Friday, October 9, 2009

Chez Guy

Let’s say that you have longed for, planned for, and prepared for an experience that you fully expect to be glorious and wonderful. 

Let’s say also that you finally arrive at the moment of that much longed-for experience, and it goes just about as well as is realistically possible.  You planned for years, hoping that your trip to Tahiti would be sunny and warm and full of sweet and icy drinks.  And lo and behold, the sand is smooth and the hotel is newly renovated, and the people are nice, and you aren’t late for the Tahitian dance class, and not only are there no typhoons, but also you never get even one mosquito bite. 

That said, here is the crucial question, one that you can allow to roll around in your brain for awhile before you read the rest of this post:  

Given how very long you have longed, how high your expectations have taken you in advance, can that wonderful experience ever be exactly and everything you dreamed?  Can you be spoiled, in other words, without overhigh hopes spoiling the experience?


(Still thinking?  Good.  Keep it up.  I’ll want your answer when you’re done reading.) 

I spent nearly the entire afternoon on Tuesday in Paris with my almost-sister Jackie and her mother Loni.  We lingered decadently over an extremely fancy, luxurious, and (perhaps it goes without saying) delicious three-hour lunch at the flagship restaurant of renowned French chef Guy Savoy.  One hour there for each one of his precious Michelin stars.  Following that remarkable and palate-altering blowout of a meal, I took a little poll on this question as it related to our lunch in the adorable Marais apartment where I am staying with Jackie and Loni, the major planner of our dejeuner blowout.

Here are our answers on the question of the possibility of satisfaction in the face of enormously high levels of expectation:  

According to Jacqueline, “Oui!  Bien sur!” 

According to Launa, also a resounding “Yes,” but I’ll give you a little more detail on why.  I’m certainly not (just) a country bumpkin, but three star Parisian restaurants have up to this point been pretty much out of my league, if not out of my general awareness.  Various generous parental figures in my life have taken me to remarkable restaurants in New York City, but Paris is another kettle of bouillabaisse.  So as I have never knowingly eaten at a three star restaurant before, I hardly knew what to expect. 

Guy and his cast of dozens provided better food and a more beautiful room than I could have quite dreamed up on my own.  Plus I was with Jackie and Loni.  And free in Paris (yes THAT Paris) for several days. So maybe I didn’t even long or expect enough to get to the heights that lunch achieved.  It’s like I just came along on the trip to Tahiti on the last minute, and got on the plane as a tagalong without really knowing where Tahiti was. 

But for Loni, the major architect of this remarkable and once-in-a-lifetime experience, the jury is still out.  At the end of this post, I will share with you the rest of our conversation, and my sense of the final verdict.

Until then, back to our blowout with Guy Savoy.  You might wish to go get a little towel or something right now so that you don’t salivate too much on your computer while you read.  And if you are not hungry right now, you will likely be so by the end of this post, so I hope you’ve got the ingredients for a sandwich (if not a velouté or some coquilles St. Jacques) lying around the house.

The first thing that you notice at a three-star restaurant is the vast number of staff members who are dedicating their finest professional efforts towards the goal of your own personal pleasure.  Service, even as much as food, is what earns stars, and the people who work there must live to serve if they would like to remain employed.

In this restaurant, all you had to do was to let a desire cross your mind, and suddenly someone would arrive to fill it and then some, doing everything just a little more nicely than you might have even thought to request.  This leads to an interesting phenomenon of otherwise full-blown adults being treated as helpless children.

So as I drifted near the door of the restaurant, a few minutes early for our 12:30 reservation, several people were on hand to receive me and begin meeting my needs before I realized I was having them.  The receiving staff included a real-live doorman in a brown Guy Savoy uniform, who was there to spare me all that trouble of opening the door all by my lonesome.  Although they were French, somebody must have told them that I wasn’t, because several of them were already smiling in my direction.  They nicely received my favorite aqua umbrella, sussed me out to be sure I had a reservation, and then sent me through the second set of charmed doors, past several nervous young men whose job it seemed to be just to say “Bonjour, Madame” to me as I was directed towards our table and eventually on to the ladies’ W.C. 

