I had had a good run.
But sadly, my luxurious, two-week romp through restaurants in the U.K. and France was coming to an end. It was my last night in Paris.
Four years ago, I struck up a conversation with my server at le Cinq, who seemed quite informed about the upper deck of restaurants in Paris. I asked him which restaurant in Paris was currently at the top of its game. Unflinching, “le Bristol.”
Though I had reason to doubt my server – he wasn’t exactly competent or correct throughout my meal – I had no reason to doubt the countless praises from others for Chef Eric Fréchon’s cooking.
So, for my final gustatory hurrah in France, my friend Houston and I headed to le Bristol.
Four years ago, le Bristol was a Michelin two-star ascendant. And when I finally visited the restaurant in December of 2008, it was still in what I call two-star purgatory.
Was Fréchon stuck? Had the food stagnated?
The tasting menu looked fine, but the à la carte offerings seemed much more interesting. So, we each ordered three courses and split a fourth. Oh, and we had cheese too. It was my last meal in Paris. I had to have cheese.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. Click on the course titles for the individual photos.
Hibiscus gelatin, and whipped smoked haddock.
With black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras,
with grilled topping mature Parmesan cheese. (80€)
Veuve Clicquot Rose Champagne
Purple Sea Urchins
Simmered whilst in their shells with tongues
and sea urchin broth, a fine egg mousse. (74€)
La Percepteorie de Centernach, 2003
Sargasso Seas Eel
Sauteed meunière, a delicate mousse of fountain watercress,
a perfume of young garlic. (58€ – half-course).
Farm Raised Pig
Cooked from head to trotter, hand mashed “Ratte” potatoes, perfumed with black truffle. (89€)
Saddle of Venison
Pan-fried with juniper berries,
black truffle cannelloni stuffed with dried fruits and Jerusalem artichoke,
sweet potato with foie gras, and “Grand Veneur” sauce. (94€)
Grapefruit supremes with hibsicus soup,
grapefruit-Campari sorbet, and meringue twig.
A “Mikan” Tangerine
With a soufflé in a vintage Grand Marnier,
iced and poached in honey. (35€)
Ten Hours Oven-Cooked Apple
Iced cider sorbet. (35€)
Though I can’t say that any of the food knocked my knickers off, it was very good. Every dish we met was flawless.
Frechon’s food isn’t “stuck.” It’s straightforward and comforting – unfussy, updated takes on classic flavors and techniques.
The “Sargasso Seas Eel” was simple in its brilliance and brilliant in its simplicity.
The very soul of meunière, this dish was balanced in every way. I was especially impressed with the sophisticated and subtle use of garlic here. The fragrance of the garlic, round and sweet, had been coaxed out just so – you didn’t taste it so much as you sensed it. The garlic figured in three forms: slivers, foam, and the garlic scapes.
Texturally, the eel meat was springy and moist, with a crispy flour-dusted surface. The watercress mousse was warm and velvety, and the papery petals of fried parsley rustled like flakes of crêpe paper. With crunchy bits of toast tucked about, it was a dish for multiple senses.
The “Purple Sea Urchins” dish was exceptional.*
An exercise in hedonism for the sea urchin-lover, this dish capitalized on the best attributes of sea urchins – its briny sweetness and creamy texture. For those who don’t care for the flavor of sea urchin, this dish is not for you.
The two blanched shells, layered with a warm egg mousse, whole sea urchin roe sacks, and topped with a fluffy dome of whipped sea urchins, were served with two thin boards of toast and a little nugget of seaweed butter wrapped in cellphone like a caramel candy.
Step one: pave a layer of seaweed butter onto the toast. Step two: plunge your spoon down through the layers of creamy fluff and spread on toast. Whimsical, delicious, and possessing great finesse, this was a weighty culinary statement worthy of a three-star stamp.
A comforting progression from head to trotter, the “Farm Raised Pig” presented four cuts of pork, each done differently. Though I found the plating a bit clumsy – it looked like something a first-year culinary student might produce (the little lettuce spear coming out of the nostril hole bothered Houston to no end) – the components were very accomplished.
The sausage, pocketed with creamy pieces of sweet chestnuts, was exceptional. The trotter meat wrapped in cabbage was also very good. The meat inside was flecked with bits of melting collagen; this little ball almost sauced itself with its own natural juices and fat.
The (half) snout atop the mashed “ratte” potatoes was my favorite part of this dish. The entire piece was one soft piece of collagen edged with a slightly crispy surface. The accompanying potatoes were the kind that I like – waxy Rattes. This was a drier, stiffer mash, which I prefer to those whipped pools of butter and cream that plague so many high-end restaurants (you know, the kind that makes you wonder if the chef thinks their diners have no teeth – is it mashed potatoes or a sauce?).
Houston’s “Stuffed Macaroni” was simply a very well-prepared but otherwise ordinary dish made with extremely high-quality ingredients. What should have been a decadent work of carbs and fat fell a little flat for me.
