Now I am on the train to Lyon – my days in Paris seemed to fly by. I am happy we set things up to have a dose of Paris at both the beginning and the end of the trip. There is never enough time to do Paris.
While I am focused on what’s ahead and am enjoying occasionally glancing out the window and seeing rolling hills, I am also focused on not forgetting any of the details and the feeling of last night, eating at Alain Ducasse’s Athénée. Opulent, decadent, breathtaking, unbelievable, beaucoup opulent, beaucoup decadent, beaucoup breathtaking, beaucoup unbelievable.
We were prepared to take the subway to dinner, but we caught a cab instead, by luck, not far from home. The cab driver was funny and kept chirping “goodbye, hello, thank you, goodbye, hello, thank you.” Dan told me later that he was saying most tourists only know how to say in French “goodbye, hello, thank you” but that was all he knew in English as well.
We turned off a side street from Champs-Elysees to get to Plaza Athénée, and passed by rows of boutique shops and the cab driver commented “beaucoup, beaucoup.” And he wasn’t kidding. Stepping out of the cab and seeing all the doormen in fine garb and the outside garden boxes on each room with elaborate flower displays, makes one feel like they are approaching the red carpet. A beautiful woman in a red dress greeted us asking, if we were eating at Alain Ducasse’s, and escorted over that way.
Taken in, I was struck by the decor. I had seen pictures and it all looked exactly like what I expected, other than one can’t convey the feelings of being there through a picture. The room was white and silver and ornate and full of crystals. Large chandeliers were present, and around each one, were hundreds of crystals hanging, denser near the center and then more sparse away from it. There were about fifteen tables, we sat at one on the side that could fit two people, but most of the tables could fit more people. Each larger table was halfway engulfed by a silver, stainless steel enclosure that was reflective, like a mirror. I think the air was even circulating more than one would expect, so the crystals were moving slightly and this was casting rainbows against the glass, as well as the mirrored enclosures. The walls also had very intricate woodwork and were generally off-white, with gold painting as highlights, to make certain wood carvings pop. In a nutshell, I felt like I stepped into a scene from Narnia.
There were a lot of staff present, and they all seemed very well choreographed and orchestrated. We were quickly brought menus (they bring two versions, and the female gets the version that has no prices on it) and a cup with one very large ice cube, and the waiter poured us some fresh juice made from apple, onion and juniper berries. It was sour, bitter and just the right amount of sweet. With that, he brought a cracker made of nuts, each about the size of a coaster.
By this time, another waiter had come and explained some things about the menu and gave us a chance to ask questions. He gave us a few more minutes as more amuse bouche arrived. A paper thin cracker with mullet, a basil spread, and a slice of dried caviar on top. The smoky flavor tied it all together, I easily could have eaten more than one! Then he brought a black radish sorbet, with a pickled gherkin, cucumber flower, and sprinkled with radish seed. The spice of the brassicas awakened the taste buds. We were amply being teased, because this all tasted wonderful and each amuse bouche we received was about one bite of food.
Throughout this time, a variety of servers came by to ensure we had water in our glasses and that the proper silverware was set. Setting silverware is more of a science in France, than one could ever imagine. Every little thing we had – all the plates and silverware – were replaced when we were done with the course to prepare for the next tasty morsel.
We were each brought our own salt dishes, in a beautiful and dainty small silver bowl. A waiter came with something like a mortar and pestle, but it had a lid, and he ground it purposefully, and left it open for us to use as we saw fit. Then the waiter whose entire job was to deal with bread came by. He rolled a cart around and on the cart was a wooden structure that encased the bread standing up and he could control how far he pushed the bread through, which would determine how big of a slice he cut. He put a piece of bread on a plate and had a wooden cutting board for each us of, with a generous helping of butter.
Then the sommelier approached us to discuss wine. Now, haute cuisine restaurants in general have one person whose job it is to deal just with the wine, but something seemed different about him, compared with other restaurants. He had a very large book under his arm and he stated that he was there to counsel us regarding wine. Honestly, it felt like he was something like an interior decorator, who was going to become rather intimate with knowing all of our needs. He suggested that we get several glasses of wine, I believe something like five glasses, all for different purposes and ways of interacting with the food. I simply cannot consume that quantity of alcohol, so I had him select one glass of white wine for me, it came from the Rhône Valley, and he described it as “expressive.” We were excited to tie in the Rhône Valley to our meal, knowing we were heading there next. He was not pushy about getting us to have more, but I could see that for the right table and people, he could become close friends and easily double their restaurant bill. I noticed he never even mentioned what the wine cost. I guess they assume if you are eating there in the first place, then it really doesn’t matter. When the wine did finally arrive, he explained it further, and poured just a taste in Dan’s glass for him to try. Dan suggested to me that I try it and so I did. The sommelier was a bit taken aback that the lady of the table did this very important job, but he went with the flow.
