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)
Phone: Phone: 01-42-78-51-45
Type of cuisine: Classic french
Food rating: 10/10 (Superb delicious food)
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.