Welcome to The Epic! I am launching this blog as a manifesto for and a guide to living well. The title and motto of the blog are taken from the Epicureans, at least some of whom believed in the notion that not one minute of the future was guaranteed to them and that as a result they had the duty to live life to its fullest every moment.
I believe in discovering fun and pleasurable things wherever I find myself each day and I am told I have a knack for unearthing them. My hope is that by sharing in my pleasures and some of my ways of finding them you will begin to collect all the riches that lie in the moments of your life. They are there. Take them! All our lives should be.....Epic.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
My gastronomic life has been a fortunate one. I have had the privilege of meals in many great restaurants across North America. So when I plotted my Paris trip, I set aside one evening for what I hoped would be a multi-course Edwardian style meal in the grand Parisian style. Classic venue, great wines, multiple courses of world-class food. I considered several choices. Le Tour D'Argent. Le Grand Vefour. And Taillevent. The youngest of the list. Described as "mighty", and not that long ago considered the greatest restaurant in the world. Liebling does not mention frequenting such grand establishments, and he preceded Taillevent by a decade anyway. After looking at the web sites for all three restaurants, I ultimately relied upon my culinary sixth sense and chose Taillevent. I made the reservation, on line, three months before my arrival in Paris.
Actually, I had been thinking of Taillevent for a long time. Several years ago, I came across Andrew Todhunter's marvelous book A Meal Observed, in which he describes an outstanding dinner at Taillevent from the viewpoint of someone who had recently worked at a lowly spot in its kitchen. Any person who is in love with fine dining will enjoy this little book. So, it was Taillevent for me on my night of haute cuisine a' Paris.
I chose my outfit carefully. Gray trousers, purple and white stripe dress shirt, purple rep tie, black velvet blazer. I have to say, I thought I looked outstanding. At least my clothes did. The taxi was exactly on time at my hotel, and off I went, up the Champs-Elysees...
Then a very odd thing occurred. I had misgivings. Even doubts. A shadow of a lack of self-confidence. What if, when I arrived, the staff didn't like me? If they immediately knew that I was a poseur, a person that had to save money for this meal? If they objected to my feeble French? If they didn't like my jacket? I had a fleeting vision of myself, after being seated at table behind a column where the other diners wouldn't have to see me, staring dumbly at a waiter refusing to understand anything I said. In short, I saw a yawning chasm between where the cab was taking me and everywhere I had ever dined before. Hell, everywhere I had ever been before. I deeply wished that I had stopped at Fouquet's for a bracing cocktail before catching the cab. Then we turned off the Champs, drove past several august looking establishments of the bank/embassy/foundation type, and I was at the front door of Taillevent. No turning back now. I took a deep breath. I told myself to walk into the place like Sinatra would have walked in. "Ladies and gentlemen......Frank SINATRA". Like I was putting all the oxygen into the room.
One doorman opened the cab door. Another doorman opened the very solid looking restaurant door. And I was inside the former town house of the Duc de Morny. Precisely on time for my 9:00pm reservation.
I needn't have worried. From the moment the second doorman tipped his hat and opened the door to the building, I was treated like a rock star. No, better. Like a billionaire just appointed ambassador to France. No, better. Like a regular. I strolled Frank-like down a short entry hall. The maitre'd, in a tailored tuxedo, smiled and approached me.
"Mr. ML, very nice to see you. Your table is waiting."
No question as to who I was. A warm welcome from a man who knew who I was. And who seemed to have had no better experience that day than to see me walk in the door. That impression was Taillevent in a nutshell.
In these days and times, admittedly somewhat thin in the area of manners and deportment, it is a very rare thing to be ushered about anywhere. Yet that was the only term to describe how the maitre'd showed me to my table. As if he wanted everyone else in the full dining room that evening to see that ML, provincial lawyer, was going to be there with them, and what a swell time we were all going to have.
This is a photo of the Lamonnais Room from the Taillevent web site...
This picture does not do justice to the beauty, the elegance, of the place. I'll bet there were E5,000 in fresh cut flowers in huge arrangements around the foyer, bar and dining room. I was seated at the banquette to the left of the small lamp in the photo. To my left was a distinguished couple who had been coming to Paris for thirty years and who dined at Taillevent every trip. To their left were two larger banquettes occupied by young, very well dressed couples. They all looked like fashion models. The eight person table at the forefront of the photo was occupied by four tres' elegant couples in their 60s who just had to be Parisians. To their left was a rectangular table of eight, seating four young Korean couples, the women dressed to the nines, the men looking like ......well.......not dressed to the nines. A woman at the latter table was one of the most strikingly beautiful women I have ever seen. She was wearing a dove gray cashmere sweater dress with a large, loose turtle neck collar, cut at an angle. She may have been twenty-four. The men ordered lots of wine and seemed to talk only to each other. The women drank lots of wine and just sat there. I thought I caught the one in gray looking at me a few times. Must have been my black satin jacket.
