Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Tale of Two Restaurants: Le Grand Vefour and Baccarat Cristal Room

As we wind down our time in Paris, we decided to make June our blow-out culinary month. Over the last week, we had lunch at two Michelin-rated restaurants we had been eying: the Cristal Room at Bacarat (Michelin 1 star, exquisite dining, indifferent service, excruciating prices) and Le Grand Vefour (Michelin 3 star, mediocre food, great service, reasonable prices).

Today's dining extravaganze was held at Le Grand Vefour (rated 3 stars in Michelin). This is a restaurant located in the beautiful Palais Royale, which was the playground of nobility in times gone by. Le Grand Vefour’s place in history was assured when it became the site of Napoleon and Josephine’s first date (kind of hard to imagine that – Napoleon as a shy bachelor?)

The main part of the restaurant is a small room (seats ~24 people) ornately but beautifully painted with various food & women related scenes (reflecting no doubt the two commanding passions of French men).

The great news is that service was exquisite throughout – all the waiters wore tuxedos and went out of their way to be charming and create a memorable experience. This included taking “say cheese” photos for any table that had remembered to bring a camera (we didn’t).

The not so great news is that the appetizers and entrees were distinctly mediocre, leading us to wonder what those stars were for. Having said this, it was an extraordinary dining experience, and if the food quality was well below San Francisco standards, the setting and service blew away anything the US can offer.

Wines: we started with Taittinger Rose champagne, fitting because the restaurant is owned by the same family that owns Taittinger. For the meal, we got an outstanding half bottle of Merseult ‘0 Domaine Dormat (their selection of Burgundy whites was exceptional, mostly around a 120€ price point, but then again, their selection of all French was exceptional). I was sorely tempted to order a full bottle, but I was worried if we showed up sloshed to pick up our kids from school that might.

Food: we took the fixed price menu, which was a reasonable 78€ each. The amuse bouche starter was the best thing we ate – mackerel three ways: fried with ginger, sushi and broiled. My appetizer was an uninspired fois gras terrine with an unidentified green sauce drizzled around it, while Yvonne had a more successful steamed vegetable dish.

The entrees were similarly mixed – I had a very nicely cooked cabillaud (a white snapper-like fish), while Yvonne had a grey and flavorless pork dish which showed signs of doing long duty under the heat lamp. The presentation was nice but her dish was pretty much a sad little inedible lump sitting in the middle of the world’s finest dining room.

The cheese course was extraordinary and was probably more responsible than any other part of the meal for the feeling I have three hours after the meal that I have the equivalent of 4 sticks of butter dragging around in my gut. The flavor winner was a sheep’s milk blue cheese from the pyranees, followed closely by a stinky, melt-in-your-mouth epoisse.

Desert was where the restaurant suddenly roared into overdrive. Yvonne had a chocolate medley that must have been 2000 calories by itself, including a coffee ice cream, a to-die-for mousse au chocolate and a heart-stopping chocolate cake tart thing that still leaves me sputtering for superlatives. I had a refreshing mango/fruit medley with coconut ice cream.

But the desert crew was just getting started. While we were laboring our way through the “regular” desert, they also brought out fabulous pates de fruits (think a much earlier and much better forerunner of the jujube), little macarons, delicious chocolate tartelettes and a kind of a strawberry drink thing. After that there was a tray of chocolates. After that, there was a bowl of caramels, noughats and home-made marshmallows. After that, we just surrendered and started wondering whether this was the meal that was going to push us into a diabetic clinic.

Was the food great? No. Was the experience worth it? Yes! Lunch is definitely the way to go, as the bill for the dinner meal would have been considerably higher (for example I probably would have given in and ordered a full bottle of wine). Contact info: +33 (0)1 42 96 56 27, grand.vefour@wanadoo.fr, 17 rue de Beaujolais, 75001 Paris, Metro Palais Royale

Now if you’ve made it this far, you’re either dying for this post to end or dying for me to compare this to the Cristal Room of Baccarat.

The short description of the Cristal Room that it offers exquisite dining with indifferent service and excruciating prices. The small dining room is perfectly decorated by Philipe Starck and all the glassware is of course Baccarat, which makes up in heft what it lacks in practicality.

We went here for lunch, which is nice as the pace is much more leisurely and the food is just as good as for the more see-and-be-seen dinner events. Even more importantly, you are much more likely to get a private table as opposed to one of those “fit you in with a shoehorn” side-by-side tables.

We had the chef’s sampler menu 106€ and a bottle of champagne. The wine list was outstanding and had a number of reasonably priced options. The service started out quite chilly but warmed up over the course of the meal. For these prices they should start out treating you like royalty!