There is nowhere in the world that you will find ‘cheap’ three Michelin star dining. Value potentially but not cheap. From London to Tokyo to New York to Paris you know up front that you are letting yourself in for a hefty bill. Nowhere more so, in my experience, than France. There seems to be an acceptance with a Gallic shrug that when a Michelin star is awarded you can add another 25% to the bill each time. So once you reach three stars we’re talking stratospheric pricing. That’s why my posh Parisian outings are limited to once in a blue moon. Having been to Ledoyen a few years ago and adored it I wanted to try somewhere different but equally glamorous so opted for L’Epicure. Unlike top restaurants in London or New York you don’t generally need to be on the phone months in advance at the very moment a booking line opens, in all cases I have managed to book tables at usually only a couple of days notice.
The usual home of L’Epicure within the Hotel Bristol is currently under renovation so the restaurant has temporarily moved from its habitual light and airy room to an altogether more glamorous, gilded oval salle on the ground floor of l’Hotel Bristol on the Rue St Honore.
As you come to expect with this type of haute cuisine, staff of one sort or another outweigh diners by around two to one. During the meal we averaged four sommeliers between around 8 tables, 2 maitre d’s and at least 10 waiters and waitresses.
Although you can get a seasonal daily three course menu for a “more reasonable” 130 Euros, I was acting on the basis that it was highly likely that I was only going to do this once so took the plunge and went for the very elaborate and detailed tasting menu.
Some confusion reigned however and elements were lost in translation. The french for sea urchin is ‘oursin’. French for bear is ‘ourson’. You know what’s coming don’t you? Yes, I asked the maitre d’ if it was really the case that they were serving roast bear. Well anything’s possible after horsegate isn’t it? Apparently this is quite an unusual linguistic error that caused significant mirth amongst the waiting staff but then again sea urchin is not exactly normal every day fare is it?!
Before the 8 courses of tasting menu began however, came canapes. The thing that look like a green nipple on a spoon is a spherified blob of cucumber and yuzu juice (sweet but still acidic although the acid was tempered by the cooling cucumber), the white pot is a scallop cream with sweet citrus flavourings and the lollipop stick was a lobster piece rolled in curried breadcrumbs and saffron.
The lollipop was definitely the highlight and had a little kick to it that contrasted well with the cucumber. Served at the same time was a bacon, tomato and olive muffin which was well flavoured and executed but perhaps superfluous given the canapés and breadbasket but very, I’m not complaining if they want to give me more food!
It became clear throughout the meal that chef Eric Frechon has very much dipped his toe into the molecular gastronomy waters. There were occasional doses of spherification, hell there was even a nitro frozen sorbet! For me it was the perfect balance between classic cuisine and forward thinking food. This contrast is also reflected in the decor, presentation and dress code. Whilst the room and the dress code (men must wear jackets at lunch as well as dinner) are both very traditional, the presentation of the food is for the most part extremely innovative and modern.
Bread. I’ve said it before and will say it again, I think you can tell a lot about a place from the quality of their bread and also whether it is made in house. As you would expect, at L’Epicure it is. Around 8 different breads were on offer in the main basket although other speciality breads accompanied particular courses. I opted for small thin baguette loaves with a really intense dark, smoky bacon flavour and chunks of lardon served with a choice of butters. My choice was the home made salted butter. Served alongside the bread tray were little bacon, tomato and olive muffins, unapologetic in their greasiness but bursting with flavour.
An amuse bouche was served of smoked salmon encapsulated in a herb jelly topped by sorrel mousse and salmon roe. The sorrel mousse had a much more powerful flavour than I had been expecting but as an amuse bouche was a balanced and tasty morsel although I think it would have been too much as a full sized starter portion.
CHATAIGNES DE MER
The sea urchin came next. Despite having spent a few weeks in Japan I’ve never tried one before and was a little unsure in all honesty. Even now I’m not 100% decided either way as to whether I liked it or not, its a bit marmite in that I think it seems like something that you probably ought to love or hate.
I’ve started to notice that a lot of high end restaurants around Europe are introducing more traditionally Japanese ingredients into their menus. At L’Epicure they were quite up front about it and confirmed it was due to the number of Japanese customers that they attract (during my visit two of the eight tables were Japanese and one of the waitresses also Japanese). Gauthier in London is the same, in fact they even now offer their website in Japanese.
The sea urchin itself was served two ways within a porcelain urchin shell. The shell was lined with a very creamy scrambled egg onto which pieces of sea urchin were placed. The individual pieces had a very soft, bubbly texture and a sweet meaty flavour not dissimilar to the sweetness found in scallops and lobster. This mixture was then topped off with what was described on the menu as a foam but was much denser and oleaginous than something you would think of as a foam. It had a very different flavour to the pieces of urchin in the eggs and was slightly more towards bitter. Not distasteful but definitely an acquired taste. The dish, although small, was very rich.
