Have you seen Doubt?
You should see Doubt.
I mean, Meryl Streep could read a phone book and make me cry. Or laugh. Or both, at the same time.
Actually, the real performance to watch in that movie is Viola Davis’s. Though Streep is onscreen for Davis’s entire five-minute appearance, Davis’s acting is so mesmerizing that it makes you forget that Streep is even in the movie.
In Doubt, Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beuvier, an iron-fisted principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx. Casting an accusatory eye on the innocent and guilty alike, she’s the type of nun who could sear the fear of God into a priest. And she does.
And that’s how the servers are at l’Ambroisie.
I’m exaggerating, of course. But just a little.
Eating at l’Ambrosie, for both the lay (comme moi) and the indoctrinated (comme the couple sitting next to us), is like attending a religious ceremony. It’s solemn. It’s dogmatic. It’s doctrinal. And it’s full of mystery and wonder. There are rituals. There’s hierarchy.
Most will have no status here.
The lingua latina is French. If you speak English, you are considered illiterate (though, curiously, they will attempt Japanese if you look remotely Asian, as they did with a couple seated a few tables over) and are treated like a naughty school boy. Such was my status until I, having been forewarned of the restaurant’s temperament, spent what French I knew to get myself seated and situated. I asked for the menu and told our server – the spitting image of Robespierre – I was waiting for a friend. I asked him for a bottle of Evian, which seemed to elicit some emotion from him.
He seemed even more pleased to find a well-groomed Parisian joining me. Hue, my college roommate, and I had not seen each other since the previous year, when he had flown in from Paris to celebrate our birthdays. Hue and I have shared many eating adventures together (click HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).
This time, he was fresh from Rome. L’Ambroisie would be the first of three meals we’d share on this trip.
House rules prevail here: you eat on the restaurant’s terms or not at all.
In this temple, Chef Bernard Pacaud is the priest, and excess is the object of worship. Indeed, at l’Ambroisie, lavishness is next to holiness. That makes for an expensive proposition. When was the last time you spent $700 on lunch – without wine? Yes, that’s per person. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris.
What does one get for this price? Reputedly, a meeting with ecstasy.
But be not mistaken, l’Ambroisie is no church; it’s much less accessible than church. Cloistered in the quiet arcades of the Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, it’s really more of an underground cult for the extremely wealthy and/or obscenely food-obsessed.
Though the restaurant seems as ancient as its surroundings – a relic of royal rite – it moved here from its former nine-table home on the Left Bank. Patricia Wells penned an excellent article about the restaurant’s move – then, a Michelin 2-star – in the January 11, 1987 edition of the New York Times. (She quotes lunch at $35, and approximates a full, a la carte meal to fall between $60 and $70. The times, and the Dollar’s strength, have, sadly, changed.)
Like the institution that it has become, the restaurant’s name is in block-letter relief high above its milky-green doors. But, otherwise, like most Michelin three-star restaurants, there is no sign. There’s barely a reception.
I am no expert on Pacaud or the restaurant, and I won’t insult you by regurgitating and rehashing others’ regurgitations and rehashes. If you want to know more, I’ll simply direct you to the information freeway, where you’ll find enough details about Pacaud’s biography and descriptions of the interior to fulfill your own personal quota of pedantry. However, on these two topics – the chef and the décor – I will drop these two pieces of information:
1. Pacaud’s rise to three-stardom was one of the fastest and most closely watched by fanatics.
2. I sat in the first of two public dining rooms. Considered the “lesser” of the two by many, I (strongly) preferred it to the frilly, overwrought “middle room.” In fact, I consider it one of the best-looking dining rooms I’ve eaten in.
The menu is the same for both lunch and dinner. There are no deals. There are no prix-fixe options. There is no tasting menu. There’s simply la carte, which is divided into five sections (more or less): entrées, fish and seafood, meats and game, cheeses, and desserts. Each section had roughly half a dozen selections, give or take a couple.
I have heard some report that half portions are available. They were not granted to us when asked for.
Neither was the restaurant’s famous Feuilleté de Truffe Fraîche “Bel Humeur” – an entire golf-sized black truffle sandwiched with foie gras, encased in puff pastry, and served with truffle puree (I’ll refer you to my good friend Adam for more). When asked, Robespierre offered to check with the kitchen. He came back looking even more grave than when he left us. Pas encore.
