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L'Ambroisie

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9 Place Vosges 75004 Paris
France
T+33 142785145

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Name: Mathieu Pacaud
Date of birth: Unknown
Origin: France
Experience:
Worked at restaurant 'Vivarois' of Claude Peyrot  Openend the first 'Ambroisie' in rue de Bièvre in 1981 
 
Owner:
Bernard Pacaud
 

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ALifeworthEating.com
L’Ambroisie Revisited

L’Ambroisie Revisited

I wrote about L’Ambroisie a few years ago.  At that time I wasn’t sure what to make of the restaurant.  On the one hand, I experienced tremendous difficulty making a reservation.  And when I actually showed up the night of my reservation: I was turned away.  The staff didn’t seem that friendly.  On the other hand, once I actually experienced the cuisine, the black truffle feuillantine haunted me for years after.

I’ve since lived in Paris for nearly three years.  While the restaurant may have evolved a bit since my first meal three years ago, it was I who changed the most.  My expectations of a Parisian restaurant are different now.  In the US, a meal at a three star Michelin restaurant is often reserved for special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, congratulatory dinners and the like.  The restaurants cater to the food as much as they do to customer enjoyment: they make guests feel special.  Things are different here.  Aside from say Guy Savoy, the impromptu gifts and unexpected culinary surprises such as tours of the kitchen, chef handshakes, and take-home goodie bags are severely limited.  Ego-stroking is almost non-existent.  Here, the fine dining ecosystem is designed for regulars.

It was with this new perspective that I revisited L’Ambroisie.  My second meal was quickly followed by twenty more.  A staff that once seemed cold and unfriendly, over time, opened up to reveal warmth and humor, even.  It took a few subsequent meals for them to open up, but they’re actually quite funny.  In all my visits I’ve only seen Pacaud leave the kitchen once, and it was on a day when I arrived before service had started.  Of all the Michelin three star restaurants in Paris, L’Ambroisie is the only one where its chef is always in the kitchen.  It is also the only such restaurant that does not advertise.  At L’Ambroisie, it is truly all about the food.

I am now certain that this is the finest French restaurant in the world.  The indulgent menu, which is updated once per season, consists of only a handful of dishes.  There are no weak choices on the menu, ever.  Every dish is a speciality.  The menu reads very straightforward, each dish described in a single line with all its ingredients listed.  There is no tasting menu.  There is no lunch discount.  There are no exceptions.

All meals start with a plate of piping hot gougères, a cheesy puff pastry fresh from the oven.  Most notably they lack salt.  At first I didn’t like them; but the more I returned the more I appreciated the delicate cheesy taste without a heavy salting.  It’s difficult to get tired of these, reinforcing the restaurant’s model of catering towards regulars.

Pacaud has a unique ability to craft an inspiring and decadent dish from the simplicity of only two or three main ingredients.  Diners will never see decorative flowers or spherified olives served here.  The only machines in Pacaud’s kitchen are a blender and refrigerator.  His cooking philosophy represents the opposite of Ferran Adria’s.  Pacaud only adds elements that significantly contribute to the dish’s flavor.  Often making use of radial symmetry, Pacaud turns the ingredients themselves into edible art.

The amuses here are quite simple, either a single filet of fish or cream-based soup.  The olive tapanade that accompanies the sea bass is exceptional.  I’ve only experienced it once.  The olives were fresh, neither acidic nor sour.  They tasted more like sweet fruits.  My friend Ulterior Epicure makes note of the strange geometry of the soup bowl with its right-angle base: it’s a bit of a challenge to eat this soup as holding the spoon at any angle leaves much of it behind.

Chaud-froid d’oeufs mollets au cresson, asperges vertes et caviar osciètre gold – Two lightly poached eggs garnished with asparagus, watercress, and golden ossetra caviar.  The cold briny caviar cuts right through the warm and thick yolk, leaving behind a constantly changing whirlwind of flavors up until the last bite.


Escalopines de bar à l’émincé d’artichaut, nage réduite, caviar osciètre gold – Four wedges of sea bass, their skins interlocked in radial symmetry atop a bed of acidulated artichoke and surrounded by a moat of caviar.  The changing sweetness of the artichoke actually makes the caviar taste sweet, a melange of sweet, salty, acidic, creamy, warm, and cold all mixing together.  The sea bass is just lightly cooked, its creamy texture accentuates the creamy broth.  This is the first time I’d tried warm caviar.  It was amazing how the caviar didn’t disintegrate in the heat, each pearl held its shape and texture like delicate tapioca.  Aside from visually incredible, this is one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted.

Feuillantine de langoustines aux graines de sésame – Soft and supple langoustines sandwiched between a sesame wafer and pooled with a gritty sesame sauce.  The sesame sauce offers a tannic texture that excentuates the delicate langoustines.  The thin wafer adds a light crunch.  These are the best langoustines I have ever tasted in my life, each bite softer and richer than the previous.


Supreme de volaille de Bresse aux morilles – A lightly cooked Bresse chicken filled with morel mushrooms and a mix of a white wine cream sauce and jus.  The chicken is ultra-moist, the sauces are more to compliment the spongy texture of the squeaky morel mushrooms.

Morilles – On one special day, at the height of the short three weeks of morel mushroom season, I ordered a simple bowl of mushrooms and cream.

Daviole de foie gras aux morilles – An off-menu classic French dish guaranteed to send chills down any foie gras lover’s spine.  A generous medallion of whipped foie gras atop bed of morel mushrooms and cream.  Pacaud is able to serve hundred year old dishes without the stale and boring feeling that often accompanies them.  The flavor of the hearty foie gras jumps off the plate in excitement.  It is both buttery and airy, its cooler temperature blending with the warm mushrooms in a dance of chaud-froid.


