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L'Ambroisie – Paris (Rating: 19.5/20)

The Gastroville Review: December 12, 2006

L'AMBROISIE: ABSOLUTE PERFECTION

What is the measure of true greatness in French cuisine?

In my opinion there is one overriding measure. A meal prepared by a great Chef should achieve an absolute harmony without sacrificing the complex flavor profile of classic French cooking, while also giving the impression of clarity and light handedness in cooking. At the end of the meal one should feel uplifted and ecstatic rather than that one’s stomach is nearly bursting. When looking back at the meal in hindsight with the benefit of a couple of weeks that has elapsed, one should still re-live the culinary nirvana that is tantamount to a transcendental experience which may not be captured in words.

Clearly such moments are rare because the Chefs who are capable of reaching that level of perfection are less than rare.

I only know 3 of them in my own dining experience: Frédy Girardet (whom I became familiar with quite late in his career), Joël Robuchon (whose new ventures should not be confused with what he was capable of when he was at the helm) and Bernard Pacaud.

This does not mean that each meal prepared by these perfectionist Chefs achieve a near perfect score. Nor am I claiming that other Chefs are not capable of great moments. But my argument is that, among the Michelin three star Chefs that I know, the three individuals I name here are or were capable of preparing great meals with a higher frequency than others and even their low points may be beyond the attainment of quite a few super Chefs today who are parading as Michelin two and three star Chefs (thanks to a drastic lowering of standards) in many countries.

Our 16 November 2006 meal at L'Ambroisie was certainly one of those meals which will linger forever in my memory. We also had exceptional company, and one friend who was with us with her family and who is an elegant lady endowed with a sensitive palate translated her impressions to writing:

“I must tell you that our meal at L’Ambroisie wasn’t just another good meal, but it was rather an emotional summation of our whole trip, its gastronomic climax. Every dish seemed to capture a small piece of M. Pacaud’s soul. The earlier course weaved a plot, and the conclusion solved it. Not for a second, was there a formality in dishes, which often defeats the narrative of the meal. Not for a moment was there a sense of the outdated or dull or monotonous. …And how could I possibly have all the right words to describe the kindness of both M. LeMoullac and M. Pascal?”

Indeed!

The plot, so to speak, kicked off with some of the best gougères in the world (feather light and without the cheap trick of sauce béchamel as in the States) and a deceptively simple amuse-bouche. That is, slightly smoked Scottish Salmon, topped by “hashbrowns” and served with a dollop of crème fraîche and dill. What makes this simple Pacaud classic so special is that the salmon is devoid of excess fat (so typical of farmed versions) and the smoking is so subtle that it enhances the unique taste of wild Scottish salmon rather than substituting for it.

The plot seemed to have thickened with the first course of the night; “Filet de Bar Aux Cepes”. Simple sounding, is not it? Also it was easy to taste and appreciate, but our appreciation has intensified by each bite for reasons easy to state. First, the wild, line caught bar (translated as sea bass—but true bar does not exist in the States) in question was so fresh, juicy and sweet that even those who don’t think that the bar belongs to the pantheon of the most interesting fish species of the world (such as myself!) are bound to take their hat off. Second, both the cep (porcini) mousse and the circularly cut raw ceps were full of flavor and it was a sensual delight to see how the warmth of the fish heated the raw wild mushrooms (last of the season) in the plate and, consequently, its flavor gradually became deeper and more interesting. Third, the light emulsion of olive oil which was poured on top had the right touch of acidity, and the sauce truly bound the separate parts of the dish together and elevated their pristine and complimentary flavors, rather than masking them. The dish was vintage Pacaud, and the cooking was unmistakably in the tradition of Haute Cuisine Français: flavorful yet balanced, imaginative yet restrained, playful yet precise, aesthetically pleasing yet not obsessed by it alone.

What followed in the development of the mysterious plot (we had left the composition of the menu to Monsieur Pascal) was a shellfish course: “Corolle de noix de Saint-Jacques et brocoli, a la truffe blance d’Alba ‘O. Berluti’.”

Well, this dish pictured below was clearly a visual treat depicting the interplay of white, brownish and green figures with geometrical precision.

