Archive for the ‘Best classic restaurants in the world’ Category

Ristorante Dal Pescatore
Type of Cuisine: Updated Haute Italian (Classics of  Mantuan cuisine, Lombardy)
Michelin Stars: 3
Event: Lunch on Thursday June 14th, 2012 12:00
Addr: Località Runate – 46013 Canneto sull’Oglio , Mantova
Phone:+39.0376.723001
Email: santini@dalpescatore.com
URL: http://www.dalpescatore.com

Service: 10/10 Mostly young, well behaved Gentlemen with great tact. I am French, so they spoke French to me, and listening to Italians talking in French, with an Italian accent, is always pure joy to me. It has its charm, a charm that lingers on my mind.
Overall food rating: 8.5/10 The Santinis have an amazing sense of taste as largely proven by the fabulous ravioli di faraona,  the stunning  tomato compote,  great risotto, outstanding reduction to the braised  beef shoulder,  benchmark torta di amaretti.  And at a time when everyone thinks that we’ve seen it all with a  polenta, they manage to deliver one against which I will judge all  other polentas. The only reason I give it a 8.5/10, as opposed to a 10, is because the overall impression I have of this meal is  one of an  overall Very good-to-excellent (8.5/10) classic 3 star Michelin meal rather than one of benchmark level (10/10).  Regardless, this is exactly  the  type of classic 3 star Michelin I like most and I would run back to Dal Pescatore way before thinking about going back to Michelin star restaurants that I have rated with a 10/10.  As always, a subjective matter based on personal experiences, etc.
Overall dining experience: 10/10 I have rarely felt so happy in a restaurant, Michelin starred or not. It goes without saying that at this level of dining, every little detail counts and each one  found all along this meal simply scored high on my appreciation scale: the plating, the beautiful and elegant country home decor,  the countryside, the charming and down to earth wait staff met all along this meal , and the qualities I expect from a top dining destination just kept piling up while I was there.

 

To call a restaurant ‘the best in the world’,  you either do it for marketing purpose / generating hype  (for eg, San Pelegrino  World best restaurant’s ranking  ) or you do it based on personal preferences, obviously.  And NO..you do not need to visit every single restaurant in the world to have a good idea of what you could define as YOUR  “best restaurant in the world (only someone who has  no clue of what professional cooking and the high end restaurant scene is really about would need to reassure himself that way..a bit as if you would feel the need to visit every single country  of this globe to get to the conclusion that Americans are among the best at playing Basketball.. ).  For me, for my taste, with respect to what I value as real great “artisan Chef’ cooking, coupled with my profound love for Italian cooking and the countryside of  beautiful Italy, Dal Pescatore is an example of what I would define as a “best restaurant in the world”.

Around two years ago when I decided to review restaurants (NOT really something that I like to do, reasons are explained here, and I do NOT  systematically think about reviews wherever I go, or on whatever I eat,  Lol!), I knew exactly what I wanted in  my reviews: avoiding style at all costs and focusing on what I believe to matter most: assessing the (relative) value of the restaurant food that I am eating.  Ironically, by ‘assessing the value of my restaurant meal”, I went one step further and removed …the price factor…. out of the equation. That is because on top of the already explained reasons that led me to review restaurants, I had one major quibble (with most opinions about restaurant reviews) that jumped to my attention: what if the $$$ was not taken into consideration??  Apparently, from most answers I have gathered throughout the years, most would have found their meals to be excellent had the price been lower! Interesting…So, oftently it is worthy of raves because it was affordable. Let’s take $$$ out of the picture then and focus on what I have in my plate. Make no mistake: I understand  the notion of value for my bucks, but I am interested by one thing ONLY: the deliciousness of the food that I am eating way before its value gets lost in ‘value for money’  interpretation.

Restaurant reviewing is, of course, not limited to one or two aspects of a dining experience. And it does not  have to be something special neither. I personally refuse the idea of  restaurant reviewing on a professional level for a very simple reason: I don’t see why something as personal as this  (talking about the food you eat) would be remunerative , unless you go way beyond the basic restaurant scripts and books of recipes as it is the case for  few  exceptional food journalists  like Quebec’s Marie-Claude Lortie, Perico Légasse in France, John Mariani in the US .  I know,  it (reviewing restaurant as a job) is a pointer, a way to be better informed.  But you have this in tons of  opinions over the web,  and those people are not renumerated. I know some will argue that a professional food critic will provide you with stylish write-ups and professionalism. BUT  that is not what I want in a restaurant review: like it or not, I do not eat ‘style’ nor ‘a sense of professionalism’ nor ‘megalomania expressed through writings”.  I eat food and I just want to know what is offered, how it is made, to what relative level of cooking is the kitchen reaching out to.

There is also the widely preached bogus belief that  anonymous reviews may hide personal agendas.  Even a saint can hide an agenda.  We  all know that.  More importantly, a  normal diner   at a restaurant is anonymous, shall I remind this? And when you dine at a restaurant, guess what…you have opinions on what you have just paid for, with, as it should normally happen… your own hard earned money.  Those opinions can be expressed in many ways: verbally, in writings, etc. So, I do not see any problem with comments from  anonymous or well known sources. They both can either  hide agendas or be honest. No one will ever have any  control over this, anyways. Desperate harmful and insulting views with no constructive and no honest purpose —- which is the only thing that would make sense to fear from an anonymous review–  should obviously NOT be encouraged and this applies to  celeb faces hiding  agendas of restaurant propaganda .  Either way, there should be no  excuse to intimidate freedom of speech.  The debate over anonymous opinions is a debate full of nonsense, a creation of some of the industry’s watchdogs,  a debate pertaining to ancient times when big Daddy, scared of the judgements of others, would command you to show your face before you can  think and judge accordingly.  But humanity has evolved and people  paying for what they consume, with their  own hard earned money, should never accept that the restaurant industry and some of their watchdogs  take control over what we should have as opinions.

