“You’ve never seen a room like it” said one friend. “The service is the best I’ve ever experienced” said another. “Éric Briffard should have three stars – he should have had it a year” said yet another. With these statements in mind and Saturday lunch service it wasn’t a question of if we should visit Le Cinq at The George V during our trip to Paris – it was a question of which Saturday was a better fit for our schedule. As a part of the Four Seasons group reservations were simple – a quick call to their central office provided me with an e-mail and within forty-five minutes of sending the original E-mail I received a call from the Paris concierge to set up lunch for two at 12:30 on April the 9th 2011.
Arrving arrived in Paris a mere 24-hours earlier and having already enjoyed two solid meals, morning pastries from Laduree, and a morning walk through the Jardins des Tuileries plus some shopping on the Champs-Élysées our arrival at The George V was timely despite the construction – as a matter of fact we were early and after making our way past a Maybach, a Rolls Royce, and an Aston-Martin Vanquish we found ourselves in the large central lobby currently being detailed with mirrored boxes and large vases of ornate flowers. Greeted first by the doorman and then by an attendant in the lobby we stated our business and were directed to the restaurant, stopping along the way to browse the art, jewelry, and small indoor café full of lounging guests, their families, and even their well outfitted canines.
Making our way to the doors of the restaurant we were greeted en route and walked the last twenty feet – my bag was taken and stored before I even knew what happened and upon stating our name the service captain responded with “Yes, of course, from Ohio – how was your flight?” Appropriately impressed and chatting as we made our way through the glorious baroque dining room my very first thought echoed the comments of my friend – I’d never seen a room like it – intricate molding, floor to ceiling windows, oil paintings, and gold leaf, crystal and silver aplenty. With chairs pulled out in synchrony and seated on pillow soft chairs at a two top large enough for four our comfort was assured and a purse stool appeared for my sister’s bag…the service, too, lived up to the hype – a well oiled machine meant to make you feel like royalty.
With our meal already discussed with the Maitre D’ via E-mail prior to our arrival the selections were confirmed – the three course weekly lunch for Erika and the “Spring Menu” for myself – and within moments the chariot of champagne and caviar arrived tableside, a nice touch which we politely declined instead opting for a bottle of still water. After this our captain would stop by again to chat, ask about any dietary restrictions, and make a few additional offers and suggestions.
With water poured and a handful of rose petals added to the table the first bites would arrive quickly – a large basket of tempura fried Shrimp and Calamari spritzed with lemon oil and served with tiny tridents – a unique way to start a meal and apparently a customary opening volley at Le Cinq that was excellent, particularly the crisp yet supple calamari.
Moving on, our next taste of Le Cinq was rather unlike anything I’ve ever seen – a single slice of white bread served with olive oil. With it explain that this single slice of bread was made with the “utmost care to be entirely flavorless” so that we could “experience” the 2010 Frantoi Cutrera Primo Olive Oil all I could do was chuckle – something so small, yet clearly intended to wow…sure it was good and the oil impressively fruity – but more than the flavor it was the gesture… all these little flourishes that would keep happening all afternoon.
Speaking of tasty carbohydrates, aside from that first slice of bread there was nothing flavorless about Le Cinq’s house made bread selection – as a matter of fact, it was my second favorite bread selection of the trip with a basket consisting of Country, Baguette, Brioche, Tomato, and 7-Grain – all tasty, but all the more so due to the butter – two large cones that arrived covered in glass; one a sweet butter from Brenton and the other a savory Seaweed Butter that required replenishment late in the meal (yes we ate that much butter and yes it was worth every calorie.)
Munching on the bread, at this point a lovely curl of tomato brioche, it was perhaps thirty minutes into service before our trio of amuses arrived – from left to right a Lemongrass Shrimp with Cauliflower, a gelee of Carrot with Ginger and Hibiscus, and the Tempurad head of the shrimp. Instructed to enjoy the plate from left to right each bite was impressive – the first sour and snappy, the second sweet and smooth, the last crunchy and savory – a suitable troika that primed the palate.