As I learned later in the meal, a discrete and friendly staff member is delighted to accompany one to the bathroom at any time, (and more than once, if that’s what Madame would desire) just to be sure that one is never lost.  In fact, they don’t really let you go on your own. As Loni put it, there were almost as many waiters as diners, and it was this ratio of help to helpless that made you feel so deeply attended to.  And just the tiniest bit controlled by a benevolent but ever-present parent. 

The plates were individually painted, big off-white disks with smiling faces or parallel lines or other innocently adorable designs in bright primary colors.  (Cue the childish glee:  whee!) An artist friend of Guy’s had painted each one differently; they keep sixty different plates on hand to serve the three sets of sixty different diners they serve each day:  one at lunch, then two for dinner.  Another good friend of Guy’s had made the jewel-colored glass dishes for salt, pepper and butter.

The restaurant was split up into four little rooms, each of which could accommodate about sixteen of the world’s most fortunate diners at any one time.  The walls were made of long slabs of fine-grained dark wood, or huge panels of leather, or pocket doors made of glass, or silk fabric panels.  The big painting in our little dining cabin was on a monumental scale, completely interesting and compelling, but not at all fussy.  Presumably that was painted by yet another one of Guy’s buddies.  

As I was waiting for Loni and Jackie to arrive, I decided to practice my French bored stare while enjoying my government-issued reverie in the direction of the painting.  I was offered a menu, but decided to wait for my fellow dejeuner-ers to start charting my course through the meal.  I skipped breakfast, and I must have looked a little hungry, because one of the nice men in charge of my personal happiness stopped by with a little one-tined silver fork, on which he had skewered some stacked up foie gras and toasted bread.  Foie gras is the silk of food, in that it involves both luxury and animal suffering, but is nonetheless irresistible.

There was only one other diner in the room at that moment, a middle-aged man sitting alone at a table and eating while checking his Blackberry and reading the paper.   He looked genuinely bored by the whole thing; I could compare him to the guy who does Tahiti’s taxes, gets comped vacations on a regular basis, and has tired just a little bit of the whole lie-on-the-beach and be-super-pampered plan.  Too bad so sad for the businessman; although his lunch was as good or better than any of ours, and he had all the pleasure of being a regular and knowing we were tourists, he was not at Guy Savoy in the way that we were at Guy Savoy.

Loni later told me that after researching restaurants on Chowhound, the New York Times, and Zagat, she selected this particular restaurant for two reasons.  First, it was one of the most amazing restaurants in Paris.  But, second, as she put it, “I didn’t want a place that would be so formal that I couldn’t act like my foolish self.”  Both Jackie and I agreed that Loni is enthusiastic rather than foolish, but given the French propensity for reserve, she would certainly stand out in a place that took itself too darn seriously.  Guy Savoy is renowned for service that is deeply, deeply friendly – almost un-Frenchly friendly.  Nobody said, “I’m Kelly and I’m going to be your server!” or wore lots of weird pins like at T.G.I. Friday’s, but the smiles were not parceled out any more than were the rolls or even the desserts. 

This tone and approach is definitely set at the top of the establishment and filters down.  Because as soon as we had all been seated and offered a nice little skewer of foie gras and tiny toast points, (yes, I did get a second one, as a matter of fact) Guy himself arrived to welcome us personally to his restaurant. 

Yes, that Guy Savoy, one of the most famous chefs in all of Paris.  If you’re a foodie, this sentence will already have impressed you.  If you are instead a sports fan, imagine that this was Eli Manning coming out to say hi just because.  Or if you’re, say, a regular old American, this was kind of like getting a genial welcome from your own personal Senator just as you’re getting off the plane at JFK.

Loni described this as a great sign of the warmth of the restaurant.  Star power always gives me a nice little warm feeling.  Loni, never one to be shy, asked for a photograph to be taken, and Guy, never one to be stand-offish, brought in the official staff photographer and napkin folder (the only woman we saw working in the dining rooms) to get us to say fromage.  Immediately following the several snaps, he invited us back to the kitchen for an even more intimate look at the engine room, and another set of photographs.  At first I was mortified.  (It doesn’t take much to embarrass me in a new situation, after which I become quickly overconfident.  Perhaps on my next visit to Guy, I’ll ask for a personal lesson in the proper way to make mayonnaise.) Since I didn’t expect this particular little flourish, I was at first taken aback, then charmed and fascinated by the way his enormous kitchen staff stepped aside from their purposeful endeavors to allow us to feel particularly special. 

