arranging for a table at dusk, so you could see the lights of Paris come alive in all their blazing glory. But as I’ve argued before, lunch has always been the ticket for us when we want to eat and drink ourselves silly in a fine French restaurant.
There’s nothing silly, of course, about the food. This is serious stuff, but there’s nothing stuffy about it, despite its pedigree — French service having retired the snootiness thing decades ago. Meaning: if you show up and are well-behaved, they are friendly to a fault.
(Canard au sang with a side of burns, coming right up)
Credit for that has to lie with owner André Terrail, the third generation of the family to be at the helm. (The Terrails have owned the restaurant since 1911.) Since taking over a few years before his father Claude’s death in ‘o6, Terrail has kept all the historical provenance of his venerated birthright intact — upgrading the cuisine while still managing to keep the whole operation true to its roots. No easy feat that. We don’t know what the problems were twenty years ago, but on our last two visits, we didn’t see any missteps, either on the plate or in the service. And what appeared before us was every bit as stunning as any Michelin 3-starr meal we’ve had…in Paris or elsewhere.
You take good bread for granted in Paris, but even by those lofty standards, this small baguette was a stunner:

Image(Face it: you knead this)

Perfect in every respect: a twisted baguette of indelible yeastiness — perfumed with evidence of deep fermentation — the outer crunch giving way to ivory-pale, naturally sweet dough within that  fought back with just the perfect amount of chew. It (and the butter) were show-stoppers in their own right, and for a brief minute, they competed with the view for our attention. We could’ve eaten four of them (and they were offered throughout the meal), but resisted temptation in light of the feast that lay ahead.

Soon thereafter, these scoops of truffle-studded foie gras appeared, deserving of another ovation:

Image(Home cooking this is not)

From there on, the hits just kept on coming: a classic quenelles de brochet (good luck finding them anywhere but France these days), Then, a slim, firm rectangle of turbot in a syrupy beurre blanc, or the more elaborate sole Cardinale:

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….followed by a cheese cart commensurate with this country’s reputation.

The star of the show has been, since the 1890s, the world-famous pressed duck (Caneton Challandais) — served in two courses, the first of which (below) had the deepest-colored Bèarnaise we’ve ever seen; the second helping bathed in the richest, midnight-brown, duck blood-wine blanket imaginable. Neither sauce did anything to mitigate the richness of the fowl, which is, of course, gilding the lily and the whole point.

Image(You can never be too rich or have too much Béarnaise)

We could go on and on about how fabulous our meal was, but our raves would only serve to make you ravenous for something you cannot have, not for the next ten months, anyway.

Yes, the bad news is the restaurant will be closing today, April 30, 2022 for almost a year — until February 2023 — for renovations. This saddens us, but not too much, since we don’t have plans to return until about that time next year. In the meantime, the entry foyer probably could use some sprucing up (since it looks like it hasn’t been touched since 1953), and we have confidence Terrail won’t monkey with the sixth floor view, or this skinny little pamphlet he keeps on hand for the casual wine drinker:

Image(Not found: 2-Buck Chuck)

If the measure of a great restaurant is how much it makes you want to return, then La Tour D’Argent has ruled the roost for two hundred years. (Only a masochist ever left El Bulli saying to himself, “I sure can’t wait to get back here!”) Some things never go out of style and La Tour is one of them. We expect it to stay that way for another century.

À Bientôt!

RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY

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If La Tour represents the old guard of Parisian dining at its finest, then Guy Savoy — both the man and his restaurant — provides the connective tissue between haute cuisine’s past, present, and a future where new chefs will take up this mantle and teach the world what elegant dining is about.

The Adam Platts of the world may decry the “irrelevance” of the “old gourmet model”, but I stand with Steve Cuozzo in maintaining that the call for luxury and refinement in how we eat (admittedly at rarefied levels of expense), will never go completely out of fashion. Quoting our friend Alan Richman, Cuozzo writes:

As critic Alan Richman eloquently expressed it in the Robb Report a few years ago, fine dining is more than “a demonstration of wealth and privilege . . . It is an expression of culture, the most enlightened and elegant form of nourishment ever devised. Without it we will slowly regress into the dining habits of cave people, squatting before a campfire, gnawing on the haunch of a bar.”