A small plate of gougieres appeared at my elbow. "Appeared" is an apt description. The service was so attentive, and so good, that I realized after a bit that new silver was being placed on the starched white table cloth for each course. Without me noticing it being done. Magic. A menu printed on thick paper printed on two sides with the dining choices and on two sides with a significant wine selection was handed to me by the head waiter. I think there were four waiters assigned to me. I lost track. And they were completely discrete and not intrusive in the least. The head waiter asked me if I cared for a cocktail, an aperitif or champagne. I agreed that champagne seemed proper. He then listed about a dozen choices and I hit a linguistic log jam. Even though the answer was simple and I knew how to order champagne, for some reason I could not figure out a reply. So, I stammered in French that my French was very bad and that I had been a poor student in school. He smiled understandingly and without a moment of hesitation repeated the list in English. I chose Tattinger, a nod to James Bond. He then switched back to French, as did I. Did I already mention that the service was impeccable? It wasn't that he was pretending not to know English but rather that he wanted to proceed however I wanted to proceed. He made me perfectly at ease.
I proceeded to study the menu as I ate the cheesy gougieres which were slightly crispy on the outside and warm and luxurious inside. Every choice seemed better than the one before. I made my selections and then turned to the wine list. I had read in Todhunter's book that the Taillevent list was extensive and that it offered selections for diners of all budgets. Very true. Even in my non-expert perusal, I could see that many excellent choices were presented in every category which were affordable. And, of course, in every category there were bottles which cost as much as one could want to pay. There were about three hundred selections on the printed menu and I was assured that about ten times as many choices existed in the famous cellar should I care to inquire. Long a fan of Rhone wines, I was tempted by the Chateauneuf du Pape choices but eventually spent a bit more on a bottle of Cote-Rotie, Liebling's favorite wine when he had coin in his pocket. I had never tried a Cote-Rotie before but I found the setting more than appropriate to the occasion of my first bottle. The sommelier and I consulted briefly and he agreed that adding the Rotie to the lineup after the Tattinger would not pose a problem since my first few courses would be more suited to Champagne.
The icy Tattinger arrived and was poured into a heavy crystal flute. Nibbling another gougiere while sipping Tattinger in a room full of beautiful people, sparkling silver, lovely flowers, and grey-clad Korean sirens, all while wearing my black velvet jacket, was almost enough to send me directly into a bliss induced state. And I had three hours of dining to go...
The first course arrived. Lobster with a buttery celeriac broth. The lobster was so fresh and tender, perfectly cooked, and the sauce so light and fresh it reminded me of a day beside the sea. The Tattinger nodded its approval. I fought my urge to lick the plate when I was finished.
I looked leisurely around the room. My champagne flute had been refilled. The second course arrived, a veloute de homard with citronnelle, caviar and fleur de hourrache. Basically a cold lobster bisque flavored with citrus and the somewhat cucumber flavored herb hourrache. The caviar was at the bottom of the bowl surrounded by more luscious chunks of lobster. Now, the great thing about a cold soup is that you can linger as long as you want while eating it without worrying about losing warmth. I savored every drop of it, delivered in a heavy silver soup spoon of just the right dimension. This was without question the best lobster bisque dish I have ever had. I wanted to bathe in this soup. As long as plenty of Tattinger was available.
For those who raise an eyebrow about my two lobster courses in a row, I say that when I asked my first waiter about it he said "if you like lobster, order lobster in two different dishes monsieur [with a grin then] or order the same dish for several courses....you won't be sorry". An excellent notion, and one I adopted without hesitation, an image of Liebling eating those two consecutive servings of cassoulet at the edge of my mind.
From my lobster induced stupor (the Tattinger had nothing to do with it) I was delighted by my next course and by the arrival of my bottle of Cote Rotie. From the first sip, I knew this would be a very special bottle of wine. The spice, raspberry and hints of vanilla "jumped all over me" as a pal from New Orleans would say. The only other wine I have tasted which was this good was a very expensive bottle of Bordeaux that a friend shared with me once. Just the thing to usher in a serving of marvellous Provencal asparagus with stewed morels. April is in the season for asparagus it seems, and again, the freshness and flavor of this simple plate of food was unlike anything I've had before. And I love asparagus and I eat it a lot at home.