The staff initially spoke to us in French, assuming by our nods of assent that we understood every word.  As is always the case, I understood precisely 38% of what was being said, which I assumed would be enough to get me from the entrée to the dessert.  Jackie’s French is better than mine, and between the two of us, we could translate nicely for Loni.  But, as usual, Loni had many questions of her own to ask, so our exchanges with the staff quickly and gracefully shifted into English.

Even once the staff shifted into their perfect English, the actual ordering process proved somewhat intimidating and scary.  What does one order when the menu is so subtle that it outstrips your limited vocabulary? This was sort of like my efforts to entertain in French – I had the double challenge of understanding menu-talk (words like terrine and turbot and semolina and volontée and feuilletée aren’t just for French anymore) while remembering French words for things I do know, like chicken and pepper and lamb.

There was much discussion over our order, and much helpful advice provided by the order-taker Hubert.  But I could not quite get over the sense that Hubert felt that he knew better than I did what I might wish to eat.  I’m not the kind of person who asks the waiter his opinions on the food, so it was just the tiniest bit strange to have Hubert expressing such strong opinions about what I would enjoy.

Eventually I just decided to go with the spirit of all that infantalization, and let Pere Hubert tell me what to do. 

I heartily approve of the French practice of reserving the wine list until you have finished ordering from the menu.  This means that nobody has to juggle more than one set of papers, and also that you’re not trying to re-pick your food to blend with everybody else’s food so that somebody can get some kind of wine that nobody likes anyway.  In France, it’s food first, with wine the closest of seconds.

The wine list was larger than most ceremonial Bibles.  And if you added up the cost of each of the bottles of wine from which we were invited to choose, you might be able to pay off the home loans of most of the inhabitants of a medium-size town. Loni had some champagne as an aperitif, then we ordered a few individual glasses.  Jackie ordered, as she is wont to do, a nice dry Reisling.  I hope that some wise vintner names his favorite Reisling after her someday.  But we didn’t order a whole bottle.  It was, after all, lunch.  And the wine was, after all, ridiculously expensive. Some of the bottles cost more than a nice used car.  This did not stop me from later requesting a second glass, this time a light red, to have with my main course.  Like Hubert, the sommelier had some clear opinions about our orders.  At Guy Savoy, you might be a little infantilized, but at least the drinking age is low enough that you still get to drink.

After the ordering, we got tiny little thin pieces of bread shaped to actual sharp points at both ends, then tiny little espresso-cups worth of pumpkin soup with fresh carrots and celery.  The cup was devised in such a way that its handle also made a little hat for a tiny herb-filled samosa hidden underneath.  This amused my bouche precisely as it was intended to do. 

Jackie and her mother ordered one of the most famous specialties of the house (when in Tahiti, you really should have the poi.)  The “soupe d’artichaut a la truffe noire, brioche feuilletee aux champignons et truffes” was (as further described on the translated and embroidered menu,) an “artichoke soup with black truffles, slices of black truffle and parmesan shavings. “ Alongside was an ethereal “layered brioche with mushrooms, spread with truffle butter.”

In every wonderful experience, there has to be a high point.  Here at Guy Savoy, the high point arrived early, in the form of the brioche.  Mushrooms are the only forbidden fruit in my house, so I don’t like to turn down an opportunity to have one when I am out on the town.  So when Jackie gave me a bite of hers, it blew me away.   And it wasn’t even the thing that I ordered.  Hooray for friends who share.

My entrée was little pieces of fish, “gougonettes.”  They were perfectly cooked (though certainly no more perfectly than Judith’s cod the night before.  Maybe Guy should think about hiring a new fish expert from rue St. Paul) and arrived on the edges of a plate with a well the size of a big marble in the middle, full of the appropriate dipping sauce.  Dipping was encouraged here at Guy Savoy, explicitly so with the brioche and the artichoke soup. 

In order to further encourage dipping, our favorite waiter (the cutest of all of them) brought us a little hand truck full of nine different kinds of bread shaped into fantastical shapes.  There was a stick of seaweed baguette, a circular chestnut bread with scales like a dragon, a cereal bread, a small-grained bread with dried fruit, and a few other kinds that sounded perfectly nice but which I can’t really recall in any detail.