All I can say to the Adam Platts of the world (and younger food writers who echo the same sentiments) is: If you think “the old gourmet model” is dead or dying, plan a trip to France, where formal restaurants are poised to come roaring back, indeed if they haven’t already done so.

Put another way: get your goddamned head out of that bowl of ramen or whatever Nigerian/Uzbekistani food truck you’re fond of these days and wake up and smell the Sauvignon Blanc.

Or just go to Guy Savoy.

(Savoy at his stoves)

If the world’s best restaurant can’t change your mind, nothing will. Before you accuse me of bandwagon-ing, let me remind you that I’ve been singing the praises of Savoy’s cuisine since 2006, and have even gone so far as to travel between Vegas and Paris to compare his American outpost with the original. Back then (2009), the flagship got the nod, but not by much.

Since its move to the Monnaie de Paris (the old Parisian Mint) in 2015, Savoy’s cuisine and reputation have attained a new level of preeminence (which is all the more incredible when you consider he has held three Michelin stars since 1980).

With mentors like Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse having departed to that great stock pot in the sky, and Alain Ducasse having spread himself thinner than a sheet of mille-feuille, Savoy now rules the French gastronomic firmament as a revered elder statesman. The difference being that he and his restaurants haven’t rested on their laurels, but are every bit as harmonious with the times as they were thirty years ago. To eat at Guy Savoy overlooking the banks of the Seine from a former bank window, is to experience the best French cooking from the best French chefs performing at the top of their game. There is something both elemental and exciting about his cooking that keeps it as current as he was as the new kid on the Michelin block back in the 80s.

Dining in the dead of winter can have its challenges. Greenery is months  away, so chefs go all-in on all things rooted in the soil. The good news is black truffles are in abundance; the bad news is you better like beets.

The great news is: in the hands of Savoy and his cooks, even jellied beets achieve an elegance unheard of from this usually humble taproot:

Image(Savoy heard we hated beets, so he tried to hide them from us)

As mentioned earlier, a French chef respects an ingredient by looking at it as a blank canvas to be improved upon. Look no further than this beet hash (Truffes et oefus de caille, la terre autour) lying beneath a quail egg and a shower of tuber melanosporum, both shaved and minced:

Image(Beet-i-ful)

Neither of these would I choose for my last meal on earth. Both gave me new respect for how the French can turn the prosaic into the ethereal –food transcending itself into something beautiful.

Which, of course, is what Savoy did with the lowly artichoke so many years ago, when he combined it with Parmesan cheese and black truffles and turned it into the world’s most famous soup.

There’s no escaping this soup at Guy Savoy, nor should you want to. Regardless of season, it encapsulates everything about the Savoy oeuvre: penetrating flavor from a surprisingly light dish, by turns both classic and contemporary:

Image(Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen)

We may have come for the truffles, but we stayed for the filet of veal en croute (below), once again lined with, you guessed it, more black truffles.

Image(Filet de veau et truffes cuits en croûte is French for: the most delicious meat dish in the history of the world)

From there we progressed through a salad of roasted potatoes and truffles, a bouillon of truffles served like coffee in a French press, then a melted cheese fondue over a whole truffle:

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…and even something that looked like a huge black truffle but which, upon being nudged with a fork, revealed itself to be a chocolate mousse. All of it served by a staff that looked like teenagers and acted like twenty-year veterans.

Suffice it to say the wine pairings were as outstanding as the food, all of it meshing into a seamless meld of appetite and pleasure — the pinnacle of epicurean bliss — high amplitude cooking where every element converges into a single gestalt.

