My friend Houston was landing at CDG just about the time I headed out for my daily weekly run. By the time I got home, showered, and changed, she buzzed me from her hotel. It was mid-morning and we hopped over to a café for some good-morning elixir.
It was Houston’s first time in Europe, and I was to be her guide for the next week [read about my [now aging] Europe trip HERE.]. Fueled by adrenaline, we (I was deficient on sleep as well) managed to barrel through the afternoon jetlag wall on nothing but coffee and two Pierre Herme macarons until dinner.
The last time I ate at le Cinq, this prince of Parisian dining rooms was under the command of Philippe Legendre. And though it was lauded and esteemed as one of the best Michelin three-star restaurants, I found the food tired and service haughty. I was not surprised to learn that it lost its third star a few months later.
Three years later, Legendre is gone and Eric Briffard is in, straight from the Michelin two-starred les Elysées du Vernet, where he made inroads among the more refined appetites in Paris. His following has tailed him to the Four Seasons.
Urged by a friend (and Briffard fanatique) to reconsider le Cinq, I returned with Houston and my college roommate, Hue (with whom I had lunch the day before at l’Ambroisie), in December of 2008.
At restaurants of a certain caliber, I think that there shouldn’t be any “wrong choices” on the menu. A diner may not like certain food, or style of cuisine. But, certainly, a diner should have an equally enjoyable experience however they order. Even as I am typing this, I realize I’m painting myself into a corner. You’ll see in a moment how this is the case.
I’m convinced now that ordering the tasting menu at le Cinq was a mistake.
Why did we order the tasting menu?
There was foie gras with smoked eel. There were purple Breton sea urchins. There were scallops with green apple-wasabi rémoulade.
There was abalone.
It was a hit parade of my favorite foods and food combinations. Moreover, it seemed to nail that sweet spot between freakish experimentation and stodgy classicism.
I was right. And wrong.
Here is our tasting menu (CLICK HERE to see all of the photos, or the hyperlinks for the individual dishes):
Premieres Asperges Vertes du Luberon
Cuite “minute” au jus de volaille, truffe noire, gnocchi potiron, et palette de Jabugo
Foie Gras de Canard et Anguille des Sargasses
Au gengembre, lentilles verte de Puy, anguille fumée au Sancho, epinards de jardin
Ormeaux Bretons de Pleine Mer
Bouillon de poule, potimarron au beurre d’algues, meuniere au cresson
Noix de Saint-Jacques de Normandie
Mousseline de celeri-truffe, remoulade a la pomme verte avec wasabi
Agneau de Lait des Pyrenees
Au piment d’Espelette, noix grillees, gratin de macaroni au parmesan, caillé de brebis
Mont Blanc Façon George V
Tarte Souffle au Chocolat du Perou
Creme glacée a la gousse de vanilla
As a whole, the tasting menu lacked cohesion. The flavors did not flow. Compositions were unconvincing.
Individually, many of the courses were awkward, over-complicated, or clumsy.
“Ormeaux Bretons de Pleine Mer” was all three. It was a qualified disaster.
The presentation was busy and disorienting. Three preparations of abalone were presented on two different plates
I find these multi-plate presentations annoying. One knew not where to begin or end, or what the fourth item, an interloping chopped scallop tartare – served in an oyster shell next to the cup of foie gras-lemongrass broth – had to do with the other three.
Of the three abalone presentations, only the foie gras-lemongrass broth was memorable. It was rich – its warmth intensified the fragrance of the lemongrass. The interaction between the abalone and the broth also brought out an amazing sweetness in the flavors.
But the abalone, in all three presentations, was tougher than a Michelin tire. None of us could actually masticate more than a few bites. I soldiered through all of them, just to see if any of them were actually edible (and to taste each part). Sweet and silky, the scallops ended up being the best part of this dish, mocking and magnifying the chewiness of the abalone.
Our first course, “Consommé de Boef en Gelée,” was flavorful and possessed the technical clarity of its aspic kind. But, the tiny rounds of scooped vegetables (zucchini and carrots) suspended in the jelly were distracting. An essential component in my opinion, the horseradish, was lost; its foamed form lacking punch. So, too, was the caviar, which all but disappeared into the texturally similar aspic. Overall, I found this cold course to be a strange starter to a winter tasting menu. I think Briffard was longing for summer in the dead of winter.
Or, perhaps, spring? My Provencal friend reassures me that asparagus do sprout in the dead of winter there. They were the subject of our second course, “Premieres Asperges Vertes du Luberon.” Though the green logs were fat and beautiful, a couple of stems were just a tad woody. Like the abalone, this simple pleasure was suffocated by one too many elements. An otherwise colorful and flavorful collage of Jabugo ham and black truffle vinaigrette was plagued by bland fresh cheese and gummy pumpkin gnocchi. Needlessly pulled between winter and spring, this dish would have been better without them.
