The regal meal in Paris I've been waiting for What would you do if every cocktail on the menu was a 10euro minimum, the entrées list for no less than 15 euro each, the main plats abound environ 35 to 40 euros a pop, a 3 course wine rainbow that no, you cannot find at the supermarché, bottled water with the restaurants own name on it, waiters that pour the water and bring you unordered appetizers--what would you do? Cut and run? Hopefully. What would I do? Bring it! this one is on the house! You see--I am a very important food writer and restaurant critic, I am called in all over the city and begged to come and dine in 5 stars every week for free just as Anthony is, they say to me, we would have thought of calling Monsieur Bourdain, but when we heard you were available...
Get your head out of the clouds. But then how did you? How did? Easy. Get to know a chef.
Perhaps, moreover hopefully, some of you remember months back my invitation as "photographer" to a friends big culinary school graduation final dinner. Non? pas grave, you can go there now. The post was Vive Le Mexique--the story of culinary student g-mo, a friend and (obviously) fellow foodie who studied culinary arts earlier in the year at Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres de l' académie de Versailles after culinary school in Mexico, and has since held an intern position in the kitchen at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe Hotel. Chouette. It all makes sense now eh?
Finishing his internship this upcoming week, g-mo as an employee was invited to dine in the restaurant where he had never eaten, never even been into the dining room of--all in the accompaniment of a little friend. And therefore when we the doomed singles of the culinary world (note: I say we, not that this wanna-be is claiming to be a chef, not at all, but food writers and side-line bakers manage to weasel their way into the cooks class. if they try hard enough) cannot enjoy a romantic dinner setting, well, romantically--we turn to the next best thing (better even?) a fellow foodie. That is where I enter. Let's lock and load.
Meeting up for dinner at 7, we sit in the the hotel's front patio, what i call the "cocktail terrace." It is nice to have the bar tender know you--by default he knows who i'm with so I get the glow too--as well as the waiters and waitresses. I order a Rose, because well, I'm a wine-o. Fantastique! is all I have to say after my customary pallet of under 10euro bottles from Nicholas'. The Safran restaurant at the Hilton is a somewhat under-cover (French style) of Asian fusion--pretty much they attempt to incorporate saffron into every dish, but they do try to put a little "international" twist on things.
The waitress, in bright floral "tropical" dress returns to offer more drinks, "our special cocktail tonight is a caiperina," she urges, "and you can choose what fruit flavor you would like--and even hand select the berries." Caiperina? How did she know my favorite cocktail. I'll have the red berries please madame. Sitting on the cocktail terrace we discussed "the biz" like i was a part of it for nearly two hours. And I take biographical notes like a reporter. Caipirinas drained, and hunger rising, we snake our way through the restaurant and out onto the central dinner patio adorned in crisp white linens, shade umbrellas, ice buckets of chilled champaign, and a lovely lady playing a colossal blue harp. chouette!
The waiter comes--hey man! (hand clap shake, thing, only the French equivalent) and hands us the menu. Now, as the very proud and hot headed person I am, I never let anyone order for me. I know what I like, and what do you know of it? But, if you happen to be eating with someone who intimately knows most of the dishes, sauces, plate, cremes that come tearing out of the kitchen door--order what they tell you to order. The recommendation: the duck. Cooked in red wine, turnip, and pear reduction. Ok, sold. For entree our waiter recommends for my "fondness of fish" the salmon in a sweet cream sauce. The wine--the man appeared double time as sommelier--French white for entree to fuse well with the fish, and for main an Argentinian red. Argentinian red? I questioned him, Argentinian? You don't want Argentine wine? he asks, well, I start as I search my head for why an automatic 'oh come on Argentina?' response would ever pop into my head...no it's not that--for some reason I feel, hey well don't you have anything French? This one is the best to go with your duck. Argentinian wine it is then monsieur!
The salmon was impeccable rubbed in the sweet creme sauce. Atop the creme, you will notice, is a long thin tuille sprinkled with chili powder, a recent addition to the dish since the employment of a certain new intern, bravo! that's his tuille! his tuille, a lasting impression that after one "experiment dish" was sent out--the rest were asking for it. I will tell you now that g-mo's passion is not exactly a station master in a kitchen--but rather the pastry arts.
The duck was cooked perfectly. Everything was cooked perfectly--despite both tables unhappiness with it to our right and our left, ungrateful snobbish americans and brits whose extensive knowledge on the matters of the culinary arts sent lectures of "this is how its done" with the belittled waiter back into the kitchen. "My steak should arrive with the rest, i don't care if i was the only one with an appetizer, that's how i want it, not three minutes after everyone else, take it back i want nothing!" listening to my country men blundering around me in english, disrespecting not only the wait staff, the food, but also the chef, is enough for me to want to get up and strangle the fat bastard. Do you know how hard they are working back there!
And then to your right you have "my son doesn't like sugar. Bring him a juice without sugar" and "This is not how sole is cooked, let me tell you how this fish should be cooked, I am a bleeding expert." Witnessing such embarrassment only makes one feel even more patriotic for the kitchen staff. The nerve! the nerve! I whisper in French, as we discuss how the customer has no say on how fish, chicken, and pork dishes are cooked--beef is your only say. So shut your mouth you carp! But nothing can be done--the customer is always right, and that beautiful piece of perfectly cooked fish is sent back and tossed, so Sir Winston can have a piece of boiled rubber. The waiter may grind his teeth and send curses and plagues on the schmuck and his family after work hours--but during them, during them is to bow, to apologize, and to please. People are people, and in the end--all that should matter to me is that I severely enjoyed the meal.
The meal ended with the new summer desesrt menu--and hands down what was chosen (by both of us) was the coconut milk and mango creme brulee. That is an intenational flavor fusion which sends me to bed happy as a clam. When everything was cleared and lo and behold where did the last 4 and a half hours go! we thank the waiter, and ask if I can go into the kitchen. The kitchen. Eh, oui, but no photos---put that thing away. Yes sir. A meal is not complete unless you venture back to see from whence it came! And was it complete? Yes. It was excellent. I recommend anyone not on a budget dine there.
Restaurant reviews are a tricky thing to grasp. Who cares about what someone thinks eh? I used to think so myself. However, I find myself more often than not in a restaurant analyzing everything, from the size of the room, the type of diners seated around me, the estimated heads per night, the envisioned goings on in the kitchen, what is the chefs favorite thing on the menu to produce, the correlation between prices and how good i can actually expect this fish to taste, the waiters attitude toward their connection with the establishment, do i have a knife and a fork, and after the meal, after all of this i can then say if I had a good experience or not, and if I would take you there. That's all that matters, would I take you there. That is a restaurant review.
To say it plain, I am very honored by my friend to have been invited to such an evening as someone who understands food life. It is quite the compliment, and finally a reassurance. While perhaps, to some well-off readers out there who are used to dining in upscale black-tie joints this one may appear slightly too casual--but for me, for me it was a little magic. Thank you friend. And we here at the Salty Cod wish your culinary career every possible success, to your own restaurant, and your dream of travel and becoming a grand pâtissier! Wherever it may be, know that the Salty Cod Bakery will always be a sister pâtisserie to yours.