But, the visual impact is always a byproduct of taste harmony in Pacaud dishes. It is never an end in itself. And this dish, in juxtaposing the sweetest imaginable barely cooked nutty scallops from Brittanie, and, arguably, the world’s best broccoli cut into round flowers, sought a perfect unison of earthy, nutty, crunchy and sweet flavors, binding all of them together and sharpening their flavors with a parsley coulis kissed by garlic. What is meant here by “kissing” is that one tasted the garlic, but could not see it or have one’s taste buds attacked by rough flavors. Again a textbook Pacaud dish, that is, a dish of restraint without sacrificing intensity and true taste of two superlative ingredients: the best wild scallops and broccoli imaginable. Then, there was a final Midas touch that elevated this dish to a supreme status in the Pantheon of scallop preparations: shaved Alba truffles (Magnatum Pico) of the highest quality, specifically selected by Pacaud. For some reason best white truffles prove to be elusive in our Alba trips. (The seven of us had just visited Alba.) It looks like the choicest Alba truffles, the round, most aromatic ones which are also quite large in size (but this does not mean that the largest are the best) are gobbled up by restaurants outside of Piedmont. Here is the picture of the truffles that Pacaud uses. (Also please note that Pacaud slices white truffles thicker than they do in Alba. This may be an additional reason why they come across as more aromatic.)

Needless to say, the scallop-broccoli dish was NOT a white truffle dish that one finds great examples of in Alba, but it was rather a variation of the so called “mer et terre” dishes, enriched by white truffles. Indeed aromatic Alba truffles exhibit a hint of garlic aroma among others components, and the juxtaposition of parsley-garlic coulis and the white truffle did enhance one another and brought out the nuttiness that one can find in very fresh diver scallops from certain regions of the world (esp. Galicia and the Breton coast). I also think that Alba truffles blend beautifully with some green and root vegetables (such as cardoons), but one lady in our company took exception to this viewpoint.

If we except the superlative desserts, the “solution” of the plot was revealed by another Chef-d’oeuvre of Pacaud: TOURTE DE CANARD SAUVAGE. Like all things which relate to taste, even the greatest masterpieces are ephemeral and neither words nor pictures can capture the experience. My overriding sadness in having this dish for a second time is that I know my daughter who is only 4.5 years old will never get to taste it as it is doubtful that Pacaud will still be tending his stoves when she grows up sufficiently to appreciate exceptional cuisine. At any rate she can enjoy the picture of the “tourte.”

I have eaten quite a few versions of game pies prepared by master Chefs in France, but the Pacaud version stands out for many reasons. The crust is exceptional, neither soggy nor too flaky. It is cooked to order. I assume some pork and veal is used in the preparation along with the main ingredient: colvert duck (green neck). Different parts of the duck are prepared separately and then all are brought together, retaining their distinct qualities and incomparable taste. The thigh is well cooked and flavorful; the breast is pink and juicy. The duck liver which is used to separate distinct parts of the dish is well cleaned, and its texture remains silky and its quality puts to shame most foie gras dishes served in expensive restaurants nowadays. (Personally I rarely order a foie gras dish due to frequent disappointments.) The dish is enriched by juniper berries which are used in stuffing and in the sauce, which is light and devoid of excess cream or butter. The dish is served with a frisée salad, and the lettuce tastes as if it has just been plucked out of the garden. Some, not ungenerous, shavings of Alba truffles on the salad, certainly don’t hurt too!

Another beauty of Pacaud’s narrative is that one actually has some room left for cheese. As far as I know, Monsieur Aloisse is the supplier of cheese to the restaurant. He is certainly a distinguished affineur, but I have yet to taste a cheese from him that will remain anchored in my mind as some of the Comte which are supplied to some restaurants (such as Les Ambassadeurs, Arpège, Ledoyen) by another great affineur: M. Bernard Anthony. This said, of the seven cheeses I tasted at L’Ambroisie, I noted three of them as being exceptional (a Coulommier, an artisanal Saint Nectaire fermier, and a very sweet and creamy Roquefort), one very good (the St. Marcellin) and three quite good (the Cantal, the Gruyere and the Chèvre). To me, this is no mean accomplishment.

