During a recent trip to Paris, I was given the rundown by a French friend of the must-sees and must-dos. He rattled off the predictable museums and monuments, then finished with a solemn admonition: “You must, of course, go to a three-star restaurant.”
I was not used to connecting a meal with an esthetic imperative and, not inclined to spend large sums on dining out. I murmured something about the economic crisis, but my friend was adamant. La crise economique was all the more reason to go, he insisted, since many of the fine establishments would be offering special prix fixe lunch menus at reasonable prices. At the time, I didn’t understand the relativity of “reasonable” in the French gastronomic lexicon, but even had I, it is unlikely that I would have acted differently. There is nothing like being around French people to dissipate American common sense. The next day, my husband and I made a lunch reservation at Taillevent.
Taillevent is one of those gastronomic palaces that everyone knows about in Paris. My French friend had told us that we would probably be able to get a last-minute reservation because the restaurant had recently lost one of its three stars upon the death of its proprietor, Jean-Claude Vrinat, whose father, Andre Vrinat, had founded the establishment in 1946. The loss of Vrinat fils had presumably put Taillevent in the “we try harder” category, meaning that the prix fixe lunch, which I have to assume once cost some unfathomably stratospheric sum, had been reduced to 95 Euros (with wine) and 80 Euros (without). When I first heard this price, the wind was momentarily knocked out of me, but I soon recovered. That happens to be the price of a decent winter coat (and Paris in winter is cold), but this is a country where a spoonful of foie gras trumps keeping warm in winter.
Taillevent is not a showy establishment. It occupies a discreet-looking nineteenth-century town house on a side street off the Champs Elysees, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. A liveried young man opened the large glass door and we were greeted by an older gentleman, apparently the maître d', with the looks and manners of that iconic French movie star of yesteryear, Maurice Chevalier. I half expected him to pick up a top hat and cane and break out in a rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”—though, I assure you, there were no little girls in evidence.
Maurice smiled pleasantly at us, a marked contrast to the supercilious manner I had come to expect from Parisian waiters. Being nice to Americans may be a criterion for a third Michelin star. Or Taillevent management may have sent this guy for a semester at an American hotel management school. Whatever the cause, the maître d' was downright affable, and we all chatted happily for a while, even as he informed us that a jacket was required (my husband had neglected to wear one). Fortunately, a nice blue blazer was brought out—which happened to fit better than the one my husband has at home.
After a little more pleasant chitchat about the fit of the blazer and the attractions of our native Philadelphia (I half expected the maître d' to ask us about “dem Phillies”), we were led to a small table in the smaller of two rooms. As soon as we had settled in, a stool was brought out by a waiter who was a dead ringer for Robert Downey Jr. The stool was for my handbag. Apparently, at this restaurant your pocketbook gets its own seat. Next, came the menu, presented with a flourish by another waiter, this one with a marked resemblance to the actor Ed Norton. A third waiter, with no discernable resemblance to an actor of note, brought in the complimentary cheese puffs.
Needless to say, the restaurant decor was a study in good taste. Anyone who has spent time with the French knows that they have a horror of vulgarity and, when in doubt, will veer towards black, brown, and navy blue as “safe” colors. The proprietors of Taillevent, perhaps having learned from their stint at the hotel management school that American guests find darker shades depressing, had adjusted by making beige the color of choice. Table linens, walls, and plates were in this neutral color. The waiters, however, true to more traditional form, were dressed in black pants and brown blazers. They glided about the room like shades from the culinary netherworld.
We had booked our lunch for 12:30, and for the first half hour, we and a befuddled-looking Japanese couple seemed to be the only patrons in the joint. Eventually, the place began to fill up - or rather, the other room began to fill up. We could hear polite cascades of laughter and popping corks coming from that enclave (nothing too exuberant; this was a gastronomic shrine), while we and the Japanese couple remained, as it were, shipwrecked with Ed Norton, Robert Downey Jr., and the non-celebrity waiter in what I had begun to think must be the room for foreign suckers. Then, at around 1:30, guests began spilling over into our room, making me feel a lot better. Here were lots of other people, some of them even French, who were paying 80 Euros - or more - for a lunch with a bunch of celebrity look-alike waiters.
The meal I acknowledge was good—though how good is hard to say. The neutral tones, the gliding waiters, the sense of being in a temple to food and drink without knowing very much about food and drink, all combined to put me into a kind of stupor. We had opted for the 80 Euro lunch (i.e., no wine), which on consideration seemed like a mistake - if you’re going to splurge on a three-star meal, you might as well wash the damage down with a few classes of bubbly. On the other hand, I was pretty spaced out without the wine, and with it I might very well have floated away.
I can report that there were three principal courses (though I may not be counting right): a ravioli with foie gras for my husband and a soup with truffles for me, followed by a crunchy fish (sea bass possibly) for me and a duck with figs for my husband. Then came a small slab of brie with raisins, and dessert, a kind of apple tart made with wafer cookies, followed in conclusion by a platter of complimentary petit fours, balancing the complimentary cheese puffs that began the meal. Each course was noteworthy in its presentation. The fish in particular was arranged on my plate with some matchstick vegetables in a shape that evoked either a log cabin or a Mies van der Rohe box, depending upon your architectural mood.
Between courses, Robert Downey Jr. glided in, always on the left, to refill our water glasses, or insert a “sharing plate” between my husband and my dishes, while Ed Norton scraped away the crumbs that had accumulated on the tablecloth, replaced a roll from which a bite had been taken, or refolded a napkin.
The atmosphere was one of sepulchral calm, though there was a flurry of activity toward the end of the meal. By now, our room was full, but suddenly a table appeared out of nowhere and was set with startling alacrity just as an elegant couple strode in. They were dressed in a vaguely equestrian style. She was on her cell phone, which would have been verboten for any normal mortal in this gastronomic temple, but in this case, neither Maurice Chevalier nor Robert Downey Jr. saw fit to interfere. Examining these privileged late arrivals, I noted their resemblance to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (he of the abdicated crown) and felt certain that they would have been this illustrious couple had the Duke and Duchess not been dead.
The entire lunch lasted about two hours. With wine, it probably would have lasted three. This seems to me to explain the conundrum of why it is that the French eat practically all the time and gain no apparent weight: they are spreading the food out over a very long period and thereby diluting its effect. I would even postulate that the amount of energy involved in the elaborate and protracted ceremony of a fine French meal ends up burning more calories than it consumes, thus turning eating into a form of aerobic exercise (which makes sense, since the French have a horror of any other sort of exercise). I will say that by the time we left Taillevent, I was exhausted.
After we paid the bill, I removed my pocketbook from its chair, and the maître d' took back the jacket from my husband. He promised, in genial Maurice Chevalier fashion, that he would have it ready for our next visit (I feel sure he was taught this line at the American hotel management school). Looking back, the whole thing feels like a dream. I suppose that’s what it means to eat in a three-star restaurant: there’s a sense of smoke and mirrors. Unfortunately, our bank account doesn’t do smoke and mirrors. It deals in reality: 160 Euros worth.