Who you are, as a restaurant reporter,  makes absolutely no difference: this type of opinions (about restaurants) are subjective anyways, no matter how credible you might think you are, and consequently, knowing what you like or not, what you are hiding or not,  is of utter irrelevance. We should do this (sharing our opinion) for the simple sake of sharing knowledge but certainly not as an exercise of potential serious  influence on the choices of others. As far as I am concerned, my agenda is clear: it’s written here  and as explained, I wanted to experience for myself the journey of  an independent voice completely detached from the restaurant industry.  I wanted to be able to rave –or not — about what I felt authentically deserving of its raves –or not –, to be able to freely convey what I really had in mind as opposed to be influenced by outside elements.  Naturally, I can afford behaving this way (fully enjoying the role of  a normal diner,  being independent from the industry, mocking at style or etiquette) and abide by my own principles no matter who says what —  only because I have no commercial interest in the restaurant business . I took time to write this because there is nowadays a universal debate around the subject (of anonymous restaurant reviews), a non-debate in my pertinacious view, thus my two little cents on this matter.  This is my opinion, and I’ll proudly and obdurately drink to that, Rfaol!

Before I write about the current reviewed restaurant – Every gourmand’s dream is to find the  best value restaurant at the very top level of world’s fine dining. Once every 5  years or so, I  stumble upon one and lately,  it is in Chicaco, Illinois. It is L2o, a restaurant that I  have discovered back in the days of Chef Laurent Gras. It was back then already deserving its 3 stars. Then Chef Francis Brennan took control of the kitchen, and the solid 3 star Michelin performance kept rising to the top. Now, that Chef Brennan left, it was downgraded to a 1 star Michelin restaurant and I recently had a meal there, under its present 1 star Michelin assignment,  and everyone at my table (they are regulars of world’s haute dining extravaganza) agreed: it is, between you and me, the current best value at the very top Michelin star dining level, and Chef Matthew Kirkley is, for now, the most underrated Chef in the world. You get a top 3 star Michelin dining at an official 1 star Michelin. Other great discovery, lately: La Table d’Aki (after more than 2 decades alongside Bernard Pacaud of 3 star Michelin L’Ambroisie, Chef Akihiro Horikoshi has opened his own little bistrot and is unleashing some of the secrets that made of Chef Pacaud one of the most respected icons of La France gourmande. A great way to sample the sense of classic culinaric savourishness of Chef Pacaud, brought to us by Aki, at very sweet $$$. Check that out: Table D’Aki, 49, rue Vaneau, 7th Arr, Paris.  Phone: 01 45 44 43 48).

And now, our featuring restaurant review (Lunch on Thurs June 14th, 2012 at noon):

Dal Pescatore, its cuisine, its Chefs –  Dal Pescatore is  a restaurant of haute Italian cuisine balanced between innovation and tradition. The latter (balanced between innovation and tradition)  being a description that is dear to them; on their web site they do insist on this, and it is also, based on my meal there, a realistic portray of their cooking style. Innovation here means that it brings an updated approach to a style of Italian Haute dining that remains classic (with a focus on its surrounding regional fares: for ie risottos, nearby Mantuan pasta dishes, other Italian classics especially from their local Lombardy region ), but it is by no means into  futuristic culinary styles. They do also insist on the food being wholesome.  It is among restaurant Magazine top 50 best tables of the world, a member of the prestigious ‘Les Grandes Tables du Monde” as well as earning three Michelin stars since 1996 (only seven Italian restaurants boast three stars). It is considered by Paul Bocuse, the pope of French gastronomy and many top culinary journalists such as Gilles Pudlowski and John Mariani as well as frequent patrons of the haute dining scene as  the very best restaurant in the world. High profile chefs such as Anne-Sophie Pic had their lifetime’s best meal here. The soul of Dal Pescatore, Chef Nadia Santini (one of her sons, Giovanni,  is nowadays an active Chef at this  restaurant  as well as their legendary Mama Bruna / I recommend that you read their story on their web site, it is an interesting read – it’s surely fun to observe how they evolved from a 1920s countryside tavern to the top of world’s Alta cucina, for ie, or how Nadia Santini went from studies in Political Sciences to the position of  one of world’s most respected 3 star Michelin Chefs / It is also amazing to note that Chef Nadia Santini rejects the idea of a brigade in a kitchen; she is one of the very rare top Chefs around the globe who thinks that hierarchy is unnecessary in a kitchen and that everyone should work as equal members of one team)  is frequently mentioned as one of the top 3 best female Chefs in the world alongside  Pic (Maison Pic, France) and Elena Arzak (Arzak, Spain).  Many grand Chefs have also trained and honed their culinary philosophy here: LA’s Sotto Chef Steve Samson , Celebrity Chef Todd English, Malibu’s Granita Restaurant Chef Jennifer Naylor, Chicago’s Spiaggia Chefs Sarah Grueneberg, Tony Mantuano and many more. Other  high profile Chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Giorgio Locatelli and top British Chef Angela Hartnett have expressed great admiration for DP. It is always admirable  to learn that such a Grand Chef like Nadia Santini (who, after numerous years of excelling at such top level,  would be in the excusable position of saying ‘I have nothing to prove anymore’)  is always in her kitchen  in a world where ‘embryo’ cooks with a lot left to be proven are busy parading afar from where they are supposed to be found!

