Under normal circumstances we would never be able to eat at a place like Taillevent. Not without, say, selling one of our cars, or taking out a small home equity loan. But for one thing, it was our anniversary. And for another, the restaurant is doing this amazing kick-butt summer special for its prix-fixe lunches. Three courses off a limited menu, including wine pairings, for 80 euros. Still an expensive lunch, of course, but it’s an affordable expensive. And as it turns out, it’s worth every penny.
I was more than a little nervous, going into one of the bastions of French traditional cuisine. It didn’t help that the metro out of St. Paul was running late and the train cars were hot and crowded, leaving us running down the street from the Arc de Triomphe in our nicest clothes trying to make our reservation. Thankfully, Taillevent is air conditioned, and the waitstaff are far too polite to comment on a little sweat.
When we entered (exactly two minutes after our reservation time), we were greeted by no fewer than six different people. One at the door, one just inside, one to check our reservation, and several more to say “Bonjour” and escort us to our table and help us into it. Every waiter was impeccable in a full business suit. The room was full of diners, but as hushed as a graduate reading room, waiters passing silently to and fro.
Delightfully, we were quickly supplied with cold champagne and hot gougères, then left completely alone for ten minutes to soak in the ambiance and settle our spirits. No menu, no questions. Just quiet, coolness and cheese puffs. I began to feel extremely happy.
As we finished our champagne, an English-speaking waiter appeared and provided us with menus. We knew we were there for the prix-fixe, but neither of us could help peeking at the a la carte list. I nearly had a heart attack when the very first entree (appetizer) proved to cost 65 euros. Ack! Definitely the prix-fixe lunch. We placed our orders. The sommelier swooped by to let us know that he would choose wines to match our lunch, then swooped away again. Glasses of Badoit mineral water were poured for us, but the bottle was whisked away to some hidden location between glassfuls. I felt like giggling.
A small bowl arrived for each of us. It looked strange, rather like a fluffy poached egg. If I understood the waiter correctly, it was a small quantity of smoked tuna foam, with a spoonful of red pepper ice cream nestled within it. I had never imagined eating such a thing, but it was astonishingly good. A waiter appeared with a bottle of white wine and poured us each a glass. It was bright with a rather firm oak flavor, and matched the tuna foam with a perfection I have seldom experienced.
Our entrees arrived. We had both ordered the soup, which arrived in true artsy-fartsy fashion as a small pile of tiny mushrooms topped with a perfectly de-shelled lobster claw. The waiter smiled, bounced on his feet a little and said, “Perhaps you think there is something missing?” and from both sides appeared two other waiters, each holding a silver gravy boat. They poured the contents, a rich frothy mushroom broth, neatly around the lobster in each of our bowls, then vanished. Someone topped up the wine in our glasses. We tasted.
It may have been the best thing I’ve ever eaten.
Take the essence of mushrooms and lobster. Infuse it with butter. Add perfectly done lobster meat and little mushrooms that pop like grains of hominy in the mouth. Close your eyes. Wow.
In something of a haze of glory after the lobster soup, we watched our main plates arrive. I had ordered pissaladiere, which is normally a rustic Provençal pizza of onions and anchovies – not a subtle dish. This version was a wafer-thin round of short crust with a layer of caramelized onions on top. Around the rim were tiny petals of anchovy and olive. It was delicate and artistic. On top of the pissaladiere sat a tremendous lump of monkfish. It was not particularly artistic, but it was delicious. A fresh glass of wine arrived for me, a clean and floral white from Anjou. This was not quite the religious experience of the entree but it was damned good.
Jon had asked for lamb. When he ordered it he asked for it a pointe, which in France is usually just the right amount of rare for our taste. The waiter, experienced with American palates, asked if he meant just a little pink. Jon said no, he liked it really quite pink, and the waiter said, “Oh, French pink!” Precisely.
The lamb was, indeed, very pink – and very pale as well, like veal. It was perfectly tender, and served with a nice melange of young vegetables and a very hard-to-improve-upon demiglace. The red wine that appeared in his glass was understated but magnificent.
A cheese course appeared. It was exceedingly pretty: a round of very fresh goat cheese, topped with a very thin wafer which had been spread very very thinly with tapenade, and the whole thing showered with baby salad greens. Fresh rolls were brought to us and our wines replenished.
Finally, the glasses and plates were taken away (one at a time, by a waiter whose job it was to gracefully remove each item silently and unobtrusively). Dessert arrived.
I’m never a big dessert person, and I had been eating almost nothing sweet since we arrived in Paris. Partly because the French seem to put hazelnuts in every damn thing and I get tired of worrying. But this! It was a small symphony in chocolate: a streamlined scoop of deep chocolate ice cream, alongside a stack of paper-thin sheets of dark chocolate separated by chocolate mousse. It was lovely.
Jon’s dessert, however, won the beauty contest.
It was a savarin, a round cake soaked with fruit syrup, filled with cream and topped with a heap of fresh fruit, plus a cute little cap of gold foil. I didn’t taste it, but it certainly was showy.
Then, while we waited for our bill, one more plate arrived for each of us:
Jon’s had this lovely assortment of goodies, including a tiny raspberry tart, a marshmallow, and a macaron. My plate was nothing but marshmallows, I assume due to hazelnut issues with the other treats. I did sneak a raspberry from Jon’s plate. Perfect, of course.
Finally, we were finished. The staff escorted us gracefully out of the building, depositing us back out in the hot Paris sun. We made a beeline for the nearest cafe, and drank coffee while we tried to process our lunch experience. The glow lasted for hours.