I’ve taken a long break from blogging because of a serious outbreak of fun (successive visits by Toronto friends Keith and Kathy, closely followed by Dave and Donna) and then a burst of work assignments. Now it’s back to Radio Free Daglan.
My last posting, on Sept. 18, related how my wife Jan and I returned to a Thai restaurant in Paris that we had visited 14 years ago, immediately following a bike trip that introduced us to the Dordogne and the Lot. I wrote that we had “decided to visit encore une fois (once again) a couple of the restaurants we had enjoyed in 1998.”
In today’s posting, we take a similar journey back in time, but we’ll be visiting a restaurant that now boasts two stars from Michelin — Carré des Feuillants, located in the ritzy 1st arrondissement, one of the most exclusive areas in Paris, a two-minute walk from Place Vendome. (For comparison, Paris now has just 10 restaurants with three étoiles from Michelin, the highest-possible ranking, against 18 with two stars.)
This most recent trip to Paris had been planned to celebrate Jan’s birthday on Sept. 7. But there was an added bonus — we would be meeting up with two more Canadian friends, Peter and Dawn. They had been vacationing in northern France, and were able to have dinner with us on their last night in Paris (Thursday, Sept. 6) before flying home. They let us pick the restaurant, and we suggested Carré des Feuillants. So we joined up with our friends at the Hôtel Costes, across from the restaurant, for pre-dinner drinks before our 8 p.m. reservation. Now let’s go back in time, by 14 years.
The set-up. We had arrived in Paris from Toronto in September 1998 with Keith and Kathy, and were later to meet up with friends Bob and Barb, who were flying in from Calgary and staying in a different hotel. On a rainy afternoon, the four Toronto buddies were lucky enough to stumble upon Juvéniles, a small wine bar on Rue de Richelieu, which turns out to be one of the earliest (and best) wine bars in Paris. There we spent a few hours tasting (okay, guzzling) wine and chatting with the highly knowledgeable and amusing proprietor, the well-known wine critic Tim Johnston. When we asked for his recommendation for a dinner spot, he was quick to suggest Carré des Feuillants, and then phoned in a reservation for the six of us. (We phoned Bob and Barb at their hotel later, and left a message about where to meet us.)
What we heard. As we recalled it later, it seemed to us that Tim had recommended the restaurant because the chef was “a young guy” who came from the southwest of France (where we were headed on our bike trip), and his restaurant had “one star, but I’m sure he’ll get another one soon.” Not being familiar with the Michelin rating system at that point, one star sounded like a good start for a young, presumably hip chef. So we pictured a funky kind of place, perhaps with innovative and edgy food, hosting a clutch of young Parisians dressed in black turtleneck sweaters. Wrong!
What we found. Our first clue that we were off base was when I wandered down to the lobby of our hotel after showering and changing for dinner. I was dressed pretty elegantly, I thought, with a smart cashmere sweater and an Italian sport jacket. When I told the young lady at the hotel’s front desk that we were headed to Carré des Feuillants, she exclaimed: “Dressed like that?” Oops — so I quickly went back to our room and put on a dress shirt with a tie. We weren’t able to connect again by telephone with Bob and Barb, to warn them that the restaurant was actually quite formal, so we just met them at Carré des Feuillants. And there we found them perched on a banquette, wearing sporty clothes, while all around us were vase after vase of huge flower arrangements, and tables laden with white linen, gleaming silverware and shining crystal. The dress? Well, I think every man in the place (with the exception of Bob, Keith and me) was wearing either a dark blue suit, a black suit, or a tuxedo. For us, the rest of the evening was certainly enjoyable, but a bit of a blur. We can remember just one of the dishes (something involving lobster) and we recall that both the food in general and the service were excellent, despite our less-than-appropriate dress. Most of all, we remember that the meal was incredibly expensive.
Back to the future. Now we return to September 2012. As it turned out, Sept. 6 was Fashion Night in Paris, so our taxi was forced to crawl along Rue Saint-Honoré until we reached Hôtel Costes for our 7 p.m. meeting with Peter and Dawn. Pushing through crowds of trendy young people (black lipstick?) and a host of security guards, we reached the hotel, plunked down in the bar, and ordered some (pricey) drinks. Of course it was great seeing our good friends, and we chattered away — until the bar cranked up the music. By the time we left, an hour later, we were almost hoarse from shouting over the noise. But it was a short walk to the restaurant, across Rue de Castiglione.
And my, what a change. Presumably to keep up with modern tastes, the restaurant had been renovated completely, and now looked rather cool and stark with deep orange walls and minimal decoration. The staff was still dressed quite formally, but the diners were now much more informal. Not a necktie in sight, that I can recall. Well, that was fine.
Of course we were there to eat, and so we all decided to go big, and order the full tasting menu with wine pairings. This was not a cheap date — at 200 euros per person. And by the end of the meal, we generally agreed that we had eaten very, very well, but had not been blown away. Let’s see why.
Here was a plate of the entrées, which as you can see were artfully constructed out of ingredients as diverse as asparagus and seafood. It all looked pretty, but didn’t have the “wow” factor when it came to taste.
Here is our fish course, including well-cooked white fish in a broth with clams, among other ingredients. Again, it looked nice and of course tasted fine, but there was nothing particularly outstanding (at least for a Michelin-starred restaurant) or creative.
Then the main meat course arrived, looking particularly ordinary. Dawn summed up things perfectly when she said that the previous courses had looked very attractive, “but this is tasty.” And she was right, because the lamb was tender and delicious. But then, roast lamb tends to taste like roast lamb.
Then came this cheese course — a blue cheese with a pleasant filling in the centre. Once again, it was fine, but hardly innovative. (If you wanted to be just a tad mean, you might say that there is probably a recipe for a similar cheese dish available from Kraft Foods.)
Last but not least came our desserts, with three different sweets placed elegantly on an incredibly over-wrought plate that (to my eyes) overpowered the visual appeal of the desserts themselves. And perhaps more important, the desserts were just “nice,” which is not really what I’d expect when we were paying so much.
The bottom line is that, overall, the dinner was very good and our evening was certainly enjoyable, but more because of the chance to chat with Dawn and Peter than because of amazing food.
Thinking back on it, this is probably a case where the “young chef from the southwest of France” decided to become more corporate and expand his empire a bit; if you visit Carré des Feuillant’s website, you’ll see that there are now several additional restaurants in the mix.
In contrast, Jan and I had lunch little more than a week later at Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat with friends Donna and Dave, and exclaimed with surprise and delight over virtually every dish. Le Grand Bleu now sports just one Michelin star, against the two stars for Carré des Feuillants, but I’ll take Le Grand Bleu any day. For one thing, of course, it’s in the Greater Daglan Area. More importantly, Chef is in the kitchen.