Oeufs mollets à la florentine, râpé de truffle blanche d’Alba –  Two poached eggs in a pool of spinach and cream, crowned with potent white truffles.  White truffle and egg is nature’s generous gift to the palate.  Pacaud understands the magic of the egg, how its incredibly versatility is the foundation for most French classics.  It was amazing how the warmth of the egg incubated the truffle’s aroma, making its scent permeate throughout the entire dining room.  Pacaud reminds us that a simple combination of a handful of ingredients, each executed perfectly, can sometimes create the most intoxicating flavors in the world.

Raviolis de Homard aux Morilles – Layers of generous lobes of folded raviolis, filled with lobster, and garnished with chunky morel mushrooms.

Corolle de noix de Saint-Jqcques et brocoli à la truffe blanche d’Alba - Perhaps the real reason Pacaud never leaves the kitchen is because his halo would scare away diners.  This is one of the magical dishes of L’Ambroisie, a dish so seemingly simple yet brilliantly executed in form and flavor.  Branches of bright green broccoli supporting layered wedges of scallop medallion and white truffle.  It is impossible to not like broccoli after trying this dish.  What is most amazing is how the broccoli actually makes the scallop taste sweeter.  The paper-thin layer of clarified butter serves as the binding agent holding all the ingredients together.  This dish is served at room temperature which allows for the broccoli’s natural flavor to be fully enjoyed.

Navarin de homard et pommes de terre de Noirmoutier au romarin – Chunks of Breton lobster with potatoes and rosemary.  This lobster is served consistently firm, a function of the firmer texture of France’s northern lobsters.  Unlike the sweet Maine lobsters, to which I was used to, these bright red tails are less sweet and more meaty.  They even border on dry.  The real highlight of this dish, however, is the sauce reminiscent of a thick seafood bisque.

Noix de ris de veau à la grenobloise, purée de persil aux graines de moutarde – A giant lobe of sweetbread punched with rosemary and served with a parsley and mustard puree.  This is a very filling dish.  The light cooking of the sweetbread makes it develop a texture like wet tofu, its creaminess barely holding form.  The rosemary highlights the dish’s earthiness.  I did not like the bitter puree by itself, but when eaten in combination with the creamy meat, it somehow cuts through the fatty mouth feel lending to excellent balance.

Dos de saint-pierre poele, maraichere de coquillages a la citronnelle – Potentially the lightest fish dish on the restaurant’s menu.  A lightly seared filet of John Dory served with sauteed vegetables and lemongrass.


Parmentier d’escargots a l’ail des ours, salade de roquette et Parmesan – Thick snails, a thin wafer of parmesan, and rocket lettuce.

Cote de veau double, coeurs de sucrine braises au jus, gnocchi – A beautifully pink filet of veal served with potato gnocchi.  The veal’s thin layer of fat was seared into a crisp locking in the moisture while cooking.  This left a smooth and uniform texture throughout.  This dish was generously salted.  This was the finest filet of veal I have ever tasted.

Salade d’écrivisses, mousseline de chou-fleur, vinaigrette aux fruits de la passion – Crayfish salad with a cauliflower mousseline and passion fruit vinegar.  This is the lightest dish on the L’Ambroisie menu.  It’s also the only dish I don’t care for.  The dish is served very cold, and reminds me of airplane food.  From a menu of all-star dishes, this is the oddball.  It doesn’t belong.  But then again, I suppose every menu should have one ultra-light salad option.

Lobe de foie gras de canard roti, navets primeurs a la reglisse – A lobe of duck foie gras with spring turnips cooked in liquorish.  It’s amazing how the flavor of foie gras changes so dramatically when served cold in a paste, or cooked as a filet.  Here the fatty oil oozes out, tempered by the cool sweetness of the liquorish.  It’s an exquisite dish, though quite heavy.

Petit pois – Sometimes, as in the case of these lightly sauteed peas, nature speaks for itself.  Pacaud served this dish by itself during the height of spring when peas were at their sweetest.

Viennoise de sole meunière, étuvée d’asperges et morilles au vin jaune – A thick filet of juicy sole topped with one of France’s most delicious and simple sauces of butter, lemon, and parsley.  Some say it was this dish that seduced Julia Child and introduced her to fine French cuisine.  Here Pacaud adds a thin layer of breading to increase absorbency, and adds a touch of poetic freedom by including the parsley alongside the morel mushrooms rather than garnishing the fish itself.  The net effect is the most incredible piece of cooked fish I have ever tasted.

Foie gras de canard en gelee de pomme, betteraves – An obscenely thick cylinder of foie gras wrapped in apple and dotted with red peppercorns.  Served alongside is a modern looking salad of beets.  Another beautiful combination both to the eyes, and the palate.


Viennoise de dos de sole meunière, salsifis à la truffle blanche d’Alba – During white truffle season, Pacaud serves the classic sole meunière, only instead of morel mushrooms he serves it alongside white asparagus and a dusting of layers of white truffle.

Tourte de canard aux foie gras – An off-menu classic dish that my girlfriend says is the single best dish she has ever tasted.  I might have to agree.  An airy puffy tourte stuffed with layers of rare duck and buttery foie gras.  I have been told that there is a better chance of meeting God than being serve this exquisite dish, but after relentless requests one special night the clouds parted.