Decor –  A mix of classic and contemporary elegance with emphasis  on ‘ la gioia di vivere ‘ , the joy of life, as easily expressed by the possibility of indulging in one of Italians favourite custom ‘Mangia fuori’  on their  veranda in summer,  evidences of cozyness  (fireplaces, the joyful color scheme of the 3 dining rooms, the wooden floor  that gives the room a warm and intimate feel), the  artworks on the wall. Pastel colored walls (in pure Northern Italian decorating style , the colors pay respect to various elements of the surrounding countryside:  lakes, earth, etc), beautifully laid tables positioned for privacy.  Think of the restaurant as a  sophisticated  country house  with  a peaceful view on a well  kept garden.

Location –  Dal Pescatore is located in the village of Runate, municipality of Canneto sull’Oglio, in the province of Mantova (region of Lombardia),  North of  Parma, East of Milan. Around 65 km from Verona Intl Airport, 115 kms from Milan Linate Airport, 150 kms from Milan Malpensa Airport. I’d suggest you include a dinner here within a tour of Lombardy’s main attractions (historical cities of Mantova, Modena, Cremona, Parma / the urban life of  Milan / scenic places like lakes Maggiore, Como, Garda). Hire a car.

Produce–  I have always admired Chefs who are really close to the land, to the point of growing most of their own food. I have always favored Chefs who are really close to their local produce and artisans. That is perhaps why I always had a soft spot for the  work of Chef Alain Passard at L’Arpège, Chef Patrice Gelbart who used to work at ‘Aux Berges du Cérou’ or Chef Craig Shelton who was at the helm of the  Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, New Jersey. I remember my excitement when, during a dinner at the Ryland Inn (Chef Shelton does not work there since years, now), Chef Shelton kept rushing between his garden and his kitchen making sure that optimal freshness was present on our plates. He had that strict  ‘xxx minutes maximum delay’ ..5 or 7 mins if I remember properly (Chef Shelton was a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement on the East Coast in the US) …in between picking the ingredient, getting it cooked and served. Of course, Chef Shelton is an exceptionally skilled Chef and I would have never mentioned this had his food not been of stellar mention. Years later, here I am in Canneto sull’Oglio and the Santinis have that exact same philosophy at heart: they raise most of their vegetables on the premises.

The food report

I started with a tomato compote of stunning marinda (from Sardinia, Italy)  tomato flavor 10/10.  It’s a great example of why Italian food is so well respected: startling simplicity and beautiful produce. Italians know how to make you rediscover the real flavor of an ingredient. I am not rating this with a 10 just for the produce alone: a  touch of beautifully aged balsamic and inspired hands brought this tomato to palatable triumph.

Followed by Porcini, Fegato di Vitello (Veal liver), romarino (rosemary) – Flawless cooking technique as shown all along this meal. The mushroom packed with deep earthy flavors that complemented so well with the veal liver. No quibble here: cooking achieved beautifully and flavors as good as you can get from a nicely prepared veal liver. 8/10

Then, Tortelli di Zucca (Zucca, Amaretti, Mostarda, e Parmigiano Reggiano) – tortelli with pumpkin, amaretti biscuits,  mostarda (a type of candied fruit and mustard chutney condiment and a speciality of Lombardia) and Parmesan – Star Chef Todd English has always praised Dal Pescatore for for being the place where he learned everything about pasta and  the work of the dough. Pasta making is indeed pushed to high level of conception, here. It is artisanal pasta, hand made on the premises. Pasta can’t be fresher than this: they make it only when you order. One Pasta signature dish of Dal Pescatore is Tortelli di Zucca, and a Mantuan classic:  made of pumpkin (Zucca), nutmeg, a bit of cinnamon, cloves, mostarda (A ‘glacé fruit’  preserved  in a spicy syrup), Italian almond-flavored cookies (Amaretti) and the iconic cheese of this region: their Parmigiano-Reggiano. They are using, in Mantua, an ingredient that adds so much to pasta: pumpkin, as expected,  does indeed add amazing texture and superb flavor.  Its sweet, and yet savory nature teasing the palate. As a quick reference, if you had sampled Chef Todd Stein’s iconic “Caramelli dish” (pasta filled with butternut squash, sage, amaretti crumbs) when he was at the helm of Restaurant Cibo Matto in Chicago – that dish made  it to America’s best pasta dishes of several top food magazines —  then think of Tortelli di Zucca as its elder (not served the same way, and not fully identical, but the basic idea and also ingredients behind both dishes are similar) .  Dal Pescatore’s version was flawless: the mostarda enhancing the pumpkin with lots of panache, the pasta itself is impeccably executed, its texture utterly refined, the taste is of course a bit less rich and rustic compared to the tortelli di zucca I tried at the other places in the region but this is understandable since this is fine dining and not rustic dining. Also, the Santinis focus a lot on good healthy food, therefore food that’s  not overwhelmingly rich nor too rustic. What justifies, in my opinion, a 3 star Michelin meal is its depth of precision in balancing, better than many others, the flavors, textures and  other cooking aspects (timing of the cooking, judicious choice of the ingredient combination, effective usage of heat, etc) that are involved on a dish, all things achieved brilliantly on this dish. PS: Try this recipe at home . Excellent. 9/10

Ravioli di Faraona – Guinea fowl ravioli was of benchmark 3 star Michelin material. The preparation of the pasta, its impeccable texture, the outstanding balance of flavors, the superb mouthfeel are just a fraction of the superlaives I could use to discribe the amazement of this dish. 10/10

Then Branzino con olio extravergine umbro, Prezzemolo, Acciughe e Capperi di Salina – Excellent seabass that retained its well known enjoyable mild flavor, its flesh was firm and immaculately white as any top quality fresh seabass has to, the cooking achieved to ideal moisture retention.  8.5/10

