He'll always have Paris... Food Critic Richard McComb eats in the lap of gastronomic luxury – twice.
During appraisals of modern haute cuisine, it has become obligatory to damn French dining with faint praise.
It’s good, say the critics, but it’s not what it was, not quite inventive enough. The modern palate now yearns for salty moss dredged from Scandinavian beaches, live ants fed on pickled snail slime and frozen reindeer tears.
It is the Nordic kitchens, or Spain and Japan, to which fashionista foodies are drawn, not the boulevards of Paris, the secret traboules of Lyon or the parched hills of the Cote D’Azur. Been to France, done that, got the T-shirt.
I’ve never understood the condescension. For someone whose love of food was inspired by French cuisine, old habits die hard.
But then I had never really done the grand Parisian dining thing. Or rather I hadn’t until last month. And now my life will never be the same.
Two consecutive nights eating in the French capital are right up there on this jobbing food hack’s Best Dining Experiences Since Discovering Sauce Mornay Aged Five.
Admittedly, the two restaurants we visited (because my wife and I dined with our two children, a factor I will return to) are at the top of the tree, prestige and price wise.
And if they can’t get it right, then things must be really bad across La Manche.
But I can see through the flannel, whether it is weaved from polyester or the finest Egyptian cotton. Le Cinq at the Four Seasons George V, just off the Champs-Élysées, and Restaurant Hélène Darroze, across the river in the 6th arrondissement, are proof positive of Parisian dining élan.
The former has two Michelin stars, the latter has one (it used to have two); but I don’t know how the inspectors choose between them.
Both offer highly distinctive individual dining experiences with personalised service and that ability to leave you feeling you have enjoyed something far more enriching than just going through the mechanics of eating.
We arrive at Hélène Darroze just before 8pm. The setting, at 4 rue d’Assas, couldn’t be more understated. The exterior is unadorned black and carries only the name of the chef.
It couldn’t be more different to Darroze’s London restaurant, which is set amid the classic grandeur of The Connaught in Mayfair.
You sweep inside the automatic electric door and a screen reveals butterflies encased in glass. Be prepared for a flight of gastro fancy.
It is August, so the welcoming downstairs salon, which serves tapas from an open kitchen, is closed. We are led up a winding staircase, past black and white photographs of a young film-starrish Darroze and family, to the more formal first-floor dining room. Formality, however, is a frame of mind.
We couldn’t have felt more at home with our girls, aged 13 and 16.
A Parisian lady was accompanied by her toy dog. I’m not sure they would allow that at The Connaught.
During service, an elderly female diner was taken ill and collapsed at the table. I thought she had died. Two waiters picked up her chair, carried her discreetly into a rear room and the disturbance barely registered.
That’s what I call service. (The diner appeared an hour later, under her own volition, accompanied by a paramedic, and bid good night to her party before leaving for an early night. Classy stuff. There aren’t many restaurants that revive the dead.)
Elaborate canapés are eschewed in favour of fougasse bread and freshly sliced Bigorre ham, reflecting Mme Darroze’s upbringing in the hearty territory of Les Landes in south-west France.
Some have dismissed the use of a tableside slicing machine as a gimmick. It reminds me of popping into the village butchers in the middle of Nowhere, Central France, and for that reason I love it.
It is the Atlantic, near the Darroze family home, that is fished for one of the starters, a carpaccio of bass-like maigre.
The fish, known as croaker, comes from St-Jean-de-Luz in the Pays Basque and is dressed with a vanilla-flavoured olive oil, studded with French caviar and dolloped with a spoon of wasabi cream.
I’m not a fan of vanilla outside desserts but this works. A peppermint foam gives a refreshing twist to a medley of yellow and violet courgette, Parmesan and girolles. This is seasonal summer squash like you’ve never tasted.
A menu influenced by Darroze’s culinary roots wouldn’t be worth its salt without duck liver. For traditionalists, a melty, soft pocket of foie gras is grilled on a wood fire, the richness offset by white peach. The robust nature of the liver is toned down in a super-smooth confit. The foie gras comes in a thin coat of nori with an artful splodge of preserved lime marmalade.
So far so good. hen it gets very good, exceptionally good.
St-Jean-de-Luz also provides the squid for a risotto of swooping tastes and textures. Carnoli rice is coloured with squid ink, served with sautéed chorizo and preserved tomatoes, and crowed with a Parmesan cappucino. We tried a couple of tasting portions and could have eaten a bucketful, only that’s probably a little too much, even for Gascony.
It is dishes like this that make you pleased to be alive.