Pigeonneau de Bresse, laque au caramel d’oignons, petits pois a la francaise – Bresse pigeon with caramelized onions and peas.  An incredibly tender yet lean serving of pigeon simply prepared with jus on a light bed of onions.

Though not on the menu, L’Ambroisie always has a sorbet ready in case diners would like something light and sweet as an alternative to some of the heavier dessert options.  The two flavors that I have tried are simple, sweet, and sour: lemon, and raspberry.

Turban de rhubarbe au fromage blanc, coulis de fraises – Fromage blanc wrapped in candied rhubarb with a strawberry coulis.  I’ve never tasted rhubarb like this, both sweet and salty at the same time.  The rhubarb’s hint of acidity contrasts against the light cheese’s creaminess creating balance.  The light salted biscuit on which this dessert sits adds a sandy crunch.


Royale de mangue, fraises de jardin poêlées, emulsion de lait de coco – Mango, sauteed strawberries, and coconut milk all in one place.  This dish is light, airy, and sweet.  Somehow the coconut milk adds no weight.  This is typically served with a slice of pain de Gênes, which while a bit dry, falls apart into dust with the slightest touch of the fork.

The petits fours change nearly every time, though are always centered with a bowl of dark chocolates.  They are as delicious as they are beautiful, a rainbow of flavor.

Tarte fine sablée au cacao amer, glace a la vanille Bourbon – An airy and weightless flourless bitter chocolate cake, accompanied by a dollop of vanilla ice cream laced with Bourbon.  The entire volume of this cake could be compacted into a single bite, that’s how light it is.

The meal ends not with a take-away surprise or a handshake with the chef, but with a prompt bill, a menu souvenir, and a subtle, “we hope to see you again soon.”  My stack of souvenirs makes for some of my favorite reading material, though now I am careful only to begin reading after a meal.

This restaurant has become the standard against which I compare all other French meals.  Any culinary visitor to France must take a visit here, just be prepared not to mistake coldness for subtlety, and lack of personalized attention for an affinity for regularity.  It is a place where magic happens.

- ALifeworthEating.com

ALifeworthEating.com
L'Ambroisie

L'Ambroisie

The first time I arrived at L’Ambroisie I was told that I wouldn’t be eating there that night. Apparently, the maître d’hôtel had called earlier that day to confirm my table. There were no missed calls on my phone, nor any messages. I was disappointed, to say the least. But I made a reservation to return at the next available date, nearly two months later. Certainly, there was a slightly sullen taste in my mouth from being turned away the first time; but this flavor was quickly reversed when I finally had the chance to sample what I believe are some of the most well-executed dishes I’ve ever experienced.

As I walked into the dining room, I was immediately turned off by its apparent chill that came from the cold tile flooring and vaulted ceilings. But as I sat down and probed the space around me, things began to warm up. I realized that unlike Les Ambassadeurs, this was not necessarily cold so much as it was understated. There were no gold ornaments nor heavy crystals to this space. In fact, in this room there were only five tables, which kept the feeling intimate. Only on my way out did I see that there was indeed a second dining room. A more ornate space with parquet floors and a grand chandelier, it seemed to be the more impressive of the two; but was not nearly so cozy. The decorative elements on my table, a simple pink rose and white candle, maintained a level of elegance while keeping a strong focus on the food and the other person.

The meal started with my waiter holding a plate full of gougères in front of me until I took one, while the remaining plate of two were placed on the table. This subtle coercion, a testament to the pastry’s time sensitivity, worked; otherwise, I would have been sure to take a picture first. And what a nice treat this was: relatively hollow on the inside with a thin layer of warm fragrant crust, not at all oily; but rich with the warm flavor of cheese. I was reminded that gougères do not have to be a dull requirement of haute French cuisine; rather, when as impressive as the ones I’d just tasted, they can really jump start one’s palate, setting a savory foundation to be contrasted with a sweet glass of champagne. I curiously awaited the next step.

Dining RoomLes RosesGougères

Next came the amuse bouche, very lightly smoked salmon, potato strings, and a dill mousse. Two things struck me immediately about the salmon: the slightest hint of smoke, and its buttery texture. The salmon was so lightly smoked that the woodiness added a subtle hint of complexity rather than dominating the fish’s inherent flavor, something I feared after my initial disappointment when this dish was set before me. Nothing to be disappointed about here, though. The texture was lean and supple, so much so that it seemed to melt into the plate. Although the dill mousse was lighter, the flavor of this dish became redundant after a few bites. For me, this was too reminiscent of bagels and lox (you can take the boy out of New York, but…), without a significant enough difference to warrant serving it. The strips of crispy potato did help to break up the textural monotony; but the dish was overwhelmed by the one dimensional flavor of the cold and sour cream.

Things turned around significantly in the next course, a velouté de topinambours et noix de saint-jacques, émulsion de truffe. Oh god, how things turned around. Sitting in a velouté of Jerusalem artichokes were three round scallops topped with black truffle. There was no tableside truffle shaving here, a sure sign of L’Ambroisie’s confidence. But while there was no truffle show, the fragrance of these heat-activated thin black sheets was outstanding. My first bite revealed the complexity of this dish. The velouté was left grainy, a reminder that artichokes were involved. But more importantly, this texture was a nice transition to the softness of the scallop, supporting its smoothness rather than contrasting against it. As I dipped my spoon into the thick velouté, I noted how it took several seconds for it to fill the void. With these Jerusalem artichokes and scallops displaying such an impressive marriage of earth and sea, frankly I wondered why chef Guy Savoy’s soupe d’artichaut à la truffe noire gets so much attention. This was much stronger. Nearly all of my senses were immersed in this dish. Did it really have to end?