OK – the tasting menu officially started. Our first dish was a sardine, carefully filleted, with the bone on top. It laid upon a piece of wilted lettuce, although actually, the lettuce tasted grilled. Not sure how they did that, with it still maintaining its shape, but they did. On the side, was a tiny dish of chickpea mousse overlaid on top of sea bass tartare. I have never had chickpeas in a fancy way – before it has always been in a dip or soup, Middle Eastern or Indian style. Well you ain’t seen nothing yet baby. I realized that the bone was fried and it could be eaten, head and eye sockets and all. It tasted like a divine potato chip.
Before I continue, let me tell you that the entire theme of this restaurant is to use vegetables and fish, as local as possible. No meat. So Alain has the difficult task of taking same old same old foods, like lentils, lettuce, buckwheat, and sardines and making them an art form. This place was demoted from three stars to two and we could only speculate the bestower of the stars, didn’t like the removal of meat. Both the ambiance and the service was so over the top, there was nothing they could possibly do to improve. Also, all the vegetables are grown in Alain’s garden in Versailles. The Queen’s Garden is tended to daily, the produce is picked in the morning and served that night for dinner. It just doesn’t get any more opulent than this.
Alright — back to the second dish. We were served three palm sized buckwheat pancakes on one small plate. Another plate contained the fish gelée with caviar sitting atop green lentils. On the side was another very small dish with cream (maybe cream fraiche) laced with caviar. The waiter instructed us on how to eat this, which was basically to make a burrito. I was torn between using my hands (instinctual) and silverware (proper). I tried a bit of both and this dish was fabulous either way. All this while, we were watching the glimmering of the crystals and soaking up these amazingly rich surroundings, with much admiration for the hard working employees who were doing their best to ensure we were well taken care of.
The next fish dish arrived. It was three pieces of sea bass (each perhaps about one ounce), laid out carefully with a baby eggplant (two-three inches long) sliced in half and grilled, and sticks of eggplant – all laid upon eggplant caviar (which is a fancy way of saying eggplant dip). The waitress served us our plates and then we had the dramatic effect of her pouring eggplant jus over our plates. This is common in French cuisine, the sauce being poured, at the table. I believe they do this because some off the beauty gets diminished once the sauce is on and they want us to fully witness the beauty. There was also a grating of nuts over the whole dish. We both love eggplant and were in seventh heaven with four ways of eating it in one dish. The sea bass was a bit plain and much better at Kei. Yet again, we are splitting hairs here.
Quite a bit of time had elapsed since we first arrived, so we had ample time to take in the whole scene. Every time someone got up, a waiter or waitress was there to escort them to the front door and hold the door for them (the bathroom was outside of the main dining area). When they returned, someone found a way of being available to escort them back to their table right away and hold their chair for them.
Also, the clientele was of interest to us. There were six tables of Asians and a table of fat cats. This is a very different from the other restaurants we went to. It became obvious that a lot of people go there to eat, because of its reputation. Also, being that it is in a hotel whose rooms start at 1100 euro a night, it is a convenient place to meet for dinner. Honestly, we concluded that Alain may have clientele who does not fully understand and appreciate the intricacies of his food, as much as they could and probably should. Both of us were a little bit saddened by this. But obviously his empire is thriving and life goes on, for all of us, foodies and otherwise.
The next dish to arrive was lobster and a variety of sea potatoes that originated in Normandy but are now grown in Versailles. There was a lobster cream sauce and again, we were witness to the waitress adorning our plates with lobster jus. Can you say “foodgasm”?
Even though the portions were small, as in, all of the food served so far amounted to less food than I would put on my dinner plate on an average night, I believe us sitting there eating for a long while sent the message to my brain that I was full. But alas, the waiter brought another dish. Black rice grown in the Camargue. There were bits of shellfish in it, as well as small bits of veggies. There is a tradition in Japan about the sharing of rice and how this can speak to the broader way of sharing in life. Alain respects and values the Japanese, and has incorporated this tradition into his restaurant. It was delicious, but I could only eat a couple bites of it.
