Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mash heaven!

I think my love affair began whilst I was turning the pages in awe of an amazing new cookbook whilst sprawled on my flowery bed in my chintzy room listening to bells. Lots of bells! Well, I was staying in a fabulously eclectic room in a Paris hotel called Hotel Esmeralda, and yes, I was indeed very much in hearing distance of the Notre Dame bells. I am fairly sure if I’d been able to tear my eyes from the pages of my newly acquired cookbook I would have spotted Quasimodo out of my window. It was over ten years ago and I was having an eccentrically accommodated night sandwiched between two stays in a dull, lifeless business hotel whilst working in Paris for a week or so. I had checked out of clean and soulless ‘hotel rooms inc.’ and checked it to the wildest higgledy piggledy hotel I’d ever stayed in. I dragged my case up the sweeping staircase, it’s not the sort of place that has a lift, passing the rather moth eaten cat and plonked myself on the candlewick bedspread and gasped at the pink flowered trellis wallpaper. Who could have decorated this? Another rather bizarre touch was a desire that their guests wouldn’t leave with their room key and lose it whilst trawling around this little corner of Paris so they attached this huge object to each key so as to discourage you from slipping it into your pocket. I had a large wooden animal attached to mine; so I wasn’t tempted to try and cram it into my handbag. As soon as I could I went exploring, I had wanted to stay here as I desired to be so close to the Latin Quarter and all the life, colour and tasty food that would be on my doorstep. On my first trip out I found myself meandering in various bookshops, Shakespeare & Co. was my first port of call, it is the infamous English bookshop a few doors down from where I was staying. It was fun to visit but I wasn’t tempted to buy. Further down Rue Saint Jacques I found another bookshop and in the food and drink section found an interesting book fortunately written in English extolling the astounding recipes of a French chef I hadn’t then heard of – Joël Robuchon. But I became an instant fan of him and his work. The book was a paperback version of Cuisine Actuelle written by Patricia Wells. I think it has been reissued in the US as ‘Simply French’ more recently. And I was instantly hooked, I couldn’t wait to get back to my crazily decorated room and start absorbing it.

Some of the seminal moments in my cookbook gathering life have taken place whilst I’ve been away from home. I have mentioned before that the discovery that set me on this maniacal cookbook collecting was stumbling across Alastair Little’s Keep it Simple whilst staying with friends on their farm. I’ve always browsed through friends’ cookbooks as others may flick through the LP and now more likely CD collections. So Alastair Little started me on this wantonness and another favourite foreign acquisition is ‘West of Ireland Summers, a Cook Book: Recipes and Memories from an Irish Childhood’ by Tamasin Day-Lewis which I found rather serendipitously whilst at H and R’s beautiful wedding in Ireland in 2000. I was rather taken with Tamasin’s style as I had been by Alastair and ended up collecting all her cookbooks.

But why was I so enraptured by Joël Robuchon’s recipes? I think that not only could I could just taste the food as I read the recipes and drunk in the fabulous Steven Rothfeld photography but I was transfixed by Patricia Wells’ metamorphosis as a cook just being in the presence of such a culinary magician as Chef Robuchon. The rather innocuous recipe that leapt out at me was potato purée. The attention to detail, the repeated passing through the finest mesh sieve of the mash to achieve the smoothest, creamiest, buttery most delectable mash captured my imagination and there and then I swore that by hook or by crook I would one day dine at this 3 star Michelin chef’s restaurant. A few years later I was on a French cooking holiday in Dijon and discussing with Michel the French chef his most memorable meal at the hands of this gastronomic genius. I was enthralled, he described the wit and the tastes of the sea captured in his dish and as a homage to Joël and my enthusiasm he kindly slaved for at least an hour to recreate some of the special mash potato for me. And it was delectable but still, I needed to be fed and the great man’s hands. A few years later I was devastated to learn that Joël Robuchon had removed his toque and hung up his chef’s whites and retired. What would I do? I would never experience this awesome mash and all his other fabulous food and my life just wouldn’t be complete. But fortunately retirement proved to be a little dull and he started on his new venture L’Atelier. And last year when I heard one was opening in London I could almost taste the mash potatoes and was determined to visit.

When D suggested a cultural trip to London it seemed an obvious idea to secretly try and get a long awaited table at his Covent Garden venture. I was keen to get a booking in the restaurant – La Cuisine and not the bar and fortunately I was able to secure one. And it was so worth the wait!

When I enthused about dining at Joël Robuchon's place at work today, no one had any idea who I was referring to. I wonder if I made as similar announcement in a Parisian office whether they would have echoed my excited anticipation. I would have thought so, Joël is such a passionate doyen of fine French cooking and a perfectionist, a master and I gather a celebrity chef in his own right. He should be lauded in the manner we seem to preserve for footballers now, I'm not sure if he is but I suspect it would be considerably more likely in France than the UK. If I asked friends who don't write food blogs or worship at the altar of all that is gastronomic, I'd be intrigued what top chefs they could name. I suspect the names recalled wouldn't necessarily be based on culinary talent but maybe on a certain notoriety. Take Gordon Ramsay, multi Michelin starred purveyor of the finest dining but how is he described in the Observer this weekend? Potty-mouthed! Now I'd be the first to admit that I think some people swear too much. I appreciate the need for the occasional expletive in moments of extreme stress or pain but as someone who doesn't swear myself I can't get my head round replacing every superlative with a swear word. But despite Gordon having a predilection for this habit, I still think he should be renowned for his culinary skill and not his customary sweary rants.