As far as venison meat goes, Houston’s “Saddle of Venison” was extremely fresh and expertly cooked. Tender and wine-red within, the generous roll of saddle wore a lovely perfume of juniper berries. But Houston commented that this dish was a bit one-note. I agree. The sauce offered no contrast to the meat whatsoever. The overall tenor of the flavors leaned toward sweet. I wanted something salty to push against the mild sweetness.
Considered by itself, however, the black truffle cannelloni, served as an accompaniment, was the best bite of the night. Slices of black truffle were rolled around a filling of finely ground dried fruits and Jerusalem artichokes. Warm and creamy – very similar to ground chestnuts – the filling was interrupted by the occasional soft nugget of chopped walnut. The aroma of the black truffles at le Bristol ran circles around the rather lifeless stuff we saw at Michel Rostang earlier in the week.
The amuses bouche and petits fours were forgettable at best, although the nugget of pork, stuck on a stick and coated in a mustardy foam, was mildly revolting to me.
Bread, on the other hand, was very good. My olive bread stick, with a satisfyingly high crust-to-crumb ratio, was flaky and flavorful. The seaweed roll I tried was also delicious. And I’m positive I single-handedly cleared an entire basket of raisin-nut bread when the cheese trolley rolled around.
It wasn’t the most interesting collection and they weren’t the finest specimens to be found, but the cheeses I tried were decent. Generally, I found most of them a bit under-ripe save the Mimolette (extra-vieille) and especially the Epoisses, which sagged and oozed, ready for the eating.
Depending on the season, diners are seated in either a sun room with a view of the hotel’s manicured courtyard (summer) or a walnut-lined and chandelier-hung interior room adjacent to the lobby (winter).
The winter dining room could use a face lift. It goes for that frilly old-school look – as if Queen Anne happened on a good deal for velvet and floral prints and hired the designers at Disney to celebrate 1981. I daren’t say that it’s ugly. It certainly is not. But it’s a bit much and a bit old for me. It could use some pep and some new threads.
Despite the fact that our reservation was mysteriously misplaced, the restaurant’s staff was quite competent. But I can’t say that they were the most lively or most welcoming lot. Not as severe as the staff at l’Ambroisie, le Bristol’s front of the house was more sober than somber. This was service, but not much more.
The pre-dessert – a marriage of grapefruit and hibiscus – was refreshing if not a touch redundant. Perhaps Fréchon wanted to demonstrate that he could book-end our meal with a savory hibiscus amuse bouche and a sweet hibiscus pre-dessert? Either way, he failed to wow me. The grapefruit-Campari sorbet served with the hibiscus soup for the pre-dessert was the best part of that intermission.
Neither of the “Grand Cru” chocolate desserts or the “Pure Creations” desserts appealed to us, so we both opted for the two “Fruits this Season” desserts. Both fruit choices sounded wonderful, so I let Houston choose.
I think that the menu should have been translated to read something like: “A ‘Mikan’ Tangerine, With a vintage Grand Marnier soufflé, tangerine sorbet, and honey-poached tangerine.”
The bite of soufflé I had was eggy in both flavor and smell; the Grand Marnier completely lost.
The tangerine sorbet served in a hollowed-out tangerine peel perched atop a bright red pedestal of sugar, however, was great. The whole tangerine poached in an immensely fragrant honey was even better. In addition to giving off a lovely hit of vanilla, the honey had also been infused with gingerbread. With the tangerine, it worked wonderfully.
My “Ten Hours Oven-Cooked Apple” exceeded my expectations. This dessert made my list of top 10 desserts of 2008. The four cylinders of tightly rolled apples were spoon-soft, incredibly fragrant, and stained rosy from a good poach in wine (rosé?). The underlying pastry crust was studded with nuts and spiced with cinnamon and coriander. The cider sorbet slayed me – it was intense.
So, did le Bristol deserve the third star that Michelin finally awarded the restaurant just a couple of months after my visit? Having only had one meal there, it’s impossible to offer an enlightened opinion. Did our meal rise to the three-star level? I’d say our meal was two-star ascendant.
The morning after this dinner, whilst waiting to board my plane at CDG, I conducted a self exit-poll of my eating experiences in France and the United Kingdom. The food at le Bristol came in second, right behind Ledoyen. Clearly, I had been quite pleased with my dinner at the time.
But a year later, le Squer’s food at Ledoyen remains firmly planted atop my memory while le Bristol’s food has faded. And, despite being flawless in ways that others’ weren’t, it doesn’t quite shimmer and linger the way Passard’s or Pacaud’s food has managed to do. Nevertheless, le Bristol offers a very good meal. I like Fréchon’s comforting, non-nonsense approach to food. I’d recommend it.
Hotel le Bristol
112 rue Faubourg Saint-Honore
* Purple sea urchins, harvested from French waters, seem to have a briny sweetness that is missing from the sea urchins more commonly found in the U.S. In my experience, Santa Barbara sea urchins tend to be creamy and sweet, but not so briny, whereas Maine sea urchins, which I prefer, seem to be much more briny (and even a bit garlicky) as a opposed to sweet. The purple sea urchin, which has just a touch more iodine to its flavor, seems to occupy a middle ground.