The amusing amuses-bouches at Jean-François Piège’s Paris restaurant.
My friends Chris and Helen and I had all followed the recent Top Chef series on French TV, so when Chris’s 40th birthday rolled around, Helen and I decided to treat …
The amusing amuses-bouches at Jean-François Piège’s Paris restaurant.
Pros: creative food, comfy dining room, good background music
Cons: icy service, high prices
My friends Chris and Helen and I had all followed the recent Top Chef series on French TV, so when Chris’s 40th birthday rolled around, Helen and I decided to treat him to dinner at the Paris restaurant of one of the program’s chef-judges. Chris chose Jean-François Piège over Christian Constant, Cyril Lignac and Ghislaine Arabian (Thierry Marx will soon be in charge of the restaurant of the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Paris, set to open in June), and Helen agreed, noting that Piège had been the most demanding of the Top Chef judges.
After Helen and I spent many frustrating weeks trying and failing to reserve a table (you have to call as of 9am exactly two weeks before your chosen date, but even if you get through at 9:01, everything is already reserved), I got a phone call late Monday afternoon. We were at the top of the waiting list and a cancellation had come in.
I rounded up the troops, and we gathered in the smallish dining room of Piège’s “gastronomic restaurant” upstairs from the Brasserie Thoumieux, all plush armchairs and banquettes with cushions, nicely spaced tables and a discreet “blobby” (as Helen described the amorphous shapes of lamps and table accessories) design scheme. The overall effect is comfortable and très bourgeois.
The waiter explained the restaurant’s rather confusing and gimmicky menu. You are handed a list of “ingredients” (each equaling one course), and you pay by the number you choose: €75 for one, €95 for two, €115 for three. Amuses-bouches, cheese and dessert are included. The list on Monday was as follows: caviar osciètre (€25 surcharge), vegetables from Joël Thibault (celebrity Parisian produce vendor) with an egg, blue lobster, wild turbot, squab, and veal sweetbreads. The preparations remain a secret until the food is served.
The amuses-bouches were indeed amusing, among them a tiny deconstructed ham sandwich (a cube of ham with wafer walls, topped with chopped cornichons) and a “pizza” that was just a crispy puff of crust dotted with a piece of olive.
We waited in vain for a sommelier to come and help us choose from the lengthy wine list, which covers the gamut of French wines and includes some reasonably priced bottles. We finally settled on a 2009 Chassorney Bedeau (misspelled on the menu) red Burgundy for €55. The bottle that arrived was actually a 2008, but we took it and enjoyed the light, crisp yet warm qualities of this biodynamic wine.
After a very long wait, the first courses finally arrived. The lobster, cut up into nice chunks, was served in a big bowl it shared with a number of other ingredients, among them a stunningly good foie gras and an acidic broth made with griottes (Morello cherries). The vegetable plate was an artful arrangement of miniscule servings of flavorful baby vegetables – radishes, fava beans, pimento, little coils of cucumber, raw almonds, etc. – interspersed with dots of anchovy cream. These encircled a large ravioli-like square in the center of the plate that turned out to be made of solidified fromage blanc. Inside it were the egg and some breadcrumbs. All very minimal and pleasant but not revelatory.
I had ordered the sweetbreads, which came breaded in something crunchy and nutty. They were fine but a bit on the gamey side. Next to them on the plate was a more creative side of cream of morels, dotted with tiny mushrooms and more raw almonds. Helen’s squab, stuffed with fois gras and black-olive tapenade and served with a minty salad, was very tasty.
We were asked by the waitress if we wanted a cheese course as if she expected (and hoped) that we would say no. Of course we wanted it, and we were thrilled that we had insisted. Served on tall blocks of wood with a delicious homemade quince jam, it was perfect both temperature- and flavor-wise.
Finally came dessert, the only part of this meal that had us truly humming with delight – the rest was all very interesting and unusual but did not induce the looked-for ecstasy that can be produced by the right flavor pairings. The red-and-white multipartite dessert consisted of a rhubarb vacherin, deconstructed clafoutis (cooked cherries, with their pits replaced by yet more raw almonds, sitting on top of tiny spice wafers) and various other creamy treats.
The service, which started out cool but cordial, became increasingly icy and grudging as the evening wore on, as if the two attractive young men and one young mini-skirted woman (the most pleasant of the three, but that’s not saying much) couldn’t wait for us to leave so they could go out clubbing. As we took our departure, I asked the waiter the name of the singer playing over the excellent sound system (pleasing, laid-back jazzy background music played not too loudly was one of the positive features of the restaurant). He replied, “You ask too much of me, Madam,” and reluctantly offered to find out, but only if I insisted. I didn’t dare, but perhaps I should have.
It’s a shame that a place with two Michelin stars that charges extravagant prices can’t hire professional staff who know how to treat diners well. I wonder if this has something to do with Piège’s partnership in the Hôtel Thoumieux venture with Thierry Costes, whose Paris restaurants (notably Georges in the Centre Pompidou) are known to hire servers for their youth and good looks (and snotty attitude?) rather than their real qualifications. It probably didn’t help that the boss was not present the evening we ate there.
I couldn’t resist comparing Piège’s restaurant with my current favorite in Paris, Spring, which offers not only jaw-droppingly good food but also adorable, enthusiastic service, making every meal there a thoroughly delightful experience. In contrast, we left Thoumieux with a sour taste in our mouths.
Restaurant Jean-François Piège: Hôtel Thoumieux, 79 Rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris. Métro: La Tour Maubourg. Tel.: 01 47 05 79 79. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner. Fixed-price menus: €75, €95, €115.
Reader Ron Fox writes: “The brasserie Thomieux downstairs is hardly better, though less expensive. The service is as charming as that on a 747 and the food is, at best, uninspired. They are happy to take the tourists in and treat them as tourists. So many better places to dine.”
Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes: “My own experience with starred restaurants is that triple the price seldom equals even twice as good.”
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