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We then went nuts with multiple desserts, including a clafoutis (above) and the petit fours carte (like we always do), and rolled away thinking we wouldn’t be eating again for two days. This being Paris, we were at it again later that night, taking down some steak frites at Willi’s Wine Bar

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I write these words not to convince you that Guy Savoy is the greatest restaurant in the world, or even that such a thing exists, but rather to persuade you of the transcendent gustatory experiences you can have at places like it. Until I’ve been to every restaurant in the world, I won’t be able to proclaim one of them “the best.” Even then, the best would only be what best fit my mood, my likes and my expectations at the very moment I was there.

Adam Platt was right about one thing: “the best restaurant in the world” doesn’t have to be fancy. The best restaurant in the world can be something as simple as a plat du jour of boeuf bourguignon , studded with lardons and button mushrooms in a run-down bistro smelling of wine sauces and culinary history. It can be at a tiny trattoria on the Amalfi Coast or a local diner where everyone knows your name, or that little joint where you first discovered a dish, a wine, or someone to love. But your favorite restaurant, no matter where or what it is, owes an homage to the place where it all started.

Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris” describes the markets of Les Halles as “…some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city.” Those markets may be gone, but their soul lives on in the form of Parisian restaurants, which remain, one hundred a fifty years later, its beating heart. To eat in the great restaurants of Paris is to be inside the lifeblood of a great city, communing with something far bigger than yourself. To be in them is to be at the epicenter of the culinary universe and the evolution of human gastronomy — where the sights and smells of the food, and the way it is served, reflect the entire history of modern dining.

Free Man In Paris – Part Deux

Image(Le Pont Neuf)

Paris is chock full of cutting-edge eateries with hot young chefs, willing to mix culinary metaphors willy-nilly to put their stamp on la cuisine Francaise. These gastro-bistros are all the rage in the age of Insta, but because of it, some of them can be painfully difficult to book. No disrespect, but at a certain time in your life, you simply do not have it in you to pursue the latest culinary fashion, or endure the indignities of begging for a table.

The last time we fell victim to restaurant-of-the-moment syndrome was a few years ago, when we were told we just had to go to Le Sevran, Le Severo, Spring, and Bistro Paul Bert if we wanted to taste real bistro cooking —  the au courtant pillars of bistronomy all the Instagrammers were raving about. We went (sometimes at great inconvenience – some are far removed from Paris central) and found the cooking generally to be precise and delightful, but not worth the travel or the hype. To be fair, Le Comptoir de Yves Camdeborde and  La Bourse et La Vie  (both in the heart of the city) did live up to their billing, but not so much we would sacrifice our time and self-esteem to eat there.  (cf. La Rotisserie d’Argent – where the food is just as good and reservations are a snap.)

Let’s just say we’re pretty comfortable kicking it old school these days, and after a two-year, Covid-imposed absence, we were more in the mood for old haunts than new discoveries.

LE GRAND COLBERT

Image(Gorgeous at any hour)

One battle you will have to fight on your first few days in Paris is adjusting your appetite to the time zone. Hunger always seems to strike us in late afternoon, when Paris affords few options for a full, gastronomic meal. You may be starving and exhausted at 5:00 pm, but the French are still two-to-three hours away from even thinking about dinner. Popping into one of the ubiquitous cafés is always an option, but the better choice is to find one of the great brasseries (Ma Bourgogne, Lipp, Bouillon Chartier, Pharamond, to name but a few), in which to quell those pangs at surprisingly modest prices compared to the grand surroundings in which they are charged.

As brassieres go, they don’t come much grander than Le Grand Colbert —  a Right Bank institution (since 1900) — which we approached at 5:30 pm,  ravenous and ready to gnaw an arm off, even though the sign said it didn’t open until 6:00. As we turned away, ready to concede defeat, a voice wafted from the doorway in that sing-song-y cadence so beautifully employed by French women. “Bonjour Monsieur et Madame. I saw you walk by a few minutes ago. Yes, we are open.”

Image(Monsieur, thees way, s’il vous plait!)

