I was late.
My reservation at Guy Savoy was at noon. And it was just shy of 11.45 when I got the keys from the doorman. Having endured a painfully early wake-up call and restless shot through the Chunnel, I was underslept and overfed when I arrived at the Gare du Nord. This was not a great way to start a week of feasting in Paris.
Tongue awagging like a tired dog, I half-flung, half-dragged my suitcases up the looping staircase to my flat. As soon as I got in the door, I shimmied out of my jeans and into slacks, and washed and laced up.
It was just shy of one o’clock when I arrived at Guy Savoy. My apologies for being tardy were chased away by a flurry of welcoming attendants who took my coat and graciously showed me to my table. It was situated in the middle of the first of a series of rooms.
I was the first to arrive. And it wouldn’t be for another ten or fifteen minutes before my friends – two French food journalists, Verne and Sylvie, and a spouse – appeared through the sliding doors.
Guy Savoy has always been a curiosity to me. Nobody seems to think ill of the restaurant, though very few seem to gush about it the way the hoards and herds do over its peers. Yet, Guy Savoy remains one of the most revered and talked-about Michelin three-stars in the world.
The restaurant’s name says it all: This is Guy Savoy, expressed in the form of a menu and a space. Every ounce of it drips with Guy Savoy’s personality.
Over a four-hour meal, I discovered that Guy Savoy does not excel at creating inspired food – I found no masterpieces here to worship.
Rather, the restaurant’s success lies in its ability to create (or enhance) an inspiring occasion.
It tugs at emotions more than the palate. Free of frump and unfettered by fuss, Guy Savoy is festive. It’s convivial. It’s colorful. It’s generous – tables are separated by wide avenues, and a seemingly unending parade of sweets sends you off like the farewell party of a lifetime.
Diners are dropped into, what is, essentially, the chef’s private gallery. The interior, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, is straight-lined and clean: panels of beige and brown on which eye-catching points of color – like the tear-drop table centerpieces (that cleverly doubled for butter and seasoning holders) and an eclectic collection of curios, like a giant Buddha head (formed from what appeared to be a mass of red beads) and African tribal masks – are showcased.
Guy Savoy is equal parts circus, jazz, and poetry. It has, what the French call, a “party atmosphere.”
Thus, it was the perfect place for a union of the friends gathered at my table – individuals with shared senses and sensibilities about food. Good company always seems to make a meal more enjoyable. One tends not to focus on the shortcomings of a meal. In fact, often, one tends not to focus at all. Thankfully, this was a fairly food-focused group.
Two of them were known to the house; one was a personal friend of Guy Savoy’s. With the chef – especially one as charismatic and charming as Guy Savoy – dropping by between courses to chat at length, its effect was undeniable: it felt as if the whole restaurant existed solely for our party’s pleasure.
Servers were attentive and efficient – perhaps not more so than they normally should be, but especially unimpeachable at our table. The maitre d’ – Hubert Schwermer – hand-held our table from the “club sandwich” amuses (slivers of cold foie gras skewered between two mini pieces of toast), which reappeared several times during our menu negotiating period, through to the last bite. And there was good wine – a few whites for the first half – including Savagnières from Laurau (“le Bel Ouvrage”) – and an excellent bottle of Château-Langoa-Barton, a Grand Cru Classé de Saint-Julien, among two, for our main courses.
One does not eat at Guy Savoy for cohesion – it seems almost impossible. Rather, one does so to experience Savoy’s whimsy. It’s a dip into his stream of conscience.
Like the restaurant, the menu was a carousel of emotions and colors.
In many ways, Savoy’s dishes are more sensory experiences than purely gastronomical ones.
Descriptions were short and abstract. Dominated by “signature” dishes, the menu was an assembly of flavors, techniques, and presentations summoned from all corners and dimension of the world.
The four of us managed to clear a good portion of the menu. We each took two entrees (there was some overlap), one main course, and one dessert.
Here’s what we had (CLICK HERE to see all of the photos):
Soupe de Potiron
La Truffe Blanche
Bar et Rouget Comme Un “Carpaccio“
Coquillages en bouillon d’agrumes.
Coquilles Saint-Jacques “Crues-Cuites“
Pommes de terre et poireaux aux algues.
Escalope de foie de canard poelee, puis etuvee en papillote avece des radis roses.
Supreme de Volaille de Bresse
Foie gras et artichaut, vinaigrette a la truffe.
Canons de Legumes
Champignons et herbes, bouillon ferme et jus de champignons.
Soupe d’Artichaut a la Truffe Noir
Lamelles de truffe noir et copeaux de Parmesan, brioche feuilletee aux champignons et buerre de truffe tartine.
A la graine de legumes.
Pintade Pochee en Vessie
Riz basmati, jus “truffes-foie gras.” (pour 2 personnes)
Poires et Citrons
En saveurs d’herbes.
