review: through the looking glass..
From the first time I read about it years ago to the very last crumb of my meal there in December of 2008, Pavillon Ledoyen has struck me as a curiously magical place.
Like Wonderland, the unassuming Michelin three-star restaurant seems to defy many odds and good senses.
Nothing about it is what it seems.
Ledoyen boasts a storybook history stretching back over two centuries. Yet, Christian Le Squer’s cooking is refreshingly modern.
Located in the Carré Champs Elysees (just off of the busy Place de Concorde in Paris) and dwarfed by the Petit Palais, the restaurant is obscured by a line of trees. From the outside, this two-level building looks like one of those corporate event venues – a parkland retreat catering wedding parties with hot pan-buffets brimming with tired, rubbery chicken and limp asparagus. Decked in faux-frosted evergreens for the holidays, it looked even more garish than need be.
The inside, which could use a face-lift, doesn’t look much more promising. I’ve seen clubhouses with more energy and style.
But, despite the plain exterior and the predictably thematic interior decor, what lands on the tables there is anything but boring.
An encounter with Le Squer’s cooking is like stepping through the looking glass.
Betwixt “odd” and “whimsical,” I’m not sure which describes his food better.
More Seuss than Dali, Le Squer cloaks comforting and classic European fare in playful and imaginative guises without being freakish. He zebra-stripes turbot with black truffle purée. He builds fortresses out of noodles, hiding a creamy cache of jambon blanc.
The “Toasts Brûlés d’Anguille,” for example, looked like a fantastic creature you’d find on the other side of the rabbit hole: strips of eel riding on dark, “burnt” toast benches and wearing velvety, purple capes made of reduced red wine.
Together with the waxy potato squares with horseradish cream, the combination of flavors and textures were intuitively comforting – hearkening the austere and simple pleasure of smoked eel with potatoes and horseradish – yet capricious and fun.
* * *
Fortified by a hot shot of espresso at Ma Bourgogne in the Places de Vosges, Houston and I had spent a rather calm morning tunneling around the narrow streets of the Marais.
Scurrying over to Ledoyen, we found our two dining companions, Julien of Julot les Pinceaux and my good friend Hue, already seated and acquainted.
A flurry of introductions and re-introductions (Hue and Houston had met a few nights before at our dinner at le Cinq) included a gift presentation from Julien: a whole box of gigantic macarons from Gregory Renard. The staff didn’t let any time go to waste.
A slate of pre-meal snacks arrived: beet macarons (Houston pronounced them disgusting, I found them bland), tart and creamy passion fruit and foie gras croquants, truffle gelée ball, and the most amazing herb croquettes filled with liquid foie gras.
Menu negotiating ensued. Julien and Hue quickly settled on the Menu Dejeuner – three courses (with choices). I can’t blame them – for 88€, it was a fetching deal.
Julot and Hue ordered the same entree (first course) and dessert courses from the Menu Dejeuner; however, they chose two different plat principaux (main courses). Julien ordered the “Ris de Veau Rôti aux Salsifis,” and Hue ordered the “Gratin de Quenelles de Merlan.”
Houston and I chose to order our three courses à la carte. I focused mainly on the “Specialites.”
It didn’t take much cajoling to get Julien to join me in supplementing an additional course, which our server decided to present as our first courses.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal or on each dish for the individual photos. The last dish listed in each course section is the one I ordered.
Caramelised Onion Purée
Tuile, rosemary ice cream, and raisins.
Soufflé d’Oeuf (Menu Dejuener)
Tartuffi di Alba (135€)
Gnocchi légers a l’eau de Parmesan.
Pâté en Croute de Lievre (59€)
Gelée de cuisson.
Champignons, truffe, et spaghetti.
Blanc de Turbot de Ligne (105€)
Just braise, pommes rattes truffées
Gratin de Quenelles de Merlan (Menu Dejeuner)
Aux fruits de mer.
Ris de Veau Rôti aux Salsifis (Menu Dejeuner)
Crème de truffe.
Grosses Langoustines Brettones
Toasts Brûlés d’Anguille (65 €)
Reduction de jus de raisin.
La Première Douceur
Coffee gelée topped with white chocolate foam.
Pre-Dessert Petits Fours
Soufflé chaud Passion et Ananas (Menu Dejeuner)
Warm souffle of passion fruit and pineapple.
