I’m the type of traveler who doesn’t “need” a Michelin star restaurant to be happy, although I do like to splurge for at least one meal. But if a once-in-a-lifetime foodie experience is available? I’m there.
My Michelin trip to Paris this week included several stops at restaurants that can easily provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences. First on our “eating schedule” – the degustation menu, with wine pairings, at three-star Le Meurice.
Inside the hotel of the same name, Le Meurice is one of those “grand dame” Parisian restaurants, with decor inspired by Louis XVI’s palace at Versailles. It’s the type of place where you expect to see international socialites in Chanel suits blowing air kisses over heavy, cream-laden haut French cuisine. It’s so formal that even your handbag gets its own Hermes stool.
Which is why it’s so cool that the restaurant has worked to stay current. In 2007, Philippe Starck renovated the restaurant, keeping the glory of the space, but adding touches that embellished Le Meurice’s splendor and paid homage to its history. Salvador Dali used to stay in the hotel for a month every year, and Starck slipped in some clever touches, such as tables and chairs with unusual legs, table lamps with drawers and in one dining room, a huge canvus painted by Starck’s daughter, Ara.
Le Meurice stays modern in the kitchen too. Chef Yannick Alleno, who earned his three Michelin stars before he turned 40, is known for his creative takes on traditional French ingredients such as foie gras, asparagus, turbot and lamb. Alleno, who looks a lot like a more youthful version of Chris Noth, was in the house Monday night and came out to say hello at both the beginning and end of the meal.
Before our official tasting began, we were served not one, not two but FIVE amuse bouche.
The first taste came as a smoked salmon “lollipop.”
I was so busy getting to know my fellow guests, New York travel and car writer Holly Reich, Paris-based travel writer Amy Serafin and the South Carolina-based Michelin press represenative Val Pascoe that I completely forgot what these second and third amuse bouche were. Duck lollipops, which tasted very strong, were also served.
The final amuse bouche arrived: vegetables in a white wine/fennel cream sauce. This one was my favorite.
Prawns and Sea Urchin Coral Uncooked(wine: Trabener Krauterhaus Riesling Spatlese Trocken, 2008, Weingut Trossen)
Our first course, uncooked shrimp served with crispy tails, sea urchin gelee and Yuzu jelly, was a visual stunner. From what I’ve read, Alleno is a master at seafood gelee, so this dish is designed to start the meal with a bang through both aesthetics and taste.
To be honest, I’m not sure I have the palate to appreciate something like this, as aspics and gelees leave me cold. While it wasn’t to my liking, others at the table considered it their favorite although – it must be said – we were all a little quiet when we first tried it and I noticed the raw prawns were left uneaten on another plate. Definitely a dish for the adventurous.
Breaded Big Aspargus from the South(wine: Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes Vieilles Vignes 2007, Domaine Gauby)
After the first course, I was a little relieved to see something simpler for the second. The asparagus, which Alleno chose from the south of France, came drizzled with a fermented cream sauce. It was here that we realized the excellence of our sommelier, Estelle Touzet. A younger woman, she approached each pairing with passion, explaining in detail why each wine would work with the dish and soliciting our feedback. Here, the flinty white burgundy balanced well with asparagus, which is notoriously hard to pair.
Duck Foie Gras iodized in Sugar Crust(wine: Vovray Demi Sec Le Haut-Lieu 2007, Domaine G. Huet)
I had read about this signature presentation of foie gras and was excited to see it in person. Just as many Asian cuisines salt-bake fish, Alleno sugar-bakes his foie gras, wrapping it in seaweed first.
Servers bring the foie gras sugar brick to the table, where they ceremonially crack it.
Once the sugar crust is opened, you can see the seaweed-wrapped foie gras inside. The waiters take it back to the kitchen for plating.
Voila! The finished product. I love foie gras so much that I’m not ashamed to admit that I ate every delicious morsel. My favorite course, based both on taste and the inventiveness of the presentation.
Poached Turbot in Aromatic Milk(wine: Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru “Les Chaumees” 2005, Domaine J-N Gagnard)
See the white coating on the fish above? That’s milk “skin,” the type that develops when you boil milk. I’ve never see it used like that before and it tasted delicious on the fish. Steamed potatoes with a mousseline whelk sauce accompanied the fish. The entire dish was a hit.
Steamed Fillet of Milk-Fed Lamb(wine: Hermitage 2006, Domaine Y. Chave)
Our plate of lamb offered cuts from nearly every part of the animal, including pickled blood sausage. As with all of the dishes, the servers presented this course in timed unison that had some playfulness to it. Overall, I felt Le Meurice did a good job of making haute cuisine accessible: the servers were knowledgable and open, instead of snobby and formal; and questions about dishes were encouraged. American tourists who might be intimidated by the idea of a Parisian 3-star won’t need to worry at Le Meurice.
Saint-Maure Cheese with Yogurt Crystals and Lemon Cream(wine: Jurancon Sec Cuvee Marie 2007, Domaine C. Hours)
Our cheese course arrived as a set dish instead of a selection from the cart. The tangy goat cheese provided a good transition into our desserts, which once they started, kept on coming.
We all laughed when the servers set down these plates, along with a rum baba on the side, and called it our pre-dessert. By this point, we had been eating for over two hours and were already quite full. Still, I’m a dessert fan so I managed to take at least a bite of all of them. My favorite was the chocolate topped with walnuts that you see on the right.
Poached Aloe Vera with Pink Grapefruit(wine: Moscato D’Asti San Grod 2008, Torelli)
I had never seen aloe vera as a dessert before (and by the end of the trip, I would have had it twice). Alleno serves his aloe vera with acidic grapefruit that you balance with the soft cheese swirl that you see in the middle of the plate. While I thought this dessert was interesting conceptually, it’s not the kind of thing I’d want to eat on a regular basis, as opposed to….
Cocoa Meringue Shell with Light Chestnut Mousse(wine: Klein Constantia Sauvignon Botrytis 2005)
A delicious, albeit it more traditional, way to end the meal!
Total cost per person for a dinner like this: 240 euros, with an extra 140 euros for the wine pairings
So would I recommend Le Meurice if I was paying for myself? Tough question. While interesting on an intellectual level, the meal didn’t blow me away, taste-wise, as some degustation menus that I’ve had. It wasn’t necessarily a “meal of a lifetime” for me.
But the incredible setting and the impeccable yet unfussy service did set Le Meurice apart. At times you could imagine you were on a movie set, and I’ve never eaten in a room so beautiful. The restaurant does have a 100 euro multi-course lunch that might be a more accessible way to experience Alleno’s cooking and Le Meurice’s atmosphere without killing your budget.
Read my Paris trip report here.
Coming up: My second Parisian Michelin 3-star meal takes place at the world-famous Guy Savoy!