As the third waiter cleared the empty china which had once held the asparagus course the first waiter reappeared at my elbow and announced with unabashed glee "monsieur, now..........THE SNAILS". Oh. The, eh, um, what? I had never eaten snails before. Not ever. The slippery texture and......well......snailyness....of the dish completely put me off. I cannot describe how I thoroughly detest even the notion of such a dish. Now, in Paris, at Taillevent, my one semester of college French had come back to haunt me. I had misread the menu and mistakenly ordered.....snails. I saw the spectre of an embarrassment and a ruined dining experience yawning before me. The waiter must have seen me flinch, because he asked (in a quiet and gentle tone) "has monsieur eaten snails before?" I took a shaky sip of the Cote Rotie and lingered in its heady bouquet before deciding there was only one thing to do. I set down my crystal glass on the heavy linen table cloth with some authority and looked the man in the eye. "No. But if a man is to start eating snails, then where better to do it than Taillevent?" I actually thought he was going to say "bravo" or clap me on the back. He refrained from both actions, but I could see he was delighted and surprised with my reply. Beaming, he strode off to procure the dish.
This episode causes me to briefly detour from my story. My strategic plan upon leaving for Paris was
four pronged. First, to attempt to speak French at all times and to admit when I was unable to communicate with an honest mea culpa. Second, to never try and hide my joy at being there after all these years for the sake of seeming "cool" or "worldly". Third, to give people a friendly smile. Last, to have plenty of ready money. This strategy worked perfectly and I had [with one notable exception to be related later] friendly and even warm dealings with the people I met in Paris. People respect you trying to use their language within the confines of their country rather than bullying them into speaking your language first. People like friendliness. But, if this trip proved anything to me, it was that people (at least Parisian people) like passion. Paris is a very passionate place, where people will argue stridently over beans or types of butter and where people wear their hearts on their sleeves. As a result, I am convinced that the sight of an American tourist, in middle age, alone, going about wide-eyed and obviously completely thrilled to be there struck a chord in the Gallic breast. I was having the time of my life, openly showed it, and one person after another responded to it with a romantic enthusiasm. As with the snails...
The waiter returned and proudly set a beautiful china bowl before me. Inside the bowl were set six snails nestled in a bright green wheat risotto infused with white garlic and butter. The risotto was quite green. This sounds odd, I know, but the visual effect was striking. It seemed to me that the chef was trying to depict the snails on grass. Au naturale, as it were. As I breathed in the tremendous aroma of this dish, a huge smile came to my face. My waiter was watching closely for my reaction and he smiled almost as big as me. After another bracing hit of Rotie, I spooned out a snail and went for it. It was tremendous, the delicacy of the butter and garlic flavors perfectly complimenting the flavor of the snail. And the risotto was like velvet and larger grained than what I had experienced in the past. Let me tell you, any really good chef can overcome the reservations a tenderfoot diner may think he has to the flavor of a new food. It takes a true master to overcome the tactile reservations the same diner may have. Yet this is exactly what the chef accomplished in this outstanding, marvelous dish. The use of the large grained wheat risotto perfectly balanced the snails and made this the most memorable piece of an amazing meal. My initiation into eating snails was nothing less than a triumph.
After another mystical set of new silverware appeared without my notice, the pan sauteed Rouget Barbet arrived. Flaky and firm, this red mullet was perfectly complimented by caramelized onions and a sauce of green olives. The flavor of the fish along with its more earthy companions was outstanding and went very well with the Cote-Rotie.
After sipping some more Rotie, the mignon of lamb with a stew of spring vegetables arrived and was so marvelously fragrant and lovely I was tempted not to eat it at all in favor of trying to inhale it. Luckily my gustatory urge won out and I enjoyed the best lamb dish I have ever had. I know that I have mentioned this several times in this series on my Paris trip, but the flavor of meats and vegetables I experienced was so strikingly different from what I am used to in the U.S. that it was as if you had never really eaten asparagus, or duck, or veal, or red mullet before. I attribute this difference to freshness and seasonal preparation. The places I went in Paris were obsessed with fresh, seasonal foods.
After a bit the meat course was cleared away [not that there was any food left sitting about] and I took a short breather to savor the evening so far, look around the room to view waiters preparing Crepes Suzette in copper pans at two different tables. Then, it was time for one of my favorite parts of any great meal. The cheese course. At Taillevent, this consisted of two deputy under waiters carrying a large basket forward with dozens of types of cheese in it, all available to me to sample if I so desired. I counted forty types of cheese. Now, I knew I had several desserts to go at this stage, so I decided to show a bit of restraint. I like a cheese course that moves from mild to moderate to outright challenging. These particular selections were a soft Camembert, a moderate Pont Leveque and a challenging but savory Corsican cheese the name of which I failed to note when I was doing battle with it. The cheese steward was very helpful and enthusiastic about his offerings. It was a memorable course and one that stood alone in terms of quality and elegance. I had finished off the Rotie by this point so I opted for a very nice port. The cheese course served to both knock the meal off its rails a bit and to reset the taste buds with richness and bite. Dessert was arriving...
