Friday, July 13, 2007

Paris Restaurants, Part Deux

Sending A Message To Senderens:
Get SOMEBODY To Wait On Your Tables

Having your staff walk quickly around the dining room is not a substitute for service, if they don't actually stop at the table (MY TABLE) ever.

An eagerly awaited dinner at Alain Senderens' self-named restaurant turned into a waiting game to see just how long it would take for a human being to acknowledge our presence before we got up and left.

We were received appropriately as we entered the restaurant and we were shown our table right away, but the attention stopped there. No waiter, no busperson and certainly not the Maitre D’ approached us or even came close. The service around us was painfully slow as well, but they, at least, had some bread to gnaw on and a sip of water to keep them busy. We had nothing; no bread, no water, no menus, nothing but a growing sense of unease.

As I looked at my watch, I kept thinking about the single best meal I had ever had in my entire life...and that was 12 years ago, IN THIS VERY SAME PLACE, when it was Lucas Carton, a temple of unparalleled culinary excellence.

WHAT had transpired in those years to bring us to the point of walking out in a fit of haute cuisine deprived rage? Well, the first thing that happened was about those Michelin stars. Lucas-Carton was a 3 star restaurant with Alain Senderens at the height of his culinary mastery. He got sick of the whole Michelin system and what it took to obtain and then keep those stars.

"I want to do something different that will be three-star in my heart."

"I want to simplify my cooking, allow myself more liberty and reduce the average check at Alain Senderens to €100. I cannot do this with the level of efforts required to maintain the three-star status."

And so he downsized Lucas-Carton to follow a more informal approach. Knowing this, I was not expecting a grandiose 3 star experience. But I did expect to be allowed to look at a menu and maybe have a sip of water.

When a waiter approached in MINUTE SIXTEEN, I was really ambivalent about whether to stay or go. My husband could go either way. (Remember his bruising experience at L'Arpege, so a croque monsieur would have been fine with him.)

One more thing, I don't go to a restaurant to complain and moan. I can do THAT just fine at home. Nine times out of ten, I will never express displeasure for bad service or a problem with the food. HOWEVER, this time I could not be silent. I looked at the waiter, gosh, he was cute, and I said, kind of laughing (but not really) WHAT is going on? We have been sitting here longer than 15 minutes and absolutely NOONE has offered us a menu, a drink or water? WHAT is happening? He smiled his crinkly smile, apologized profusely and, like a cheated-on inamorata, I fell for it. He was FRENCH after all. The meal proceeded apace after that.

We started with a Raviole de Légumes de Printemps, which was slightly cooked spring vegetables piled in between sheets of pasta, served with a basil foam. It was a lovely presentation, but the flavor was…how you say in French?...BLAH. Yup, that’s right. There was no spark…to be honest, it could have used salt. Sorry, but it’s true.

Our other starter was Langoustines Croustillantes. Now THIS, THIS is what I was waiting for. They was crispy, crunchy, deep but yet delicately fried, sweet crayfish, served with a miniature bok choy. The crust of the langoustine was a perfect counterpoint to the soft, almost silky, texture of the bok choy.

I often require my husband (and me) to draw a line through the middle of each plate as it’s served to us. Then we share, knowing that we each have EXACTLY half of each course. Obviously, that way we can taste more things, EXCEPT when I don’t want to. I didn’t want to this time with our main courses. Mine was Gambas Poêlées aux Epices Thaï, Sautéed Prawns with Thai Spices and I wanted it all (I did let H taste it). It was DEE-licious. They were perfectly seasoned, no lack of salt here, cooked to perfection. One even wanted to crunch on the tails. (Well, I did anyway.) The polenta, served alongside, was accompanied with the unusual Mostarda di Cremona, which is not actually mustard, but an Italian specialty of fruits cooked WITH mustard seeds, as well as sugar. It gave a sweet and slightly sharp zing to the dish.

Hubby’s main course was Tartare de Veau de Lait et Langoustine or a Veal and Crayfish Tartare. I tasted it. Smooth, rich, but I like a bit of manducation with my entrée.

The first dessert, Dacquoise au Poivre de Séchouan, didn’t disappoint, although I didn’t think that the Szechwan peppercorn was particularly evident in the meringue. The Ginger Ice Cream that accompanied it was perfect. It had that slightly stinging, unmistakably gingery flavor - a wonderful partner to the dacquoise. The Assortment of Ice Cream and Sorbets, (vanilla, ginger, mango, lychee, chocolate), offered plenty of diverse tastes with which to end the meal. Ginger and Lychee were my favorites. Best of all the bill, although high at 226 euros, didn’t leave either of us apoplectic.

All in all, the food was mainly excellent, the setting was attractive and comfortable and not overformal. But, malheureusement, the lack of service at the beginning of the visit, although perhaps forgiven, was not completely forgotten.

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