Photos John Mariani
At the end of our dinner at les Ambassadeurs, we were alone in the room, and the remaining young staff offered us to take the coffee « in the lounge » in a way that made it a bit too obvious that they were anxious to have the room to themselves. As we complied with their unspoken request and were seating in that palace lobby, I could see through the glass doors those kids playing and throwing table cloths at each other. And in a way that strucks me as exemplar of exactly how fake, how cynical and desperate that place is. At no point during that whole, rather pleasant evening, did I have any feeling that anyone was actually genuinely trying to create a special moment for me.
It’s like it was all just a game. There seems to be a common belief of le Fooding and other Ratatouilles that fine dining is a ridiculous enterprise, impossible to take seriously, that in the end the only great food belongs to bistrots. It was like this belief had been fully integrated by Jean-François Piège and its staff, running the infinitely impressive restaurant of one of the most impressive palaces in the World.
So the only resource they have left is to be at the same time ironic and cynical about their business. So most Piège dishes are based on something else than making a good dish, a good meal, something pleasant. Here first courses pretend to be like a “TV platter”. There desserts are inspired from pictures in old books, when pastry was a subdiscipline of architecture. Somewhere else, spaghetti carbonara are on the menu – such a transgression!
Of course there’s nothing wrong with these ideas in themselves, and I am the last person to think that a good restaurant needs to be sad and pretentious. Thierry Marx did something really interesting when deconstructing the spaghetti carbonara. Loiseau used to serve stuffed cabbage. But I think it should be good, offer a valuable experience, not a post-modern parody of one.
Take this infamous “blanc manger d’oeuf à la truffe”. On the website of the Crillon, you can actually see Jean-François Piège prepare the dish. It shows an incredible technical mastering. The white are whipped at the exact right consistency, put in a cylinder, the yok is somehow inserted inside so it just floats in the middle. This is cooked with nano-precision, and a rosace of truffle, as you can see, is added on top, and a truffle sauce around it. Of course when you start the dish, you go into the white with your spoon like into thin air, but then you reach the yok and it somehow is just warm and runny. How do you that, O master Piège? Will I, young Padawan, pathetic Karate kid, ever reach that level of sophistication and skills?
Photos Steve Plotnicki
Of course nothing is bad here. One of the best things to my taste was the sweetbread “white and brown”, a very sophisticated construction, which is quite tasty, though by no mean otherwordly. The cooking is precise, though not perfect. And the presentation forces you to be creative – and careful – when eating it. A lobster dish was maybe one of the best things of the evening, inside a crispy cylinder, with a great lobster bisque on the side. It’s like a reminder that they could do great things if they wanted to.
But, you know, they’re over it, beyond that. They have menu holders and plants actually in pots, alive, for herbal teas at the end of the evening. So who needs actual top ingredients as long as they are fancy enough? Truffles were very tasteless, culminating in that double truffle salad dish. Cheeses, though from Master Anthony, were not great.
It’s too bad because they have incredible assets: this room is by far the classiest in town; it feels incredibly good. It is not as pretentious, pseudo-royal as le Meurice or Le Cinq, but it is genuinely, you know, grandiose. The wine list is full of classic wonders at reasonable prices (for a palace, that is). Dinner prices are as high as anywhere else, but the lunch menu features the same absolutely luxurious courses for an incredible bargain. If you’re interested in virtuosity for the sake of it and genuine fanciness, that is.
Desserts, plenty, not bad
It was nevertheless a very pleasant evening that we shared with the great Steve Plotnicki and his friends. He was kind enough to let me use his pictures of the dishes we had. I praise his name... and thank him.