When someone asks me about the very best meal I had in Paris Michel Rostang is not the first name to come to mind, yet at the same time if I were asked to explain the most “classical French dining experience” of the trip our lunch in front of the kitchen window at 20 rue Rennequin is precisely what I would describe. Family owned and operated since inception and garnering 2-Michelin Stars the year I was born I was told by friends that this would not be the most revelatory experience in the City of Lights, but that if one ordered correctly it could be a stellar meal at a comparatively good price and while Rostang’s kitchen may not produce items as delicious or distinctive as Gagnaire or Barbot I can say without batting a lash that my friends were right.
Located slightly off the beaten path in the 17eme but easily identifiable by its patron’s name on the building outside we arrived to our 12:30 reservation a few moments early and within seconds of entering the door were greeted by a young man who introduced himself as the Maître d’Hôtel and Chef Rostang’s daughter, a pleasant yet serious woman who was very clearly in charge of many (if not all) aspects of the front of the house. With coat and bag taken we were asked if we would prefer a seat in the more “intimate” portion of the restaurant or if we should prefer a seat before the large picture-window looking into the kitchen – an obvious choice and given the situation of the table an opportunity for both of us to watch every aspect of our meal’s preparation without hearing a sound from the kitchen staff.
Seated and greeted by our server, a young man perhaps my sister’s age who spoke perfect English, three distinctive menus were presented and after a couple of questions we both decided to opt for the lunch special – 78Eu for three courses, plus to split an additional appetizer and a cheese course. Having heard impressive things of Rostang’s famous truffle sandwich it was somewhat disappointing when we were informed that they were not currently offering the item because “the current truffle selection is best suited for garnish and sauces” but given the breadth of classics on the menu we certainly were not left scrambling for ideas.
With orders placed and water filled it was a short wait before the meal would begin and during that time we each made a visit to the gilded downstairs restroom largely to see the two separate wine rooms – one quite enormous and rustic with the other well appointed and behind glass showing off some of their more esoteric selections. With the restaurant less than half full throughout our meal we also were left time to remark on the how charming the room was with its heavy wood paneling juxtaposing delicate lace curtains and a collection of ornate statuettes and dolls displayed along the wall – the whole feel like dining in a stately mansion, or as the case may be, the private residence and vision of Monsieur Rostang.
With thick linen napkins unfolded and heavily padded wooden chairs beneath us the meal would begin with a trio of canapés – all three tasty and one utterly outstanding. Beginning first with the simple, a slice of house cured Jambon with truffled vinegar, pistachio, and parmesan was plenty savory, a little sweet, and nicely accented by the nuts. Moving next to the sandwich, described as a club sandwich of hand-picked crab, truffle, and brie this selection was buttery, sweet, and aromatic with each ingredient coming forth with aplomb – I’d have gladly accepted a full portion of this sandwich in place of the truffle sandwich had they offered. As good as the sandwich was, the showstopper of the troika was the Butter tart with onion cream and foie gras – an unctuous amalgam of smooth liver and onion that was even more so plus mildly sweet top notes from the pastry.
With canapés consumed the next item to arrive at our table was the house bread – a single option in the form of a crunchy demi-baguette served with salted Bordier butter. With bread replenished with a warm roll each time the prior version was within a bite of completion I, as usual, enjoyed plenty and the butter was as good as any save for that at l’Arpege.
With Chef Rostang in the kitchen (apparently something less and less frequent these days according to reports and his daughter’s comments towards the end of the meal) largely as an observer and coach as the young team worked convivially our amuse proper for the meal would arrive in a rather sizable bowl described as Fennel Soup with Lobster claws and Lobster coral Crème. Impressive in portion and in taste this medium-warm potage was the definition of “velvety” and with the aromatic blend of spices and fennel balanced against the butter poached lobster and briny cream it was better than most lobster bisques I’ve tasted stateside. While I personally would have preferred it to be hotter and I jokingly mentioned this to the server it was a minor quibble given the quality.
For our first course of the afternoon there were six choices and all but one sounded enticing but in the end my love of foie gras won out and my server would soon arrive with “Fresh Sea Scallops and Foie Gras Ravioli in a broth of algae, root vegetables and herbs.” Ever professional if not a bit too serious I was warned that this soup was “hot – as you like it” completely straight faced and indeed it was; it was also wonderful. With the scallops caramelized on the exterior and nearly raw within and the pillows of foie lightly kissed with balsamic the sweet proteins melded nicely with carrots, turnips, and rutabaga while the savory broth sang of Asian inspired umami – an admittedly surprising flourish considering the chef’s classic stylings.
For my sister’s first course her decision, like her main course, was “Le Plat du jour proposé par le Maître d’Hôtel” – in this case described as “Chilled Fisherman’s Stew of Calamari, Razor Clams, Sea Bass, and Belotta Ham.” Expecting a broth-thin cioppino or gazpacho but instead delivered a buttery and smooth veloute loaded with briny seafood, savory ham, and bitter greens balanced against onions and peppers the most impressive part of this dish was the heterogeneity of it all – each bite a new experience with the acidity of the tomato providing an anchor to the diversity of flavors.
For our added appetizer a third soup was selected and though we asked for it to be split in the kitchen we were instead served two full bowls of the “Egg cream with fresh black truffles and Jerusalem Artichokes.” Again served hot and thick this velvety soup was the best of the trio and as a 30Eu supplement well worth the expense as the chopped egg blended seamlessly with the hefty vegetal tones of the Sunchoke and aromatics of the truffle.
With plates cleared we were next visited by both Michel and his daughter (acting as translator) who thanked us for coming and commended our main course selections – “one a classic, the other my new take on surf and turf.” Beginning first with the Plat du jour, “Truffled John Dory with blood sausage wrapped in bacon lardons and black olive puree” – it is hard to imagine more polar opposites. Beginning first with the fish – 2 slices, both pan kissed but moist and flakey with a layer of black truffles atop – it was mild, aromatic, and lovely. Serving as counterpoint to the fish, the very definition of savory – briny bacon, aromatic and heavily seasoned sausage, plus the essence of olives. With a silver sauce-pan of truffled potatoes along side adding a creamy aspect to the plate it was perhaps the best “surf n’ turf” I’ve ever tasted thus making it a classic in its own right.
For my main course, a classic by any definition as it was handed down from Escoffier by way of his father, the selection was easy – La Quenelle de Brochet soufflé a la crème de homard “comme le faisait Jo Rostang” – a serving practically half the size of a regulation basketball and nearly as orange. Plated tableside and served with nutty saffron rice this admixture of pike, egg, and bread was impossibly fluffy and delicious on its own, but what truly raised it to its legendary status was the buttery lobster sauce which was baked to a leathery dome atop with more added not once, not twice, but thrice during the course of it’s consumption. While everything at Michel Rostang was delicious this dish was alone worth the visit and undoubtedly one of the five best savories I had on the trip.
Wiping the rest of my plate clean once again with some baguette we were again visited by the younger Rostang who seemed very pleased we’d enjoyed our meal and cleaning the table herself mentioned that the cheese cart should not be missed. With Erika again growing full I suggested perhaps splitting a course which was agreeable to all – even though as it turns out I’d be eating 90% of it myself. With the two boards unloaded from a clever refrigerated space in the wall and described at length I unfortunately do not recall all of the selections from the Goat-heavy board, but of those selected my notes include “Two year Comte, Epoisse, Ashed Lyon Goat, Raw-milk sheep, Blue, Roquefort, Brind amour” and all were quite tasty paired with slices of toasty house-made Walnut Raisin Bread.
Having missed out on my soufflé the night before and already bearing witness to the sort of products coming out from under the kitchen’s Salamander our dessert selections were similar but entirely different – for my sister the Hot Chocolate Souffle with Cocoa Ice Cream and Black Pepper Whipped Cream and for myself the Salty Butter Caramel Souffle with Williams Pear Sorbet. Larger than expected and with outfitted in silver both I can only note that both were beyond reproach – tall, proud, piping hot, and a cloud of sweet balanced by the nuances of their respective sauces. As an added bonus it should also be noted that the ice creams at Rostang are every bit as good as those at Berthillon – particularly the dark chocolate which is trumped only by
With soufflés finished (and Erika stuffed) the final treats for our meal would arrive on the flowing dress of a marvelous silver statue. With nine mignardises in total including an overly soft Canele, a perfect boozy Baba, and other flavors including Candied Currants, Almond Nougat, Apricot Gelee, Rhubarb Tart, Almond Cookie, Chocolate Ganache, and Lemon Marshmallow all were quite tasty but none truly exemplary – more or less the standard despite the lavish service ware. With the kitchen drapes now pulled and the staff making their way downstairs to change clothes and head home our check was requested as we enjoyed the bites and after noting a double charge for the cheeses that was instantly corrected the bill was paid and a copy of the menu requested while we lingered and chatted with our server for a bit before making our way to the sunny streets.
Having already noted my overall thoughts about Rostang at the start of this review I think it is important to say that although the meal wasn’t “the best,” it did fall in the setting of a shear embarrassment of riches unlike any trip I’ve ever taken…in almost any American city Rostang would be the best restaurant in town by leaps and bounds. While the food was perhaps “old school” there were certainly flourishes that made it stand out and additionally, while the service and room were a bit stodgy and not as much fun as that of Le Cinq or Guy Savoy both were every bit on par with that of LeDoyen or Le Pre-Catalan. In the end I’d gladly go back not only for the quenelles or the soufflé, but also because by being “old school,” Michel Rostang represents something quite unique in the new world of Barbot and Bistronomy.