Next up was not only the highlight of the night; but also a course I am unlikely to ever forget: feuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur.” As the waiter approached me carrying what seemed like rather large but simple pastry, I began to second guess my ordering decision. It was humbly placed in front of me, a golden brown puff pastry on a bed of puréed truffle. The dominant smell was of moist bread, a scent similar to walking by a bakery in the early morning. But what made this scent different was a gentle hint of truffle: I knew it was there; but it smelled as if it was hidden. And it was. I picked up my knife, and sliced the pastry in half to uncover a hidden treasure. With the first slice, a puff of steam was released revealing the hidden scent: so that’s where the fragrance of truffle was escaping from. The smell was so pleasantly strong and intense, for a brief moment, the entire dining room smelled of my dish. Perhaps that’s why this dish is titled “beautiful mood;” I certainly was in one. As I parted the now split pastry, I shook my head in astonishment. Was this for real? Inside this pastry were two layers of black truffle, each as thick as a generous hamburger patty. I’d never seen truffle in this quantity before. I laughed out loud. Separating these layers of truffle was a layer of creamy foie gras, adding a meaty component to this earthy dish. I could not wait any longer, and took the first bite. What immediately struck me was how I was able to actually feel the texture of the truffle. When truffle is shaved, its contributions are in the form of scent and flavor. Here, on the other hand, a third component was added: texture. I was shocked to feel this firm but surprisingly delicate ingredient fracture in my mouth with each bite. The truffle maintained its dryness, a necessity to enjoy its natural texture. The dish’s moisture was balanced by the creamy liver and the truffle purée beneath, the excess of which was absorbed by the light pastry. What a fantastic dish.

Lightly Smoked Salmon with Dill CreamVelouté de topinambours et noix de saint-jacques, émulsion de truffeFeuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur,” salade de mâche l’exterior

It was only after finishing this that I noticed a small mâche salad to my right topped with a light crème à la thousand island dressing. Hello there. Was that more black truffle on top? Frankly at this point, if it wasn’t so thick as a Pierre Hermé macaron, I wasn’t interested. I think the salad was more of an afterthought, or perhaps a social scapegoat to justify having eaten at least something green during this long culinary adventure. Nevertheless, I finished it. It should be noted that this was some wonderfully fresh mâche; something I would have eaten on its own without truffles or dressing. Though, the pleasure from this course was vastly skewed toward the truffle pastry, the sheer audacity of serving a truffle in this quantity left me in awe, and in a position where I will likely remember this course every subsequent time I see a truffle. I took a brief trip to the bathroom, glanced in the mirror and smiled to reveal my black teeth. I had officially become a truffle vampire.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this dish. Pretty much nonstop for the next week. While it was certainly the ingredients that made this dish special, it also seemed to be technically flawless. The wonderfully moist pastry could have stood up on its own, and I would certainly wait in line to have one as hot and fresh as this. It also seems difficult to me to have baked two ingredients of completely different texture: truffle and foie gras, together in a single pocket of pastry without sacrificing one of the ingredient’s textures for the other. Somehow, they both just came out as if cooked independently. Even the truffle purée was a nice addition to the mixture, seeping into the soft pastry and adding an earthy salt. As I finished up this course, I noticed the table next to mine just cutting into theirs. I first heard the chuckle of astonishment, which was quickly followed by the scent of black truffle. For another moment in time, the dining room belonged to them.

Feuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur,” salade de mâche le topFeuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur,” salade de mâcheSalade de mâche

Following this pinnacle was another wonderful course, a fricassée de homard sauce civet, purée Saint-Germain, a large lobster tail served over a bed of gently smashed Saint-Germain peas. The sweet red wine with the salty pea purée was a combination I’d not experienced before, but would certainly be a welcome dinner guest anytime in the future. Delicious. My only complaint was that the lobster seemed slightly overcooked, with a texture that would have been even more inviting to absorb the red wine reduction had it been slightly softer. This could, however, be due to the type of lobster: bretagne blue.  The purée made for a nice bridge between the lobster and reduction, soaking up the sauce while clenching tightly to the lobster. The three of these together made for quite a few nice bites.

Finishing the savories, a scoop of pear ice cream was served before dessert. The graininess of the pair was obfuscated by the creamy texture of the glace, teasing my mouth with the flavor of pear; but never quite tasting it. I would have liked something stronger. This was disappointing and I expected something either more creative, or with a purer flavor. This was also texturally dull as there was nothing to break up the monotony of the cold crème.

For dessert, there were quite a few appealing choices. And since I had done my exercise for the day by walking to the restaurant, I chose all of them. I was slightly surprised, and perhaps a little embarrassed, that all the desserts were brought out at the same time. There was hardly any room on the table! But more importantly, it made me concerned about time sensitivity of the dishes. I triaged the plates, and started with the most critical: ananas “victoria” rôti, crème glacée au lait de noix de coco, a cluster of pineapple sided with ice cream, mango vanilla reduction, almond tuiles, and garnished with a few raisins and a peppermint leaf. This was an appreciated appetizer for the dessert tasting. Nothing exquisite, just a light dessert with bright tropical flavors.