But arriving in Paris just shy of peak black truffle season meant that we had caught the last of the white truffles. Hue and I took full advantage of this.
Here is what we ordered. (CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or on each course to see the individual photo.)
Corolle de noix de Saint-Jacques
et broccoli à la truffe blanche d’Alba
Oeufs mollets à la Florentine
râpée de trufe blanche d’Alba
Escalopines de Bar
à l’émincé d’artichaut, caviar osciètre gold
Fricassée de Homard à la Diable
châtaignes et potimarron
“Gibier français Selon a Chasse”
Perdreaux rotis avec truffe noire
Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer
glace à la vanille
“Assortiment de Desserts et Pâtisseries”
Sablée Praliné aux Coings
At the time of my visit to Paris in December 2008, there were nine three-star restaurants in the city. Now there are ten. I have been to exactly half of them: l’Ambroisie, l’Arpege, le Bristol, Guy Savoy, and Ledoyen (I had eaten at le Cinq in 2005, when it was a three-star under Legendre. I returned to the restaurant, now a two-star, on this trip under the new chef, Eric Briffard).
From what I experienced in these five restaurants and from what I understand about the cuisine of the other five, all of them have an identifiable individuality and unique style that carries through to the plate (perhaps Eric Frechon the least so, which, perhaps, explains why he was just released from, what I call, “three-star rising” purgatory, where he languished for years). Each of their cooking styles passes that market-proven “thousand fragment” test (the idea that successful branding is achieved when a product can be readily identified/recognized by one of a thousand fragments taken randomly from that product*).
There may be many chefs who can execute food as well as they can, but there are no other chefs in the world creating food like theirs. If a tasting menu were assembled with a dish cooked by each of the five chefs, I’m fairly confident that I could correctly attribute every one of them to its master.
That’s not to say that there are no common traits among the three-starred chefs. I’ve noticed a few. The most obvious one is eccentricity. And with these ten, the more eccentric the man, the more highly-esteemed is his food. At the top: Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Pascal Barbot, and Alain Passard.
I haven’t been to Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee or Pierre Gagnaire, but in those two cases, it seems that the chefs’ eccentricities overlap mania. And that presents its own problems.
And then there’s Bernard Pacaud, who exhibits eccentricity of a different stripe. He is one of the most private of the three-star chefs, shrouded in a veil of mystery to most. And his remoteness has cultivated mystique, about him – or rather, the notion of him – and the restaurant. And this translates onto the plate. Pacaud seems much less prone to whimsy (or Beat tendencies in the case of Passard) than his peers. His is not one of the more daringly dressed cuisines on the culinary red carpet.
Rather, like a grande dame in mourning, it commands attention with stoic grandiosity and gravitas. Dominated by classics, like poussin en demi-deuil, his cooking is, perhaps, the most traditional – in form, style, and substance – among the Parisian trois etoiles.
I admit that I misunderstood Pacaud’s intentions at the table and in the days that followed. At the time, his style (and the astronomical prices) struck me as ostentatious and self-righteous. But, as weeks passed and I was allowed to reflect on my meal, I realized that Pacaud’s cooking is quite selfless. It showers the diner with attention, slathering and saddling them with a thick coat of luxury falling just shy of suffocation.
The white truffles at l’Ambroisie, for example, were top-shelf. And they’re shaved with a hyper and happy hand.
Madame Pacaud, perhaps the cheeriest face in Place des Vosges, presented us with a glass jar bearing a white truffle the size of a baseball (it had been trimmed pretty evenly around, so I can only imagine its original size). The smell (which penetrated the glass before she opened the jar) knocked me horizontal. Heads turned from all corners of the room.
And caviar – golden oscietra the size of large game shot – was dispensed in eye-popping quantities.
Done on any smaller of a scale, Pacaud’s cooking would seem smug. Colored with just the slightest shade of modernity, it would feel false. Rather, it’s confident and comfortable in its largesse.
Yet, in its generosity, his food remains guarded and reserved. The plating is very controlled and manipulated: everything is plated with circular symmetry. It does not invite an open discussion, insisting, instead, on intimacy. There is no table-side shaving or saucing. Everything is plated in the kitchen. What arrives is the completed work.
There’s a sense of loneliness and sadness about it all. Pacaud has not the joie de vivre of Guy Savoy, or the playful imagination of le Squer at Ledoyen. The morbid service aside, Pacaud’s dishes seemed designed to be your last (and not because there’s a heart attack waiting with the final tab). It’s not depressing food necessarily, but it makes you eat very slowly and deliberately.
