Saturday, October 28, 2006

Le Pré Catalan

Original readers of this blog may remember in April that I toured Le Pré Catalan, a Lenôtre affiliated two-star restaurant (with attached hotel and reception halls) in the Bois de Boulogne. As part of this week's sous vide class I had the opportunity to eat there, which was lucky seeing as how I would never throw down that kind of money myself. If I had, I would have been disappointed. But since I didn't, I had a fun time in spite of the fact that the food was bizarre. The main dining room itself is about as grand as Versailles, not in size but in decadent gilt-everything luxury, which is certainly not my style and does little to make me feel at ease. However, the service was friendly, although quite involved, and not as fussy or stuffy as one might expect based on first impression. We started with champagne, moved on to Mâcon Milly Lamartine "Clos du Four" 2004, Lafan, and finally Côtes de Provence 2003 "Retour aux Sources," Pierre Mann. Here's a breakdown of the food.

Amuse bouche: what they called a "chaud-froid," a deep bowl with sautéed diced cèpes hidden beneath a foam, with a tiny pitcher of cèpe cream poured over at the table. I couldn't tell you which part was chaud or froid, as the resulting mixture was just warm, although to be fair we waited a few moments before digging in. Due to a childhood obsession with this product, I was immediately and forcefully reminded of Cambell's Cream of Mushroom! It tasted much better than that, to be sure, however it should have just been chaud-chaud.

First course: L'Étrille, preparée en coque, fine gelée de corail et caviar, soupe au parfum de fenouil... This was a small bowl of foamed shellfish soup (which supposedly had fennel, though I didn't detect it) with an accompanying spoonful of caviar whipped cream, and another plate with a small crab shell stuffed with crab salad and glazed with a caviar and coral aspic. The shellfish soup was very good, but the caviar in the cream was chewy and lacked the pop and brine that it should have had. The crab was sweet and tasty, but too mayonnaise-y and heavy for what you would expect, more American-style, I daresay.

Second course: La Saint-Jacques, cuite au plat, jus de pommes à cidre, crème de noix écrasées et torréfiées, fines lamelles juste tièdes, caviar et zestes de citron vert... These were scallops in three preparations: seared with toasted walnut cream and ground walnuts, seared with cider cream and a topping of chives and I think almonds (?), and thin slices forming "ravioli" stuffed with caviar (again) served warm with kaffir lime foam and zest. The walnut one was best, being subtly sweet but still earthy and rich. The cider one was almost as good, but the many chives in the topping were too harsh against the sweetly acidic cider cream. The last preparation was unremarkable. The caviar was imperceptible (though given it's lackluster appearance in the previous course maybe that's a good thing), and the brash, exotic kaffir lime flavor was unharmonius with the rest of the course.

Third course: La Sole, cuite au naturel, glacée d'un jus de soja épicé, poêlée de germes de soja, mangue fraîche légèrement acidulée... This was a piece of sole cooked sous vide with a soy-glaze poured over at the table, with a side of stirfried soy sprouts with caperberries. This was a bizarre concoction... the fish was supple but strangely dense, either from being too compressed under vacuum or perhaps from having been frozen (though I would doubt the latter), and the sauce was very salty and overpowering. There was a familiar taste to it that I couldn't put my finger on, and then I heard the teacher explaining that it had a base of browned butter. That was it, it tasted nutty and carmelised, but this was at odds with the strongly salty, tangy, almost miso-like character. The soy sprouts with caperberries were equally strange, to me an unsuccessful attempt at fusion. And as for the mangue fraîche légèrement acidulée (lightly pickled fresh mango), I think it was MIA.

Third course: Le Lièvre à la Royale, à la façon du "Senateur Couteaux," pâtes au beurre demi-sel... This was very incongruent with the rest of the meal, especially aesthetically. Like every other course, dishes topped with silver domes arrived at the table, and then a million servers flocked around and dramatically removed them in unison. However, this time we were not met with a shimmery foam or a dainty piece of fish. The gleaming domes lifted to reveal an amorphous hunk of meat (braised wild hare) obscured underneath a dark, even murky, blanket of blackish-purple blood sauce (and a micro green stuck on top). If the preceding course had seemed salty, this one put it to shame. And I normally don't have a big prejudice against blood, as I've come to enjoy a well-made boudin noir every once in a while, but this sauce was finely grainy and slightly livery tasting... in other words, not very appealing. In addition, despite the wine philistine that I am, it was clear that our Côtes de Provence didn't have the body to stand up to this dish. A tiny side portion of five (!) tubes of penne pasta completed the course.

Cheese course: This was easily the best part of the meal! A massive trolley was wheeled over (see last photo, above) and everyone in turn told the server their personal cheese preferences. There were at least a good twenty or so varieties. His selection for me consisted of Brin D'Amour, 1/2 a piece what I believe was Cabécou, a very pungent hunk of either Langres or l'Ami du Chambertin, and three other fairly strong soft cheeses. Delicious.

Dessert: Another strange Americanish concept... Tartelette fondante servie tiède au peanut butter [yes, this is what the menu said], chouchou, banane écrasée parfumée au rhum... This was essentially a little tart shell filled with what seemed to be little more than warm mashed banana and peanut butter. A shaving of peanut nougat sat beside it, and a paper cone (the "chouchou") of carmelized hazelnuts in a holder on the side. Weird. I'm not sure what the French at the table thought about it, but our British-American-Korean cluster wasn't impressed. Coffee (decent but not great) and pretty dishes of mignardises followed, with various chocolates, pâte de fruit, marshmallows, candied nuts and tiny tartlettes.

So, there you have it. It was an interesting experience, and this time the price was right. But what does the paying public think? I'm guessing our lunch would have costed at least 150 euros a pop. Do people line up just because there's two stars, or are they really loving it? I think my familiarity with American and Asian flavors perhaps tainted the meal. Although that shouldn't matter, good should taste good despite our personal associations. Or maybe Paris is rubbing off on me and I just can't help but be another party pooper.

All my photos of the meal can be seen here.

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