Dining with the Stars
My lunch date with Michelin. The dining guide, not the Man.
Yet even if the slight sting of buyer's remorse would last months — indeed, I still wonder today whether I should have spent that lewd sum — the food high I experienced burned brightly for at least 24 hours and still persists in memory today (indeed, as I write this article I fall more greatly under its sway). But such is the nature of dining at L'Ambroisie, the Michelin 3-star that many knowledgeable gourmands consider to be the best restaurant in Paris, and therefore France, and therefore perhaps the best restaurant in the world. Of course, it was one single knowledgeable gourmand (a better term than foodie) whom I hold responsible for making my wallet considerably lighter. A mere 18 hours before I had no idea that a meal at L'Ambroisie was in my future.
The gourmand in question is David Feldstein, a man I know through the wine trade of San Francisco. Feldstein's black-framed, horn-rimmed glasses make a striking contrast from his pale, scrupulously shiny, bald head. Medium in height and build, he favors black turtlenecks over loose-fitting dark blue jeans and black low-top Converse sneakers. While he can offer geek-level conversation about other obsessions like classical music and Burgundy wine, he holds forth most passionately about food — a Norman butter producer, a rabbit farmer in Sonoma, Parisian affineurs or the best restaurants of France, which he manages to visit multiple times a year. He lives frugally in a modest apartment in San Francisco's Richmond district, saving his money for life's finer gustatory pleasures, most of which he ardently believes still come from France. When I met Feldstein, he held the distinction — as I imagine he still does — of being the most frequent customer in the history of the French Laundry — over 200 visits in total. A couple of years ago, just as I was going to write a story about Feldstein and his Laundry mania for Forbes, he suddenly decided that he was done with the restaurant. The quality of the food had been declining, he thought, and it was no longer worth the time or money. Feldstein let the restaurant, to which he had been making bi-monthly visits for 10 years, know his intentions, which earned him a call from Thomas Keller himself. Feldstein honestly told the chef that his primary issue was that Keller was rarely in the kitchen anymore and therefore the food had suffered. Then in the process of building restaurants in Manhattan and Las Vegas, Keller admitted that he couldn't be behind the stoves anymore, but also firmly stated to his former most loyal customer that this situation wasn't going to change. Thus Feldstein decided to frequent other restaurants (it's kind of like dating with him), setting his eyes on Paris, to which his wine job allows him to make a couple of trips per year. Foremost, Feldstein focused on L'Ambroisie, a restaurant whose chef and owner, Bernard Pacaud, is notably always in the kitchen. On a given trip to Paris, Feldstein will eat there several times, even twice in a single day, not to mention that he will check out one or two other starred restaurants and celebrated bistros.
I was early to my lunch at L'Ambroisie and wandered around the crowded but peaceful Place des Vosges for about 30 minutes. Actually, I sat on a bench and tried not to move in order to cool down and stanch the light drip of perspiration I worked up on the metro from my hotel. The one sport coat I had with me was corduroy, a little heavy for a balmy September day in Paris. Despite my efforts the sweat continued to trickle, though, because I was nervous. I'm not used to, nor do I much like, dining alone. My French isn't that great, though I'm always determined to try it before resorting to English. I also felt that I was somehow venturing into territory in which I didn't belong. The fear of embarrassment and humiliation accelerated my heartbeat.
I considered bailing on the reservation. (After all, Feldstein had only made it for me at 10 p.m. the night before. We were at a popular Parisian spot called Le Chateaubriand — which according to Travel + Leisure, is one of the hottest 'bistronomiques' [gastronomique bistro fare at economique prices] in town" — and Feldstein was, not unusually, talking about L'Ambroisie. "You should go tomorrow," he said. "You want to go? I'll make a reservation for you." Before I stopped him, he had stepped out onto the curb, his French cell held up to his ear. Moments later he was seated again, telling me "you've got a 12:30 table." (L'Ambroisie's maitre d' evidently now credits Feldstein with sending a majority of the restaurant's American clientele.) But in the end I decided to make an international telephone call to Visa, letting them know I was in Paris and about to incur a hefty charge. And then I went in.