Followed by Risotto con pistilli di zafferano e aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (sometimes it is ‘Risotto (Vialone Nano) con pistilli di Zafferano e Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale ) – Saffron risotto with traditional Balsamic vinegar from Modena  – They grow their own saffron on the premises and this is thoughtful: it has nothing to do with the average  saffron I am accustomed to, and that you find in most saffron risotti of the region. This saffron has a superior subtle aromatic freshness that, on its own, transforms their risotto into a unique one.  But the kitchen goes beyond the full satisfaction of their spice, and as stands true to a good Il Bagatto, it brings another secret weapon to the center stage of the show: the ethereal aged authentic Modena balsamic vinegar with its mesmerizing long finish flavor. Vialone Nano, well known for absorbing liquid better than many other rices,  is indeed the appropriate rice that needed to be used for this risotto dish. Of this dish, I’ll remember the great technique, the superb taste that can only come from a top quality stock, the  proper heat regulation and excellent texture.   9/10

Cappello da Prete di Manzo al Barbera e Polenta Gialla di Storo – braised shoulder of beef   slowly cooked in Barbera wine with  polenta  –  Cappello del prete is a cut of beef ideal for braising (although, in my view,  not quite at the level of what a meat like  beef cheeks can deliver when it’s braised to its  prime) . The meat was cooked to tender consistency for long hours in a rich Barbera wine based sauce. This dish, due to its comforting nature could have been  predictably less memorable but it was not: the sauce was reduced as it should, the delicious juice-infused beefy meat  kept   an ideal tender consistency to it, the exemplary polenta (if you see a cook looking down on polenta…it is not a Chef, it is just a lesser cook who badly needs to get a taste of a polenta like this one so that he will forever understand how he was never made aware of the full potential that lies ahead of such a supposedly simple fare). The reduced sauce was remarkable, even for this level of dining. 9/10

Amaretti Torta –  For years, I have made Amaretti torta many times (this  as well as torta sabbiosa, zabaione and chiacchere are among my favourite Italian desserts/cakes), and I just like tasting it whenever it is baked by others, just to see how far they push it,  therefore an appealing pick for me. This one had a good ratio of the basic ingredients necessary to make this cake (choco chips, amaretti cookies, etc). The amaretti base was impeccably made, the cake itself cooled down to room temp, had proper moist consistency and was packed with a depth of enticing chocolate, coffee and almond aromas. Easily, a benchmark amaretti torta  10/10

I was warned by some of my Italian foodie friends that on Italy’s best tables,  I should not expect petits fours of the standard found on France’s best 3 star Michelin tables. They were wrong: the array of fabulous petits fours (various chocolate creations, mini fruit tart, etc)  on display could have been served at a top 3 star Michelin table in France and I would see no difference. They were that great, and I had a huge smile when I sampled the solo  cherry featuring among those petits fours:  I urge anyone to find me a better cherry! 10/10

My short conclusion on this meal at Dal Pescatore –  The strength of this meal I just had at DP lies in (1) how this cuisine  is entirely symbiotic with its environment and  (2) how most of the dishes are perfected:  the pastas I had would set the bar for their artistry in colors, their flawless textures,  their delectable stuffings.  The risotto I have just tasted is also of that level of culinary mastery.  I was quite surprised (in a good way) by this performance, even by the standards expected at this level of dining. Almost everything was copacetic all along this meal.  The minimum at such standards of dining  is food that’s  refined and well done, for sure,  but  it was still remarkable to find items as eventful as some that I have just tasted. Many among world’s most talented Chefs have a spectacular culinaric sense, but few have an exceptional palate. Whoever has cooked the ravioli faraona, the tomato compote, the petits fours  and the amaretti torta can be counted amongst the latter. I don’t know Dal Pescatore enoughly well so I can’t really tell which dish  was cooked by Chef Nadia Santini, her son, or by Mama Bruna, etc —  something I generally like to know since each person has a signature cooking touch and that aspect matters to me —  but  I could observe a common denominator in their cooking as a team: they favor harmonious flavours. I wanted a repast exempt from what I perceive as the UNECESSARY (the pipettes, the foams, the paintings on the plate, and tons of other gimmicks), a meal focusing on the pleasure of eating real food, enjoying the best local produce. You can eat very well at low cost in Italy (If you stumble upon a bad cook in Italy, my guess is that it is not a cook…it is an impersonator who just wants to make a quick buck…because here, it is not the ‘buzz’ that dictates who you are —some cooks in some cities will recognize themselves in the latest statement —  it is oftently real talent! Hard working Real Chefs cooking for real….), but on this occasion, I wanted this simple and delicious cuisine expressed in its most refined version. That is exactly why I went to DP and that is also what I got.

From an aphorism of France’s 20th century best known writer, Curnonsky: “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.”. Curnonsky would have been very happy with most dishes of this meal: wherever things looked simple, they were elevated with brio, but never through gimmicks and only with inspired emphasis on their very own nature. Simplicity, I’ll always reiterate, is nice only when it is in the hands of a gifted Chef.

In fine, for the food on this meal, I’ll underline the careful balance of flavors on all of the dishes, the importance of never roaming away from the comfort zone of a nice hearty classic dish (their meat, their pasta dishes) while adding the touch of superior inspiration and culinaric effort expected at this echelon .

PS: Wine – One of my favourite all time red wines accompanied this meal. It’s a 2008 Pergole Torte Sangiovese (memorable licorice aromas, perfectly balanced tannins). Talking about their wine list, it not only suits to all budgets and covers a big part of the globe (of course Italy and France, but also Australia, Lebanon, New Zeland, etc), but how thoughtful was that to classify it by type of wines (for ie, Franciorta – Trento classico e altri spumanti, Bianchi Italiani, Rossi Italiani, etc), then by vintage years. Here’s a sommelier who perfectly understands the importance of a logically well conceived wine list. Another great moment: a glass of giulio ferrari 2001, a must when it comes to bubbles.