Though little sank, little sang. Most of what I sampled was more interesting than inspiring.
Dishes seemed to fall into two camps.
I preferred the one that offered boldness and comfort. This included Savoy’s signature “Soupe d’Artichaut a la Truffe Noir,” a velvety thick soup perfumed with black truffles and Parmesan.
The single-best forkful I had at Guy Savoy was the “Volaille de Bresse Confit et Lacquee” that Sylvie ordered for her main course. It was one of the two off-menu specials offered that day.
To call this chicken lacquered is an underestimation of the treatment. The confit strips of meat wore a fried batter coat saturated with a thick, slightly sweet, and sticky glaze that secreted a latent, late-blooming hit of vinegar. The flavor had incredibly depth and complexity, developing and changing in the mouth like a turning kaleidoscope. It encouraged one to eat slowly, as each bite’s full evolutionary cycle took its time to complete.
“Agneau Crostillant-Moelleux,” a sampling of three cuts of lamb – thin-sliced roasted saddle of lamb, stuffed and braised shoulder of lamb, and roasted lamb ribs – was also particularly memorable. The meats were presented in two forms: crispy and tender. Each piece of meat was rosy and succulent; the rib chop I tasted was full of flavor. Mounds of “vegetable semolina” and “chickpea puree” gave the whole a pan-Mediterranean tint.
And then there was the “Pintade Pochee en Vessie,” a two-person main course that I shared with Verne.
The ceremony of table-side presentation is not lost here. A young man – a child, in my eyes – laboring under the weight of a silver tray, presented a huge copper pot bearing an inflated bladder.
M. Schwermer deflated the bladder and delivered the bird. Still nascent with steam, it was carved quickly. The sliced breast meat was plated and served along with creamy, truffled basmati rice and a miniature globe of cabbage leaves wrapped around buttered vegetables. A thick layer of slightly sweet truffled foie gras sauce was ladled over the breast meat.
It wasn’t the prettiest presentation; in fact, it was a bit sloppy. But this pintade was everything a bladder-cooked bird should be.
The breast meat was incredibly juicy, with a pure, clean flavor. The truffled foie gras sauce was divine – walking a fine line between sweet and savory. Together with the nutty basmati rice, it was comforting, familiar, yet utterly refined. We noted that the basmati was served just slightly undercooked, such that it soaked in and took on the flavors from the natural pintade jus and truffle foie gras cream sauce.
Instead of presenting the dark meat on a separate plate – a second-presentation – as I had expected, the thighs were added to our plates half-way through eating the breasts. This was slightly unexpected and, I thought, a bit unorthodox. Our supply of rice, sauce and vegetables were re-stocked. It was a tremendous amount of food.
By the turn of that same coin, Guy Savoy seemed stretched and strained when aiming for subtlety.
My first course, “Bar et Rouget Comme Un ‘Carpaccio,’” is a good example. An opaque glass bowl bore silky slices of sea bass and rouget dotted with tiny dehydrated crayfish tails, and julienne of bamboo shoots. The assembly was dressed with a very light “bouillon d’agrumes” (citrus broth). Effete and delicate, it came across as an unconvincing reach for some Asian puritanical ideal. The flavors here were too ascetic – coy in the wrong ways, too obvious in others.
Likewise, Verne’s “Canon de Legumes” fell flat. This lifeless dish was more like a funeral for rather than a celebration of vegetables. There was an understated visual beauty, but it was an intrinsically sad composition. Not only were the bundles of stuffed vegetables uninteresting, the chicken consommé spooned over the lot was greasy, and the base stock was amateurishly sloppy (it tasted as if the bones for the stock had been over-roasted).
Despite these shortcomings, I encountered a few courses that demonstrated Savoy’s technical prowess. Simple dishes like my first course, “Supreme de Volaille de Bresse,” and Sylvie’s “Coquilles Saint-Jacques ‘Crues-Cuites’” showcased Savoy’s mastery over textures.
No explanation was needed. No studying on the part of the diner was required. His achievements in this area were evident.
The “Supreme de Volaille de Bresse” was a six-layer terrine: alternating bands of Bresse chicken forcemeat, foie gras, and artichoke hearts. If one were blindfolded, the three could not be differentiated or identified by texture. Even the flavors of each seemed to disappear, one into another, producing a seamless and singular chicken-foie gras-artichoke flavor. Served chilled with a small pool of truffle vinaigrette (a tangier and lighter version of the truffle foie gras sauce that came with the “Pintade Pochee en Vesse”), I can recall the texture and flavor even now.