Another feature in the overall L'Ambroisie narrative that I admire is that, unlike what is in fashion nowadays, Pacaud does not believe in satiating you with a procession of sweets. Instead, he usually sends to your table one fresh fruity dessert to titillate the palate, and he follows it up with one of his exquisite desserts. In mid-November the first dessert course turned out to be “velouté de mangues en minestrone, babas bouchon au rhum”, followed by one of his masterpieces, “tarte fine sable au cacao amer, glace a la vanilla”. The former was a very modern dessert: exotic, tangy and aromatic. Rich flavors of neither over and nor under-ripe mangos and mango coulis danced on your palette with the perfume of coconut milk and the outstanding baby rhum babas (which can compete in quality with the Ducasse version). The babas were well soaked in fine quality rhum that added a touch of quite decadent zestiness.

Talking about decadence, Pacaud’s version of chocolate tarte with vanilla ice cream is the best chocolate-based dessert that I know. It is decadent not because it is extremely rich, but it is pure decadence because its flavors remain very intense and very ethereal at the same time. If you place your fork a few inches above the tarte and then drop it literally to the middle, the fork will pierce the tart through. Don’t be shy. Please do it!

A side thought: it is too bad that Pacaud is no longer preparing his millefeuille. It had always stood out among other millefeuille desserts prepared by other great Chefs (such as Passard).

It is a sad thing, but one of the realities of life that wine lists are always expensive in three star restaurants. Perhaps mark ups are most excessive in the United States, and, secondly, in France. In terms of mark ups, I should say that L'Ambroisie's list approximates a fair average of Parisian three star restaurants. It is less expensive than Arpège for sure. But I will go out on a limb and claim that L'Ambroisie has a particular asset for oenophiles that other three stars do not quite possess to the same degree. That is, Monsieur LeMoullac who is not only the General Manager, but also the sommelier, is a unique among all sommeliers that I have met in France and the States. He is unique in the sense that he is totally unaffected by ratings, current fads, big names, and labels. He trusts his own palate and his palate is responsive to nuance and delicacy, rather than to sheer power and high alcohol He also knows extremely well Pacaud’s cooking—it is impossible to think of one man without the other, as the careers of these two men, both at the zenith of their respective but complimentary fields, have inextricably been linked together. The result is a perfect symbiosis which benefits the clients of the restaurant if they desire to heed the advice of Monsieur Pascal (to compose the menu) and Monsieur LeMoullac (to select the wines within your price parameters).

L’Ambroisie is actually the only restaurant in the world that I don’t impose my own views on the wine selections as I came to trust M. LeMoullac Breton nose, whose qualities reveal themselves over time and with repeated visits, just like M. Pacaud’s cooking or Madame Pacaud’s warm and friendly Mediterranean personality which may not be detected at first behind detached elegance, “a la Français”. At any rate, in the meal I described above, Monsieur LeMoullac opened a 2004 Condrieu, from Cuilleron, and I always like the particular site it comes from: Les Chaillets. 2004 is almost as good as the other worldly 2003, with its focused taste of apricot seed and fresh almonds, and its complex minerality. It also went extremely well with our first two courses. I like Cuilleron and also Andre Perret very much among Condrieu producers. It is a pity that most sommeliers in France try to get me order Condrieu from Vernon instead, which I find generally more “gras” than Cuilleron, but not as delicate or interesting.

Another great choice of M. LeMoullac for a reasonable price which went extremely well with our “tourte de gibier” was a Latricieres Chambertin 2000, from Trapet. The wine showed very well, and it was beginning to develop some complex aromas without losing its delicate and fresh red berry fruitiness. It was a silky wine with round tannins, and some exotic spices revealed themselves in the medium-long finish and blended well with the juniper berries present in the dish.

It is always hard to match a cheese course with a single wine. But we did quite well with a spicy, opulent Syrah based wine (2000 Cornas from Jean Luc Colombo) which was a rather tame and refined expression of Syrah without being overly woody or chocolaty—that is, in the international style highly touted by some wine journals.

The meal ended with single malt old Scotches that pair well with the chocolate dessert. I was also amused to hear that M. LeMoullac is one of the very few who share my view that one should never mix desserts (already cloying) and dessert wine. It is much better to have hard liquor at the end, or nothing.

But it is always better to have a digestive before stepping out of the culinary heaven and into what can possibly be the most exquisite square in Paris: la Place des Vosges. I also recommend that you walk to your hotel. Paris is not the ugliest city on earth, but it looks particularly blessed after a meal at L’Ambroisie. Besides, you will save some money!