To say that our meal was an utter failure, however, is far from accurate or fair. Disappointments were interspersed with pockets of joy.
Our meal actually started off wonderfully. The champagne cart wheeled around and both Hue and Houston ordered Kir Royales. That was quickly followed by a basket of tempura shrimp, served as an amuse bouche. These were excellent. In fact, I’d say that they were the highlight of the meal. The shrimp were plump and the batter was light, crisp, and clean. They were served hot and seemed not to want a single condiment.
“Oursins Violets Cremeux a l’Ecume de Fenouil,” a warm sea urchin bisque topped with fennel foam, was also memorable. The soup was rich and complex and the sea urchins were incredibly sweet. They had the color of cafe latte rather than bright orange (that I’m used to seeing on sea urchins from Santa Barbara) or the slightly orange-brown (ones I’ve had from Maine).
And though warm versions of foie gras are generally not my favorite, “Foie Gras de Canard et Anguille des Sargasses” (foie gras and smoked eel) was a pretty fetching combination. The liver was seared (beautiful cross-hatch) and laid on a bed of soft green Puy lentils and topped with a slice of sancho-smoked eel. A rich, warm emulsion was poured around the whole (I believe it was a foie gras-lentil sauce).
Everything in this dish was perfectly cooked. The flavors were intense – the smokiness imparted by the eel took the lead role – and the dish was comforting, coddling on a winter night such as it was.
Save the cheese cart (“Assiete de Fromage”), which offered an impressive selection [The Comté here (aged 4 years) was especially good (a friend tells me that the restaurant gets it from the local fromagerie, Quatrehomme), especially when paired with a savory-smelling (like soy and bread yeast), but sweeter-than-honey glass of Malvasia. The Mont d’Or here was perhaps a bit young, but certainly acceptable.], the last half of the meal was pretty uneventful.
What with the lemongrass, gingerbread, and green apple-wasabi remoulade, I think the “Noix de Saint-Jacques de Normandie” was Briffard’s attempt at the exotic. Overwrought and frenetic, it was neither here nor there. Though it perfumed the scallops nicely, the fibrous threads of lemongrass skewered through the scallops really should have been removed before plating. The best thing on this plate ended up being the most classically French component: celeriac-black truffle mousseline.
Our last savory course, “Agneau de Lait des Pyrenees,” stayed safely within the boundaries of a French Pyranees inspired dish (what is it with the lamb-piment combination these days?). Both the lamb chops (rib, bone-in, double-cut, and paved with a thin layer of piment d’Espelette) and slice of loin meat, were juicy, tender, and flavorful. But the side show was better: tunnels of macaroni tubes gratinee with Parmesan (why not use a cheese from the Pyranees?).
A succession of vapid desserts left me utterly bored. The “Mont Blanc Façon George V,” which looked hideous, was, perhaps, only intriguing due to its mandarin orange twist. The “Tarte Souffle au Chocolat du Perou” was not only pedestrian, but essentially a hold-over from my first meal three years before under Legendre. They just changed the Columbian cacao to Peruvian cacao.
Though it was quite late, they wheeled out a large guéridon decked with petits fours.
Given our tanking appetites, we chose conservatively and they dished out generously, even packing up individual boxes of extras for each of us to take home. [I asked for cannelé , which were fantastic - crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside - and orangettes , a personal favorite.]
Notwithstanding our sommelier’s generosity, the wine selection was particularly great. Hue ordered the entire wine pairing, whilst Houston and I ordered two glasses each. However, noticing that I was particularly fascinated (and pleased) with his per-course pairings, the sommelier started pouring me a taste with each course. By the end of the meal, he was pouring full glasses for Houston and me.
Indeed, donning a thick coat of warm fuzzies, the service at le Cinq seemed to have rounded out the edges from my previous visit. Top to bottom, the staff was professional, extremely attentive, and quite amiable – even playful at times. We were having such a wonderful ride that time seemed suspended. Indeed, we were the last party to leave the restaurant, at nearly two o’clock in the morning.
I’ve certainly had worse meals in my life – but not many at this price (the tasting menu was 230 €, not including wine). The one real stinker (abalone) stank pretty badly. The rest of the dishes waffled between good and confused.
Despite the generosity [copious amounts of butter - salted and seaweed varieties - carved in towering pine cones; high quality extra virgin olive oil (I found this odd at my first experience too), and a bottomless bread to basket], execution was sloppy (there really was no excuse for the inedible abalone or the string left tied around Houston’s lamb loin). And flavors failed to harmonize.
Together our tasting progressed in awkward syncopation, a series of hiccups smoothed over only by spotless service and our own good cheer.
For an aspiring Michelin three-star (if that is what Briffard is trying to do), le Cinq fell far short. Having been very hopeful for redemption, this meal was deflating. I’m hoping the third try will be a charm.
Executive Chef Eric Briffard
Four Seasons Hotel