The first of the desserts was one of the truly breath-taking and amazing dishes I have ever encountered...
I had to take a surreptitious photo of it because it was so amazing. The photo came out lousy. This martini glass had a huge perfect raspberry which was apparently floating in mid air!! In the bottom of the glass there was a thick creme flavored with the herbal liquor Verveine along with candied flowers and more raspberries. I goggled at the simple beauty of this dessert. It was almost too lovely to eat. The photo actually reveals the secret of the framboise levitation but I can assure you it was not visible to at least my naked eye. Supporting the raspberry was a disc made from sugar, the consistency of ultra thin glass. The sugar was so purely done it had no bubbles and was completely clear, rendering it virtually invisible. An edible magic trick. When I finally poked at the glass with my spoon, I shattered the sugar disc causing the crumbled pieces to fall into the creme below, supplying both crunchiness and sweetness. This effort was a towering triumph. Completely charming. And absolutely the best dessert I have ever had.
The second dessert presented was a feuille a' feuille......a leaf on a leaf. Made of the exquisite bitter dark chocolate called Guanaja...it sounds exotic, and it was exotic. The dish was very simple,
two leaves of Guanaja chocolate with rosettes of Guanaja butter creme between them. Oh, and a dot of gold leaf on top just for fun. I probably took longer eating this second dessert course than anything else in the meal because the flavors of the chocolate were so intense and complicated. The tang of the Guanaja perfectly balanced the slight, creamy sweetness of the cream rosettes. With a cup of very strong Parisian coffee, the perfect ending of the perfect meal. Or so I thought.
At this point I was in a state of utter satisfaction. Ecstasy had set in, properly tempered by the Champagne and Cote-Rotie. And Port. I had a definite rosy glow induced by the cumulative effects of the successive courses of this meal which built upon each other like a symphony. Similar to the additive bliss one acquires from kissing a woman you love. Over and over. Slowly. Without words.
As I was intercepting yet another look from the lovely woman in the gray cashmere dress, the head waiter approached, not quite managing to break my reverie. He asked if I desired an after dinner drink, Cognac perhaps, or Calvados? As I may have mentioned before in this series, I had dedicated the trip to Liebling and as a result had devoted myself only to Calvados after dinner as it was his [and my] favorite. Before I could reply, the head waiter said "monsieur, you look like a Calvados man to me" and a bottle from the house cellar was placed with ceremony on my table along with a small cut crystal glass. Perfect! The second waiter poured a healthy jot for me and with a wink said "Monsieur, should you drink this bottle, we have plenty more for you". Just the way you would treat an Ambassador. A billionaire. Or a regular who has never been there before.
More coffee appeared. And little cakes and candies...
The head waiter then inquired whether I had enjoyed my meal. I am not kidding. I may have become a bit misty. I'm funny that way. I raised my Calvados and managed to say...
"Monsieur, c'est mon premier voyage a' Paris..........et c'est le grand diner a' mon vie".
The greatest meal of my life. Again my passion for the event and my thankfulness at being able to experience it showed through and struck a chord. The head waiter broke his perfect composure, smiled, and looked at me......proudly. He refilled my glass himself, saying "the more you drink the better your French gets monsieur". We all had a chuckle at that.
It was 12:30 a.m. A three and a half hour meal, now concluded. The dining room was still busy. But after a glass or two more of Calvados it was time to take care of the bill and go. The head waiter called me a cab and the maitre 'd waited with me out at the curb making small talk for about ten minutes until it arrived. He saluted when he closed the door and watched me glide out to the
Post-script: I found this meal perfect in every respect and my excessive use of superlatives in this post is neither accident nor exaggeration. Michelin states on its web site that "Its name evokes elegance, discretion, style...Since 1946, Taillevent is essential in the landscape of French haute cuisine cultivating a brilliant classicism." It proved in reality to be precisely what it was said to be. A rare thing in these times. And a thing of great value. Like The Louvre, art of this magnitude has to be experienced first hand to be truly appreciated. That said, I found this post the hardest one to write of my blogging career. Rather like finding a love letter you wrote to a girl you loved once and dropped for some specious reason and then missed bitterly, the memories evoked by writing this piece were so pleasant that they were in many ways painful. This is my four hundredth post since starting The Epic some years ago. I hope you find it palatable.
In my mid 50s, husband, father and itinerant storyteller. I am a putative jazz singer, poet and novelist, dedicated to mining every minute of life for the veins of pleasure they contain. My motto is "Dum Vivimus, Vivamus"..."While we Live--LET US LIVE".