Some of his food is rather ordinary.
Gougères, for example, rarely stir me anymore. Their predictability has made their status wane. Together with chocolate, they have become an expected bookend to the garden-variety tasting menu.
Pacaud’s gougères were like everyone else’s. And so was the bread. It was of forgettable quality.
And some of it – like the pre-dessert (a quenelle of mint sorbet wearing a whipped cream turban with a chocolate treble clef piped onto its face) – was actually bad. It was, by far, the most wretched thing I put in my mouth during my fourteen-day trip to Europe. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of mint desserts, but even Hue agreed that this stuff was awful. It tasted like icy toothpaste and looked like something you’d get as a dessert in a nursing home.
But, certainly, much of what I ate, like the “Velouté de Butternut,” served as a formal amuse bouche, was very good.
Marbled with dark, caramel-colored demi-glace, the velvety soup was layered with flavor. Served in a flat-bottomed cup, normally, it’d be impossible to access the soup around the bottom corner without coming off as a starved ogre. However, necessity being mother of invention, a clever silversmith somewhere fashioned a spoon with a pointed tip (think teardrop-shaped spoon).
The “Corolle de noix de Saint-Jacques” (160€), which looked like an emerald flower in full bloom, with petals of white truffle shavings and cross-cut broccoli florets, was also very good.
It was served at room temperature, which I found odd – the broccoli was almost cold. I maintain that heat is needed to fully release the truffle’s aromatic potential. Here, it seemed as if flavor was sacrificed for presentation: there’s no way this dish could have been as tidy if it had been served hot, or even warm. The truffles would have wilted (though, these were especially thick shavings that held their shape nicely) and the broccoli would have lost its vibrancy.
But, upon further reflection, I realized that there might be another, more important reason Pacaud served this dish cool. It had to do with the flavor of the broccoli. Specifically, the way the broccoli interacted with the white truffles.
The thought had occurred to me then, but it did not fully develop until a few months later when I was caramelising cauliflower in a pan at home one night: crucifers have an earthy, pungent aroma that is very similar to the aroma of white truffles. That flavor seems even more intensified when cooked crucifers are left to cool. At the table, broccoli and white truffles (and scallops) seemed like an unintuitive pairing. But the flavor and aroma of the two were quite concordant. If nothing else, that discovery made this dish rewarding.
The “Oeufs mollets à la Florentine” (128€) was more a traditional take on a white truffle dish – using soft-flavored creamy elements as a backdrop on which to highlight the truffle. It too was served near room temperature.
Two to an order, these gigantic eggs (the size of small duck eggs) were exceedingly fresh. They had been soft-boiled in the shell such that the whites had fully set, yet, when nicked, a steady stream of orange gold spilled out. The eggs had already been cooled down, so there was no fear that the yolks would cook more as time passed. Thus, my yolk was just as runny as Hue’s when I ate it a few minutes later, after finishing my half of the scallop dish. Beneath the layer of buttery cream sauce hid a very smooth spinach puree, which was not only intensely coloured, but concentrated with spinach.
The “Escalopines de Bar” (198€), the first of our three main courses, was the Viola Davis of our meal. That dish took my breath away. They split this plate for us. Each of us received two sizable slices (they were not filleted in a normal fashion, as you can see from the photo) perched on a circular fan of thinly sliced artichoke hearts. The whole was ringed by a cholesterol sauce (I’m assuming equal parts cream and butter) awash with large golden oscietra caviar [the size and texture seemed right for golden oscietra (they were inordinately large and firm), but the color did not (they seemed much darker than golden caviar should be)].
The fish was perfectly cooked – soft and buttery. And the sauce was stunning. It was a meeting of creamy, salty, briny, and the perfect kiss of acid. The half-bottle of Domaine LeFlaive Meursault (2006) (64€) paired fantastically with this dish (as it did with the “Oeufs Mollets a la Florentine”).
The “Fricassée de Homard à la Diable” was a 142€ disappointment. Sectioned claw by tail, the entire lobster was arranged in a scarlet bundle circled by orange torpedoes of pumpkin and showered with ivory-coloured chestnut shavings, bright green peas and yellow corn kernels (not terribly seasonal in December, and therefore, not surprisingly, rather insipid). The colors were vivid, almost glowing.
