The prime reason for our recent weekend trip to Paris (which I began describing in yesterday’s posting) was to see our great friends Alix and Larry on Sunday, before they headed off on a follow-the-Tour-de-France adventure.
But my wife Jan and I thought we should do something special, just the two of us, on Saturday evening — something involving a great meal, that is.
So with that germ of an idea, I booked a table for us at Lasserre, a classic restaurant with two Michelin stars (out of a possible three, just in case you think two stars is no big deal). In fact, my red Michelin guide for 2013 describes Lasserre as “l’un des temples de la gastronomie parisienne…” — “one of Paris’s gastronomic temples.”
But several days later, for some reason or other, Jan and I suddenly decided that we both really had a taste for Peking Duck, which we hadn’t enjoyed since moving to Daglan from Toronto. In downtown Toronto, there’s a wonderful Chinese restaurant called Lai Wah Heen where we’d eaten many times, and where the Peking Duck was superb.
With that in mind, I cancelled the reservation at Lasserre; investigated Chinese restaurants in Paris, using both online searches and my Michelin guide; and came up with Shang Palace, a Chinese restaurant on a lower level of the posh Shangri-La Hotel — a Chinese restaurant that has earned a Michelin star. And so that’s where we headed on Saturday night, after our much-too-long train journey from the southwest of France.
As you saw in yesterday’s posting, the Shangri-La is quite the hotel. Here’s the entrance, after our taxi dropped us off. And guess what happened when we entered?
First, we were approached by an attractive young blonde woman with a huge smile, welcoming us to the hotel and asking if she could help us. When we said we were headed for the Shang Palace, she asked us to follow her, and took us to a bank of elevators.
As an elevator opened, she could have simply told us what floor the restaurant was on. But no — she escorted us in, pressed the correct floor button, and rode down with us, chatting politely. As the elevator stopped, she followed us out, and directed us just a few steps forward until she was quite certain that we could not possibly get lost. And sure enough, there was the restaurant’s entrance:
I give you all that detail for two key reasons. First, to show that personal service (as well as lush surroundings) are among the restaurant’s hallmarks. And second, to help explain why the cost of the meal is so astonishingly high, as you’ll soon see.
The restaurant’s décor is indeed luxurious and elegant, and of course it has all the trimmings. Here is our table setting, with Jan’s chopsticks poised over a small dish of what I would describe as good, but somewhat ordinary, nibbles — fried cubes of tofu, and some pickled vegetables. Unlike fine restaurants serving French cuisine, the Shang Palace offered no special creation as a sampling of the chef’s skills.
Jan and I began our meal with a glass of Bollinger rosé Champagne. And no, I didn’t ask the price per glass beforehand, because I knew we would be horrified; we were there for a luxurious dinner.
Champagne glasses in hand, we ignored the special menus and ordered à la carte. Our hearts were set on Peking Duck, and the good news is that the restaurant does offer a half duck, for two people to share. Both our meals included a soup; mine was wonton (see the photo below), while Jan’s was a dark mushroom broth. I thought that mine was good but not excellent (there really wasn’t enough flavour in the broth, and the wonton dumplings were too firm) while Jan did think her soup was excellent.
The highlight of the meal was the first course of the Peking Duck — squares of highly lacquered, sweet and crispy duck skin, which are then wrapped in thin pancakes and served with a rich, dark sauce. In previous encounters, we had always spread hoisin sauce on the pancakes, but at the Shang Palace, it seems that they make their own sauce, including both soy sauce and peanut butter. Again, it was tasty, but certainly no improvement over the classic hoisin sauce.
Our marvelously multilingual waiter was good throughout the meal, but our favourite staff member was the sommelier, who was accommodating and amusing while also being (of course) highly knowledgeable.
I had ordered a bottle of Pouilly Fuissé (and it did go well with the meal) but I asked the sommelier if he had any special recommendations for the Peking Duck course. He surprised us by recommending a glass of 1976 Tawny Port, saying that its sweetness would work well with the duck, as long as we spread a lot of the sweet dark sauce on our pancakes — and he was right. Here is a photo of the duck skin squares, just waiting for us to dig in:
And then came the biggest disappointment of the evening. As the restaurant became busier and busier, with tables of four and six people, we felt that the two of us were being overlooked. Although we weren’t using a stopwatch, it seemed like 20 or 25 minutes passed between the soup course and the second course of the Peking Duck.
Our waiter did apologize for the delay, and I wish I could say that the food was worth the wait, but it wasn’t. What Jan and I know as “rainbow chop in crystal fold” — that is, diced duck meat mixed with chopped cooked vegetables, wrapped in crispy pieces of iceberg lettuce — was dry and not particularly tasty. Along with it, we had ordered a “special” dish of scallops served with sautéed vegetables; again, it was reasonably good, but not outstanding. Finally, the fried rice (the riz du chef) was a somewhat dry and not very interesting mix of rice and something — shreds of crab meat? We’re not sure.
At the end of the meal, we relaxed with a pot of green tea, and tried to digest the food, and the whole experience. Regular readers of this blog know that we both love fine food, and are willing to pay for it — not all the time, of course, but as an occasional treat. As for this evening, we’ve come to the conclusion that the meal simply wasn’t worth the 386 euros it cost; the food ranged from good to very good, but none of it was what I would call excellent. And while the lovely surroundings and the attentive staff made for a pleasant evening, we’d have to say that the Michelin star at the Shang Palace is looking fairly dim.
As we left the Shangri-La Hotel around 10:30 on Saturday night, this was the view from the front steps:
Finally, a couple of exclamation points on the cost of our evening:
- First, I’ll just point out that the dark rooftop you can barely see in the lower right of the photo belongs to a Maserati.
- Second, I’ll note that for yesterday’s lunch, we tried a Thai restaurant in nearby Cénac called Sawadee, and enjoyed two spicy, flavourful and fresh dishes (one pork, one beef). With a small bottle of wine and a beer, plus steamed rice, the total came to 42.60 euros. No Michelin star, of course, but no complaints either.