Tarte Rustique (29€)
Croquant de Pamplemousse Cuit et Cru (29€)
Au citron vert.
Post-Dessert Petits Fours
Rarely do amuses bouche have staying power. But the Caramelised Onion Purée we had at Ledoyen that day was unforgettable.
The raisins, which dotted the purée, were barely noticeable, jumping in intermittently only to heighten the sweetness of the smooth, purée caramelized onions. The rosemary ice cream was not sweet at all, but added tremendous depth to the overall flavor.
Bread service here is phenomenal. We were presented with an assortment including mini baguettes, rolls specked with speck, and rounds of brioche coated with sesame. My favorite, by far, were the squid ink-prawn rolls. Resembling large lumps of smooth charcoal, these dusty black rolls tasted somewhat like a Chinese shrimp cracker. The outside shell was quite flaky. The interior was moist. I want the recipe.
It being the season for hare, and hare being a rare treat for me, I could not resist the Pâté en Croute de Lievre. Unfortunately over-salted, the savory tart shell filled with very finely minced hare was otherwise fairly decent. The meat was flavorful and had not a trace of funk or game. The gelée, which crowned the pâté en croute, had a sweet and clean flavor.
Houston’s Tartuffi di Alba became the talk of the table. But it wasn’t the white truffles, unfortunately, that were getting the attention. The underlying bed of gnocchi “légers” were only gnocchi in shape. Texturally, they were like nubbins of spongy meringues. Julien had a choice descriptor for these gnocchi: “snot.”
Truth be told, that’s not far off; they did have a slimy, mucous-like texture. But I didn’t find the texture of the gnocchi off-putting.
What I found troubling were the white truffle shavings, which had been fanned out to form a canopy over the gnocchi. They were tired and dull, lacking aroma. Also, a surfeit of olive oil overwhelmed the dish, backseating the faint “l’eau de Parmesan” with a fruity, slightly bitter flavor (it was very good olive oil, but there was too much of it).
Julien’s and Hue’s “Soufflé d’Oeuf” from the Menu Dejeuner was, perhaps, the best first course at the table (and the cheapest). This warm, airy meringue dome secreted a runny egg yolk. The entire dish smelled like a truffle patch.
Julien has aptly described his second course – the “Jambon Blanc” – as a “noodle castle.” The patience involved in constructing this dish was tremendous. Vertically-raised strands of spaghetti fenced in a creamy ham and mushroom filling rife with black truffles. Indeed, the entire “castle” was glazed in a sauce flecked with black truffles and surrounded by a creamy moat. Bold, brash, and rich, this was an exquisite journey into hedonism.
Many marvel – and some have grumbled – at the simplicity of Le Squer’s “Specialites.” They were probably the least “different” of the dishes we encountered. But classics and comforts are nominated as such for a reason. Done well, they faithfully promise a rewarding return to familiar, past pleasures. This was the case with the two savory “Specialites” our table ordered.
Of Le Squer’s “Specialities,” the “Blanc de Turbot de Ligne” caught my fancy the most. This ingot of alabaster, striped with black truffle purée, rose above a frothy emulsion on a hillock of roughly mashed “ratte” potatoes with a creamy, truffled dressing (think potato salad – but with a truffle flavor). Though I know the merits of this dish have been debated and scrutinized among the self-styled “cognoscenti” — especially given its status as a Le Squer “Specialite” on the menu — I loved it.
For me, this dish’s success hinged in the texture of the fish. Le Squer clearly understands the nature of turbot. He cooked the fillet just how I like it: soft and barely set on the outside, leaving the inside opaque, warm, and silky. The waxiness and creaminess of those potatoes underfoot was a wonderful accompaniment. It certainly wasn’t mind-blowing, but it does make one yearn to crawl back in the womb in reverie.*
Houston elected a Le Squer “Specialite” for her primary course: “Grosses Langoustines Brettones.” This featured a giant, halved langoustine tail crowned with “pom poms” of langoustines rolled in (what appeared to be) shredded phyllo. Houston said that these “pom poms” were a bit over-salted.
I only tried part of the tail, which was extremely sweet and succulent. It was sauced with a thick, mayonnaise-like condiment kissed with citrus.
The two main courses from the Menu Dejeuner were successful. Julien’s “Ris de Veau Rôti aux Salsifis” offered a generous round of roasted sweetbreads on a raft of silky salsify. It was surrounded by a creamy truffle sauce.
