Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lunch in Fragonard’s Chair

“I have very simple tastes – the very best
satisfies me every time.”   Oscar Wilde

We’re having lunch at Le Grand Véfour. A prix-fixe dinner at 282 euros each is out of the question, but we can justify lunch at 96. It will be our only meal of the day, after all, and we’ll simply have to eat bread and cheese for a couple of days – hardly a sacrifice when the bread is a baguette and the cheese is French.

This is our second visit to this monument to French history, art and cuisine in the gilded northwest corner of the Palais Royale. We first had lunch here on our 25th anniversary trip to Paris just over five years ago and promised ourselves we would come back. It was simply one of the best dining experiences we had ever had. Not only was every delectable bite and sip memorable, the grace of the orchestrated service was the perfect combination of professionalism and warmth.

We take the #69 bus which leaves us by the Seine in front of the Louvre and then walk across the museum courtyard, past the I.M. Pei Pyramid. We anticipate the meal ahead as we cross the Rue du Rivoli, pass in front of the Comédie Française and head around into the the Palais Royale. We breeze past the low black and white striped pedestals in the initial courtyard (I’ve never quite liked the effect and pretend I don’t see them). The symmetric columned arcade of the final dénouement in one of our favorite films --- Charade with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Walter Matthau -- is to our right. I have never seen Paris so beautiful. It shimmers, no matter what the light, and today is a glorious, sunny day. The palace gardens are at the end of their summer brilliance but the colors remain intense, giving the flowerbeds the soft effect of a Monet painting. We wander through the gardens until just before 1pm and then head for the distinctive black and gold painted glass entry to Le Grand Véfour.

Our experience begins even before we enter the restaurant. A uniformed gentleman opens the door for us and after passing through the plush burgundy drapery into the foyer, we are greeted by no fewer than three staff, one of whom takes us to our table. There are two small dining rooms, one behind the other and as on our last visit, we are seated in the front room. The gentleman proudly informs us that we are in the favorite seat of the French artist Fragonard (a painter and sculptor who worked with Jacques-Louis David in the first half of the 19th century). For our first meal here, we sat at Napoleon and Josephine’s preferred table – quite a lucky draw for first time diners. Behind the seats of these famous patrons is a small brass plate with each of their names inscribed. We settle in, order two kirs and discreetly survey our fellow diners. We are sitting next to a single French gentleman who we decide is on a business trip to Paris and is treating himself to a fine lunch. The two French businessmen on our other side are sparing no expense. The man in his 40s is paying and he insists that his older companion have the finest of everything on the menu, including a huge piece of lobster tail. No prix fixe menu for them. It appears that they have just closed a deal and a big one it must have been. This lunch is in celebration. Several couples arrive in succession just after we are seated. There are two separate American couples – three of the individuals “of a certain age,” and one gentleman close to 80 sitting across from us. Next to them are two more individual couples, both of them British. An Eastern European man and woman, not quite dressed for the surroundings, are seated diagonally from us.  And that’s as far as our sleuthing has gone. We make our selections from the prix-fixe menu and our lunch officially begins.

We toast to the magic of being together at Le Grand Véfour for a second time and then to our lovely daughter, Caroline, who turns 24 today. Bon anniversaire, Caroline! How we wish that she and her brother, Chris, could be with us. We could then take over the next two places on the upholstered banquette and channel the spirit of its favorite patron, Jean Cocteau. Perhaps it’s the kir, perhaps it’s the sun filtering through the window or perhaps it’s every little thing about this perfect afternoon. I’m suddenly overcome with emotion and the tears spill over. Joe takes my hand and I know I have to recover quickly. The food is starting to arrive. There are four official courses on the prix fixe menu: an appetizer, a main dish, the cheese plate and a dessert. But we know from experience that we will be given multiple additional tidbits, thereby turning lunch into an eight- or nine-course meal. I dab at my tears as the amuse-bouches are placed on our table with quiet ceremony. Each time a course or a little special something is put in front of us, we are told exactly what it is. We are served by no fewer than six gentlemen and despite the fact that they all speak English (albeit with heavy accents), I’ve done my best to continue to speak to them in French. They follow my lead and present their descriptions in French. While Joe is hesitant to use the French he knows, his ear miraculously understands the explanations from waiters when the subject is French food. He has to ask me for clarifications only now and then.

The amuse-bouches, the chef’s complimentary hors d’oeuvres, are a miniature vegetable spring roll bursting with grassy flavors and a demitasse of cold yellow tomato soup dotted with crispy little croutons. A delicious start. I always maintain that you can judge a restaurant by its bread. We’re given the choice of whole wheat or white mini-baguettes and as expected, they are perfect: crisp and crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. Butter is normally not served with your bread in France, and thank God for that. For me, French bread with no butter is delicious but I can muster the willpower to say no; however, when butter is on the table, I’m be a goner – it’s simply irresistible. At Le Grand Véfour, not only is butter served, it arrives in sizable silver crocks in two varieties: salted and unsalted. By the end of our meal, most of both will be gone.

The bottle of Chablis we selected arrives and the waiter proceeds with the graceful ritual of presenting the label, opening the bottle, and then allowing us to taste the wine. Joe gives the nod that the wine is bon and the gentleman puts our bottle on ice, waiting to pour our initial glasses until we finish our kirs. The restaurant staff notices our every move and anticipates our every need, sometimes before we recognize the need ourselves. There’s a hierarchy among the 10 or so staff serving the room, but it is not easily discernable. The forthcoming, diplomatic gentleman who brought us to our table is clearly the maître d’ since he has nothing to do with the food itself and the quiet, sweet man who took our wine order is the sommelier. It’s difficult to determine the exact roles of the others since they fluidly work like clockwork as a team and each has brought something to or taken something away from our table. The highest ranking appear to be those privileged with taking patrons’ orders and presenting the food. Those more junior replenish the silver serving platters with bread, butter and cheese for their seniors to present to diners, and clear away the empty plates. All wear tuxedos; all carry themselves with distinction. One of the busboys is the spitting image of the American actor, Adrian Grenier, and there is one young woman busgirl among the otherwise all-male staff.