On a separate plate was served a thin toast and a pat of butter wrapped like a toffee. The butter itself was probably one of the most curious elements of the entire dish made up of three different seaweeds and algae.
The following course was a duck foie poached in a smoked tea broth accompanied by crisp baby lettuce and warmed oysters. It arrived at the table gift wrapped in a giant cellophane parcel. Many of the dishes at L’Epicure involve a great deal of theatre. I had wished that someone would order the a la carte blue lobster or the crepe suzette for some true table-side cooking however what I did see was certainly enough to pique the interest of all the diners. If you order the Bresse chicken for two it came served in a giant white balloon with a knot of the top which frankly looked like an oversize haggis. This balloon was carried proudly through the dining room displayed on a giant silver salver with feet in the shape of chicken’s feet before being cut open and sliced at the table.
FOIE GRAS DE CANARD
So back to the foie gras. The consomme style broth was so clear that it disguised a really incredible depth of flavour and smokiness. The foie was beautifully poached with only a slight wobble remaining in the centre. The biggest surprise of the dish was the brussel sprout leave from two perspectives. Firstly they didn’t taste anything like the Christmas Day sprouts that I know and hate and secondly and how very well they retained the flavour of the smoke. The only let down in the dish was the warm oysters but then again that is solely because I hate oysters…
MERLAN DE LIGNE DE SAINT-GILLES CROIX-DE-VIE
Next up on the agenda was a fish course of whiting “en croute”. The fish was billed as having been caught in St Gilles Croix de Vie. This throwaway fact brought back happy childhood memories for me of summer holidays in the Vendée. Many of the first French meals that I ever ate were in St Gilles and I have one particularly vivid memory of spending what felt like hooooouuuuurs waiting for my Dad to finish a plateau de fruit de mer well after I’d finished my steak haché and chips. But I’ll give St Gilles one thing, they do do good fish. This particular one was moist and firm with a sweet flavour acting as an excellent base to the more pronounced flavours accompanying it. Although it had claimed to be en croute this manifested itself in the form of a topping of what may have been the thinnest slice of pain de mie that I had ever seen. Goodness only knows how they cut it so thin, it really must involve lasers or something. Anyway, this slice was so thin that you could actually read through it (believe me I tried and you could read the menu) and embedded with toasted almonds. The spring greens were quite salty and had a little peppery chilli kick to them but the best part of the dish was the curried oil.
COCHON FERMIER- cuisiné de la tête aux pieds,
The main event was supposed to be a tete de veau according to the menu however, bearing in mind my porcine proclivities, I swapped this out for one of the chef’s other signature dishes, the “Head to Toe” (or trotter) pig dish. Consisting of a roast chunk of pork belly, a sausage, skin, and trotter meat all served with a super sticky truffled butter sauce and a stick of crackling. I’m such a lover of truffles that ordinarily I can hunt the slightest trace of them out like a Piedmontese pig however despite clear evidence of brown chunks in the sauce, I have to admit to the sauce being devoid of truffle flavour for my palate. The sausage was tasty and mixed with nuts which added bite and variety to another wise meat heavy dish. The meat had a beautiful flavour however I would have liked the top of the pork belly cube and the piece of skin to have been crunchier .
The cheese trolley was as comprehensive as you would expect it to be although a bit goat heavy for my liking.
Keeping my more gluttonous cheese instincts in check, I opted for the Fourme d’Ambert, some Livarot and a gooey blob of St Felicien. I’ve always noticed that the Livarot has a distinctive band of five rushes wound around the outside of the cheese to hold it together during maturation but hadn’t realised that this unusual feature also provides the reason for its name. The “Livarot” means General and is so named as the band of rushes is though to resemble the five stripes on a General’s epaulettes. There is little that I can say about the Fourme d’Ambert other than that it was an excellent example of what will always be one of my favourite cheeses. The St Felicien was incredibly runny to the point of having liquified in some places, its delicate paleness concealing the comparatively powerful flavour that it packs.
A very pretty, three element amuse bouche heralded the conclusion of the savoury sector of the meal. A ball of zesty orange sorbet sat perched atop a rich, sticky blackcurrant compote; its depth of flavour and viscosity contrasting the light orange zing. A stick of a delicate violet meringue dipped in violet sugar crystals topped the sorbet. A perfectly balanced palate cleanser before the small matter of dessert to address.