PROS (of this  meal at Dal Pescatore):  In the days leading to my meal at DP, I have enjoyed Mantuan food at some serious trattorias  of the region.I was also lucky enough to have sampled the food of two  talented nonnas living in the region,too.  So, my experience and expectations of my meal at DP was  different, from, say, the standard food traveller who would have just visited DP with, i mind, some  general knowledge of Italian food (as opposed to accurate information  about Mantuan food and what should be expected from an  interpretation of this specific cuisine). There are things  that I am not fond of, such as the tad-less-runnier  texture of the risotti that Classic Mantuan cuisine tend to favor, but that is just a matter of preference and should not be assessed as inferior to the sort of a bit-more-runnier textured  risotti that can be found, for example, in the region of Veneto. It is just two different ways of taking the risotto.  DP clearly offered a perfected interpretation of Mantuan Classics.  I had a great time, here and this (great food, great wine, top service, nothing overworked but to the contrary brought up in a natural appealing way may it be in the behaviour of the staff, the presentation of the food, etc) is exactly what I do expect from a 3 star Michelin dining venture.
CONS (of this meal at Dal Pescatore): When a heart is happy, there’s nothing to pique at.

WHAT I THINK MONTHS LATER – Your judgement of a meal goes down to who you are.  I am someone who believes that greatness is about doing the most with the least. So simplicity done this well is,  to me, the definition of perfection. It’s a classic place, so if classic is not your thing, you have tons of tables for you: Noma, Thierry Marx, The Fat Duck, Alinea, etc. If you want noise, buzz, hype, trend, there are tons of popular bistrots and restaurants around the world that will fit the bill. On the other hand, if like me, you believe in great classic cooking, then DP is a benchmark table. For me, for my taste, with respect to what  I value as  real great cooking, Dal Pescatore is an example of what I would define as a “best restaurant in the world”. I loved Dal Pescatore.

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L’Ambroisie, Paris

Event: Lunch at restaurant L’Ambroisie, Paris
When: Friday March 25th 2011 12:30
Michelin stars: 3
Addr: 9, pl des Vosges Paris, France (4e arrondissement)
URL: http://www.ambroisie-placedesvosges.com/
Phone: Phone: 01-42-78-51-45
Type of cuisine: Classic french

Overall Food rating : 10/10 (Superb delicious food)
Service: 10/10
Overall Dining experience: 10/10 Everything, on this lunch, was of superior 3 star Michelin standards
Food rating: Exceptional (10), Excellent (9), Very good (8), Good (7)

 

To quote il Maestro Gualtiero Marchesi, one of my top favourite Chefs around the world: ”’A melody is composed only of the necessary notes’. L’Ambroisie, on this lunch was profoundly melodius. Our lives are defined by moments. This was a moment. A moment of two hours and a half , transcendent and memorable. For those in the know, it would not be hard to understand anyone who would argue that this is, right now, the best French 3 star Michelin in the globe. Of this meal, I can certainly submit that eventhough perfection is a relative word,  “perfected” is how I would quality this meal I had under their roof. Perfected in a way that is rare, even at such high level of dining, I meant.

 

I will, for this review on L’Ambroisie, seize the opportunity to elaborate a bit on my expectations, experiences and views on French cuisine in general, 3* Michelin Fine dining  and the Michelin guide in particular. I hope this will be useful to the  readers  of the current report.

I am French myself and as an admirer of French fine dining, I have naturally sacrificed a big portion of my hard earned money in what France offers on the upper scale of its restaurant scene.  L’Ambroisie, along with Ledoyen, are the only Parisian 3* Michelin ventures that I had not  visited yet as of today (Ledoyen was finally visited yesterday). You’ll find more about my experiences with France’s haute cuisine in the next sections of this review, but for now I’ll start with the motivation that lead to  my consideration of  the Michelin red book: for years, I have carefully followed all type of restaurant reviews. ALL! … only to end up with SOME supposedly serious food columnists (I wrote “some” since NOT ALL  of them are concerned by  my reservations)  raving  over  restaurants where impressive pre-sold magic are  never found in the plates but  rather  in the   media buzz  itself (I do not mind buzz. It is necessary as a business /marketing tool, but back your buzz by matching  reality)! When you end up with supposedly serious professionals who themselves recognize that they are well known to those they are reviewing, you know it is about time to put an end to the circus. That reliability I was dearly seeking, I knew  I had  to  find it elsewhere!  That is how I started to trust Michelin. Not that it is a perfect system (there will never be a perfect system anyways), but at least it does what has to be done: anonymous reviews (instead of the friendly reviews of some) and a rigorous work of evaluating  excellence in food and dining experience. Michelin may have its detractors (who doesn’t?) , but I prefer discretion and serious work over annoying quest for celebritism through restaurant reviewing.

Michelin being initially from France, I also tend to value its appreciations on … France’s restaurants. To some extent, its evaluations of French restaurants in general, whether they are in France or outside of France. I do not expect Michelin to be the specialist of non  French restaurants. But that’s just my personal expectations of  Bibendum’s works.

Many of the 3* Michelin France’s haute  dining —- that I partook in — have delivered some  moments of culinary amazement  (Michel Bras, when he was regularly behind  his stoves, that was   a true defining experience of 3* dining excellence in my opinion. Thought the same about  Michel Guérard, Olivier Roellinger, Gerard Besson,  Georges Blanc when they are / were  at  their very best). Chef Bernard Loiseau (had couple of meals cooked by him in 1992, 1993, 1997) , who unfortunately took his own life, will always be remembered too as one giant who has never failed to serve me what still rank, years later, among the best moments of all my Michelin starred meals (for those who went recently dining at his restaurant, please send me an email with details of  your own experience. I am curious to learn about the cooking of their current Chef, Monsieur Patrick Bertron).