Gastrovılle Ranking: 19.5/20 (Vedat Milor—7 December 2006)

The Gastroville Review: April 15, 2005

Arguably, to call this tiny place located in one of my favorite squares on earth, the regal Place des Vosges, a “restaurant” is misleading. In fact, L’Ambroisie is rather an institution which is quintessentially French, and one that can only be found in Paris. Like all institutions grounded in historical traditions, L’Ambroisie has its set of unwritten rules and codes of behavior. One salient rule is that customers at L’Ambroisie are perceived less as passive recipients of gastronomic delights whose needs have to be pampered at all costs, but rather as potential partners and friends of a culinary institution who will internalize the culture over repeated visits. It is therefore the client who should adjust his expectations to suit the mores/norms of the restaurant and not the other way around. To some, especially some non-French more steeped in individualist traditions, this attitude is seen as elitist and nationalist, and their first visit to L'Ambroisie (if they have managed to get a reservation) is often the last one. Yet for others, the type of classic traditions that this restaurant epitomizes and stands for are perceived as a magical escape from the dictates of modern fads and realities of the marketplace, and they appreciate the type of professionalism and perfectionism that is expressed in this institution. Thus for many people, including this writer, the first visit to L’Ambroisie is the beginning of a journey whose rewards increase with each repeated visit and whose pleasures, both culinary and intellectual, may be savored long after the end of your meal.

The total capacity of the restaurant may not exceed 40 seats or so, divided in two equally attractive rooms and a tiny quasi-private room in the back. The first impression one can have upon getting seated is that although at first sight the room is not gilded or excessively decorated, every single detail seems to be just right. That is, the Aubusson tapestries on the walls, the oil paintings, the vases, the perfectly polished floors and the marble, the pristine linen and finest crystal glasses, are such that, nothing seems superfluous or excessive, but one can not easily think a way to improve on the decoration without upsetting the overall harmony.

The same can be said of the Chef/owner Monsieur Pacaud’s cooking. My standard for dishes in Haute Cuisine restaurants is to ask the question “can this have been any better?” Over the years and after many meals I have reached the conclusion that this tiny establishment who shuns the limelight comes as close to perfection as any establishment to have such a claim. In fact so many dishes I have had the chance to try are such that one can hardly conceive a way to add or detract an ingredient from the dish. All of these dishes consist of 3 to 4 ingredients whereby one ingredient is clearly the “King” but the associative ingredients are also treated regally and form a perfect symbiosis with the leading part. Pacaud treats all ingredients with such an utmost respect that instead of making vocal statements a la Gagnaire or evoking baroque themes a la Ducasse, he works more like a miniaturist, working meticulously to bring out the details and full potentiality of each ingredient without losing sight of its unison with the main theme (I borrowed this analogy from an incisive reviewer who writes under the name lxt in culinary websites). Consequently and this may be the destiny of perfectionists, many diners may find Pacaud’s dishes to be “too simple”. I would sympathize with this statement if “simplicity” is the end product of an arduous artisanal process and if it denotes the ultimate in harmony and restraint. L’Ambroisie is not the place to savor tapas style dégustation menus consisting of 10+ culinary fireworks experimenting with new textural contrasts. It is the place to savor one amuse and three courses (plus cheese and a dessert). Choose your courses in consultation with Monsieur Pascal, who is courteous, and he will not be shy about expressing his opinion about the proper sequence and overall harmony of your meal. Take advice and you will see that while each dish you savour will be harmonious in itself, in progressive succession, they will create a crescendo effect.

I am glad that, over the years, I listened to professional advice and, as a result, I have been rewarded by some perfect dishes, some exceptional dishes, and some very good dishes. I am not kidding. One amazing quality of L’Ambroisie’s is the incredible level of consistency. I have never seen a restaurant where the distance between the highs and lows is so minimal and the highs are always perfect.