Within seconds we were whisked to a corner booth in the eye-popping, Art Nouveau space and had menus in our hands. At this hour, only a skeleton crew was holding down the fort, and a young French couple were the only other diners basking in its Belle Époque splendor — by equal parts spacious, romantic, dramatic, and cozy. No mean feat that. But the tuxedo-ed waiters treated us like we were regulars, and within minutes we were being happily sated.

Image(Skate it from me: this ray of hope capered our day)

The menu is as comfortable as the design is spectacular. Nothing fancy, just French comfort classics like blanquette de veau, smoked salmon with blinis, Breton skate wing (swimming in butter) with capers (above), and the ever-present Ile Flottante (below), which we could eat every day…and almost did! We polished these off with an alacrity that probably confirmed a few stereotypes to our hosts, but they served everything in good cheer to a couple of famished, appreciative Americans. A half-carafe of house Sancerre rounded things out, and it was as satisfying a meal as we could’ve hoped for at that hour. (All of it coming to 131 well-spent Euros.)

 
Image(Floating island floats our boat)

Le Grand Colbert wears its casual elegance the way only a one-hundred and twenty-two year old Parisian icon can. It is one of those places where everyone looks great bathed in its golden glow, and you can just as easily envision people dressed to the nines there as you can a bunch of businessmen or a mysterious couple pursuing an affaire de coeur. But there’s nothing stuffy about it, the service is sincere, and the cooking keeps everyone happy, whether you’re a local or an esurient tourist looking for a plate of honest grub. Restaurants like this simply do not exist in the United States. They are one of the great treasures of France, and reason enough, all by themselves, to hop a plane across the pond.

Le Grand Colbert

2 Rue Vivienne 75002

+33 1 42 86 87 88

LE GRAND VEFOUR

Image(Once, my happy place)

As you can see, we’re a sucker for historic French restaurants — the older the better. In that regard, they do not come much older than Le Grand Vefour — which has been serving food in one form or another from its corner of the Palais Royale since 1784. There is something so bewitching, historic and lovely about the interior of this grande dame that is almost impossible not to fall in love with it. And in love with it we have been, since we first ate there in 1995.

In fact, it was John Mariani’s own recommendation — read in Esquire magazine — that led us to this jaw-dropping icon over a quarter century ago. We sat in a booth where once Colette held court, right next to where Napoleon and Josephine used to park themselves. Over the years we have been multiple times, and it always seemed like we were dining at the spiritual home of French cuisine when we walked through the doors.

Image(Minimalism got guillotined in 1793)

To me, Vefour has always been the complete package: elegance, historical, from the gleaming antique mirrors to the lush velvet booths, to the service synchronized to Guy Martin’s cuisine: modern in concept, classic in execution, with enough oblique angles and surprises (he’s a wizard with vegetables) to keep you interested. It all worked with the precision of an exquisite jewel box.

The long-suffering Food Gal, had heard me rave about LGV so many times she insisted we make it our first “big deal meal” in Paris. Both of us assumed these restaurants would be over their Covid hangover and back to normal, by and large, most were. From the modest cafes to the grandest palaces, aside from checking our Covid passes, everything felt just as as comfortable as 2019.

Except here.

Nope, here everything was palpably different. The only thing that rang true was the look of the place — not even a pandemic can undo two hundred years of over-the-top, Louis Quatorze decor.

Our first sign of discomfort came from the shockingly shrunken wine list, more befitting a bistro than the grande dame of Parisian dining. The one they offered was a mere wisp of the hefty text we had perused two years ago. Imagine expecting a dictionary and being handed a magazine and you’ll appreciate our discombobulation.

When we inquired of the surly sommelier (once in English, then in French) where the actual, main list was, he pointed to his temple and said dismissively, “Eet eez all up here.” Mr. Happy never cracked a smile and barely acknowledged us as we thumbed through the dozen or so pages. The list was not without its appeal, and we drank well, but it was obvious from the jump that something was amiss.

