Holding court on the avenue George V just off of the posh designer bagatelle-pedaling boutiques along the Champs Elysees, is the Paris’ Fours Seasons Hotel. Inside, is a fabulously light and airy dining room in which resides the famous “Le Cinq.” Headed by chef, Philippe Legendre who gained his third Michelin star in 2003, the restaurant has garnered numerous praises from critics all around. Unfortunately, my visit did not encourage me to join the crowd.
Torn between the (relatively) cheap three-course lunch menu (“Menu du Marche” at 75 €) and the chef’s recommended “Decouverte” menu (at 120 €), I decided to splurge upon the urging of my server. (Mistake #1)
Before anything got started (including ordering), a buttery brioche sandwiching a meager bit of garlic-sauteed spinach. This amuse bouche was presented for the diner to take directly from the server’s tray and eaten… which I found awkward given that the menu was presented at the same moment… making for a rushed experience – as well, greasy fingerprints on the menu.
My first course was a cut of foie gras terrine speckled with bits of Perigord truffles. It was accompanied by a lacy necklace of quince jelly. A little “cake” of poached pears sat to one side. The course came with some warm buttery brioche toast. It was all very underwhelming. Other than the presentation, the “necklace” of quince jelly being the only highlight, the terrine was terribly uninteresting.
Second course presented four modest cuisses des grenouilles bathing in a pool of truffle butter with dices of Jerusalem artichoke (ie. sunchoke). My server also presented me with a little lemon-water bath and towel for my fingers – which were indeed needed to eat this dish. The thigh meat was a bit tough, but the sunchoke was nice. Also, I failed to taste (or smell) any hint of truffle in the butter sauce.
The third course is where everything decidedly went south. When my server presented this dish, it was so hot, that he was unable to lift it off of the tray. In fact, he left the other server holding the tray while he ran to get a towel. Adequately protected, he presented the dish and uncovered the cloche, revealing three modestly-sized sea scallops in “truffle jus” on a bed of lentils.
I quickly discovered that the “modestly-sized” sea scallops, which had been caramelized, were probably much larger when they were fresh, as the first cut revealed way-too-overdone meat. Stringy and chewy, the scallop muscle had “tightened” under the heat – I suspect, as a result of sitting under (or on) a heater for quite sometime – which explains why my server couldn’t properly present the place without scalding himself. I found the scallops so inadequately chewy that I actually considered returning the plate. In fact, when my server came around to check on me, I voiced my disappointment. His response, “oh, that’s too bad,” and abruptly left.
Even without the overdone meat and bad service, this dish failed. I tasted no truffle, and lentils were grainy and hard.
For my next dish, I had a choice between veal or wild wood pigeon from Landes. I chose the pigeon (Mistake #2). I suppose I’ve not mastered the art of appreciating the French way of preparing this bird (or any other fowl), as I’ve never liked eating it. I find that the Chinese have a better way with fowl meat – especially duck and pigeon, both, which I fail to appreciate in French/European establishments. So why did I order it? Because – I was hoping Legendre would make a believer out of me. I was wrong.
My cut of pigeon, was presented bone-in and came with a lemon-water bath for my fingers. Accompanied with “turnips sauerkraut,” it was sauced, unappealingly, with a “Basque-style jus.” This dish was thoroughly disappointing. Unlike my scallops and cuisses, the meat was a bit cold… the skin had completely sogged-out. The sauce, as well, tasted like watered down bar-b-que sauce that had been wrung through a dirty dish towel. Bad, bad, bad…
The highlight of this course was the side of artichoke hearts and vegetables that came with this dish. The vegetables were nice and buttery and had a hint of vinegary tang that brought out the artichoke’s flavor. Pre-dessert was a large shotglass of vanilla cream and quince jelly topped with diced fresh apple and powder-sugared ‘crisps.’
My dessert was a Columbian coffee soufflé tart. It was accompanied with a quenelle of coffee ice cream. Though beautiful, this dessert failed – surprisingly as chocolate and coffee desserts are my favorite. The presentation was stunning, but the soufflé was underdone – upon cutting in, it completely collapsed into a liquidy mess, which tasted very much of underdone egg – a sign that the soufflé had not properly set. I left this half-eaten and finished off the ice cream. This couldn’t compare with with a similar dark chocolate and walnut tart that I had at Le Bernardin in New York last fall (2004) or the outstanding souffle tart tasted at La Bourgogne in the Palace Alvear in Buenos Aires in February (2005).
The mignardises trolley was a sore consolation for my ill-prepared food, cold service and hefty price tag. I agree with one eGullet poster’s assessment of this restaurant – he described it as “assembly line” haute cuisine.
Just as a note – had I gone with the 3-course Menu du Marche, I would have been presented with a choice of three or four options for each course. As well, judging from the dishes I saw presented at other tables, they looked much better. Sea scallops with a mound of fresh greens salad, generous cuts of fish for mains, and delightfully capricious desserts. As well, the lunch diners were offered an extra amuse gueles of raw tuna in a ginger curry broth not presented to me. Lunch diners were also presented with a pre-dessert (same as on my menu) and the petite fours/mignardies trolley. All that for 40 € less…
Admittedly, this was my second Michelin 3-star restaurant experience, and my first in Paris. Perhaps it was my fault for not being sophisticated enough to appreciate overdone scallops, cold pigeon, and soupy soufflés. Regardless, I will agree with one very astute gourmand who observed – “the problem with life on the cutting edge is that one can be left bleeding.” Le Cinq left me dripping all the way to the bank…
Le Cinq **
Hotel Four Seasons
31 avenue George V
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.