A small linen napkin, very small, neatly rolled, is obviously meant for small amuses. We’re seated looking out at the garden through mullioned windows framed by flowery curtains in the disarmingly old-fashioned dining room of Epicure in the Bristol Hotel. Starched linen covers the table. The skirt beneath is fringed. The pale plaid upholstery of the Louis XV style strike me as ‘60s Park Avenue matronly, but built for the long sit.
In this proudly bourgeois dining room, the curtains are thrown open to the hotel garden.
Our wine-besotted pal Wilfred has arrived early. He is brought two heavy tomes celebrating the Michelin three star chef Éric Fréchon, to read while waiting for us. “How bizarre,” I comment. He disagees: “I thought it was very thoughtful.” Now, the same little book stool holds my handbag. There’s another for Lauren’s.
Three little amuses: cèpe crème & parsley emulsion,foie gras with smoked eel, sea snail.
Wilfred had flown in to join us on our last four days of tastings and earns a special welcome, not just for never running out of conversation, but as an irrepressible grape nut. His wine selections have a way of inspiring bored sommeliers to stand up straighter, and they are always his gift. Here, his choice of a 2002 adds elegance to a bright Domaine des Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots du Milieu. (That accounts for $386 on what translates to a $1400 dinner for three.)
Langoustines royale with celery scent and caviar de Sologne.
It is scarcely a surprise that Epicure might be dazzlingly good. The trick is to live up to three-star expectations. Tonight, our dinner had been booked by a friend of the house for Wilfred. Possibly that has dictated the choice of table and the exuberance of the captain. (Maybe the Bristol forbids the hauteur I often find when anonymous in top-rated places. I guess you’ll find out if you arrive here without diplomatic intervention.)
If only one had the character to resist all – or at least a few -- of these unique breads.
There is certainly sufficient grape ceremony from the sommelier. A young woman in a white jacket with perfect posture and the required, restraining bun on her head seems to be in charge of our feeling royal as well. She doesn’t need a spooky black glove to dispense the highly styled house breads. I’d like one of each but settle for just three, then systematically finish off a big branch of the pain aux céréales – studded with assorted seeds.
I cannot resist macaroni in any guise – here it’s stuffed with black truffle, artichoke and foie gras.
Mostly, I like the fuss. It is so good-natured and friendly. It only edges into weirdness when the chicken en vessie (feathers on the menu denote chef’s signature dishes) arrives in its inflated membrane floating on a silver platter with silver chicken feet. Almost as wickedly irreverent as Dirty French.
French crab is served with a jelly of green tomato water and blobs of terragon and coral infused mayo.
It all begins with a savory kugelhopf studded with chorizo, tomato confit and black olive served in its classic ceramic mold (and not because Chef Fréchon is Alsatian like our own Gabriel Kreuther, whose kugelhopf lacks the sausage.) A fluted crème of cèpes and parsley emulsion on an edible stick, a sea snail with curry mayonnaise and a seaweed crisp, a “Religieuse revisitée” crème of foie gras and smoked eel lacquered with beet juice are the small teasers we’ve never seen before and will never run into again.
The poularde in its cooking membrane is served on a silver platter with chicken feet.
The three of us have all chosen signature starters, feathered for good reason, provoking sighs and moans and exclamations. “Langoustines Royales,” just delicately gelled in a tart yuzu cream with an essence of celery and caviar. Fat tendrils of crab in a green tomato water jelly surrounded by blobs of
terragon and coral flavored mayos.
The first course of poularde comes under a silver bell requiring simultaneous lifting, of course.
Of course I must have the “Macaronis Farcis,” a trio of pasta logs stuffed with black truffle, artichoke, and foie gras, then glazed with parmesan and surrounded by a checkerboard of two sauces – blonde (cream) and brunette (truffled). (At 95 euros that means each little roll costs $36.)
This moist and distinctly flavorful breast comes with giblet bundles, girolles and crayfish.
I agree to share the Bresse poularde cooked en vessie for two to please Wilfred, who is determined to have it. I might have chosen saddle of lamb roasted in nori, instead, or sweetbreads braised in amaretto. Still, my gesture is not exactly a sacrifice. The first course – an unusually moist breast flanked with little green packages of giblets and fat crayfish – floats in a heady surf of cream and the sherry-like wine of Jura.
The dark meat is cooked till crisp and served under a herb salad in a glass bell.
One or two slivers of chicken and a barely-cooked crayfish dragged through the cream are enough to touch off shivers. The complexity of the sauce forces me to hesitate just as the dark meat arrives, steaming in a glass bell with a fluffle of herb salade spilled on top.
The Challandais duck is roasted in spiced honey and fig leaves and served with black figs.
Of course, if I were not professionally obliged to trade plates with Lauren to taste her duck roasted in spiced honey and fig leaves, I’d want to anyway. I regret not tasting the accompanying little balloons of pommes soufflées more quickly when they arrived hot. It’s so rare to see them, and they cool so quickly.
If you’re going for Michelin excess, you must choose some cheese you don’t see often at home.
I’m not brooding about how much anything costs. I never converted euros to dollars in my head or jotted down what I spent (as I did years ago when I had an expense account). I’d given myself a trip to France, my first overseas jaunt since the death of my guy. Whatever it cost, it would surely be less than the two of us had spent every winter in Venice or the Far East. Only now, considering it cost $107 just for three cheese samplers, I wish I’d tasted more.
Inside the pierced chocolate globe is Epicure’s signature dessert with gold leaf’d sorbet.
I should have taken notes at this point, as my brain got mushier. I recall asking our servitrix if the man who looked like Salman Rushdie but wasn’t, dining all by himself at the nearby table, could be a Michelin inspector. “You cannot know,” she responds.. I recall wondering if a Michelin inspector would be looking at his cell phone between courses. This distraction has me forgotting to take a photo of the palate cleanser, mango gelée topped with a sorbet “aux saveurs d’Orient.”
Even in our late night stupor we can see more coming and the mignardies armoire sees us too.
“Precieux chocolate ‘Nyangbo’” comes in a chatter-stopping lacy chocolate globe with gold leaf. But the “Citron de Menton” is my favorite – intensely tart with candied citron, doused with limoncello and pear essence.
You must have a macaron, of course, bonbons, chocolate-covered orange rind, and truffles.
Really stupefied by excess now, I watch with fascination as our server rolls a small armoire toward us. Yes, of course, the mignardises. The sweet finale the Michelin three star diner expects: marshmallows, bonbons, chocolate-dipped nut clusters, fruit gels, macarons in myriad flavors, sweet and bitter chocolate truffles, salted butter caramels. At the door, Epicure director Frank Kaiser hands me his card and a pretty little shopping bag with more mignardises in a box. I better give that to the room maid before I fully awake in the morning with a rage for chocolate.
Epicure. Hotel Bristol 112 Rue Du Faubourg Saint-Honore 8eme. 33 1 53 43 43 40.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
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