A typical Pacaud dish displays three characteristics. First, Pacaud is obsessed with ingredient quality, and he is not prejudiced among ingredients in the sense that he will choose the best of the ingredients regardless of price and only serve them at their prime time and only and only if he is content with the quality of the delivery. So it is quite possible that the restaurant may not serve black truffles in mid-January if the Chef does not think that they are fully ripe and complex. Second, he is obsessed with harmony without sacrificing the intensity and clarity of particular tastes. The emphasis on clarity may imply that most dishes there contain very little or no butter and cream, as the Chef does not want to mask flavors. In this sense, it is apt to call Pacaud the last true nouvelle cuisine Chef, and it is especially interesting to have a meal at Ducasse’s Parisian temple for many pre-nouvelle dishes, and experience the classic sauces in all their glory, and then try, say, a cream sauce with vin jaune at L’Ambroisie to see the contrast. And lastly, Pacaud is also obsessed with technique in the tradition of an artisan. Visual effects and techo presentations are not his style, and most dishes embody an element of painstaking research and long preparation times. It is in fact rare to find a Three Star Michelin Chef who is not afraid of including in the menu bistro dishes, such as navarins, matelots, long cooked queue de boeuf, etc. But have some of these dishes at L’Ambroisie and you will see why they have been considered timeless classics.

My last two meals at L'Ambroisie were on March 12 and March 19. March 19 was especially a memorable date for me because, one veteran waiter of the institution, the affable Monsieur Pierre (not to be confused with Monsieur Pierre Lemoullac who is the General Manager and the sommelier) is about to retire and certainly he will be missed. At any rate the meal was as perfect as it can be. Once the candle was lit and excellent Roederer house champagne was poured, we munched on the gougères which are fluffy and extraordinary given the high quality of the gruyere. Following a very fine amuse of “escalopine de saumon”, a thick piece of marinated Scottish salmon which is topped by crunchy hash browns and served by crème fraîche and dill we had the following dishes:

Veloute de Topinambours aux St. Jacques, copeaux de Truffe
Darne de Turbot aux Asperges
Feuillete de Truffes Bel Humeur

Fromages
Tarte Fine Sablee au Poire

Scallop dishes at L’Ambroisie seem to share the following characteristics: first, the quality of the scallops is impeccable and the scallops are served barely heated and retain all their sweetness and textural integrity when they are so fresh and come from certain places, such at the Brittany or the Galician coast. Second, Pacaud never over complicates the dish, and there are invariably three ingredients which interact in mutually supportive ways. Third, one of these three ingredients is a truffle: the white Alba variety in November and the black Périgord truffle in winter. Last November, in fact, Pacaud had served us a visually stunning and perfect dish of scallops with Alba truffles and a mousseline of broccoli. This time, with Périgord truffles, which are less ethereal and pungent, but more smoky and minerally than Alba truffles, he substituted veloute of Jerusalem Artichokes for the more delicate broccoli. The results were equally stunning in the sense that the subtle earthy tones of the Jerusalem artichokes and the earthy/cruchy perfect truffles accentuated the sweet nuances of the central element of the dish without compromising its unique shellfish qualities. This was a dish which is as light and ethereal as a first course can or should be, yet focused and intense at the same time.

The king of the sea, the Atlantic turbot, is a risky dish to serve in a restaurant because, unlike some other great fish, such as Dover Sol, it does not keep well, say for a week, and it has to be consumed in a two or four day period after the catch to taste as good as it can. Recently, given the current popularity of this fish, there is ample farming and the 10+ pounds Atlantic turbots and the superb Black Sea turbots with buttons, are getting rarer and prohibitively expensive. In the Black Sea region and in Turkey the turbot season is also rather short: March to June, and it tastes the best when it is caught in the cold waters of the Bosphorous in the second half of March. The connoisseurs usually suck the bone of the turbot, which contains the gelatinous fat, and the meat close to the bone tastes the best. Pacaud, when serving turbot, cuts a very thick piece from the bone, and on the day of my visit we were told that they had just received a turbot of 9 kilogram, i.e. about 20 pounds. The meaty turbot can also absorb well some meat jus and Pacaud sometimes serves it with a meat stock and aged balsamic vinegar jus and caramelized endives. He also crusts the turbot with mustard and some oriental spices, which contrasts well with the meaty turbot. But in early Spring he chose to create a lighter dish, serving it with two huge, very first of the season, green asparagus from Pertuis. The thickened olive oil based emulsion and the “tapenade” of chopped black truffles served on the side interacted with the turbot in symbiotic ways and compared to other great turbot dishes I have tried in great restaurants (one at the Italian Le Calandre is still anchored in my memory), this one certainly ranks at the very top.