Of course, I did also experience few  other  3* events that did not seduce, of which I could easily identify the major problems: usually it was either a hasty interest in modernizing the cuisine or a lack of clear culinary identity (this oftently happens when the kitchen switches in between the hands of too many cooks or a Chef whose brigade is weak / lacking in leadership).

How I chose a 3* table:

Most people I know won’t bother with careful long research on restaurants when it comes to  dining out. They  basically rely on opinions of who they think is enoughly reliable, eventhough this is clearly not a matter of reliability but of personal preferences as in  the preeminent and realistic long formula “”food enjoyment = personal expectations + knowing what you like Vs what you do not + what your palate has bookmarked as previous references + misc personal encounters during your diner + the ability of remaining humble enough to avoid unnecessary pretention +  how informed you were about the place you are dining at + what you have been eating before you head there + your state of mind + how open minded you are…and I’ll stop here, Lol! “””.  I can’t blame them (there are certainly other interests that deserve much attention), but my choice for a dinner goes through an absurdly (yeah, I’ve got to admit this…although I will always maintain such diligence) extended process: I read ALL, absolutely ALL possible comments, inform myself a lot about the Chef’s philosophy/creations/ background/achievements + the type of restaurant, its history, its style. I do the same, whenever it is possible, with the authors whose opinions  I read: enquiring about the style of dining he or she usually favors is one (among others)  essential piece of intelligence.

This dinner at L’Ambroisie is the result of a two years long  study on an impressive list of 3* Michelin tables around the world. Two years is time consuming, but I do not go to restaurants just for the sake of piling numbers (The  number of restaurants you visit says nothing about the quality of the dining experience you accumulate). I go to a restaurant for the adding value I presume the restaurant can bring to my personal dining experience.  Back to L’Ambroisie, it is interesting to note that  I could have picked restaurants on which there seems to exist more favourable conscensus. In Paris, if you do not want to miss the boat on the upper 3* Michelin starred dining echelon, just pick Guy Savoy, L’arpège or Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée. They are great: their food is consistently good and they treat you like you are a king. Exactly what we all should expect from an   expensive and haute  dining experience. But what attracts me to a restaurant is a combination of very precise factors: (1) food that has a chance to set some kind of new reference to my personal gustatory repertoire,  (2) food of a Chef mostly praised for that little touch that sets the truly talented cooks apart. And in the case of L’Ambroisie, there is also this reason: he –Bernard Pacaud – is one of the last chefs from the nouvelle cuisine movement. There is nothing ‘’nouvelle’’ anymore with that culinary movement , but this is one type of cuisine that suited well with my palate. Before Chefs like Pacaud  retires (He is 64 yrs old ), I’d suggest anyone interested in French fine dining to try at least once in their life the cuisine of those  last pioneers of the nouvelle cuisine.

I  was lucky enough to fullfill this aim to sample the food of some of them:  Michel Guérard (I sampled his food in 2005 and 2006 at Les prés d’Eugénie in Aquitaine. I hope it is still as great as it used to be since I never went back since ), Bocuse’s Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon (2006,2007,2008 All three meals were admittedly not among the best I ate, but they all featured some dishes with character that  still rank high among those I keep referring back to whenever I indulge in French haute dining), Alain Senderens whose food I tasted in 2004 and 2009, and of course the other Chefs that I mentioned previously.

The meal began ..NOT with their  usual expected  serving of classic French cheese based savory choux pastry from Burgundy (gougeres), BUT with

Langoustine, ananas, velouté de crustacés – Bien, voilà. Yesterday, when I was at the other 3 star Michelin Parisian restaurant (Ledoyen) and I kept writing that I was not amazed by the food, what I meant is that the type of gustatory amazement that I am seeking at this level of cuisine does indeed exist and was not found there. It took no time for L’Ambroisie to give me the chance to write about the perfect example of what I was expecting.  On this amuse bouche, the langoustine itself was a treat (divinely tasty, moist) but the amazement did not stop there: that little complimentary ‘brunoise‘ of pineapple (mixed with dices of green, red peppers) was not your next-door brunoise. Think of a luxurious, geniusly-concocted brunoise that sets the reference for all other brunoise. And a lifetime  will never be enough to find  superlatives to describe the taste of that velouté. That was all I am looking  for at this level of dining -> Delicious with a huge D! And for sure, the  most successful food item I ever sampled at  a 3 star Michelin table since my meals at Joel Robuchon’s Hôtel du Parc and Frédy Girardet (both dinners occured in 1995)  . And those are far from being the last 3 star Michelin that I’ve visited. Which says a lot about the stunning palatable impact of this one food item (but it was not just tasty. It was packed with such  impressive technical mastery that most of the top restaurants out there would never manage to achieve in their entire existence). A 10 over 10 and off we go for one of the best food items I ever sampled with  any Michelin starred and Non starred dinings !

Chaud froid d’oeuf mollet au cresson , asperges vertes, caviar oscietre gold– The oeuf mollet (the egg is  successfully half cooked as it should)  was covered with a layer of watercress sauce (I enjoyed  the interesting kick brought by the sourness of the watercress to the egg)  and served along asparagus (they have mastered the doneness of the vegetable pretty well) and caviar (typical oscietra thin flavor, a rich quality salty fish roe   as I expect at  such heavy  price). A dish that has been perfected to deliver memorable deliciousness. 10 over 10

On the side, I was served with their:

Oeuf en coque: Sorry Chef Passard (at L’Arpège), I love your famous ‘egg’ appetizer … but the ‘Oeuf en coque’ of Chef Pacaud tantalizes me more:  DELICIOUS taste, kept all the essence of Oeuf en coque while boosting it with the simplicity of chives. Amazing. The huge D in  DELICIOUS! Another 10 over 10!

