Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Le Cinq, Paris

Events of Saturday, August 29, 2009. 12:30 PM. Roughly.

This plan to squeeze in a lunch in Paris on the way to a week in Barcelona was a pretty silly plan. Leave Tokyo at night, arrive in Paris under cover of dark (4 AM!), sleep for a few hours, stroll, chocolate...extravagant lunch. And all under the pretext that we had to fly to Barcelona through Paris anyway, so why not make the most of it?

The truth is, I had been reading luxury-dining blogs all year and wanted to make my own tiny dent in the list of wonderful-looking places I had read about (which the subsequent Spain reservations would help with). My goal was to have an excellent lunch in a very grand room, not necessarily to have the best food ever, since there was time for that later in the week, later in the year, and beyond. There are a few sites that I like the best because they seem to have an authentic love of food and less focus on star-collecting. One of these is Ze Julot, and one of his favorite chefs is Eric Briffard, who now leads the operation at the Four Seasons George Cinq's flagship restaurant, Le Cinq.

It's convenient that this is one of Julot's favorite places, because it's also one of the few at this level that was open for a Saturday lunch in late August. Ledoyen - closed. Lasserre - closed. That was the two top choices done. Arpege - closed. Savoy - closed. l'Ambroisie - closed (a relief, given the prices). Les Ambassadeurs was open and I booked it (despite them not having a lunch menu, meaning full dinner prices), but then Piege quit and suddenly they wrote to say they were closed. Senderens was open but somehow uninspiring. That left Le Cinq, which I was actually very excited by.

These pictures are all by way of introduction since they're what you'd see on the way to the restaurant after driving down the Champs Elysee and turning on Avenue George Cinq just before the Arc de Triomphe (packing in lots of Paris icons in one short ride!).  Above, we had the back hall and the lobby restaurant, and here's an example of the extravagant flower arrangements that the hotel is known for - extravagant not in a single bunch like this, but when strategically placed in clusters of 50...much more so. Unfortunately this week's choice was these green gladiolas; not the most eye-catching, but certain bold in their own way.

Here we are then, 'at table' and prepared for luncheon. The champagne trolley duly wheeled by and we duly submitted to a glass (note that this spoils the value equation immediately) while considering the room and the menu. Both are quite good. The room owes its grandeur to the huge ceilings, full-length mirrors and portraits, massive flower arrangements and suited staff, while the menu posses considerable power by offering a choice of 4-5 items for each of the 3 courses, all for E75 (this is good, honest; the prior booking at Les Ambassadeurs was EUR 230, hence my relief that they cancelled it.). The staff here were perfection - exactly my definition of service. The maitre d' looked like an important corporate CEO from a movie. My camera, on the floor in an attempt to look less stupid between courses, was immediately cushioned with a footstool. The team took all of 5 minutes to understand that we wanted friendly and fun service rather than reserved and formal, and we were off.

Of course, we were off with a slow start. Not that there was anything wrong with this basket of fried shrimp, but good lord what a heavy way to start lunch. On a light day in a beach town, you could eat one of these by yourself with a beer and call it a meal. They were good. We forged ahead...

Into the Land of Butter. This Tower of Dairy was every bit as huge as it looks, which is why my camera was knocked sideways. No fancy logos, no branded butters, just quantity. The table flower was this green orchid under glass, echoing the main arrangements.