Fricassée de homard sauce civet, purée Saint-GermainGlace de PoivreAnanas “Victoria” rôti, crème glacée au lait de noix de coco

Next was undoubtedly the highlight of the dessert course, tarte fine sablée au chocolat, glace à la vanille, an ultra-light chocolate tarte with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This was, without a question, the lightest slice of chocolate cake I’ve ever had. It had the airiness of a souflée without any runny or creamy textures on the interior. But while it was light, it was still substantive and was not overwhelmed by the vanilla ice cream. The flavor bordered on bitter, taking much of its sweetness from the vanilla glace. This was fantastic.

The final dessert was a little less memorable, palet de chocolat lacté aux marrons glacés, sauce moka. A chocolate mousse surrounded with dark chocolate squares, with a mocha sauce and a candied chestnut. I was reminded of how much I dislike candied chestnuts; their dry pastiness gets redundant and boring after the first bite. Although they appeared to be flawless, these chestnuts were unfortunately no different. With the mocha sauce, the coffee flavor was so light that it did not bother me. In fact, the flavor of chocolate was at the same level of intensity, allowing the coffee, chocolate, and crème flavors to meld together nicely. I found the dish texturally boring and the whole chocolate exterior somewhat annoying — it always takes extra time to chew chocolate at a cold temperature, and it so it always lingers unnecessarily long in the mouth. I probably wouldn’t order this dish again.

Last was a small plate of mignardises: almond tuiles, granny smith macarons, cannellé, pieces of chocolate with hazelnut, and wedge-sized apple tartes. Of the collection, the tuiles stood out as fantastic: a fragile web of pastry and almond. The flavor of the tuiles had an essence of nearly-burnt caramel adding another element of complexity. I also really enjoyed the macarons; despite not having a traditional ganache center, the tartness of the apple confiture was pleasing. The cannellés were kind of dense, almost like gelatin; I didn’t enjoy them that much. The chocolate at this point was superfluous and seemed kind of taxing on my palate: half of one was more than enough. Lastly, the wedge-sized apple tartes could have used a tiny sprinkle of fleur de sel for balance, I think, as they were very sweet.

Tarte fine sablée au chocolat, glace à la vanillePalet de chocolat lacté aux marrons glacés, sauce mokaMignardises

And just like that, it was over. A special meal with two dishes that stood out so strongly, the velouté de topinambours et noix de saint-jacques and feuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur.” I will certainly not forget them anytime soon. I’m glad I was able to return despite some confusion the first time; in my mind, it was certainly worth the trouble. Were I to return only able to order one course, it would undoubtedly be the feuilleté, and that is what I would highly recommend that other visitors here try. I only hope it impacts you so profoundly as it did me.

- ALifeworthEating.com

UlteriorEpicure.com
Doubt

Doubt

Have you seen Doubt?

You should see Doubt.

I mean, Meryl Streep could read a phone book and make me cry. Or laugh. Or both, at the same time.

Actually, the real performance to watch in that movie is Viola Davis’s. Though Streep is onscreen for Davis’s entire five-minute appearance, Davis’s acting is so mesmerizing that it makes you forget that Streep is even in the movie.

In Doubt, Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beuvier, an iron-fisted principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx. Casting an accusatory eye on the innocent and guilty alike, she’s the type of nun who could sear the fear of God into a priest. And she does.

And that’s how the servers are at l’Ambroisie.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But just a little.

l'Ambroisie
l’Ambroisie, Paris

Eating at l’Ambrosie, for both the lay (comme moi) and the indoctrinated (comme the couple sitting next to us), is like attending a religious ceremony. It’s solemn. It’s dogmatic. It’s doctrinal. And it’s full of mystery and wonder. There are rituals. There’s hierarchy.

Most will have no status here.

The lingua latina is French. If you speak English, you are considered illiterate (though, curiously, they will attempt Japanese if you look remotely Asian, as they did with a couple seated a few tables over) and are treated like a naughty school boy. Such was my status until I, having been forewarned of the restaurant’s temperament, spent what French I knew to get myself seated and situated. I asked for the menu and told our server – the spitting image of Robespierre – I was waiting for a friend. I asked him for a bottle of Evian, which seemed to elicit some emotion from him.

Mignardises
Mignardises
l’Ambroisie, Paris

He seemed even more pleased to find a well-groomed Parisian joining me. Hue, my college roommate, and I had not seen each other since the previous year, when he had flown in from Paris to celebrate our birthdays.  Hue and I have shared many eating adventures together 

This time, he was fresh from Rome. L’Ambroisie would be the first of three meals we’d share on this trip.

House rules prevail here: you eat on the restaurant’s terms or not at all.

In this temple, Chef Bernard Pacaud is the priest, and excess is the object of worship. Indeed, at l’Ambroisie, lavishness is next to holiness. That makes for an expensive proposition. When was the last time you spent $700 on lunch – without wine? Yes, that’s per person. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris.

What does one get for this price? Reputedly, a meeting with ecstasy.

l'Ambroisie
l’Ambroisie, Paris

But be not mistaken, l’Ambroisie is no church; it’s much less accessible than church. Cloistered in the quiet arcades of the Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, it’s really more of an underground cult for the extremely wealthy and/or obscenely food-obsessed.

Though the restaurant seems as ancient as its surroundings – a relic of royal rite – it moved here from its former nine-table home on the Left Bank. Patricia Wells penned an excellent article about the restaurant’s move – then, a Michelin 2-star – in the January 11, 1987 edition of the New York Times. (She quotes lunch at $35, and approximates a full, a la carte meal to fall between $60 and $70. The times, and the Dollar’s strength, have, sadly, changed.)

l'Ambroisie
l’Ambroisie, Paris

Like the institution that it has become, the restaurant’s name is in block-letter relief high above its milky-green doors. But, otherwise, like most Michelin three-star restaurants, there is no sign. There’s barely a reception.