The sliver I tried was quite good. Julien pronounced this dish “perfect,” finding it superior to the version of sweetbreads offered on the à la carte as a “Specialite” (which, having an acidic sauce, I had wanted to try).
Le Squer elevated the humble whiting – a junk fish in the U.S. – to noble status in Hue’s “Gratin de Quenelles de Merlan.” The quenelle, which was more of a disc of custard (much more soft and silky than fluff with bounce) was topped with an assortment of seafood – fish and shrimp, I believe. It was sauced with a rich gratin cream sauce. As with many of the other dishes, this was classic comfort food in a sophisticated form.
Le Première Douceur – a coffee gelée pre-dessert that relied solely on a the sweetness from a white chocolate foam – was how coffee desserts should be: dark and bitter with the sweetness residing in the creamy element, not in the coffee itself. This dish convinced me that Le Squer operates on my wave length.
This pre-dessert was curiously followed by a round of petits fours. These weren’t particularly memorable, though I do recall fancying the “Ile Flottante” – a fluffy square of meringue on a stick coated with crème anglaise.
The pastry chef at Ledoyen has a great taste for flavor, but a penchant for sharp edges.
The shell for the “Tarte Rustique” – a crown of spikes – for example, was too hard to cut, and, quite frankly, too dangerous to eat.
But the filling of meaty apples with a fragrant cider foam on top, was absolutely one of the most exquisite combination of flavors I’ve ever experienced – it was very floral, and yet, ringed in with a semi-circle of green apple coulis, the tart had a sophisticated and intense apple flavor.
Likewise, my “Croquant de Pamplemousse Cuit et Cru,” the only dessert “Specialite,” had excellent flavor. This stacked structure involved grapefruit sorbet layered with suprêmes of grapefruit, interleaved with sugar glass.
The base layer of the “croquant” was formed with a thick pavement of some of the best confiture of grapefruit I’ve ever had – thick, soft, smooth, and delightfully sweet. Sweet, bitter, and sour, it was perfect. Based on this wonderful composition of flavors alone, this dish was certainly deserving of being named a house “specialty.”
But the crisp parts of the “croquant” – those sheets of sugar glass – taken at the wrong angle, doubled as razors in the mouth. I don’t see how this dish could be done with puff pastry (the grapefruit sorbet would make the pastry soggy).
From the Menu Dejeuner, the “Soufflé chaud Passion et Ananas” presented a scoop of soufflé nestled between two wedges of sweet, warm pineapple. Passion fruit sauce radiated out from the center like rays of a sun. Together, it was a warm and wonderful trip to the tropics.
A Breton, Chef Le Squer ended our meal with Kouign Amann, a traditional yeasty pastry from his region encased in a caramelized sugar crust. Le Squer’s version was atypical in its form, but captured the spirit of the pastry. The cakes were accompanied by caramelized peanuts and caramel squares.
What makes Ledoyen great is not its service. It was friendly, but not particularly indulgent. I didn’t mind. What we did mind was being charged for four bottles of sparkling water that we neither ordered nor were solicited. At 6€ apiece, it was more a point of principal than pettiness.
And Ledoyen certainly cannot be accused of coddling with creature comforts. I wouldn’t characterize the restaurant as ugly or uncomfortable by any means. But it could use a polish.
Ledoyen is great because of Le Squer’s sensibilities. The food isn’t particularly creative or innovative. But the presentations were engaging, the execution exact, and the flavors were soul-satisfying.
Le Squer does not fuss or primp. You won’t find him weaving nuances or constructing dainty jewel boxes like his peer chefs. Though whimsical to behold, eyes closed, his brand of cooking strikes with a heavy dose of normalcy and familiarity.
Food aside, I found Chef Le Squer quite charming. He joined us for a brief chat after our lunch. Every bit of the mischief and curiosity displayed in his dishes was evident in his boyish spirit.
At the close of my trip to France, whilst waiting to board my flight at CDG, I thumbed an email to a few friends entitled “Rankings are highly subjective…” Based solely on the food, I ranked Ledoyen at the top. Though the others have been shuffled around since, nearly a half a year later, Ledoyen has not moved moved from its position.
But the food at Ledoyen pleased me the most. It was well-executed, delicious, and injected with a sense of childhood adventure and imagination.
Carré Champs Elysees
* You can see a video of Chef le Squer making this dish HERE.