We’ve both ordered the foie gras as our appetizer (l’entrée en françis): foie gras de canard et pressé de cuisses de volaille de Bresse aux épices et herbes fraîches, sur un radis “daikon” acidulé et poivre long.

The log of foie gras arrives atop pulled duck mixed with various herbs and spices and pressed into a thin rectangular cube. All sits on a think slice of vinegary radish. We remind ourselves to take our time. We have all afternoon to make this experience last as long as we can. The remarkably creamy texture of the foie gras is nicely juxtaposed to the coarser pressed duck and we savor every bite. A chunk of baguette, a sliver of butter and a slice of foie gras is a heavenly mouthful. Is there a better taste than this in all the world?

Our main dishes (les plats en français) are up next. I decide on the monkfish (lotte cuite meunière, fenouil et tomate légèrement pimentés, jus péquillos.  Joe chooses the veal: onglet de veau poêlé, courgettes et câpres à la coriandre, jus à la badiane.

My fish arrives on a large white dish. The presentation is an edible work of modern art in a palette of bright red, orange and yellow. The chunk of white monkfish is draped with a flaming red pepper coulis, with broad strokes of delicate orange tomato and yellow fennel sauces painting the plate. In separate little bowls are a mix of sautéed mushrooms and two precise, mini-football scoops of mashed potatoes. Joe’s veal looks perfect: three lovely pieces surrounded by a brown sauce flavored with capers, coriander and anise. He also receives his vegetables on the side. All the flavors are subtle and marvelous. We trade bites and “hmmms” and “ahhhs” and try to make our main dishes last as long as possible.

Next up is La Table de Fromages de France. The “cheese waiter” rolls the chariot with two large platters up against our table. The dozens of choices are arranged in descending order of size, from the huge wedges of hard cheese from the Alps down to the little rolls of goat cheese from the Lot. Hearing the waiter describe the selections reminds me of our visit here five years ago. Joe understood our thick-accented server to have said something about “cheap cheese,” and Joe said with a smile, “no cheap cheese for me.” No, replied the waiter with a laugh, articulating as best he could, “these are sheep cheeses.” We each make four selections, knowing this is the polite maximum, although it would have been easy to say, “one of each, s’il vous plaît.” As we savor our cheese course, we comment that the conversation level in the room has risen. After some wine to let down their guard, the two American couples and the two British couples have started separate converdations. The Americans are sharing Parisian experiences and political thoughts and the Brits are discussing the food. We hear the American woman whose companion is quite a bit older than she say, “My husband’s Buddha belly cost us a lot but it’s not worth anything.” Made us laugh. We also observe that the staff has dwindled down to half the original number and the earlier hustle bustle has slowed to a gentle calm. With all patrons having made it through their cheese, only a skeleton staff remains.

We’ve been at our table for over three hours and it’s time for dessert. We first receive two little cups of pureed fruits and a refreshing citrus granita. Our palates are now ready for some sweets. We both order the chocolate and hazelnut option: palet noisette et chocolat au lait, glace au caramel brun et prise de sel Guérande. While milk chocolate is almost always good, and this is indeed delicious, I have another close-my-eyes-and-savor-the-moment experience when I taste the quenelle of salted caramel ice cream. It is simply the best ice cream I have ever had. I am addicted to salt and will almost always choose a savory option over a sweet one. But this frozen delicacy has the best of both: sweet and salty in one delicious mouthful. As we’re enjoying our desserts, the waiter brings us two long, narrow trays of petit fours: mini macaroons, lemon tarts, cream puffs and madeleines. When our Eastern European neighbors are given their petit fours just after us, the woman takes a quick look at the additional sweets and asks the waiter in accented English, “Do you want me to die?” But dessert is not yet over. We are next presented with rectangular grapefruit and strawberry sugared jelly cubes. Once again, I need a superlative. While the fraises are lovely, the grapefruit jellies are the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. I always enjoyed the overly sweet candied half-moon jelly slices my great aunt Didi used to bring us when she visited from Brooklyn in the seventies. But these jellies have no hard candied edges and the combination of grapefruit tartness with the sugary crystals on the surface is perfection. We each let several melt in our mouths. The dining room is now down to a handful of staff, each apparently charged with delivering a new bit of après-dessert with the potential to send diners into hyperglycemic shock. The penultimate offering is a tray of chocolates (we each choose a mint-flavored square), and the final presentation is a variety of nougats. Faithful and courageous ‘til the bittersweet end, we each take a caramel and manage to put them in our mouths. Joe decides to have coffee, the thick, strong French kind, served without milk, to finish his meal properly. I’m happy for the opportunity to just sit and digest, although I am looking forward to a post-lunch stroll around the Palais Royale.

Our second visit to Le Grand Véfour was a delight. Yes, you can indeed go back and yes, it can be as good as the first time. In fact, our second meal was perhaps even better than the first since we were able to anticipate the culinary glories that awaited us and be a little less nervous than the first time around. Some may question the expense of such a luxurious meal, but we know that we paid for not only a temporal pleasure but a cherished memory that we will share together forever.

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