With the proper menu beginning and Erika ordering a three course menu while I opted for seven I will note that timing could not have been handled better – as a matter of fact, our server even included her in the cheese course and provided a second small dessert to help even things out…just another one of those “little things.” Keeping with that topic, Erika’s first selection would be a quartet of little things entitled “Sardines from Saint-Gilles-Croix-De-Vie – tartar, grilled, tempura, raw in asparagus flan.” An unexpected selection but based on two positive experiences with the fish the day prior the three plates were all exquisitely presented and each flavor distinctly different; some focusing on texture while others on taste. I particularly enjoyed the bite raw bite with garlic croutons and a creamy asparagus flan.
For my first course the kitchen deftly showed its hand with Japanese presentations in delivering Toro Tartar with Green apple Gelee, Pea, Caviar, and Fresh Wasabi. Neglecting the wasabi and focusing strictly on the fish, a pylon shaped ounce or two topped with a pyramid of briny fish eggs, this was a nicely cleaned and presented tartar with the fish eggs providing plenty of accent, but what truly stood out about the dish was actually the impressively sweet double shucked peas – nearly raw in texture and quite unlike the way we see peas served in the United States.
For my second course, now three out of three, I would see more of that wonderful French asparagus – this time “Green Asparagus from Luberon rapidly cooked in olive oil with gnocchi, chives, and pork jus” plus a side plate of Matcha Tea Frozen yogurt, Asparagus sorbet, and Lemon brioche. Thick and snappy the Asparagus quality was perhaps the best of the trip while the solo gnocchi was a flawless pillow that simply made me wish for more. With the first plate rather traditional, the more interesting part of this dish was the side – an intensely bitter yet vegetal frozen yogurt topped with creamy sorbet that truly did taste like a 50/50 admixture of sugar and the essence of Asparagus. As for the golden brioche – tasty and sweet…plus an excuse to eat more of the Brenton butter.
With the course cleared our captain would arrive tableside with a Polaroid camera to snap a picture “for his collection” – a picture later delivered in a classy George V envelope to take home as a souvenir – yet another nice touch. On the heels of this gesture, however, would be an even nicer touch – two of the ten best things I tasted in Paris served simultaneously; the first being Duck Foie Gras from the Landes Region with Sarawak Pepper Roast, Rhubarb, Strawberries from a Provencal Garden, and Elderberry Juice. Always a fan of cold Foie Gras preparations as compared to warm this dish was an eye opener and every bit on par with the my favorite seared version of all time at L2o. Described as first roasted and then lightly seared the liver itself was so smooth and supple that it barely held its form, instead melting into a luscious pool and melding with the fruit juices while the pepper added a note of spice serving to contrast the sweetness of the strawberry.
Nearly as impressive and much less expected than my course was Erika’s “Rex Rabbit from Poitou Region cooked with squid and served as rib rack, loin, breast alongside bayaldi of vegetables, muscadet wine gravy, anchovies, and peas.” With the rabbit prepared medium and impressively nutty each of the variations was tasty, particularly the panko dusted rack while each accoutrement lent something different, a new angle of exploration that kept the large plate interesting from start to finish. Rustic yet refined it was this dish amongst all the others that truly showed off Briffard’s talents to me – a complex landscape of flavors and textures that moved you away from the center but then brought you back without ever truly losing focus.
Sharing the rabbit across the table and making a mess of the linen (which my sister jokingly pointed out to our server) the next thing to arrive at our table was a cover-up table cloth – and rose petals jokingly arranged to cover the corners – and after that was my “Blue Lobster Pot roasted in Baby Garlic, Freshly Squeezed Pinot Noir grape Jus, Confit Pork Belly, Lobster Stuffed Morels and Crunchy Cabbage with Ginger.” It was an embarrassment of riches in all the right ways. Having experienced Brittany Blue only once in the past – ironically then also paired with cabbage and ginger this dish – this dish was another outstanding exploration of various themes on one plate and again each lent something of its own without compromising the others or becoming too “busy.” With the lobster easily cut with the edge of a fork and more buttery than garlic the morels were actually the standout of this dish – stuffed with a lobster sausage mixed with what I believe was aged cheese…both would go beautifully with the jus. Additionally impressive was the cabbage – not crispy itself, but buttery and mixed with crisp ginger revitalizing the palate with each bite.