Throughout lunch one of the tables near me had been occupied by a group of six French people who clearly had no idea what wine they were being served. Much swilling and sniffing, swishing and inspecting was taking place without a single bottle in sight. Wine was being served from what looked like a giant glass flask. Things took an even stranger turn when their next wine was served in pitch black Riedel glasses (I covet these things very much and they are resolutely on my ‘one day’ list) and I wanted to find out was going on. The head sommelier explained that the group were vignerons from Champagne who had set a budget and requested that the sommelier surprise them. This he did by starting with a 1995 Domaine Leflaive in the glass flask. The wine in the Riedel glasses was actually a light red chilled down to try and confuse the vignerons into believing it might be white. This cunning deception would have been all very well if one of them hadn’t got a little over enthusiastic in his glass swishing and sloshed some very definitely red liquid onto the tablecloth. The final wine served to the group was a Jura vin de paille or ‘straw wine’. The production method for this wine is not dissimilar to that used for vin santo in Italy in that the aim is to reduce the liquid in the grape as much as possible in order to ensure maximum sweetness remaining. Rather than being left on the vine the grapes are picked and left in the sun or in a warm hangar on a pile of straw (hence the ‘vin paille’). At this point the sommelier decided I should join in the tasting game and have a go too. This particular example was a deep amber gold in colour with significant legs. A nose with intense bitter marmalade notes. A decent level of acidity helps to balance out the sweetness but acidity is not overharsh being tempered in your mouth by the warm alcohol glow.
CITRON DE MENTON
The first dessert was a lemon thingy (yes that’s a technical term). Lemon is one of those dessert ingredients that never grabs me and when there are a wide selection of other options on a dessert menu I would probably never choose. That said when its served to me I do seem to enjoy it. If Heston has his meatfruit then Eric has his lemon- albeit that this one does actually taste of lemon. An incredibly fine pale green lime flavoured sugar leaf topped the lemon. The ‘lemon’ itself is very light indeed and made up of nitro iced lemon sorbet that is almost powdery and explodes in your mouth coated in a sticky yellow lemon curd syrup. The centre of the lemon was a roast pear puree. Chunks of meringue around the plate add texture and crunch and a sweet contrast to the tart lemon. Really utterly delicious and light as a feather.
CHOCOLAT PUR CARAÏBES- crémeux émulsion
The second dessert came in the form of an iced coffee chocolate sorbet encased in a chocolate outer layered with ultra sticky caramel onto a gently spiced biscuit. A chocolate disc balanced on top of lengthy sputnik like spikes added to the avant garde appearance. The whole confection was then placed on a painted swirl of chocolate with a jug of hot chocolate poured onto it. In essence an ultra chocolatey, coffee, caramel plate of sticky goodness.
The petit fours were out of this world. It was like someone had wheeled over an explosion of the inside of Willy Wonka’s imagination on a trolley. Orangettes, milk chocolates, dark truffles and other sweet bites sat in giant glass canisters whilst huge, long, caramelised, buttery biscuit sticks towered over the trolley. A perspex case contained six flavours of macaron from raspberry to caramel and vanilla to chocolate. The highlight, however, was a long length of mint marshmallow coiled into a jar and lengths cut off with long handled silver scissors. Tempting as it was to ask for a take away to eat on the plane home, I resisted and opted the macaron, orangette and marshmallow.
At the end of the meal two silver spoons wobbled their way to the table containing glistening amber orbs sprinkled with gold leaf. Little flavour on the outside but bursting the jelly casing resulted in a mouthful of sweet, honeyed, earl grey flavoured liquid. I am dying to try some spherification at home and definitely have aspirations towards replicating these after dinner tea globes.
I have one gripe about the meal which prevents it from reaching perfection. I did um and ah for some time over which wine to choose and took advice from one of the sommeliers. I finally settled on a half bottle of Chassagne Montrachet. It wasn’t too old but was robust enough to stand up to the various different courses of the meal. The wine came wrapped in a napkin, I tried it, yummy white burgundy. No fruit here, it was all about the almonds and cream with distinct gentle oak notes.
I was having a chat with the head sommelier towards the latter end of my meal and asked him if he though I’d made the right choice with my Chassagne. The response came: ‘but you ordered the Meursault’. I didn’t, this I am sure of. I had considered a Meursault but at 50 euros more for a half bottle had disregarded it as overly extravagant. The problem was that I had debated it aloud albeit briefly so I had no way of proving what I had finally settled on and it didn’t seem worth trying to argue it out in a mixture of French and English and spoil the meal. I therefore cannot tell you anything whatsoever about where my half bottle of white came from other than the fact that it was white Meursault and cost rather a lot of money, more than I had intended paying in fact. I will never know whether it was an honest mistake caused by my prevaricating or a nifty switch to the more expensive option and I guess it doesn’t matter as I did love the wine that I drank however it did add a slightly sour note to an otherwise beautiful experience.
In essence a fantastic meal that challenged my palate a little beyond its usual safety blankets but one or two niggles that kept it a step away from being perfection. A lot of emphasis is placed on visual perfection but the flavours behind the pretty plates more than match up. I also appreciated the twist on classical French haute cuisine brought in by use of the more scientific processes.
112 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré
+33 (0)1 53 43 43 40