But here is where Loni’s doubt crept in.  There was a small flaw in the menu for which Loni had planned and hoped and dreamed.  Between the entrée and the main plate we received another little taste of soup, but again made from some sort of squash.  The flavor was quite different this time around, as it was capped with a little piece of truffle.  When I later asked Jackie to remind me how it was different, she just said with a giggle, “It was better.”  Since I liked both soups, and generally am quite fond of pumpkin, I could not have been happier.  But for Loni, the menu was suddenly and problematically less-than-perfect. 

Which is to say, not as she would have done things herself.  

Jackie and Loni ordered the “Turbotin entire “tartiné” aux champignons en deux cuissons (2 pers)” which was, for the non-Francophones out there, “Whole young turbot fish oven-roasted with chanterelle butter, accompanied with chanterelle mushrooms prepared with cream and sauce, pan-fried chanterelle mushrooms, extra-fine green beans and young turbot jus with chanterelle mushrooms (for two people.)” 

The meal had already provided us with copious amounts of butter and cream, much of it mixed with truffles, and a great deal of it in and on the brioche.  This enormous fish, split down lengthwise, was brought to the table with its head and tail attached, then sliced and diced on a special table alongside us.  One of our two favorite waiters deftly undertook this important task, then served the fish and brought back the little bits to be further sautéed in butter.

Jackie is one of the only women I know who does serious fishing, so it made sense that she would order the Turbot.  However, little old farmgirl me here ordered “agneau croustillant-moelleux a la graine de legumes.”  This was “different parts of lamb cooked with various methods:  thin-sliced roasted saddle of lamb, stuffed and braised shoulder of lamb and roasted lamb ribs accompanied with vegetable semolina, chick pea purée and lamb stock.”  Oh, and a gracious egg-shaped spoonful of mushed up spinach, flavorful as could be, and cooked to the consistency of extremely fancy and well-seasoned Gerber babyfood.  The little pieces of lamb could not have been tinier, and I could not have been happier to eat every little one of the nine bites, and even to pick up the lamb chops and chew the meat off (like the dipping, this was also encouraged, by the kind offering of a silver fingerbowl with warm water and a thick slice of lemon.)  By the end of this course, I was a happy little infant indeed, although I did manage not to spread the spinach puree on my face and hands. 

I’m quite sure that a few other little things were served post-big-plate and pre-dessert.  One of them was a little floating cloud on a tiny silver spoon.  Jackie and I each have a vague memory of Earl-Grey flavored sorbet, but can’t place exactly when it was delivered our way.  But we still had some serious eating to do, because of the fact that our good man Hubert had – at least an hour earlier when we were ordering – talked us into the concept of two desserts each.  He was eager to have us try their three fruit desserts:  A terrine of grapefruit and tea sauce, a pear wonder served with a perfectly poached pear hollowed out and re-filled with pear-flavored ice, and a figgy delight topped with a thin cookie and then almond ice cream.  According to Hubert, who had a real theory about this whole dessert, he doesn’t often get three women dining together.  His concept was that we could share these three things, then have the dessert cart later, from which we could choose a second (chocolate) dessert. 

Hubert was quite specific on this topic, and while we’re not exactly the kind of gals to roll over easily, we were gradually convinced.  When there are so many staff members around to help you/tell you what to do, you eventually go with the flow. 

We had about eight or ten minutes of anticipation after our three fruit desserts, and after the nuts dipped in chocolate were served, and even after the itty-bitty “just in case” slice of apple tart arrived, unbidden but not unappreciated.  For even though I had been offered and served a cup of black coffee, and had finished same, the dessert cart had not (yet) been offered.  Although we were all completely stuffed, Daddy had promised the cart. 

Following our moments of anticipation were a few moments of real dread, when we all believed, despite having been treated so very nicely the whole afternoon, that we had been inexplicably snubbed of the experience of the desert trolley.  We had seen it nosing around from table to table, its many pots and tarts and containers promising all sorts of sweet bliss.  And the menu had promised a spread worthy of Willy Wonka:

rice pudding, caramel cream, prunes in wine and spices, chocolate mousse, ‘diamond’ shortcake, chocolate-vanilla macarons, marshmallows, ice cream and sorbets (green apple, salted caramel) cheesecake, pies, wafers, chocolate sweets, dried fruit and almond milk cookies.”