Perhaps most significantly, Pacaud opted for a relatively “light” turbot dish with incomparable quality asparagus in order to enable us to fully appreciate our main course, which is, one of the most decadent and delicious dishes that I know. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that time stands still and one can believe that Haute Cuisine is well and alive when the feuillete de truffe is served at L’Ambroisie. Cooked to order and encased in a buttery home made pastry, sits a whole truffle of about 200 grams (for two people) cut in two and, in the middle, a very flavorful thick piece of duck foie gras. The foie gras does not dominate the dish, but this dish is perhaps the ultimate expression of the incomparably smoky and minerally taste of black Périgord truffles supplied by Monssieur Pebeyre to the restaurant. When you cut the pastry in two, an intoxicating aroma fills the room and all heads turn towards your table in the small room, and Monsieur Pascal who serves the dish is rightly proud and equally concerned that if we worship the aroma far too long we may do a disservice to this exquisite creation of nature. Alas, all good things end…but memories linger at least.

It is hard to keep the momentum alive after the last dish (or any main course at L’Ambroisie if you listen to advice and give free rein to the Chef to concoct a meal for you to experience the crescendo effect), so having the cheese course before the dessert is highly recommended. The restaurant buys cheese from Alleosse, and I was more than content that day with an exceptional, fully ripe St. Marcellin, a three years aged Swiss Fribourg which is on par with a Comte from the great Bernard Anthony and an artisanal Roquefort to finish.

Pascal also intelligently chose for us a fruit dessert to finish, and the long poached and sliced pears served with the sable tarte (like a millefeuille) filled with pear sorbet was the ideal taste cleanser and a very good dessert in its own terms. Pacaud also prepares a great sable au chocolat and if you do not order cheese, I recommend you try it to see how a chocolate based dessert can be made so intense and light at the same time.

It is hard for me to be unbiased about the quality of service at L’Ambroisie as I have interacted for some time with both Monsieur Lemoullac and Monsieur Pascal and they have become friends. But what strikes me most after so many visits is how gracious the whole experience of dining there is, and how smoothly things flow there. I always grin at people and establishments who take themselves too seriously and who mistake lack of fun and good humour for professionalism. Good humour and wit, on the other hand, exhibit an underlying intelligence and good will. I found these qualities to be quite pronounced at L’Ambroisie compared to the other Michelin three stars in France, and the absence of turnover among the staff may indicate that there exists an esprit de corps among the employees of this institution.

Finally, I would like to add a word on the wine list. I trust Monsieur Lemoullac to choose best matches within a price range as I found his palette to be in synch with mine. For instance, during the last visit I have summarized here, he chose a 1995 Leroy Auxey Duresse “Les Boutonniers” and a 1993 Trapet Gevrey Chambertin. The former was silky, smooth and clean with some agrumes notes and a touch sweet/spicy (my notes indicate anise and nutmeg) finish. It was an excellent match for the first two courses. The Gevrey was truthful to its terroir and also displayed the red fruit characteristics of this vintage which I like very much. The week before, again finishing with the feuillete of truffle dish, Monsieur Lemoullac has suggested a 1996 Pomerol, Petit Village. This wine had tremendous balance and good depth, and an intriguing mineral backbone which was even a more perfect match with Périgord truffles. At any rate wine pricing at L’Ambroisie is always fair, and I still recall how Pierre Lemoullac had liked the 85 Sassicaia and offered it on the list for about $100 before this wine became “Parkerized”, and its price went through the roof in wine auctions and all the remaining bottles were depleted. It is also commendable that, unlike many other French sommeliers, Monsieur Lemoullac is not prejudiced against other wines (or cuisines) and this is certainly another indicator of the self-confidence that this institution exhibits.

Gastroville ranking:19.5/20

/ VM

The Gastroville Review: January 20, 2005

L’Ambroisie is one of the favourite places for many well known gourmets such as Jacques Chirac, Jean-Pierre Coffe etc and has a very high number of returning guests. Dinner reservations are difficult to obtain with short notice. There is no mystery it remains this way despite fairly high prices since the Chef, Bernard Pacaud, consistently serves top quality food made with extraordinary ingredients and often with a magic touch in the dishes that lifts them to a level of greatness rarely seen elsewhere.