I am no expert on Pacaud or the restaurant, and I won’t insult you by regurgitating and rehashing others’ regurgitations and rehashes. If you want to know more, I’ll simply direct you to the information freeway, where you’ll find enough details about Pacaud’s biography and descriptions of the interior to fulfill your own personal quota of pedantry. However, on these two topics – the chef and the décor – I will drop these two pieces of information:

Plat Principal: Gibiers Francais Selon la Chasse
Perdreau
l’Ambroisie, Paris

1. Pacaud’s rise to three-stardom was one of the fastest and most closely watched by fanatics.

2. I sat in the first of two public dining rooms. Considered the “lesser” of the two by many, I (strongly) preferred it to the frilly, overwrought “middle room.” In fact, I consider it one of the best-looking dining rooms I’ve eaten in.

The menu is the same for both lunch and dinner. There are no deals. There are no prix-fixe options. There is no tasting menu. There’s simply la carte, which is divided into five sections (more or less): entrées, fish and seafood, meats and game, cheeses, and desserts. Each section had roughly half a dozen selections, give or take a couple.

l'Ambroisie
l’Ambroisie, Paris

I have heard some report that half portions are available. They were not granted to us when asked for.

Neither was the restaurant’s famous Feuilleté de Truffe Fraîche “Bel Humeur” – an entire golf-sized black truffle sandwiched with foie gras, encased in puff pastry, and served with truffle puree (I’ll refer you to my good friend Adam for more). When asked, Robespierre offered to check with the kitchen. He came back looking even more grave than when he left us. Pas encore.

But arriving in Paris just shy of peak black truffle season meant that we had caught the last of the white truffles. Hue and I took full advantage of this.

Amuses Bouches

Gougeres

Velouté de Butternut

First Courses

Corolle de noix de Saint-Jacques
et broccoli à la truffe blanche d’Alba

Oeufs mollets à la Florentine
râpée de trufe blanche d’Alba

Main Courses

Escalopines de Bar
à l’émincé d’artichaut, caviar osciètre gold

Fricassée de Homard à la Diable
châtaignes et potimarron

“Gibier français Selon a Chasse”
Perdreaux rotis avec truffe noire

Pre Dessert

Sorbet Menthe

Desserts

Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer
glace à la vanille

-

“Assortiment de Desserts et Pâtisseries”
Sablée Praliné aux Coings

(crème fouettée à la cannelle)
Arlettes Caramélisées au Fromage Blanc
(crème success)
Tarte Fine Sable au Cocao Amer
(glace à la vanilla)

-

Mignardises

-

At the time of my visit to Paris in December 2008, there were nine three-star restaurants in the city. Now there are ten. I have been to exactly half of them: l’Ambroisie, l’Arpege, le Bristol, Guy Savoy, and Ledoyen (I had eaten at le Cinq in 2005, when it was a three-star under Legendre. I returned to the restaurant, now a two-star, on this trip under the new chef, Eric Briffard).

Pre-Dessert: Mint Sorbet
Sorbet Menthe
l’Ambroisie, Paris

From what I experienced in these five restaurants and from what I understand about the cuisine of the other five, all of them have an identifiable individuality and unique style that carries through to the plate (perhaps Eric Frechon the least so, which, perhaps, explains why he was just released from, what I call, “three-star rising” purgatory, where he languished for years). Each of their cooking styles passes that market-proven “thousand fragment” test (the idea that successful branding is achieved when a product can be readily identified/recognized by one of a thousand fragments taken randomly from that product*).

There may be many chefs who can execute food as well as they can, but there are no other chefs in the world creating food like theirs. If a tasting menu were assembled with a dish cooked by each of the five chefs, I’m fairly confident that I could correctly attribute every one of them to its master.

That’s not to say that there are no common traits among the three-starred chefs. I’ve noticed a few. The most obvious one is eccentricity. And with these ten, the more eccentric the man, the more highly-esteemed is his food. At the top: Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Pascal Barbot, and Alain Passard.

Restaurant l'Ambroisie
l’Ambroisie, Paris

I haven’t been to Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee or Pierre Gagnaire, but in those two cases, it seems that the chefs’ eccentricities overlap mania. And that presents its own problems.

And then there’s Bernard Pacaud, who exhibits eccentricity of a different stripe. He is one of the most private of the three-star chefs,  shrouded in a veil of mystery to most. And his remoteness has cultivated mystique, about him – or rather, the notion of him – and the restaurant. And this translates onto the plate. Pacaud seems much less prone to whimsy (or Beat tendencies in the case of Passard) than his peers. His is not one of the more daringly dressed cuisines on the culinary red carpet.

Rather, like a grande dame in mourning, it commands attention with stoic grandiosity and gravitas. Dominated by classics, like poussin en demi-deuil, his cooking is, perhaps, the most traditional – in form, style, and substance – among the Parisian trois etoiles.

White truffle at l'Ambroisie
Truffe Blanche
l’Ambroisie, Paris

I admit that I misunderstood Pacaud’s intentions at the table and in the days that followed. At the time, his style (and the astronomical prices) struck me as ostentatious and self-righteous. But, as weeks passed and I was allowed to reflect on my meal, I realized that Pacaud’s cooking is quite selfless. It showers the diner with attention, slathering and saddling them with a thick coat of luxury falling just shy of suffocation.

The white truffles at l’Ambroisie, for example, were top-shelf. And they’re shaved with a hyper and happy hand.

