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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oh no, not again! Yes, again! The Crank temporarily closes his blog and goes back to Paris for a week.

What can I say? The Crank's beautiful girlfriend is a Paris junky. So back to the 6ieme, (or is it the 7ieme?) we go, to figure out something new to do in the same place as usual.

We'll be back after the Memorial Day weekend. Crank you then.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Broomstick Principle—how Americans are getting ripped off by powerful interests, a few coins or dollars at a time

A story first: years ago I met a well-to-do man who told me how his struggling immigrant family put him through college.

“Mom and Dad owned little New York corner deli. Mom hung a kitchen broom next to the cash register. As each customer checked her stuff out, Mom would add in the price of the broom.

"If a customer balked, Mom would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that was your broom,’ and she’d give the money back, but customers didn’t catch her often. Well let me tell you something, that broom sent me and my brothers to college.”

It’s easier to get away with stealing nickels and dimes and a few dollars over a long time than it is to steal millions at one time. People don’t notice it, or figure it’s not worth the hassle to put up an argument over a few dimes, or these days a few dollars, filched from their pockets. Let's call that The Broomstick Principle.

Major bank thefts—only
you're the bank and the bank
is the thief

The Broomstick Principle is the same system that banks are using to shake the loose change out of your pockets.

You want to carry last night's restaurant bill for a month? No problem, it’ll cost you a mere nine bucks. Nevermind that the nine bucks represents 28 percent interest a month on your debt, while the banks are borrowing the money they lend you from the taxpayers for next to zero percent.

The Mafia never had it so good

In the days when America had usury laws, even the local Mafia loan shark didn’t earn those kinds of profit margins. And unlike the corner mafioso, the banks are stealing from millions of Americans every day.

Keeping the greedy banks from feeling free to pick your pockets a few bucks at a time is why the consumer protection law now before Congress is so important, and why the majority of Republicans as well as some Democrats deserved to be slammed for watering it down.

Now The Broomstick Principle
returns to the supermarket line

While I’m doing the slamming, I feel I ought to mention the “good works” of the D’Agostino supermarket chain in New York. It’s virtually impossible to go through their checkout lines without having the checkout clerk demand that you contribute money to one of D’Agostino’s favorite charities.

“Would you like to contribute your change to…?” Or simply, “Do you want to contribute to…?” on the checkout line forces the customer to say, in effect, either no I won’t, or no I don't want to, or no I can’t afford to, or no I’m a grouch. Rather than put up with that kind of hassle, many customers open their wallets.

It can be only a buck or two, or a few nickels and dimes at a time, but it adds up. Suppose I want to contribute to my own favorite charity, not to one of the charities the D’Agostinos want to give money to? Do I have to plead my case on the checkout line? No wonder those lines are so slow.

Yes, the charities are all good causes, so far as I know. And besides how much could it cost each customer?

It might be a money grab
in the multi-million dollar class

Well, cumulatively, it might run into the hundreds of thousands, or millions, pressured from our pockets, one checkout customer at a time for the sake of D’Agostino causes.

One also wonders if these contributions aren’t another form of “I thought it was your broom.” Is one hundred percent of what’s collected forwarded to the charities? Is D’Agostino taking a tax deduction that belongs to its customers? Is there even an honest auditor who is tracking and publishing the record?

I don’t have the answers. I do know that because we only get relieved of a little bit of their money at a time, Americans aren’t mad enough about it, whether it happens in the supermarket, at the bank, or online. Not nearly mad enough.

Monday, May 03, 2010

"Drill baby, drill!" Eh Senator McCain?

It's hard to calculate all the damage done by the latest oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But at the very least:

•50,000 gallons a day of raw petroleum are gushing, so far unstoppably, not into America's energy stream but into the Gulf of Mexico where the toxic goo is...
• Killing fish and birds
• Destroying the fishing industry
• Threatening the economy of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and the Texas Gulf Coast.
• Creating a future public health disaster.The odds are that 20 to 40 years from now there will be an epidemic of cancer among those who deliberately or by chance eat the carcinogen-laden products of the gulf. Like shrimp? Forget about it now, pal.

Shame on you, Senator McCain. Shame on you Sarah Palin. Shame on you every Republican who either chanted "Drill baby drill," or sympathized with those who did, or took campaign contributions from the petroleum industry.

Nature is a hanging judge. And she is hanging the future of the American Gulf Coast states. You're doing a helluva job, Senator.

Now, watch the video: