To dine in a space nearly as old as your country of origin is a strange thing – to think that those who have preceded you are the men who fill artistic, literary, and historical texts…it would make the space seem significant even if the food was average. But, what if the restaurant was also a Michelin three-star establishment that some have claimed may serve the best food in Paris? On April 12th 2011 I decided discover for myself just “what if” at Ledoyen – the oldest restaurant in Paris. With reservations made by phone well in advance for one person at lunch I’ll admit this was the one 3-Star meal I was most leery of during our trip to Paris largely because I’d heard of chilly service and a stodgy room – rumors I hoped to find false because I’d heard nothing but praise for the product on the table.
Hidden in the gardens adjacent to the Champs Elysées and established in 1792 as a formal restaurant Ledoyen exudes the very definition of “les grandes tables du monde” – a place of fine dining with an extensive history rooted in quality and tradition, yet at the same time as I walked up the gravel path to the space it was certainly obvious that some aspects of the space had been modernized in the intervening years to provide a touch of modernity. With a uniformed guard patrolling out front as I approached I was greeted with a smile and “bonjour” as he abandoned his march to hold the door and within two steps of breeching the doorway a tall elderly gentleman greeted me, located my name, and handed my bag off to a young lady before leading me up the staircase as he explained to me a short history of a painting on the wall.
Entering the grand dining room – long, spacious, and with enormous bay windows flooding the space with light – I was again handed off, this time to the man who would serve as my captain and within moments I was seated at a handsome two-top with cream linens, monogrammed napkins and a golden charger matching the gilded ornaments of the room. With heavy woods, chandeliers, mirrors, and heavy curtains abound I guess I can understand why some felt the room could use an upgrade, but to me it felt like old luxury befitting a place of such history.
With wine declined and still water (7€ per small bottle) from Vittel poured I next received three menus – one for lunch, one a la carte, and one featuring Chef Le Squer’s signature tasting menu. Having originally planned on the tasting I was instantly forced to reconsider when I saw the lunch menu options and after some debate and a pair of questions I actually opted for the lunch menu plus two supplements – a choice that would lead to more courses than the signature tasting and when it was all said and done leave me as the lone diner in the room. With my comfort and capacity (“Monsieur, this will be much food”) assured it would not be long before the experience would begin.
For my first taste of Le Squer’s cuisine I was a bit taken aback – sure I’d seen pictures and heard that he dabbles in pairing his classic training with modern technique, but I certainly wasn’t anticipating a molecular gastronomy in a room like Ledoyen. Presented on a pair of black slate blocks the sextet of canapés du jour were described first in French and then in English by a young woman who would act as my primary server throughout the meal and each one clearly sported not only modern flare, but Eastern influence as well. With options including a “Ginger Bubble,” a Veggie Wrap with Sesame, an Asparagus Puff with Nori, an Uni pita, and Crackers flavored with Polenta and Parmesan alongside those made with Sesame and Squid Ink each bite was fun and tasty, but overall it was the Uni Pita that truly stood out – like a pizza-roll stuffed with butter and purple urchin that burst on mastication into a flood of briny flavor.
With my love of bread well documented and canapés being enjoyed slowly the next items to arrive at my table would become a serious issue when taking into account my captain’s comment about the size of the meal – to put it another way, the bread service at Ledoyen is without a doubt the best of any restaurant I’ve yet to experience. Featuring a crunchy baguette with an open and airy crumb, yeasty salted olive bread, and a golden roll referred to as cereal brioche – all house-made and all warm – plus a large round of unsalted slightly sweet butter from Bordier it was the sort of bread I simply could not stop eating, particularly the brioche which I’m rather certain I had a piece (or two) of with every course.
With canapés finished the next course to arrive would be the afternoon’s amuse bouche and considering Le Squer’s reputation for drawing on products from his native region I was not surprised when the area was cited in describing the course. Again described in French and then translated to English, “Fine raw peas from Brittany over Pea Flan with Onion, Bacon, Marjoram, Milk Foam” was fantastic – the sort of dish that makes an American wonder why even the best produce back home rarely compares. Snappy and sweet meets salty and smooth and all with the mild undertone of marjoram and onions punctuating the experience – an inspired combination that could have easily served as a proper course given its size and complexity.
Already glad I’d decided to make the visit my first proper course of the afternoon would be precisely the sort of dish I’d expected from Ledoyen – an eye catching dish pairing top quality ingredients and time-honored techniques with a handful of whimsy. Described as Foie Gras des Landes mi-cuit with chocolate, toffee, vanilla, esplette, and sea salt from the Brittany coast this dish was decadence defined and although offered as an appetizer it could have just as as easily arrived as dessert. Significant in portion and more so in taste I particularly loved the manner in which the crunchy peppered toffee melded the thick layer of creamy liver with the milk chocolate ganache forming a flavor oddly reminiscent of an upscale peanut butter cup with basenotes of smoke and spice.
With the plate for course one literally wiped clean to the amusement of my server it would be a short while before my second of the four course lunch menu would arrive, this time “Bresse Chicken in stale bread with Tarragon, Grapefruit, Asparagus and Fine Herb reduction” Again served in ample portion with the bird’s mildly gamey flavor and tender flesh enhanced by the tarragon and herbs packed beneath the buttery crust the other high point of this dish was the inspired pairing of thinly sliced white asparagus and grapefruit – two flavors I’d have never thought to combine, but when used in this setting a pleasant acidic accompaniment to the otherwise classic take on “fried chicken.”
While other diners opting for the lunch menu were preparing for cheeses or desserts the parade of savories would march on for myself in the form of a piping hot structure approximately one and a half times the size of a Twinkie. Dubbed by some as “The Macaroni Castle” (Officially titled Jambon / Morilles / Truffe Aux Spaghettis) this dish came highly recommended by no less than three trusted palates and despite its cost being more than the entirety of the lunch tasting it was absolutely worth it. With tender spaghettis standing vertical beneath a molten cheese roof decorated with crisp potatoes, savory ham, gold, and fresh morels this plate was a visual masterpiece, but like many things it was “the inside that counts” – a liquid filling loaded with butter, parmesan, cream, ham, morels, and chunks of black truffle the size of grapes. Beautiful, complex, aromatic, and decadent in every sense of the word – a dish that will forever stand out in my mind as one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
With praise flowing forth as I again wiped the plate clean it was the cheese carte that would arrive next, an ornately decorated carte with nearly twenty options from which I selected a 2008 Comte, Aged Livarot, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Brie de Meaux, and a particularly creamy Epoisse to go with the house made Fig and Walnut Bread. With each quite nice it was actually the Alpine goat Pouligny that impressed me the most with its somewhat dry texture and sweet-and-sour balance.
With the bread plate and butter no longer present to tempt me what would follow next was the best sort of excess – an over abundance of desserts. Certainly the four course lunch had its two dessert options, but why settle for a single choice when for a mere 9€ you can opt for Le Grande Dessert Tasting Ledoyen – a collection of five – plus four paired petits fours and more? With the parade beginning first with the petits fours as the others were prepared the days selections included Licorice Macaroons with Hibiscus jelly, Pina Colada and Pineapple Lollipops with a Gingerbread base, White Chocolate Sandwiches with Bailey’s and Lime, and Salty Caramel Wontons with Candied Pecans. Much like the canapés this playful collection certainly did not seem to “fit” the classic nature of the room, but by this point I’d more than realized Le Squer was unhindered by such things and I found the Lollipops and Wantons particularly lovely.
Preserving one half of the petits fours for later the first course of my dessert tasting to arrive was described as “white on black” and featured Ledoyen’s yeast ice cream covered in edible silver and paired with a light menthol mousse and shards of white chocolate. With the mousse/ice cream combination smooth and nicely balanced while the chocolate served largely as a textural contrast the surprise of this dish was how light it all was – a chilly cloud punctuated with crunch.
With the restaurant now approximately half-empty the second dessert of the afternoon would be Ledoyen’s signature, yet despite this status I was somewhat hesitant as I generally don’t prefer grapefruit. Arriving stacked as a pseudo-millefeuille and titled “Croquant de pamplemousse cuit et cru au citron vert” the dessert was undoubtedly attractive and on description featured the fruit in no less than five forms – sections marinated in lime, a gelee with dill, icy sorbet, crunchy candy topped with basil, and grated peel punctuated by honey. An explosive showing of tartness and texture I particularly enjoyed the manner in which the spices balanced the citrus, but all in all it was still grapefruit and while I certainly appreciate the effort and balance it simply was not designed for my palate.
The third dessert of the afternoon would arrive perhaps fifteen minutes after the second and this one was much more fitting my sensibilities. Described as “Strawberry, coriander, hibiscus, beurre blanc crème brulee” I personally like to remember this dish as Sophisticated Strawberry Shortcake without the cake. Featuring fraises des bois in a ring surrounding floral pastry cream perched atop the most decadent crème brulee one can imagine at its base the dish was then topped with aromatic coriander foam and smooth strawberry gelato to form a dish where each bite was a little different from the last – it was exquisite.
Dessert four would prove to be another intriguing composition – a dish described in English as “pavlova of carrot, orange, and fromage a la creme” but honestly I think something was lost in the translation as the texture was more cheesecake than pavlova. Semantics aside, with two layers of airy cream cheese sandwiching orange puree topped and topped with orange segments soaked in pineapple rum the cake itself was lovely. What set this dish apart, however, was the carrot component – shards of candy similar to that of the white chocolate from earlier and an aromatic froth that tasted as fresh cooked carrots smell.
With only two other tables still sporting patrons at this point I was asked if I’d like coffee – an offer I gladly accepted as there was a long day ahead, but prior to the coffee my last dessert would arrive in the form of “Chocolate crunch, caramel, crème fraiche.” In my opinion saving the best for last this decadent plate was geometrically pleasing and texturally wowing with two thick fingers of Valrhona ganache filled with nougat and wafer juxtaposing a layer of thick caramel at the center of the plate and tangy vanilla tinged crème fraiche at one side with chocolate pop-rocks at the other.
With plates finally cleared and Chef Le Squer making his way to the dining room to say hello to the seven of us remaining the last bites of the meal would arrive along with the intensely flavored coffee in the form of Chocolate with Rice, Caramel au Beurre Sel, Kouign Aman, and Caramelized Almonds. With the chocolate and caramelized almonds rather unmemorable after such an extravagant meal and the caramels a lovely sweet/salty balance it was invariably the Kouign Aman that stood out – light and buttery, crisp and sweet, and best of all still warm.
Still enjoying the mignardises as Le Squer made his rounds mine was the last table he would visit and although our communication was somewhat limited due to the necessity of an interpreter he appeared to be a very humble man and extremely grateful for my compliments of the cuisine. Stating that he was impressed I ate so much and inquiring as to what I liked best he again thanked me before returning to the kitchen stating it was time to begin preparing for dinner service. With the staff ever efficient, smiling, and professional I was asked if there was anything else I’d like and after requesting a copy of the menu I paid my check and was on my way along with the 2011 Ledoyen stamped copy of “Les grandes tables du monde” gifted to me in the lobby when I collected my bag.
With the afternoon gorgeous as I made my way towards L’Arc de Triomphe to meet my sister I was left to reflect on the meal I’d just experienced and all things considered it marked my third outstanding experience in three days and in retrospect it was also my third favorite meal in Paris. While the room is certainly aged and the service not as whimsical as that of Pierre Gagnaire or l’Arpege I personally did not find either to be cold or boring but instead classical and befitting a building of such history. Moving beyond this, I found Le Squer’s style and the product on the table to almost serve a bridge between past and present – a classic approach that is not afraid to have a little fun and serious dining with just a touch of whimsy.