The only thing that could have been more frightening than the Mayan pyramid of bovine secretion would of course be...
A second one, thoroughly mixed with chopped seaweed. In truth, the salty, oceanic flavor of these was one of the best things about lunch. Did I say 'these'? That's because after we ate about 1/4 of it, they took it away and gave us a new one. It was like eating seawater-buttered popcorn - you couldn't stop. I think there were 5 or 6 varieties of bread, but I purposely kept my ears closed and my mouth pure in a bid not to overeat.
Because the food had started coming. Tip: the 3 courses you order from the menu has little relevance to the progression of food you receive. I expected this, but my 'dining companion' (as Dominic always says) perhaps did not, which led to some BCPs. IT people among us may think of these as Business Continuity Procedures, but you and I of the dining world know them as Bread Consumption Problems. At left some sort of spherical raviolo topped with duck ham (ham, good; other thing, not so much; maybe it was even a potato and I just don't remember) and a cute piece of salmon wrapped with shiso and ginger and lightly grilled to cook the fish and crisp the wrapper. That was very good.
I think this was mango mousse topped with pepper mousse, but it was forgettable. Throughout these meals, I took pictures of everything and told myself that if I couldn't remember what it was when I got to the writeup, it wasn't really worth writing up. Still, a nice picture. If a bit artfully crooked.
I think this was a big tranche of foie gras grilled to perfection and sided by cunning towers of roasted melon topped with fresh almonds, but I can't quite remember.
I kid, I kid. I had a sinking feeling that this was not the best foie I was going to eat on this trip; it wasn't overly flavorful as livers go, and it was honestly a bit thick so that the perfectly-sauteed exterior was somewhat overwhelmed by the soft interior. But there were crunchy bits sprinkled on top that genuinely provided contrast, and this saved it for me. It turned out to be the best foie of the trip because it was the only foie of the trip, quel horreur. You can just see the slices of melon underneath.  I really can't remember what the green stuff was; looked spinachy.
These are most certainly cylinders of roasted melon topped with fresh almonds and foam. Lemongrass foam, I think. I'm given to believe that this sort of light, fresh presentation is very Briffard. Given statements like that, you should expect to see flowers soon...
Ah, there they are! Razor clams with chopped garlic and vegetables, fresh almonds (thankfully they petered out after this dish, as opposed to El Bulli where the whole dinner was nut-dependent. Actually you could argue that it's a nice touch to include nuts in both dishes like this, the same way the flowers will show up later.). I'm forced to admit that this was the first time I had seen a razor clam in the flesh (though not the last time for the week, no sir) and I had the feeling that it was good, not perfect. Good clam, reasonably-cooked, strong toppings slightly overwhelming despite being nice and fresh.
Nice and fresh went out the window with this pleasant guinea hen dish - bird three ways or something to that effect. These big breast pieces were quite big, soft and flavorful, and the skin was perfect. The accompanying macaroni, while not the truffled specialty that I hoped to eat at Lasserre, was lovely. A good example of laborious 'palace' cooking, each tube was filled with pureed herb sauce before they were stacked, smothered and covered.
And here was the other side of the presentation - leg meat stuffed with mince, surrounded with fresh mushrooms. These multiple-presentation concepts seem to be the thing this year, so it was pleasant to see them in person. This dish marked a recurring theme though - warm and salty. As opposed to hot and salty, or hot and balanced. I think of myself as a person who likes too much salt, so I was surprised to find both mains overdone on that front to my tastes. And the warmth...shocking. The maitre d' and head waiter did an excellent job of looking genuinely horrified when we mentioned this to them later, promising to tell the chef and promptly pouring us two glasses of Jurancon. They were nice, but I would have preferred hot dishes!
There's a riot going on here. Despite ordering the foie as a first course, I couldn't go past the sweetbreads as a main. Strange, that...All this year I've been trying to recapture the joy I used to feel in eating sweetbreads - hot, crisp, creamy, like the world's best fried chicken but better...and I've been failing. But I keep trying. This dish, strangely, lined up with a much more recent obsession - I had been wanting to eat saffron for several days, and the base here is saffron risotto.
Yes, a regular riot. Add in the deep-fried shrimp (because grilled shrimp wouldn't be enough cholesterol) and you've got a party. But I do enjoy the style, where everything is composed on the plate and mixed with lighter elements like the salad leaves and peas. This was a good dish (salt and heat notwithstanding), but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reliving Julot's earlier experience where he thought the food was a clumsy imitation of Briffard's light yet intense cooking (c.f. foie with melon, fried sweetbreads with salad, yes?).
Mercy! The pictures don't do justice to the quantities, which may not have been American but were certainly far from Japanese. Before getting to the desserts we had ordered, there was a very good coin of frozen cheesecake topped with berry puree and sided with excellent fresh berries.
Julot advises that the desserts are quite inspid. This is too bad, as I'm an unfortunate dessert addict. It's also too bad because he's right - this tarte fine with rhubarb and strawberries was mediocre.
Fortunately this chocolate cake with mango mousse was a bit better despite the uninspired concept. Phew!
And since this is fine dining in France, the mignardise trolley rumbled over. If you're wondering, I had saved space, but didn't want to go too nuts given the quality of the desserts. Still, it warms the heart to see this, doesn't it? It warmed my heart even more to see the fresh caramels in a big pile, including lovely green pistachio ones...so I almost sizzled when they gave us takeaway boxes of the same.
Just a casual sweet snack to finish the lunch. From left to right, roughly, the truffle was decent, the macaron pale in comparison to the Pierre Hermes that I had picked up in Tokyo as a pre-flight snack (must start holiday on the right foot, mustn't we?), the pistachio eclair was small, well-executed and delicious, and the nut-filled chocolate and torrone were about as expected (which is to say good). I sound uninspired, but I think back to the last time I had a dessert trolley, at Rabelais in Daikanyama, and I think "What the hell was that?!" This was the real thing.

Mmmmmm, mission accomplished. I think the flaws in this lunch were evident - in retrospect I felt a lot like the master chef had been absent for a month on his August vacation, so the staff were still making his dishes, but not quite right. However the lingering feeling afterward was of happiness, contentment, and suffusion with inner light - partly because we were newly on vacation and determined to enjoy.

The Swiss gentleman next to us had been very chatty throughout lunch (after we exchanged a knowing wink regarding the order of water - he followed my lead with a carafe of Paris' finest) and suggested that we join forces for a kitchen tour. Very pleasant! The waiters were amused. The kitchen tour was a bit unfortunate - it's very much a working hotel kitchen, so you'll have to see the room service and lobby restaurant food being made as well as yours. I was glad that we hadn't ordered any a la carte items, each one of which was more expensive than the lunch course, as I would have felt the value diminish. I was not glad to see two large tubs filled with...partially eaten butter towers. The easy explanation would be that they were to be softened and re-used for dinner. Could that be? One hopes not. However one was still left with a pleasantly relaxed glow by the whole experience, which had nothing to do with wine, and which propelled us neatly out the door for a quick stroll to the Eiffel Tower and then on to the airport taxi.


  1. Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  2. Butter is not re-used for dinner but used to cook...

  3. Lol..True, that pyramid looks impressive. unusual. I love Le Cinq for their generous portions, nice food too. But my next trip to Paris will be focus around one where I never went to, and considering the $$$, I pray that everything goes fine: L'Ambroisie.
    PS: Briffard is indeed an amazing Chef.He has been among my favourite France's cooks for the past years.