Savoy’s work with textures was, perhaps, most appreciated in the two dishes that each studied a single ingredient. In the “Agneau ‘Crostillant-Moelleux’” the subject was lamb. In the “Coquilles Saint-Jacques “Crues-Cuites,’” it was scallops. Gently warmed, coins of sliced scallops were rendered custard-soft and coupled with rounds of waxy potatoes that had nearly the identical texture and semblance. These silky, smooth discs were contrasted by the rugged, almost crispy surface of a lone scallop that was scored and Maillard-browned, top and bottom. One protein; two very different presentations. Both were brilliantly executed, and together, they were brilliantly played.
Then there was the “Radis-Foie,” which defied categorization. I have no idea what Guy Savoy had in his mind when he first decided to sear a piece of foie gras (making sure to develop a nice browning) and then steam it in a foil pack. But the process resulted in a piece of foie gras that is colored on the outside, custard-soft through and through, yet doesn’t leach any grease (my main objection to hot preparations of foie gras). I think that steaming the liver helped “set” the inside of the foie gras without burning the outside while maintaining the moisture.
The delicate foil pillow – which appeared to be specially designed for table-side presentation (it had a peel-away steam window) – was presented. Its contents were carefully emptied into a bowl along with a ruby-red radish broth. To me, it captured the soul and wit of femininity.
I can’t say that any of the desserts sent me very far. The selection seemed more scattershot than the rest of the menu.
More flights of fancy than anything, these prissy little two-bite sweets were overwrought – like Sylvie’s “Autour de Coing” – finely sliced and sauteed quince served with a julienne of quince, gingerbread blancmange, milk sorbet, and eucalyptus honey. There were too many elements, too many pieces sprawling from north to south. It was one of those desserts that you want to scrape together in a pile so you can get an adequate sense of the whole effect.
All of my dining companions agreed that the best dessert was Verne’s “Exotiques” – a layered figurine of tropical fruits – mango, pineapple, banana-passion fruit sorbet, and coconut blancmange – with two meringue sticks for arms. It looked like a squat ballerina (a sumo wrestler?) in a pineapple tutu. I couldn’t try it due to my mango allergy.
I enjoyed my dessert, “Poires et Citrons,” perhaps because it was the simplest of the three at our table. This featured a cylinder of pear sorbet set on a layer of gelatinized pear nectar. The pear sorbet was topped with a piped rosette of lime sorbet topped with a tissue-thin shard of tuile. Perched on the wide lip of the dessert plate was a single Seckel pear, denuded and perfectly poached. On the opposite side of the rim was the smallest dollop of candied orange peel, whose fragrance perfumed the whole dish when added to the sorbet.
But the size of the desserts was deliberately calculated to leave plenty of room for the petits fours trolley. Actually, it was a party bus – a festive one from which an astonishing number of clowns pop out.
There were quarts of ice creams; jars of compotes, caramels, and curds; and canisters full of fluffy marshmallows. On the bottom shelf were tarts, chocolates, and mini macarons. Between the four of us, we covered all the bases. For my first selection, I paired La Petite Suisse sorbet with a prune d’Agen macerated in red wine. As I imagined, it was the perfect pairing for me – tangy, dark, sweet, milky, and juicy.
For my second round, at the urging of Sylvie, I dipped into the tangerine sorbet. There was such a lovely round sweetness about it; we wondered if any sugar had been added. It was very good.
Other selections from the tray were served to us without asking (at least, not to my knowledge): tarte fine, macarons, tuiles (encrusted with black tea), mini gingerbread muffins, lemon tart (for which Verne specially requested a bowl of freshly whipped sweet cream), and nut cakes.
A platoon of chocolate bon bons was deployed to finish us off.
Is Guy Savoy a Michelin three-star? I’m not qualified to say. I’ve only been once. And I’ll admit that my visit was somewhat atypical, given the attention we received.
I’m not sure that enough of the food at my meal measured up to the three-star standard. Savoy states, “[A] dish may originate from anything, be it a sensation, a memory or a chance meeting. It takes shape through a series of stages, each stages designed to elicit an emotion.” And this was, perhaps, a little too true. At times, it could be highly rewarding – taking one back to one’s childhood, like the pintade. Most of the time, however, it was a bit disorienting – a little too emotional and attention-deficient. It lacked focus and cohesion.
But the food doesn’t seem to be Guy Savoy’s primary concern. He goes for the total effect: “Dining at Guy Savoy means weaving your own personal fine, almost intangible, path between flavours engaged in dialogue with one another… you won’t be sure whether your best memory will be the taste of the langoustines, the touch of the fine linen, the sparkle of the crystal, or a dazzling smile. True character cannot be defined so easily… it can’t be forgotten so easily either.”
This one is not like the others. This one is an haute couture carnivale, replete with pomp and pageantry. For that, I can understand why Guy Savoy has been cherished and adored.
18 Rue Troyon
+33 01 43 80 40 61