Maybe the name of Heston Blumenthal would pop up; he has been on television fairly recently and with a thought provoking program with the singularly most pervasive theme tune. Or would he be famous for putting snail porridge on the culinary map? I guess some may have heard of Tom Aiken, probably only for his notoriety of branding a fellow chef with a red-hot knife and accusing a diner of stealing a silver teaspoon (which was later found!), not necessarily for any food artistry. I'm sure the name Jamie Oliver would be mooted, he has done much to get the nation boshing a few Italian ingredients together to produce an artful tasting plate and worked tirelessly to highlight the atrocious slop dished out in the name of school dinners (though apparently his overhaul of their turkey twizzler, fatty, pappy food has not always met with enthusiasm from the pint-sized diners – well they miss their chips!). Though his restaurant Fifteen is not in Gordon, Heston and Tom's league of dizzying gastronomic brilliance it is extremely popular nonetheless and I do intend to try it for myself one day. But I guess there is one very good reason to dine at one of France’s most famous chefs in preference to a well known British chef, I can much more easily get a table!

And how excited were we that I’d been able to? Our eagerness meant that we were early but that was fortuitous as we were able to discover the ever so stylish red and black bar. If I had only known I would have dressed in red and black accordingly. We had suitably coordinated raspberry red cocktails with, in my case, a very exotic lemon grass foam in the sumptuous surroundings and severely coveted the glossy little vases and the slick black coffee tables and admired all the stylish, deeply aromatic dark red roses everywhere. The anticipation levels rise higher and higher as we try and guess what the evening has ahead of us. And when we can wait no longer we ascend in the lift up to La Cuisine on the top floor.

La Cuisine is designed to look like you’re sitting in a black and white kitchen with pots and pans, multiple rolling pins, jars of multi coloured macaroons and rather inexplicably, giant wooden apples left about. It is pretty empty when we arrive and the dreadful thought of rattling around in a atmosphere-less empty restaurant flits through my thoughts, maybe no one has heard of Joël Robuchon! But fortunately the restaurant soon fills up with eager diners and we get down to the more important task of selecting tonight’s gastronomic pleasure. After deciding on the menu decouverte, I start examining the fabulous black and silver chargers before they are whipped away from us. In fact our chargers were whisked away most swiftly so we took a surreptitious glance at the bottoms of those on the neighbouring table and I could jot down Bernardaud for further research, I recognised the black stripy crystal water glasses also. You can tell this is going to be very good, I am even thrilled about the tableware!

We only had to make a couple of tweaks the the tasting menu, I of course had to alert them of my ardent tomato avoidance and both D and I abhorred the thought of goats' cheese in the ravioli so our seemingly rather inexperienced waitress promised a goats' cheese and tomato free substitution.

A hush descends on our table and our AMUSE-BOUCHE arrives - a little pale glass filled with foie gras, a port wine reduction and topped with Parmesan foam. Wow, this is truly stunning! Each spoonful cuts through the delicate strata and gives you the sublime trio of creamy foie gras, intense port and the Parmesan. The man is a genius, believe the hype! Oh, this was seriously worth the anticipation!

Next was LE TOURTEAU, the crabmeat in tomato jelly with avocado. And yes you’ve read correctly, tomato jelly! And I did eat it, it wasn’t my favourite flavour but the crab was so tasty and tantalizing I tried to ignore that niggling harsh tomato taste intruding on the crabby loveliness. Though D would never back me up on this I suspect, she thought the tomato was just perfect. Each to their own!

We were given funny burgundy plastic spoons to scoop the crab and jelly mixture up out of the rather fabulous ceramic egg this was served in. I guess this is to ensure the taste is not tainted, much like you may have a ceramic egg spoon or a bone caviar spoon. Well it worked anyway!

Next it was LES GIROLLES pan-fried girolle mushrooms with ‘Iberico de Bellota’ ham shavings. And another joy this one, the meaty, earthy mushrooms with that lovely touch of Spanish ham and dreamy dressing, delicious!

Next we have the most wonderful egg cocotte I’ve ever seen placed carefully in front of us. It arrives in a martini glass – so very diva! – and is described as egg cocotte topped with light wild mushroom cream. I’ve baked eggs before but have had a recent renaissance after falling for them all over again after reading Clotilde’s fabulous Chocolate & Zucchini but this one is the crème de la crème of egg cocottes. The foamy mushroom cream hides the perfect golden egg ready to erupt and send its golden yolk mingling with that delicious cream, mushroomy heaven. This is one awesome egg cocotte.