Sea bass and artichoke atop a caviar (Ocietra gold from Iran) white butter sauce –  Sea bass has always been one of my favourite fishes (especially the Chilean sea bass, with pan roasting being my #1 cooking method for fish). The seabass was nicely cooked (perfect moist interior) and tasted great (it is amazing how this ugly fish can taste good ;p).  The butter sauce had great textural quality, balance between its ingredients (shallots, white wine), and  enough acidity (coming from the sauce’s white wine) to control its richness . The mild flavor of the artichokes (sliced artichoke hearts) paired  well with the sauce and the quality of the sturgeon’s processed salted roe was at its finest. Overall, a dish that is technically without reproach  (you can see that each step of the preparation of that fish was well-timed) and more importantly delicious. It did not have the ‘magic’ of the previous courses, but deserved its rank among the best 3 star food items out there. A 8 over 10.

Concluded with an excellent pamplemousse Ice Cream (Again the D in DELICIOUS was at the rendez vous here again):

The Pamplemousse Ice cream

DESSERT:

Tarte fine sable au cacao, glace à la vanilla bourbon – A chocolate pie, its topping  made of a powdery cocoa layer, paired  with vanilla ice cream. I love pies because they reveal a lot about the technical level and personality of the Chef behind it. Yep, the pie … that simple item that we all virtually never miss…it hides some dirty little secrets, Rfaol! Pies are amazing: they are vibrant in taste and texture in the hands of a fun Chef, they are as great as the talent of their creator. I know this can be said of any food in general, but it shows up way more convincingly through a pie. Pacaud uses a dark rich chocolate from a famous Parisian chocolatier known for its quality products: Christian Constant. This is only my 5th or 6th experience with  Constant’s chocolate. They are fine but not my favourite (really a question of personal preference: I prefer Debauve & Gallais, Robert Linxe’s creations at la Maison du Chocolat where Constant used to work, Jean-Paul Hévin). Pacaud’s pie is indeed a little curiosity when you taste it for the 1st time (which is my case): it’s unusually delicate in both shape and consistency. And as I initially anticipated, it told me a lot about Pacaud: the raw talent (shown in the perfect thickening of the pie’s filling,  a soft and creamy plain chocolate filling that  was flawless in execution), the discretion and humility (no shocking deep flavors, no adornments), the exclusivity (not a common pie), the profound respect for the product’s identity  (I have spent years studying the signature tastes of many chocolatiers creations, and if you are familiar enough with those, you would not fail to decipher Christian Constant’s imprint in that chocolate). The challenge here is epic: we appreciate the effort,the quality of the product, the impeccable technique but did it live up to what matters: was it delicious? Was this the best chocolate pie my palate has ever flirted with? Response: YES, YES, Hell YEAH!! A perfect 10 (This pie is NOT raw…as I read in some reviews! And more importantly, it unveils  amazing culinary technical mastery mixed with DELICIOUS taste. Pair  that choco pie  with the vanilla ice cream that comes along –I forgot to ask but it tasted more like Tahitian vanilla rather than Malagasy one — and … ambrosially amplified goes the taste. Divine!) 10/10

I read a lot about L’Ambroisie before going there. Some found it sublime. Few others found it subpar. Based on this very specific lunch,  I am asking myself if those who found it subpar dined at the same restaurant? Or perhaps no one was in the kitchen when they dined there, Rfaol!..Joke apart, this one Lunch that I enjoyed on Friday March 25th is the perfect example of what I consider as the perfect 3 star dinner: food that is UBBER-DELICIOUS and …. read the rest!

SERVICE: Here again, I need to drop a few words. I know some wrote that the service was perfect. But what about those who wrote that they met with ‘bricks of wall’. To the latest, I urge them to not confuse ‘being serious’ with ‘being cold’. I know..I know..I know: the service is professional, serious. BUT what do you expect at a 3 star restaurant??   This not a Brasserie nor a Bistro, right??  Mr Pascal, my Maitre D on this lunch is  a serious professional and amazing gentleman. Oui, Oui…he looked serious and reserved, so what? I just craked some jokes with him and he was relaxed aftterwards.  We talked about Mr Lemoulac’s departure a bit, the amazing 2006 Meursault Leflaive I chose for the meal, and many other interesting subjects. All along this  meal, observing this impeccable service I was enjoying on this lunch, I kept repeating to myself  “”but what were  some complaining about? are we at the same restaurant, Rfaol!..perhaps the language barrier…but still, they were all nice, so what….anyways.”””.    Bottom line: an impeccable service as you might expect at a top 3 star table.

DECOR:
If like me, you are fond of baroque style , then L’Ambroisie interior will appeal. I noticed the Aubusson tapestries that I kept hearing about when informing myself on L’Ambroisie (http://www.finehomecrafts.com/aubusson-tapestries.htm), the marble floors, paintings.  It is not  as grandiose as I had once anticipated, but extremely charming.

PROS:  I think that Bernard Pacaud’s  cooking (he was cooking on this lunch) is the finest haute French food that has ever blown away my taste buds since Joel Robuchon and Frédy Girardet have  retired. To my taste, this  overall dining experience on Friday March 25th at L’Ambroisie is exactly what reaches out to my own definition of the pinnacle of a 3 star Michelin dinner.

CONS: Nothing that  comes to mind.

CONCLUSION:  My definition of ‘’great food’’ turns around a  combination of   80% from  the natural talent of the Chef (the personal touch of an exceptionally skilled artisan, whatever magic his personal impulsive genius can generate, the s-o-u-l of the Chef!!)  + 20%  that will come from the quality of the ingredients. Basta! The rest (whatever philosophy, vision is great for both the Chef himself on a personal level and/or his marketing team) is theoretical.

