On the heels of a devastatingly disappointing three (Michelin Guide Rouge)-starred experience, I suppose nothing could be that disappointing. If anything, the latter experience should gain a bit of post-disappointment “boost.” But, to be completely honest, I don’t think that had anything to do with my spectacular lunch at Carré de Feuillants. Alain Dutournier’s two-star establishment is hidden in an unassuming (and rather unattractive) shopping court in the Place de Castiglione. Just a block away from the very haute Place de Vendôme, One could easily walk past its outer doorway without knowing the gastronomic genius happening inside. Pity…
The restaurant’s interior is trés moderne and belies its rather classic façade. I don’t remember their being any windows (ie. natural light), as the restaurant’s dining room was within a larger commercial shopping “court.” Contemporary art, black wood, grey accents and white linens dominated the décor. The silverware was a bit odd – not elegant, nor particularly sleek. Actually, I would describe them as crude and primitive looking… a bit Ikea-ish.
Fearful of dropping another bucketful of money on a disappointing meal, I took the safe route and stuck with the very affordable (for Paris) 3-course “Lunch Menu” at 65€. Each course presented three choices. But, before I could even consider the options, I was immediately “greeted” with an avalanche of delightful, decidedly Mediterranean, tapas-like amuses: marinated green olives; neat little squares of mozzarella, basil and tomato puree; pureed tuna in a pasta shell with roasted red pepper oil; and my favorite – deep fried whole small fishes. These little pre-meal snacks were so tasty and beautiful that I had a hard time concentrating on the menu.
Detouring momentarily from the Mediterranean theme, the amuse guele presented a large shotglass of crab and sea urchin cream. This little parfait also included a layer of lettuce crème and was topped with crème fraiche and a sprig of dill. The minced crabmeat had been incorporated with the sea urchin, and together with the tangy crème fraiche, refreshing hints of lettuce and a bright splash of dill refreshed my palate from the oily heavy amuses that preceded it. Brilliant!
Entrée choices included a foie gras terrine, carpaccio of prawn, and stuffed chiperones. The latter two intrigued me the most. I was hesitant on the chiperones at first because I had great grilled squid in Spain a month before – and Paris didn’t seem like the appropriate venue for the experience… but, going on the server’s recommendation, (and in line with the apparent Mediterranean leanings) I opted for the chiperones stuffed with pigs feet and lobster.
Out came a gorgeous triplet of fat baby squid lined in a neat row. These plump beauties had been grilled to perfection – extremely tender, they gave easily to my gentle plying. Each had been generously stuffed with a moist and flavorful mix of minced lobster and pig’s feet. Amazingly, the delicate lobster flavor stood up to the hearty pied de cochon – and both contributed equally to the savory party.
I bathed the beauties in the citrus-curry foam and swaddled each bite with sautéed leeks with chips of bacon. I was confident that Dutournier’s handling of these chiperones could stand up against the best tapas chefs in Spain. (Note: although I was ecstatic about my choice, I considered returning the next day to try the carpaccio of prawn, which looked excellent as well.)
Les plats principaux presented a choice of sea scallops, grilled sweetbreads or saddle of venison. Although I love scallops, I wasn’t ready for another chewy disappointment (see Le Cinq). Sweetbreads seemed a bit heavy at the time – so I chose saddle of venison with foie gras and bitter chocolate sauce.
The venison came with a side of “eggplant caviar” (not mentioned on the menu). I informed my server that I was allergic to eggplant and he immediately returned the dish to the kitchen. It was some time before my venison reappeared, which may account for the dry and rubbery state of the foie gras on top (I suspect it had sat under a heating lamp while the chef changed out the eggplant). The meat, however, had, thankfully, remained tender – thanks, no doubt, to the foie “sweating it out” on top. As well, the venison also benefited from the lusciously dark chocolate demi glace, which moistened each bite.
A wonderful mélange of sautéed wild mushrooms had replaced the eggplant. As well, I enjoyed the little rectangle of celeriac polenta topped with bits of toasted almonds – another Mediterranean element. Other than the rubbery foie gras, this was a solid course – nothing complicated, but immensely satisfying.
I don’t remember the dessert choices. I’m pretty sure that some chocolate creation was offered. I believe that a vacherin was another option. I chose vanilla-grilled pineapple. Three meaty chunks of pineapple had been skewered and grilled on a whole vanilla pod. They were slightly caramelized over with a spicy syrupy vanilla glaze and came with a peppery gingerbread wafer. This dessert also featured a chilled piña colada mousse. The cold airy treat offered a refreshing wakening from the dark and warm flavors of the pineapples.
Service had been efficient at times and aloof at others… (drinks were not always promptly topped-off – I had to pour my own on a few occasions, and no one, that I remember, bothered to ask how my meal was progressing) noticeably deteriorating as the dining room filled up. How any fine dining restaurant could possibly let service slip is a mystery to me as French restaurants of this caliber are renowned for their astronomical staff-to-client ratios; this one was no different. As well, I didn’t get the feeling that the lackluster service was due to my “American” factor. Indeed, all of my servers were very pleasant and accommodating – when I had their attention.
I did, however, notice the staff snap into a top-form once Dutournier came out to mingle with the diners. Surprisingly, he spent a great deal of time talking with the tables… stopping at a few for a good fifteen minutes. This, I found burdensome on the guests’ meal – especially as dishes were presented and sat getting cold while the diners conversed with the chef.
Petits fours were cute and simple. Raspberries on little tuilles, chocolates and lavender marshmallows. Also, with the bill, 65€ for the food, came a dish of chocolates.
Fortified and redeemed from my terrible meal the day before, I was ready for a leisurely stroll through the Tuileries. It was an unseasonably nice late-autumn day. Afterward, it being a Friday, I entered the palatial Musee du Louvre and spent the rest of the evening exploring the more remote parts of the labyrinthine structure. A wonderful end to a most gastronomically satisfying day!
Carré de Feuillants ****
14 rue Castiglione
+33 (0)1 42 86 82 82
– 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.