Then we looked around the room. It was a mid-week lunchtime, and only two other tables were occupied, and the service crew had shrunken to a handful of casually-dressed waiters — not the tuxedo’d brigade of waiters that had moved through the room with balletic grace in a beehive of activity two years earlier. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

Then the menus came and they were abbreviated as well. We were consigned to a young, bilingual chap who did his best but seemed out of his depth whenever a simple question was asked. The somm appeared when a bottle was to be opened, and then disappeared to who knows where the rest of the time.

Image(Lovely lobster; superfluous truffes)

The four of us ate well, but the meal was but a shadow of the precision and pomp we remember. Brittany lobster brought all the right pungency notes Homarus Americanus never achieves, but the sweet-sour haunch of wild boar was overwhelmed by a sauce both too sweet and too sour(?). A real head-scratcher, that.  I went all-in on the black truffle lunch of 120 euros… it wasn’t worth it. (This from a Guy Martin fan-boy who would’ve gladly paid double for any of his previous meals.)

Image(Truffle salad, not worth the tariff)

The salad peaking beneath a festoon of sliced tubers was pedestrian; the truffles had no punch, and the dressing brought nothing to the party. 

Most everything else was functional but forgettable. The best thing we tasted were the black-truffled mashed potatoes (below), because the black ones need to be cooked in order to properly strut their stuff, and it was the only dish that bothered.

Image(Black truffles at their best)

The three-course prix fixe of 58 euros is a steal, but on the whole, the food felt slapdash rather than refined. Certainly nowhere near the level of Michelin stars we had come to expect.

And then there was the cheese problem — by which we mean the lack of cheese problem — which was the last thing we expected in this temple of gastronomy.  Before we explain, please allow a slight digression.

Yours truly looks forward to the cheese carts in fine French restaurants the way a five-year old anticipates Christmas. Les cartes des fromages are one of the gastronomic glories of France, a reason all by themselves to fly there. By the time our trans-continental flight lands, my chops are already well-licked, and honed to a (cheese) knife’s edge of anticipation.

I attack a Michelin-starred cart with unbridled passion and shameless salaciousness: “Will I gorge myself on Brie so fresh it tastes straight from the udder? Or look to an aged Beaufort shot through with butterscotch-tinged umami? Or perhaps confine myself to a eye-watering Reblochon, a ripe Roquefort, or some obscure goat shapes with bloomy rinds resembling crushed white velvet?”

These are the thoughts dancing in my head as we approach the front door of Le Grand Vefour — as nervously excited as a child entering a candy store.

But not in 2022, mes amis. Not at this lunch. Believe it or not, there was no cheese cart. No luscious wheels of Camembert tempting me, no mighty cylinders of ivory-colored Fourme d’Ambert, no esoteric, nutty Alpines, zero chance to tuck into a type of uncompromising, unpasteurized cheese you’ve never heard of.  In a restaurant that has existed as a showplace for haute cuisine…for 238 years! — we were told by the disconsolate somm: “the chef will select the cheeses for you” — which, to a turophile is about as compelling as having someone pick your porn.

A plate of four was presented, all were fine, but that’s not the point.

Image(Breaking up is so very hard to do)

By the time the desserts rolled around, Monsieur Sourpuss had left the mop-up duties to his young charge. The place was empty and our spirits had curdled harder than a broken Béarnaise. Later in our trip, we shared our disappointment with a famous chef. “I heard they were turning it into a brasserie,” he said with a smirk and one of those Gallic shrugs. He didn’t know it, but his words sounded the death knell of our twenty-seven year love affair with this restaurant.

Which, like most affairs, ended not with a bang but a whimper…and a sigh.

Our dejeuner pour deux came to 480 euros.