There is an important distinction between talent and personal touch:

a Chef can be technically skilled (mastering various cooking methods, cooking at the correct temperature, with the right ingredient combinations, etc) but his food lacking in terms of soul (ever wonder why out of a team of highly talented chefs, cooking the exact same dish, with the exact same ingredients, there is always one or two who still manage to elevate the dish  to some kind of gustatory reference?). Passion? It should already be part of the personality of a great Chef  or else he has no business being a chef. Great ingredients? Absolutely, but in the hands of a non talented chef, they worth nothing.

Going there, I was looking for great cuisine that is taking no risks nor trying to be trendsetting (“dated” in not part of my vocabulary. Good or bad food are), but that is delectable and heartwarming. Going there, I was expecting Bernard Pacaud, a Chef widly praised  for his exceptional talent, to make a good impression on me. Fortunately, I got all of  of that at this restaurant.

The overall  may boast an impressive price tag, which most (opinions over the web + among those close to me who are regulars of Paris haute dining  ) have agreed on, but the most important was delivered:  food that  was superbly D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S!  Many Michelin 3-star dinings have pleased me, but I can count with the fingers of my hands the few remarkable moments  when food was as savourish as on this one lunch.  Now that I’ve visited all current Parisian 3 Michelin star establishments –Le Doyen and L’Ambroisie being the only two that I had not visited up to this day (luckily, there are not that many and no newer Parisian 3 star have emerged lately), I can confidently state that L’Ambroisie is — at this moment —- my personal choice for #1 best Parisian three Michelin star (for the record, L’Arpège used to be my personal #1 for a long time, in Paris) .

L’Ambroisie reaches out to my dining expectations and philosophy:  I am not one interested in whatever theatrical or conceptual aspect of food. It is food and its main duty has to be fulfilled: it has to storm my palate for its superior savourishness.  They did it with the highest mastery one might expect at this level of cooking, shining with equal excellence on both the savories and the desserts. But L’Ambroisie went way beyond that:  this type of  decor, the service (elegant, serious and focused) , the way the sommelier did his work  (grace and efficiency),  absolutely everything went in line with what I expect from the best 3-star michelin   ventures.

 

If you came to me with such a statement as “””this is currently the best classic Haute french michelin 3 star in operation in the world”’,   I’d reply that  ”’I concur with you””!  This one specific lunch was simply divine. The price? No..No..No..I won’t reveal it simply because as human beings, we tend to overwhelm excellence by material value. Which is not an issue when the experience is average (in which case, I see the $$$ in BOLD!! Rfaol!), but when it is exceptional — as it was with this one specific lunch at L’Ambroisie — I will never let numbers overshadow exceptional dining occurence!  There was,  on this lunch, a feel of remarkable  grace and  profound commitment  for   ultimate delicious  food   that will mark my souvenirs for a long time.

Wishing  you this  same amazement!

ADDENDUM – MY CURRENT FAVOURITE  3 STAR MICHELIN IN FRANCE (I am adding this section just for informative value only; added only to reviews of 2 and 3 star Michelin in France since it’s the country which restaurant scene I did familiarize myself with)  -> L’Ambroisie (this is a tricky one. Pacaud was on the verge of retiring when I lunched there, but he was cooking at lunch time when I was there. Based solely on that visit, it is clear in my mind that L’Ambroisie is simply the best Classic Haute French 3 star Michelin around the globe, let alone in France. Yep, with not one single hesitation regardless of the fact that such claim is always controversial. Now, is it the same when Pacaud is not there? I obviously can’t tell), Troisgros (I am normally not a big fan of the Troigros, primarily because I find it odd that a 3 star Michelin in France would opt for Intl influences as intensively as they do. Ironically, that does not bother me at all at the 2 star Michelin level, Rfaol! Go figure! Lol. But at the 3 star level, in France, Nah. Regardless, when this kitchen is in its prime, it is indeed one of France’s finest 3 star Michelin destinations and it is based on that observation that Troisgros somehow fits among my  favourite 3 stars in France), L’Arpège, Paris (Before I visited L’Ambroisie, this was my #1  three star Michelin in Paris. Many Chefs claim to treat ingredients with passion, which is a claim that I usually do not care about since they have to. But when such claim comes from the mouth of Alain Passard, it means something else. We are here among the exceptional few which love for the ingredient is genuine, not dicted. I am a huge fan of Passard, even when things did not go the way I wanted – for example on lesser impressive meals at L’Arpège —  because I come from a school of thought with  strong emphasis on how to treat and respect the produce from the second you remove it from the soil till it gets into your mouth. It would take an entire article to elaborate on that spectacular journey of the ingredient accompanied by its companion —because to me, that is what a real Chef is about…serving as the guide/companion  to his ingredient —   but Alain Passard was the one that better expressed it ), Les Pres d’Eugenie in Eugénie Les Bains (oh god, it has been a while I haven’t went back, but the souvenirs that I have are unlikely since not much has changed there, for example the kitchen still has the same staff as on my last visit there. One of France’s most solid 3 stars in my own experience, with French classic food delivered with panache /  Chef Michel Guérard)

WHAT I THINK MONTHS LATER:  Bernard Pacaud was behind the stoves on that lunch, and I regret to have discovered him so late at a stage where he is close to retirement.  Well, at least I had this priviledge because this is what I consider as a priviledge:  skills so exceptional that they pertain to my top 5 all time favourite Chefs of the globe, alongside Joel Robuchon, Jacques Maximin, Constant,  Girardet,  Besson.  Again, I never tried this place when Bernard Pacaud is not behind the wheels, so I can talk only for this one instance.