Even by the standard of Michelin 3-stars, L'Ambroisie is, I was told, a highly unusual place. "It's special," in Feldstein's terse assessment. "In a class of its own," according to Vedat Milor, a passionate documentarian of L'Amboisie on his restaurant review Web sites Gastromondiale, and the discontinued Gastsroville. Milor, an Atlanta-based food critic for several outlets in his native Turkey (his wife is a professor at Georgia Tech), is probably the only person more obsessed with the pursuit of culinary perfection than Feldstein (they are friends and occasional dining companions). What makes it special? I asked them over dinner recently at California's Vatican of gastronomy, Chez Panisse Café in Berkeley. Neither could succinctly articulate it, but the responses generally agreed that chef Pacaud's fanatical pursuit of the finest ingredients mingled with the discreetly low-profile nature of the restaurant makes it different. "It's a club," Feldstein said, pointing out that it was a favorite place of Jacques Chirac, a place where he took other heads of state, like Bill Clinton, when discretion was a priority. The restaurant does no advertising or self-promotion. Most of its clientele are Parisians. And Chef Bernard Pacaud — unlike chefs like Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Joel Robuchon — has only one restaurant, will only ever have one restaurant, and is always in the kitchen.
I was welcomed and quickly shown through the brief foyer into the dining room. The decor was classical without a trace of modernity: high ceilings, stone walls covered in tapestries, gilded mirrors, ornately framed oil paintings, burnished wood, tile, and a painterly light slanting in through the windows. There was a stillness, a calmness, a heaviness to the place that made it feel as though I had stepped into a 19th-century painting. I was shown into a cushy red-upholstered chair at a table facing the window.
I had expected high prices, but the menu was still shocking. Pigeon for 90 euros. Lamb for 120. (The euro was at about $1.35 at the time). Poulet de Bresse for two at over 200. When the maitre d' came over to take my order, I asked him if he was Pascal. He nodded and confirmed that I had been sent by Feldstein, who had suggested that I get anything I could in a half order. Despite the fact that it gave me away as some cheap American rube who didn't belong there, I demurely, quietly asked Pascal if this was possible. He said it might be for some dishes. I couldn't understand everything he was saying, though, so I ordered, asking in my sputtering syntax for everything possible to be halved. He recommended some items and then took my order, nodding, although when he left I wasn't quite sure what I was having. Blushing, I looked around at the three other tables in the half-empty salon to see if they had witnessed that debacle. They were all posh-looking, well-dressed older French couples, and none seemed to even take any notice of me.
A complimentary glass of house Champagne (Roederer) appeared, as did an amuse, a small bowl of gazpacho with delicately poached nuggets of écrevisses (small lobsters) submerged therein. Instantly notable was the richness of the soup, the pop of the flavors, the balance between tomato sweetness and lifting acid. The richness came not from butter but from the voluptuousness of the tomatoes themselves, which had been worked into as lacy and effulgent a tomato broth as I had ever tasted.
After I finished, the sommelier came over with the wine list, which I received like a life line, an old friend, a dining companion. It kept me company and distracted. As I delved into the (fairly unexciting) list I temporarily forgot my self-consciousness, the fact that I was alone, damp and the youngest person in the room by 20 years. I began to settle in: The pleasing intensity of the soup and the clarity of the Champagne had put me in a good mood, suddenly willing to invest far more in wine than I had originally planned. I was tempted by a 2005 from Coche-Dury, my favorite producer of white wine on the planet, even though it was 175 euros. Luckily, the sommelier stopped me, saying that the wine was far too tight to drink now. I settled instead on a full bottle of 1999 Leroy Meursault for 120 euros, still excessive. At nine years of age, the wine was a deep golden hue and a bit tired and flat in the mouth, which was disappointing. It came just before the next course, a half-inch-high bed of chopped pieces of eggplant confit occupied the center of the plate in an oval. Stuck into it at various angles were pieces of tenderly cooked rouget (red mullet, a highly valued rockfish with reddish skin and sweet flesh), still on a bone or a fin. Ringing the eggplant on the plate was a delicate red-pepper coulis. The architecture of the dish proved to be classic Pacaud. He creates elegant, structural presentations that manage not to feel pretentious, showy or unnecessary. In this case, the flavor of the eggplant on its own was sublime--sweet and round without a hint of bitterness. It literally created a bed of flavor for the rouget, which was pristine, cleanly flavored and cooked to a perfect texture somewhere between firm and tender.