We move on to the first courses. The tasting menu says we should have goat’s cheese and basil ravioli, lemongrass scented prawn broth but as we both eschew all that is goat we are delivered a rather lovely crispy langoustine fritter with basil pistou instead, a much more preferable option and very melt in the mouth. The basil pistou is especially good.

Continuing with the fishy theme it’s the turn of the LE ROUGET, the red mullet on crisp pastry base with a citrus fruit dressing. Unfortunately the menu didn’t mention the pool of tomato-ey relish the red mullet was swimming in so I politely declined to try it. I would normally have a little around the edges but the tomato aroma was heady and not in a good way. It fair assaulted my senses but hey, it looked pretty. The lights have been turned down, maybe in an attempt to hide the tomato indiscretion or just to hinder my photography, but yet again I struggle to capture the true beauty of our meal. I wonder for the umpteenth time if I can surreptitiously carry my own light source. Though a light source that would discretely illuminate my plate but not the disturb any other diners, rather tricky I think! However as lousy as the photos are at least they act as an aide memoir for me. I do rather like pictures, though I would like them even better if I thought that anyone else could enjoy them also.

When our waitress realised she’d forgotten out ‘tomatoes are evil’ conversation she was truly repentant and promised a little something later to compensate. Okay I’ll forgive her then.

So drawing a line under the fish we turned our thoughts to the meat course, we had been given a choice of L’AGNEAU - lamb cutlets with fresh thyme or LA CAILLE - free range quail stuffed with foie gras served with truffled mash potatoes. Okay, absolutely no prize for guessing which option we chose. The mash was calling us and with truffles as well, this could some earth shattering experience. As it was truly breath-taking, the quail and foie gras stunning and the mash, well yes there was a flash of light, a fanfare of golden trumpets and the potato fairy waved her sparkly wand over us. This is mash mimosa, the most exquisite few delicate forkfuls bursting with flavour in our mouths than I've ever had. We wanted more! Though the truffle mash was almost too good to have some more but we asked if we could try some of the more infamous heavenly mash sans truffle. And realising we were true believers, a bowl was duly delivered for us to lap up. Everything I have read about this mash is completely true, it is the most fabulous that you can imagine. The book must be closed on the mash hall of fame, no one could produce better. We encouraged the couple on the next table to also order a portion of this potato paradise, they were suitably impressed also.

The décor of the restaurant extended to the dramatically appointed black bathrooms, they were tiled with black tiles and in a dark recess was a stack of black hand towels. Hmm very intriguing! I wonder if anyone without 20-20 vision has ever come unstuck in them, either struggling to dry their hands or perhaps even the door to leave!

The lights dim further (as is so customary now) and to bring us down gently from the mash clouds we are flying in we were delivered an extra sweet treat, this was our recompense for my red mullet/red tomato distress. And this is truly the first time I’ve tasted green chocolate and whilst I am at it sweet celeriac jelly, cardamom, cumin and lemon cream. It is a delicate dessert, it wasn’t entirely apparent initially that the green top to our bowl was edible, but it was and with such unusual and refreshing flavours also.

But this was our additional dessert we still had the mysterious François’s duo of desserts to come. And this was came with a little laminated card inscribed with Sensation, cream, cocoa, oreo, crispy, sugar, choco, milk… C’est bon. And c'est bon it is, in fact très, très bon. It's like a chocolate lucky dip, one mouthful is crunchy, then smooth and creamy and unctuous all topped with wafer (pronounced 'waffer' of course) thin squares of coloured, delicately flavoured chocolate. The next spoonful has a biscuity bite then just an intense chocolate rush. I really have died and gone to heaven now, this is another stunning dish, we are in the presence of a true culinary God. Give that man more Michelin stars!
We finish with some restorative Earl Grey tea and liquid centre chocolates, served rather beautifully on a striped card topped with a little laminate. I am fairly sure it wasn't for eating, so we didn't!
I have yet again run out of superlatives for this phenomenal meal, it is just too, too fabulous. I hope he never dreams of retiring again because the world needs to experience this delectable food.
Just to cap our wonderful evening we are asked if we'd like a tour of the whole place, we are taken down to the bar where a shorter version of our menu is prepared to the expectant diners perched on bar stools watching their every move. Well I would be doing so anyway! We spot even more wooden apples of varying sizes scattered around and gaze at the wooden frames filled with spices and condiments and try de
sperately to identify them all.
The dream conjured up in that little Parisian garrick bedroom when I first heard of the great man has finally been realised and I adored every minute of it. And I intend to leave it no where near as long to experience this brilliance again.
The crown has been passed on, this is my new diamond fork meal, my most magnificent, marvellous and extraordinary dining experience. I don't know if Joël Robuchon's cooking is superior to Heston Blumenthal, Gary Rhodes or Gordon Ramsay but I was served truffle mash. Enough said!


Anonymous said...

I concur - M.Robuchon is truly a master. And what joy to experience such food in like-minded company. A truly delightful, cultural mini-break.

Much love
D xx

s.j.simon said...
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