Madame Pacaud, perhaps the cheeriest face in Place des Vosges, presented us with a glass jar bearing a white truffle the size of a baseball (it had been trimmed pretty evenly around, so I can only imagine its original size). The smell (which penetrated the glass before she opened the jar) knocked me horizontal. Heads turned from all corners of the room.

l'Ambroisie
l’Ambroisie, Paris

And caviar – golden oscietra the size of large game shot – was dispensed in eye-popping quantities.

Done on any smaller of a scale, Pacaud’s cooking would seem smug. Colored with just the slightest shade of modernity, it would feel false. Rather, it’s confident and comfortable in its largesse.

Yet, in its generosity, his food remains guarded and reserved. The plating is very controlled and manipulated: everything is plated with circular symmetry. It does not invite an open discussion, insisting, instead, on intimacy. There is no table-side shaving or saucing. Everything is plated in the kitchen. What arrives is the completed work.

There’s a sense of loneliness and sadness about it all. Pacaud has not the joie de vivre of Guy Savoy, or the playful imagination of le Squer at Ledoyen. The morbid service aside, Pacaud’s dishes seemed designed to be your last (and not because there’s a heart attack waiting with the final tab). It’s not depressing food necessarily, but it makes you eat very slowly and deliberately.

Amuse Bouche: Veloute de Butternut
Velouté de Butternut
l’Ambroisie, Paris

Some of his food is rather ordinary.

Gougères, for example, rarely stir me anymore. Their predictability has made their status wane. Together with chocolate, they have become an expected bookend to the garden-variety tasting menu.

Pacaud’s gougères were like everyone else’s. And so was the bread. It was of forgettable quality.

And some of it – like the pre-dessert (a quenelle of mint sorbet wearing a whipped cream turban with a chocolate treble clef piped onto its face) – was actually bad. It was, by far, the most wretched thing I put in my mouth during my fourteen-day trip to Europe. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of mint desserts, but even Hue agreed that this stuff was awful. It tasted like icy toothpaste and looked like something you’d get as a dessert in a nursing home.

Entree: Corolle de Noix de St. Jacques
Entree: Corolle de Noix de St. Jacques
l’Ambroisie, Paris

But, certainly, much of what I ate, like the “Velouté de Butternut,” served as a formal amuse bouche, was very good.

Marbled with dark, caramel-colored demi-glace, the velvety soup was layered with flavor. Served in a flat-bottomed cup, normally, it’d be impossible to access the soup around the bottom corner without coming off as a starved ogre. However, necessity being mother of invention, a clever silversmith somewhere fashioned a spoon with a pointed tip (think teardrop-shaped spoon).

The “Corolle de noix de Saint-Jacques” (160€), which looked like an emerald flower in full bloom, with petals of white truffle shavings and cross-cut broccoli florets, was also very good.

It was served at room temperature, which I found odd – the broccoli was almost cold. I maintain that heat is needed to fully release the truffle’s aromatic potential. Here, it seemed as if flavor was sacrificed for presentation: there’s no way this dish could have been as tidy if it had been served hot, or even warm. The truffles would have wilted (though, these were especially thick shavings that held their shape nicely) and the broccoli would have lost its vibrancy.

Entree: Oeufs Mollets a la Florentine
Oeufs Mollets à la Florentine
l’Ambroisie, Paris

But, upon further reflection, I realized that there might be another, more important reason Pacaud served this dish cool. It had to do with the flavor of the broccoli. Specifically, the way the broccoli interacted with the white truffles.

The thought had occurred to me then, but it did not fully develop until a few months later when I was caramelising cauliflower in a pan at home one night: crucifers have an earthy, pungent aroma that is very similar to the aroma of white truffles. That flavor seems even more intensified when cooked crucifers are left to cool. At the table, broccoli and white truffles (and scallops) seemed like an unintuitive pairing. But the flavor and aroma of the two were quite concordant. If nothing else, that discovery made this dish rewarding.

The “Oeufs mollets à la Florentine” (128€) was more a traditional take on a white truffle dish – using soft-flavored creamy elements as a backdrop on which to highlight the truffle. It too was served near room temperature.

Entree: Oeufs Mollets a la Florentine
Oeufs Mollets à la Florentine
l’Ambroisie, Paris

Two to an order, these gigantic eggs (the size of small duck eggs) were exceedingly fresh. They had been soft-boiled in the shell such that the whites had fully set, yet, when nicked, a steady stream of orange gold spilled out. The eggs had already been cooled down, so there was no fear that the yolks would cook more as time passed. Thus, my yolk was just as runny as Hue’s when I ate it a few minutes later, after finishing my half of the scallop dish. Beneath the layer of buttery cream sauce hid a very smooth spinach puree, which was not only intensely coloured, but concentrated with spinach.

The “Escalopines de Bar” (198€), the first of our three main courses, was the Viola Davis of our meal. That dish took my breath away. They split this plate for us. Each of us received two sizable slices (they were not filleted in a normal fashion, as you can see from the photo) perched on a circular fan of thinly sliced artichoke hearts. The whole was ringed by a cholesterol sauce (I’m assuming equal parts cream and butter) awash with large golden oscietra caviar [the size and texture seemed right for golden oscietra (they were inordinately large and firm), but the color did not (they seemed much darker than golden caviar should be)].

Plat Principal: Escalopines de Bar
Escalopines de Bar
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

The fish was perfectly cooked – soft and buttery. And the sauce was stunning. It was a meeting of creamy, salty, briny, and the perfect kiss of acid. The half-bottle of Domaine LeFlaive Meursault (2006) (64€) paired fantastically with this dish (as it did with the “Oeufs Mollets a la Florentine”).