Le Grand Vefour

17 Rue de Beaujolais 75001

+33 1 42 96 56 27

LES CLIMATS

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Like many of the restaurants this trip, Les Climats has become an old favorite, even though we can’t tell you very much about the place. To be honest, even after three trips here, I don’t know what the joint looks like.  Truth be told, I haven’t paid much attention to the food either, although my friends tell me it is excellent and my plate always seems to be cleaned. This is because our eyeballs rarely divert from the wine list, and our prodigious proboscis is usually too deep in a glass.

Image(These sardines are an example of the excellent food at Les Climats about which we know very little)

Apparently the design is a good example of Paris’ arts-and-crafts aesthetic, but paying too much attention to such folderol will only serve to divert you from the real point of this place: to explore the greatest Burgundy wine list north of Auberge du Pot d’Etain.

Image(Wine cards in Paris take many forms, some of which can be taken to the gym)

Over 300 winemakers are represented, in a cellar of 28,000+ bottles. “Les paradis des Vins de Bourgogne,” say owners Denis Jamet and Carole Colin, and that pretty much nails it.

It is a list which is a Burghound’s dream come true — a  carte des vins organized according to village, producer, vintage and vineyard. (The term “les climats” refers to the various terroirs, i.e., climates of Burgundy where the grapes are grown.) You can’t nerd out much more on wine than diving into these pages, and the astonishing collection will keep even the most arrogant grapenut occupied for an entire meal.

But enough about me.

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Our technique for choosing a bottle is well nigh perfect and we’ve yet to be disappointed with the results. It consists of studying the hefty tome with the solemnity of a Talmudic scholar parsing the Dead Sea Scrolls, then fretting and fussing over the wealth of choices before us…. and then giving up. With gleeful resignation, we motion the sommelier to our side,  and stab at one of the 465 pages with a plaintive look in our eye while indicating a general price point. On cue (this is not his first rodeo), the  sommelier smiles at our defeat at the hands of the weapon he wields and makes a joke about how overwhelming it can be. He then says something like, “Mais oui, monsieur, I theenk we can find for you some-zing you will love.” Invariably, a fantastic bottle arrives, slightly underneath my budget and far above my expectations.

Neither a grand café, nor a classic brasserie, nor a gourmet palace, Les Climats occupies a middle ground in the firmament of Paris dining. The food is haute but not haughty; the rooms are pleasant but not baroque; and the settings are proper but not showy. Service is attentive but not intensive care, and the customers more casual and local than you’ll find at the “worth a special trip” addresses. It may have a Michelin star, but as I cruise into my golden years, I care less and less about such things. You will eat and drink very well here, and feel like a Parisian while doing so. If there’s a better place to drink Burgundy in Paris, I haven’t heard of it. 

Image(Curd, glorious curds)

BTW: they also had a cheese cart of impeccable pedigree, and a waitstaff who knew their curds. Take that, Le Grand Vefour!

Dinner can get to 150 euros/pp in a blink, and even with bargain Burgundy (by American standards), your wine tariff will exceed 50% of the bill.

Our dinner, including several trophy bottles, came to 671 euros. I have never been here for lunch, but like most better Paris restaurants, they offer a prix fixe three-course bargain (56 euros).

Les Climats

41 Rue de Lille 75007

=33 1 58 62 10 08

ImageParis is always a good idea – Audrey Hepburn)

 