A second glass of wine was poured out of my bottle (which rested in a bucket on a little sub-table that had been placed just in front of mine alongside a vase with a rose) for the arrival of the next course. I watched a poulet de Bresse for two arrive at another table, beautifully presented on cart and then carved a table. As the wine and food started to do their work, I became more and more comfortable. It felt a little odd to just sit and dine with no one to converse with and nothing to read, but I was quickly becoming acclimated. I had stopped perspiring and my heart rate was slow. I felt a satisfying warmth bloom in my chest, a glow of pure pleasure. I began sharing grins with the waiters (all five of them) on their frequent stops by my table to refill my wine or water. I passed on to them my compliments for each dish. Finally, my mid course arrived: Delicate filets of sole created a sandwich inside of which was a gentle purée of almonds and fish. The entire dish was white save for the green, untoasted slivered almonds studding the top filet and the savory chicken reduction at the base of the bowl. The dish was a contrast of textures — crunchy vs. smooth — and flavors — bright and clean vs. roasted and reduced. It was sensational.
Pacaud's style was coming into focus for me. I was aware of his insistence on the finest product. He only bought from certain vendors. He never serves anything that is not in season. I heard a story in which Pacaud was the only top chef in Paris not serving duck one fall. Customers were asking for his famous game pie, but he was refusing to make it because he couldn't get duck. "But why?" his customers would ask. "Every other restaurant has it all over the menu." But Pacaud answered that he wouldn't serve it because his usual purveyor said that it wasn't quite the season yet — and Pacaud doesn't buy the product unless he knows its exact provenance, diet, etc. He creates his dishes by making lists of all the fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats in season and then simply connects the ingredients with crossing lines to devise dishes. His cooking is classical in its purity and his presentations have a certain baroque quality, as if taken from 19th-century drawings of dishes served to a king. Despite this, the cuisine is not classic French at all in that he employs very little cream and butter. The food is rich by its own seasonal robustness, not by chef-ish addition.
Finally, the third course — pigeon with confit of garlic. On the side was a dish of girolles, or baby mushrooms, lightly cooked and tossed in a little olive oil. The pigeon was cooked staggeringly well-prepared, so rare that its red flesh seemed almost raw, yet obviously cooked because of its unreal tenderness. At this point, I was starting to get full, not to mention a little wavy from drink. Still, I managed to inhale some peach soup, a serving of sorbet and a glass of 1980 Rivesaltes dessert wine with chocolate petit fours. Three hours had passed — by far the longest meal I've ever taken alone without even a newspaper to read--yet at this point I wondered where the time had gone. I felt thoroughly, profoundly, elementally satisfied. This glow of satiation was good, as it buffered me against what was to follow.
When the bill of 460 Euros came, I was too high on gastronomy to let it crush my spirits. Despite the service compris, I left another 20 euros per Feldstein, since the restaurant was gracious enough to serve me two of my three courses in half portion (though those half-portions were still more expensive than 99 percent of American main courses). I didn't even finish my wine, but left it for the wait staff with a stumbling insistence that they not let such a great wine go to waste. They bowed graciously.
And then I burst out the door in the Parisian afternoon and the city seemed filled with life and love. I was full but not stuffed, tipsy but not drunk, ebullient but not stupid. I wandered the streets for a few hours until the food buzz started to wear off. I never became hungry for dinner. Nor breakfast. It was only at lunch the next day, confronted with the cold reality of facing average cuisine again, that I recalled my credit card and the great damage I had inflicted on it. Then I became sad. At the same time, had someone invited me a second time to L'Ambroisie that day, I might have considered doing it. I suppose extraordinary food can do that to you — tempt you like a drug — and I perhaps gained a better understanding of the Feldsteins and Melors of the world, the people who use all their spare cash to pursue the world's delicacies. • 13 January 2009
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco's metro magazine 7x7, as well as a contributing writer to Wine and Spirits. He writes a weekly column on drinks for Chow, and has contributed to Decanter, Gourmet, Food and Wine, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Wine Enthusiast.
Image by David Feldstein.