The best thing about this dish was its extraordinarily complex flavor. The whole was bound by a thick, rich “diable” seafood broth that was slightly sweet and carried a surprisingly aggressive – to me, pitch-perfect – twitch of heat.
The worse thing about this dish is that the lobster was, without a doubt, overcooked. I’m not talking about the difference between the tougher, denser texture of the European homard compared to the sweeter, silkier Maine lobster that I’m used to (and probably because of that, prefer) eating. This one was simply overdone. With the price of this dish hovering just north of $200, it was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Firm lobster, I don’t mind (though I don’t love either). But overcooked is unacceptable.
The “Perdreau” (120€ ) (the “game according to the hunt”) arrived, groomed and freshly shaven, boasting a juicy, blushing breast. The little bird was presented in a sparkling copper pan (clearly, not the one it was roasted in). It retired to the kitchen and reappeared carved and plated – a breast and thigh, nestling a quenelle of nut puree between them, for each of us. The partridge was coated in a black truffle sauce and came with a side of creamed Savoy cabbage flecked with chopped black truffles.
This dish proved two things:
(1) The truffles were not yet great at this time in the season. They were a bit weak and a twee musty. I suspect it was a good and admirable thing that Chef Pacaud was not willing to serve the Feuilleté de Truffe Fraîche “Bel Humeur.” It really would have been premature to serve it at the time of our visit in late December (especially at 250€ a pop) .
(2) A bird the size of a small mango can be whole-roasted perfectly. Breast and thigh alike were immensely juicy, tender, and rosy.
If there is one must at l’Ambroisie, it’s the “Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer” (30€). Just imagine a chocolate pastry crust filled with the dark, dark, dark chocolate version of marshmallow fluff – but a gazillion times more soft, fine, and airy – actually it was like old-school shaving foam. And very dark. It’s dusted with cocoa powder. It delivered every promise that was made about it and redeemed every oath made in its good name.
We asked the server if he would recommend any of the others, in particular. He suggested that we order the “Assortiment de Desserts et Patisseries” (48€) – an assortment of the desserts. What he did not tell us was that the “Tarte Finee Sablée au Cacao Amer” was one of them. The “Strates de nougatine et poire, sorbet “william” and the “Strudel aux pommes rein des reinnettes, crème fouettee a la cannelle” were not among them. I had been particularly interested in these two.
Instead – along with a second slice of Tarte Finee Sablée au Cacao Amer – we received (in half-portions) the “Arlettes Caramélisées au Fromage Blanc” and the “Sablée Praliné aux Coings.” Robespierre informed us that arlettes – a cross between an ultra-thin palmier and a millefeuille – were traditionally made by the famous Parisian bakery, Dalloyau. This dessert was rather simple (as were all of the desserts we saw): tangy, whipped fromage blanc, candied orange and grapefruit rind, and a oval arlette. It was actually a nice refreshing dessert to have after the tarte fine.
The “Sablée Praliné aux Coings,” for me, was all about texture. The sablé praliné was like a dense chocolate feuillatine (think uber-fancy Nestlé Crunch bar meets Nutella). I loved it. The carefully cut cannons of quince were melted and soft. Tying the two together was an airy, foam-like creme success. It was very good, but not sublime.
A carousel of frilly mignardises arrived with the bill. Like everything that preceded it, this plate was an exercise in excess.
My initial reaction to l’Ambroisie was one of ambivalence. It had its highs, which were very high (sea bass, the chocolate tart, and the butternut velouté). And there were lows – like the lobster and the mint sorbet – which aren’t hard to have when prices are so incredibly high (I mean, we were essentially clearing through whole tasting menus’-worth of money with each dish).
So here’s the question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last four months: Why, more than any meal I had on this trip to Europe – more than l’Arpege and The Sportsman, both of which left a very deep impression on me – does l’Ambroisie haunt me the most? It throbs in my memory.
Perhaps, when you spend that much money and invest that much hope into something, you wed yourself forever to it as the faithful worshiper out of a fear of having been played the fool, no?
Or maybe, l’Ambroisie is a temple - a place of reverence, worship, and religiosity – wherein a glint of ecstasy can be glimpsed.
9 Place de Vosges
* In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom gives excellent examples of this, including the Coca-Cola bottle. If you took the label off and smashed it and gave one fragment of it to a stranger, that person would probably be able to identify it as having come from a Coca-Cola bottle (itechnology is another good example; white ear buds = apple).