I had moved a small plate to my left, out of the way, and my hand tipped into the wine glass and I almost dropped the plate. It made a noise, but I quickly steadied the plate and set it down, without the embarrassment of food on the floor. Firstly, Dan looked at me and said “I wouldn’t have known you.” But something to note, a waitress appeared out of nowhere and was at our table in .3 seconds, to ensure that everything was OK. Now that is what I call good service. Or amazing service. Or having eyes in back of your head while simultaneously moving at lightning speed service.
The French serve their cheese course after dinner. I don’t believe either of us were still hungry, but they still serve it because that is the order of things. A small tray came out with four types of fromage, and as usual, it goes from mild to strong, with the blue cheese being last to be eaten. Again, it was all amazing, but I could only muster a nibble of each. While we were sitting with the fromage platter, a man came along with a wooden cart (similar to the bread cart) but with perhaps a dozen types of cheese, and asked if we wanted to try anything else. We politely declined. I can’t imagine anyone can still eat at that point in the meal, but they must, or they would cease to keep offering it up to their patrons.
The last course to be served was dessert. The waiter brought a platter with beautiful black Muscat grapes grown in NE France. Probably two pounds of grapes and all we could eat was about two grapes a piece. Then he had a tray of twelve chocolates from Alain’s chocolate factory. He had a special knife and cut two pieces off and left them in place. On a side note, Dan had visited this factory in the Bastille neighborhood the week prior. We plan on visiting his store in the St Germain in a couple of weeks.
They also brought out a beautiful small dish arranged with figs in a red wine sauce. Then the waiter had another dish from which he put roasted figs on the plate. He brought out one dish for the two of us to share. It was a citrus sorbet set a top a tarragon and seaweed gelée, decorated with preserved lemons. We were instructed to get a bite of all of those flavors in one mouthful. Both of these desserts didn’t have sugar in them, or none added. Just the pure flavor of the fruit, and how delicate and fresh and grounding it was.
Believe it or not, the waiter actually brought out two more desserts. This was enough dessert to make a whole dessert party and this was just for our table. I completely appreciate the pastry chef and all his creativity. I wonder if his efforts often don’t get recognized, as patrons are feeling complete, by the time he showcases his skills. We were served a fig ice cream stuffed with a fig coffiture — and the fig ice cream was barely sweet, which was very nice. There was also a sponge cake with rum and nutmeg cream. I tasted the cream, but the cake was too sweet for me.
The dessert scene was a nice way to sit there and digest the rest of the meal and watch the evening wind down for the staff. We were the last to be seated and so it makes sense, we closed down the house. Now that the restaurant had no other guests, we did ask for the waiter to take a picture of us, so we can cherish our decadent evening at Athenee. They obliged with pleasure.
After using the toilette, we decided to take our walk on this side of the city, instead of take a cab home and walk close to home, like last night. Walking down Champs-Elysees at night is probably the best time to do it (much like 5th Ave in NYC). Most of the stores are closed and it’s relatively uncrowded. But the lights and energy of the place still permeate the vibe. We went down the whole strip and arrived at Charles de Gaulle Etoile, which is the traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. The rain had stopped from earlier in the day and there was a clean feeling in their air. Now, granted, drivers in Paris are not as crazy as drivers in Mexico City or Saigon, but this traffic circle is the convergence point for twelve boulevards and there are eight lanes of traffic in the circle and there are no delineated lines. So in short, tons of cars are zipping around quickly, coming from everywhere and weaving and swerving however and wherever they feel like it. It’s not quite as deadly late at night, but it’s still a precarious situation. I asked Dan, “do you want to run through the circle with me to get over to the Arc” and it was a go! We waited until things looked clear enough and made a dash – cars were approaching and we needed to boogie. The Arc is so regal as it is all lit up and stands 150 feet tall, towering over everything close by. We weren’t sure what we were going to do once we got there, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter. A police officer approached us and speaking in French, informed us it was closed and we should leave. We tried to snap a picture but he quickly gave us the evil eye. Repeating the traffic circle mad dash again, we got back over to the Champs-Elysees and walked back east. Eventually, we caught a cab and found our way back to the Marais.
Alain, we shut our eyes, with you and Athénée on our mind.