If you’re having any sort of moment of alarm yourself, please rest assured that we pampered little girls were not robbed of our eventual sweet satisfaction.  By that point, we were all so sated as to be barely upright, but happily agreed to the flavored marshmallows (mint made with real mint leaves, and lemon, and strawberry with basil inside) and the chocolate macarons, and then the little scoops of ice cream, sorbet, and chocolate mousse.   

So back to my initial question about longed-for experiences.  While I could not possibly have been happier with being with good friends and eating such remarkable food, I have admitted to a grave lack of sophistication and therefore a lack of ability to distinguish between what is great and what is shockingly, stunningly great.  Aside from the strawberry marshmallow, which I could have taken or left, I adored every single bite.  So one way of being assured you will never be disappointed is to keep your expectations uninformed.  Keep a toothbrush in your purse, because you never know when you might be whisked to Tahiti.

But really the meal was much more a fantasy and creation of Loni, who served as travel agent and financier for the whole gustatory vacation.  And while she adored Guy’s friendliness, and the beauty and subtlety of the room, and the amazing friendliness and grace of the staff, she is not afraid to leave wanting just a little more.  As she put it later that night, while we were talking together in the rented apartment, “I always feel, very honestly, that one overestimates the nature of a meal.  Can the food every really be as good as you anticipate?”

During our conversation, Jackie was busy at this point posting the photo taken of the four of us in the dining room – Jackie, Loni, me, and of course Guy Savoy.   (Loni’s facebook update for the day was “Food, glorious food:  Lunch at Guy Savoy in Paris:  a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”)

It’s exactly that phrase, “once in a lifetime” that may have made Loni ask this initial question, and then kept me pondering it.  Perhaps it is the knowledge that you don’t actually live in Paris, that you will never be the kind of person to get used to dining at Guy Savoy, that this is all so ephemeral as to be nearly impossible to be real:  it makes you want to squeeze every drop of pleasure out of this thing that can’t go on.

But when you cook as much as Loni does, you get some strong opinions about what food should be like, and how it should be served.  There was in fact a whole lot of butter, and way more cream than any human being could need.  According to Loni, if she had created the menu, all that cream and butter and pumpkin would have been balanced with something green and acidic and simple.  Like maybe instead of spinach babyfood, some actual fresh, cool spinach.  And in Loni’s world, there would not have been that one untoward smudge of pear mush on the edge of that one otherwise beautifully presented dessert.

When you leave your own kitchen and let someone else take charge for awhile, you open yourself up to all sorts of new experiences and riches and remarkable slices of foie gras on little silver skewers.  But you don’t get to balance the menu, and you can’t decide the ratio of butter to spinach to squash soup.  To adapt the old having-your-cake corollary to this remarkable meal, Loni couldn’t have her lunch at Guy Savoy and cook it too. 

Still, there is no question that the food that afternoon was nothing less than wonderful.  It was made from a profusion of ingredients that are coveted by cooks and diners and foodies.  We had foie gras (twice.)  A plethora of truffles, or as Jackie put it, “Truffles, truffles, everywhere.”   The experience was neither overblown nor overly formal, and we were treated so kindly.  As Loni put it, “You associate the French with such snobbiness.  While you could say they were kissing up, I felt a tremendous warmth, and I did feel welcomed.” 

 Jackie, typing away at her computer, piped up, providing just the right brilliant touch of acid reality to balance all that sugar and butter: “I’m sure your credit card felt welcomed, too.”

 Paris always surprises me by being somehow ridiculous in its fanciness, and intimidating in its demands, but also completely above and beyond.  There you are, and the apartments are incredibly small, the garbage workers are on strike.   Your dollars are worthless, and your clothes aren’t chic enough, and you start to think that you really should lose about eighty-five pounds. 

You think that the Tour Eiffel is too kitschy to be believed, but then they put little sparkle lights on it, and somehow it can be both over-the-top and beautiful at the same time.  There is the Seine, the stunning flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens.  For Americans visiting Paris, all their pleasure is overdetermined.  But Paris never needs to be exactly what you would have ordered yourself to be exactly as it should be.  It shapes your desires around itself; it takes control, and you are best off just letting that happen. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to be thinking about that lamb for weeks. Sigh.