The “Fricassée de Homard à la Diable” was a 142€ disappointment. Sectioned claw by tail, the entire lobster was arranged in a scarlet bundle circled by orange torpedoes of pumpkin and showered with ivory-coloured chestnut shavings, bright green peas and yellow corn kernels (not terribly seasonal in December, and therefore, not surprisingly, rather insipid). The colors were vivid, almost glowing.

The best thing about this dish was its extraordinarily complex flavor. The whole was bound by a thick, rich “diable” seafood broth that was slightly sweet and carried a surprisingly aggressive – to me, pitch-perfect – twitch of heat.

Plat Principal: Fricassee de Homard a la Diable
Fricassee de Homard à la Diable
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

The worse thing about this dish is that the lobster was, without a doubt, overcooked. I’m not talking about the difference between the tougher, denser texture of the European homard compared to the sweeter, silkier Maine lobster that I’m used to (and probably because of that, prefer) eating. This one was simply overdone. With the price of this dish hovering just north of $200, it was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Firm lobster, I don’t mind (though I don’t love either). But overcooked is unacceptable.

Plat Principal: Gibiers Francais Selon la Chasse
Truffled Cabbage
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

The “Perdreau” (120€ ) (the “game according to the hunt”) arrived, groomed and freshly shaven, boasting a juicy, blushing breast. The little bird was presented in a sparkling copper pan (clearly, not the one it was roasted in). It retired to the kitchen and reappeared carved and plated – a breast and thigh, nestling a quenelle of nut puree between them, for each of us. The partridge was coated in a black truffle sauce and came with a side of creamed Savoy cabbage flecked with chopped black truffles.

This dish proved two things:

(1) The truffles were not yet great at this time in the season. They were a bit weak and a twee musty. I suspect it was a good and admirable thing that Chef Pacaud was not willing to serve the Feuilleté de Truffe Fraîche “Bel Humeur.” It really would have been premature to serve it at the time of our visit in late December (especially at 250€ a pop) .

(2) A bird the size of a small mango can be whole-roasted perfectly. Breast and thigh alike were immensely juicy, tender, and rosy.

Plat Principal: Gibiers Francais Selon la Chasse
Perdreau
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

If there is one must at l’Ambroisie, it’s the “Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer” (30€). Just imagine a chocolate pastry crust filled with the dark, dark, dark chocolate version of marshmallow fluff – but a gazillion times more soft, fine, and airy – actually it was like old-school shaving foam. And very dark. It’s dusted with cocoa powder.  It delivered every promise that was made about it and redeemed every oath made in its good name.

We asked the server if he would recommend any of the others, in particular. He suggested that we order the “Assortiment de Desserts et Patisseries” (48€) – an assortment of the desserts. What he did not tell us was that the “Tarte Finee Sablée au Cacao Amer” was one of them. The “Strates de nougatine et poire, sorbet “william” and the “Strudel aux pommes rein des reinnettes, crème fouettee a la cannelle” were not among them.  I had been particularly interested in these two.

Dessert: Arlettes Caramelisees au Fromage Blanc
Arlettes Caramelisees au Fromage Blanc
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

Instead – along with a second slice of Tarte Finee Sablée au Cacao Amer – we received (in half-portions)  the “Arlettes Caramélisées au Fromage Blanc” and the “Sablée Praliné aux Coings.” Robespierre informed us that arlettes – a cross between an ultra-thin palmier and a millefeuille – were traditionally made by the famous Parisian bakery, Dalloyau. This dessert was rather simple (as were all of the desserts we saw): tangy, whipped fromage blanc, candied orange and grapefruit rind, and a oval arlette.  It was actually a nice refreshing dessert to have after the tarte fine.

The “Sablée Praliné aux Coings,” for me, was all about texture. The sablé praliné was like a dense chocolate feuillatine (think uber-fancy Nestlé Crunch bar meets Nutella).  I loved it.  The carefully cut cannons of quince were melted and soft.  Tying the two together was an airy, foam-like creme success. It was very good, but not sublime.

Dessert: Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer
Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

A carousel of frilly mignardises arrived with the bill. Like everything that preceded it, this plate was an exercise in excess.

My initial reaction to l’Ambroisie was one of ambivalence. It had its highs, which were very high (sea bass, the chocolate tart, and the butternut velouté). And there were lows – like the lobster and the mint sorbet – which aren’t hard to have when prices are so incredibly high (I mean, we were essentially clearing through whole tasting menus’-worth of money with each dish).

So here’s the question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last four months:  Why, more than any meal I had on this trip to Europe – more than l’Arpege and The Sportsman, both of which left a very deep impression on me – does l’Ambroisie haunt me the most?  It throbs in my memory.

Dessert: Sablée Praliné aux Coings
Sablée Praliné aux Coings
l’Ambroisie, Paris, France

Perhaps, when you spend that much money and invest that much hope into something, you wed yourself forever to it as the faithful worshiper out of a fear of having been played the fool, no?

Or maybe, l’Ambroisie is a temple - a place of reverence, worship, and religiosity – wherein a glint of ecstasy can be glimpsed.

l’Ambroisie
9 Place de Vosges
Paris, France

*** Michelin

* In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom gives excellent examples of this, including the Coca-Cola bottle. If you took the label off and smashed it and gave one fragment of it to a stranger, that person would probably be able to identify it as having come from a Coca-Cola bottle (itechnology is another good example; white ear buds = apple).

- UlteriorEpicure.com

 

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