Resisting the urge to wipe the plate clean with bread (besides, there was butter left) our plates were collected and our captain stopped by to suggest my sister also take some cheese “on the house” and with that the cart arrived. Featuring a well culled selection of approximately twenty cheeses each was described at length and after much discussion we decided to allow our server to make the selections – amongst them a nutty Mimolette and 2-year aged Comte, more pungent Epoisse and Bleu de sauvignon, plus a triple cream Brie, Camembert, and two goat cheeses. Accompanying the cheese would be Country Walnut Bread and Apricot Date Bread…they should sell the Apricot bread by the loaf.
Before our palate cleanser we were first brought an “aperitif” of water. Thinking this odd I listened with interest as our server described the characteristics of the Black Forest Water – an ultra pure zero nitrate mineral water from the North of France that was purportedly the best in Paris. Cracking open a fresh bottle I found it perplexing that they would serve this for free while charging for the bottled water service during the meal, but regardless it really was quite flavorless, ice cold, and yet another of those little moments that stand out.
Still sipping our “super water” the next item to arrive was a flavorful warm Green tea Madeline served alongside Salted cream cheese Ice Cream coated with Gold leaf and drizzled with honey soaked citrus – a tasty and attractive bite equal parts sweet, sour, and salty.
Moving on to the proper desserts I will first note that our server offered to gift Erika both desserts on my tasting menu but she declined as she had her heart set on the Wild Strawberry Napoleon Pie with light cream, citrus fruits, white cheese sorbet, and strawberry gelato. Served as a three layer Mille Feuille with crispy pastry divided by layers of fraises des bois and a zesty light cream the pastry itself was flawless, shattering on light pressure and sweet without being overly so. Seated along the pastry was another crisp layer, this time circular and stuffed with a mascarpone textured sorbet dotted with yuzu and topped with creamy strawberry gelato. As an additional bonus, along with my second dessert she would be presented with a bowl of fraises des bois topped with fluffy whipped cream and shavings of white chocolate “because one can never get enough strawberry at springtime in Paris.”
For my first dessert at Le Cinq I was treated to a large cocktail glass described on the menu as “Red Fruit Cocktail with Hibiscus Jelly, Basil Froth.” In reality the “red fruits” would consist of at least five – standard large strawberries, fraises des bois, raspberries, currants, and pomegranate – resting in an aromatic mélange of their juices and topped with a strawberry sorbet champagne cream touched with basil. With all the fruits as ripe and tasty as expected the most impressive aspect of this dish was the smell – like walking in an early summer garden.
With the table next to us ordering the flaming omelette à la norvégienne we were treated to a show while we waited for the second desserts, but once mine arrived the show was squarely on the plate in the form of the “After Eight Chocolate Bar, Peppermint Granita.” Served elegantly with seven variations of chocolate including the crispy base the dish was beautiful and dotted with spots of menthol that acted largely as an accent, not overwhelming as mint can tend to be. Creamy and crunchy with oodles of nuance the dish was additionally playful with the addition of pop-rocks to the center layer adding a totally unexpected surprise.
Beyond content our final treat of the afternoon would prove to be the gift that kept on giving – a mignardise cart with no less than twenty options ranging from strawberry macarons every bit as good as those at Laduree, blackberry opera cakes, chewy nougat, nearly perfect Canele, five types of caramels, pistachio bark, vanilla marshmallows, lemon tarts with fraises des bois, chocolate tarts with almond, and 10 assorted Chocolates (both dark and light.) First offered “as many as you like” and then later recommended to try most of what we hadn’t received with the first round all we could do was accept graciously – and even after that they packed up two small boxes of 5 caramels each for us to enjoy later on.
Sitting back to bask in the glory of the past three hours (and to digest such an amazing meal) we watched a party of eight ask to enjoy their mignardises and coffee out on the terrace – an offer that was met by the captain first going out and setting an entire table with plates, crystal, and sliver before plating a large platter of choices and walking them out into the sun. On his return we requested our bill – one tasting, one lunch tasting, one bottle of water despite all the extras – and on paying were walked to the front of the restaurant where he suggested another photo using my camera and presented me with a copy of the menu before bidding us farewell.
In the end how do you sum up such an experience? Simply. My friends were right.