The Best Wine in the World

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The best wine in the world is the champagne with which you toasted your new bride; it is a crisp Chablis drunk with bracing, saline oysters in a Parisian cafe; it’s Sangiovese from a carafe on a Tuscan hillside; or a muscular Cali cab that washes down a Flintstonean rib eye in a clubby American steakhouse.
The best wine is the one that captures the mood of the moment, and the essence of itself, along with the place where it is drunk, be it a Puligny-Montrachet quaffed in the town of Puligny-Montrachet, or an amontillado sherry sipped between bites of jamon Iberico in Andalusia.
Nothing tastes better than drinking a good wine in the place where it is made, alongside the people who made it — be it in the Piemonte hills, on the slopes of the Cote d’Or (above), or beside the Mosel, in the shadow of the Bernkasteler Doctor:
Image(The Bernkasteler Doctor – the most famous vineyard in Germany)
The best wine in the world is whatever fits your mood that moment. A wine you might disdain one day might perfectly match your mood on another. People love to sneer at over-oaked California chardonnays, but many is the meal I begin with such a glass, especially in the cooler months. (And shhhh….don’t tell anyone, but big, flabby whites also go well with salty, robust cheeses.)
Nowhere does the law of diminishing returns apply more sharply than when you evaluate the price-to-value paradigm of wine. Absurdly-priced trophy wines do not reflect tastes/flavors/sensations that are orders of magnitude greater than similar products. A $500 bottle of wine is not 5Xs better than a $100 bottle. The cost reflects hype and scarcity, not quality. Screaming Eagle, DRC Burgundy, and Chateau Haut-Brion can be transporting in intensity and complexity, but even experts, in blind tastings, have trouble distinguishing them from other good bottles costing a fraction of their hefty tariffs.
At best, wine is a discovery, a journey, a marathon if you will, that lasts a lifetime. You never “master” wine (even Masters of Wine admit this), all you do is form an appreciation for it — an ever-evolving admiration that changes every year, every vintage.
The best you can do when learning about wine is to broaden, then narrow your focus. Broaden your horizons by trying new things, then narrow your gaze to wines that appeal to you and then learn more about them. The best wines then become the ones you love which continue to intrigue you. Think of it like a composer (or band or artist) whose work you love — the more you experience them, the deeper your knowledge and esteem.
But you don’t have to do any of this to enjoy “the best wine in the world,” because the best wine in the world (like “the best song in the world”) is the one you are really really enjoying at that moment.
>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<
Image(Champagne: In victory you deserve it; in defeat you need it. – Napoleon)
A word or two about the price of wines — something that has risen exponentially in the past 20 years, relative to the actual value of what is being drunk:
I once asked a local wine merchant (who has been in the game a long time) what percentage of his high-end wine customers choose their wines by labels rather than taste.
“100%,” he blurted out, before I was even done with the question.
“They don’t care what it tastes like, they just want the name,” he sheepishly smiled — the grin of a wolf who instinctively knows his prey.
One percenters with more money than brains might be one thing, but the rest of us are looking for price-to-value ratios which fit our budgets, and unfortunately, despite what you might’ve heard, there is a very real difference between average, good and very good wines.
There is a level of exquisiteness that certain wines aspire to and achieve, and those “benchmarks” are perhaps only 1% of all wine made. These days, such bottles typically run in the hundreds of dollars.
I would argue (generally) that a quantum leap in quality starts at around $75/btl. (Ten years ago I would’ve said $40-$50.) Once you get into this range, there is a difference in “quality” (aroma, length, intensity, intricacy, layers of flavors, mouthfeel, etc.) that is fairly obvious even to a novice. Once you get above $75-100 retail (or what I would call “very expensive but not trophy wines”) those indicia become smaller and finer in inverse proportion to the price, to the point where there are no obvious, objective levels of excellence — besides each bottle’s idiosyncrasies, and personal taste.
Put another way: the difference between plonk and a high-end single vineyard wine from a prestige maker is probably easy to spot for even a novice (or maybe not), and head-of-a-pin distinctions can be drawn by aficionados, but once you get into certain rarefied air, those differences are so subtle as to be almost impossible to detect, except by a trained taster, and as such, they become almost meaningless for mere mortals.
At those levels, the only thing that tells you that one wine is “better” than another is the price you paid for it, even though, at those levels, price is ceasing to tell you much of anything.
In other words, it all counts for almost nothing, and the people playing the fine wine game from lofty tax brackets are in it for ego rather than actual taste.
Drink what you like, with someone you love, because in the end, that is all wine is for: making good times even better.
A votre santé mes amis!!!

Image(Walla Walla, Washington)

Image(Guy Savoy)

Image(Ferraro’s)

Image(Guy Savoy)

 

Image(Roma)