When last we met (on Monday, March 5, in my posting “I love Paris in the winter…”), I concluded some comments on lunch at Bofinger by writing: “This may not be fine dining, but it’s certainly dining well. We’ll save the fine dining for my next posting.” And so here we go with that next posting, to show off some very fine dining indeed at one of the French capital’s most iconic restaurants.
I confess I have “a thing” about La Tour d’Argent in Paris. My fascination or mini-obsession began years and years ago, when I discovered the venerable restaurant in some sort of thriller-type book I was reading.
As I recall, the hero of the book was chasing the bad guy through the restaurant. Seems improbable, in retrospect. In any case, there was something romantic and exciting and intriguing about the whole event, and the author’s descriptions of the restaurant itself. I can’t remember exactly why, but I do recall thinking that I had to go there one day.
The main point of this posting is to describe our birthday-celebration lunch on Saturday, February 24, for which my wife Jan and I had travelled to Paris from Daglan. But first I’ll provide some background and history.
In September 1998, Jan and I were in Paris before heading south for our bicycle trip in the Dordogne and Lot départements of southwest France. I was chatting with Tim Johnston, the noted wine-and-food expert who ran the wine bar/café Juveniles, where we spent a rainy afternoon. He said that the best way to experience La Tour d’Argent would be at Sunday lunch.
Sadly, we didn’t have a free Sunday in Paris on that trip. So for our first meal at La Tour, we had to wait until 2000 — Sunday, September 3, 2000 to be exact. I can pinpoint this because on the bedroom wall over my night table I have a gold-framed set of mementos — a photo of me at the restaurant’s front door, a beautiful colour postcard showing the interior of the restaurant, including the view from its huge windows, and the certificate showing the number of “our” duck — the duck we had ordered for our lunch.
It was in 1890 that La Tour began giving diners the number of the duck they had ordered. In 2000, our certificate says, we had No. 918,885 — which, if you’re keeping score, came 806,734 ducks after the one served to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
It was at that first meal at La Tour that I had the chance to shake hands with Claude Terrail, the then-owner, who was walking from table to table. M. Terrail was a tall, handsome and impeccably dressed man, who died in 2006 aged 88. His son now owns and manages the restaurant.
A couple of final notes before my actual lunch review. For years, the restaurant had three Michelin stars (the highest rating). This was lowered to two stars in 1996, and then one star in 2006, as the restaurant was seeming a bit tired, with less-than-up-to-date food. Another noteworthy point is La Tour’s brilliant location, overlooking the River Seine and the Île de la Cité. Finally, for some reason the restaurant is no longer open on Sundays. (Kind of weird, for France.)
At our recent lunch, Jan and I were with her charming cousin David and his wonderful wife Christine, and we were placed right beside one of the windows. Here’s a photo I took through the window, to show you a rather well known cathedral, to our left:
And to give you a sense of the glitter and glamour of the room, and the pride of place given to ducks, here’s a view of our table setting:
We began our meal with a selection of amuse-bouches, all of which were very good — but I thought that one in particular was sensational: light as a feather, but somehow full of flavour. We recall it was a sort of meringue drop, flavoured with beet juice, and with a creamy filling inside.
I liked it so much that when our waiter arrived to take our food order, I pointed at the one remaining amuse and said, jokingly, “I’ll just have 100 of those.”
And sure enough, before our meal started being served, he arrived with this tray, containing four of the little gems:
As it happens, all four of us had ordered the Autour du Déjeuner, a 105-euro lunch of three courses, but with a limited choice of dishes (two, in fact) for each course.
At several previous meals at La Tour, I had begun with the quenelle de brochet — a creation of finely minced pike, mixed with egg whites, formed into a quenelle (egg-like) shape and poached, and served in a rich sauce mousseline. I loved how savoury it was.
But the restaurant’s new chef, Philippe Labbé, has dramatically changed the dish, adding a fleurette sauce and smoked eggs of pike, among other things, and even changing the shape of the “quenelle.” Here’s my entrée, which I admit was very good, but which looks (to me) almost like a dessert:
For the plat principal, the choices were skate wing or roast duck, and all four of us naturally chose the duck. The two pieces were served with a variety of spices on top, and were completely tender and delicious. Here’s my plate:
Dessert was another great treat. Mine was a sort of miniature tarte tatin — caramelized apple with crunchy wafers, served with ice cream. Here’s my plate:
Of course, we concluded lunch with a lovely selection of mignardises, the little sweet creations that are enjoyed with coffee or tea. Here’s our tray:
And the bottom line? Well, all four of us loved it — the setting, the scenery, the service, and the food. But as our friend Keith would say, “This is not a cheap date.” The flat 105 euros for the lunch itself isn’t too bad for such a high-quality, Michelin-starred restaurant. However, the cost of the extras really mounted fast — with nosebleed prices (a cup of espresso: 12 euros!).
Oh yes — we did get small cards with the numbers of our ducks. Let the record show that for Jan and me, the count is now 1,161,618 and 1,161,620.