Thursday, May 27, 2010

L’Atelier Joel Robuchon vs. Le Grand Véfour—a meditation on why the hell anybody would pay $150 or so for lunch in Paris

Top: Robuchon. Below: Véfour.

I can't believe—well, of course I do believe it, but not really—that I'm writing a blog piece comparing two of the most expensive restaurants in Paris.

I mean, there was a time when simply reading the prices on the menus would have given me a severe case of the vapors. Those were the days, half a century ago, when my bible for European travel was called Europe on $5 a Day, and five bucks really was my outer limit.

Well, a buck in the year 2010 isn’t what it used to be, but you really could get by, and comfortably at that, on $5 a head before 1961, provided there were two of you sharing a hotel room.

Of course, at the time Joel Robuchon was a pre-adolescent, not a restaurateur. Le Grand Véfour on the other hand had been around since they were decapitating royalty at Place de la Concorde. But it was the two buck meals on the Boulevard St. Michele, (with some scuzzy wine) and not haute cuisine that was on my radar back in my threadbare youth.

Cash, conflict and Paris: leftist or rightist it’s always nice to have money

Okay, so now it’s different. Conflicted leftist that I am, I arrived in Paris last week with the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend and a wallet stuffed with credit cards and Euros, still firmly possessed of the belief that Congress and Obama ought to tax the rich until they bleed green ink. But you wouldn’t have known it to watch me. The Boulevard St. Germain branch of Sonia Rykiel was all but flying banners out front that said, “Welcome Back, Crank’s Beautiful Girlfriend. Oh, and you, too, Crank.”

A day and several thousand bucks worth of frocks later—frocks that will make the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend look even more spectacularly beautiful—we were seated in Robuchon’s workshop.

Workshop—the dictionary definition of the French word atelier—is exactly what the place is. Most of the customers sit lunch counter style around various kitchen stations, their dishes in front of them on place mats, watching Robuchon’s kitchen elves do their magic.

I say most because if you have the temerity to reserve less than a month in advance you may find yourself in Robuchonian Siberia, seated at a shelf up against a plate glass window, as if you were sipping coffee from a paper cup in Starbucks. Instead of watching kitchen elves, you will find yourself staring out on Rue Montelambert, where not much seems to be going on for a street in Paris.

“Don’t talk. Shut up and observe how damn clever I am.”

This is not the kind of place where you would simultaneously bring your spouse, your boss, your boss’s spouse and a couple of clients to dinner. Conversation, save with the two persons at your elbows, is virtually impossible. The focus is on the food and even more so on its preparation, unless of course you are at the shelf in Siberia. observing taxis slowing down to check for potential passengers at the hotel next door.

There is something supremely egotistical about the place. Yes, the food is very good. (I had a high cholesterol triple-header: a cold country paté, followed by a sautéed duck liver with a crusted exterior, followed by a kind of steak au poivre and a glass of I-forget-what wine.) Yes, the service is unobtrusive and flawless.

But somehow, it’s all about Joel and his behind-the-counter acolytes. One is left with a lingering impression that the food and staff are there simply there to help you appreciate the brilliance of Joel Robuchon, who tends to build his creations vertically, like a clever child cantilevering pieces from his lego set. (See the top photograph)

A restaurant to enjoy, with company

Le Grand Véfour, on the other hand, believes in starched white tablecloths, attentive waiters who clearly specialize in some aspect of the meal (sommelier, cheese waiter, captain, and so on) and who seemed to have a passion for their specialty.

They design plates too, but the design sensibility is different. Imagine a zen master working hand-in-glove with Pablo Picasso. (See the lower photograph.) And good conversation here is expected to be part of the meal, rather than hushed awe. Pleasant chats were going on at all the tables around us. (For the record, Guy Martin is the brilliant chef, but I had to go hunting on the Internet to find his name.)

We chose the 80-something Euro prix fix e menu which declared that there would be four courses. Whatever else you do in life, for the love of God do not teach those folks at Le Grand Vefour how to count.

First there was an amuse bouche, a cool and creamy soup. Then a paté so rich and tasty that I am still daydreaming about it, almost a week later. It arrived on a plate with a typically zen-like arrangement of complimentary vegetable elements, which I gather is designed to put one’s mind and stomach at peace, before devouring every last morsel.

Next I had cod as I had never tasted (or seen) cod before. The Crank’s Beautiful Girlfriend had a chicken breast that was not like any chicken breast she had ever eaten before. Then a cheese plate arrived with a choice of wonderfully exotic cheeses, from the firm and intensely pungent to the impressively runny and wildly stinky. I chose three and then stopped myself, but the cheese waiter seemed perfectly willing to keep going if I wanted to. Nor were the portions—pardon the pun that comes to mind—cheesy, in the nouvelle cuisine manner. These were good-size hunks, not miniscule slivers.

After that came dessert (which was really two different desserts on one plate.) And finally, a long thin dish for each of us, with another zen-like arrangement, this one of different shaped bonbons.

As at Robuchon, we ordered wine by the glass, but in this case a sommelier with a powerful sense of the gravity of his calling stood by to offer his recommendations.

We sat down for lunch at 1 PM and left after 3, deliriously happy and convinced we would not need to eat again for the next 72 hours (although we did).

And here’s the point of it all

Why would anyone in his right mind pay (after wine and currency translation) about $150 per head for lunch? I might as well ask you why you might pay $150 per ticket to see people dancing around and singing songs on a stage on Broadway when you can see the same thing free right outside the door in the looney bin that’s Times Square.

It’s a memory. It’s a pleasurable experience. It’s a postcard home. It’s a conversation for the next day and perhaps for days afterward. It’s a blog piece. It’s something to remember with all the fondness you might also have for a $20 elevator ride to the top of the empire state building so you could look out with the rest of the crowd up there and enjoy the view for a few minutes—after standing in line for an hour.

There’s one big difference, of course. Gastro tourism comes with seductive aromas, and textures and flavors and arrangements and—yes—calories.

How many times will you go back to the top of the Empire State Building after you’ve been there once? For me the answer is, not again if I can help it. Once was a memorable and positive experience, but it gave me as much of a memory as I need. I might say the same about Joel Robuchon’s ego-marinated atelier in Paris.

But le Grand Véfour? If I can remember where I buried those gold ingots, I’ll definitely sell a few and go again.

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