Pacaud is one of the most season respecting Chefs to be found. Pacaud will never serve any produce that is not in season. There are no canned truffles, no dried morels no South African ceps e t c. This is highly admirable as the vast majority of Europe’s multi-star restaurants often use many ingredients that are not in season to impress the less knowledgeable diner. Furthermore, at L'Ambroisie one can rest assured that only superb truffles, glorious Osetra gold caviar, perfectly fresh fish and exceptional meat will be served.

At many multi-star restaurants the menu changes rarely and even when it does, changes are very subtle. At l’Ambroise changes can be quite significant indicating a change necessary whenever the supply of pristine ingredients requires such changes.

Does Pacaud have a style? It is difficult to describe the style of Pacaud. When hearing people talk about Pacaud the discussions are very focused on traditional cooking and superb seasonal ingredients. But how could his style be described? There is no doubt that Pacaud is very focused on deliciousness and of what is served. This is not a place where the clients are guinea pigs which is the case at many other restaurants. No “prototypes” are served. Presentations are very simple and understated and they do not in any way pretend to be pieces of art. Food at Pacaud is to be savoured and tasted for their tastes and extraordinary ingredients and exceptional taste marriages and taste calibration. It is a place where you eat. Someone who once asked Gagnaire what food he likes to eat himself got the response that “I like Pacaud’s food, you know he with L'Ambroisie. But he does not like mine.”

But to go a step deeper in his approach, it strikes me that the dishes span different conceptual philosophies, a very large sphere of tastes and great variety of used ingredients. There is a multitude in the cooking which is rather unique. At other top restaurants it is possible to find a pretty clear philosophy, which comes back in most dishes. This is for example the case at L'Arpège and in a sense even at Gagnaire and absolutely with Ducasse’s food. It is also true for el Bulli although the philosophy there makes little sense to me. But at Pacaud there are on the one hand dishes that are extremely traditional and give a feeling of being perfect and modernized versions of an original from the fifties or sixties, such as his fabulous chicken dish. On the other hand, there are also dishes that feel very modern and creative even today, when some Chefs, less interested in the resulting dish, choose the imperfect to try to move cooking forward. I know that Pacaud has said that he does not yet have a style of his own. It may be taken as a very modest comment from the maybe most modest and laid back Chef on the top level, but at the same time it does give an explanation of why the seemingly so very different dishes are served at this place. It may also explain why it happens, although quite rare, that dishes, although exceptionally well executed, just feel like less well made assembling of perfect ingredients. Sometimes one can get the feeling that Pacaud creates his dishes from a, perhaps somewhat limited, list of currently available ingredients such as asparagus, morels, chicken, lamb, tomatoes and “new” dishes are really just a different assembly of the listed ingredients plus a sauce variation. I would be surprised to see Pacaud go outside this list and his normally used techniques to find inspiration. This is perhaps the only real criticism that can be leveled against Pacaud.

The most recent meal here was in January 2005. L’Ambroisie had just started to serve the season’s truffles. Truffles have matured late this year but the truffles at L'Ambroisie were the first together with some I had earlier in the week that started to show that deep very pungent, complex and smoky taste of truffles that I adore. They still have some time to go before they are truly exceptional. The day before I ate at L'Ambroisie I dined at Gagnaire and the truffles were even a week or two behind in maturity. At L'Ambroisie the truffles had a very dark grey colour close to black, whereas at Gagnaire they were just dark grey. Gagnaire had also just started to serve truffles on the menu because they were later than usual. When he came out to talk he conceded that they had just started to get really good and in another week or two they should be exceptional. He thought the harvest would be quite large and of very good quality this season and that the season would last long.

Let us go back to L'Ambroisie. As “snacks” we got a slice from a small baguette with finely shaved truffles and radish. An extraordinary amuse followed. It was a carpaccio of scallops that were perfectly cut, not too thick and not to thin so the texture and taste of the super fresh scallops were present. The scallops were perfectly seasoned with sea salt, oil, some barely traceable lemon juice and very tasty small sprigs of different herbs.

First course was poached oysters with watercress purée or cream and gold caviar. It was a new dish for me. I have seen it before but had not tried it. The oysters were just warm but had not lost their raw texture. The watercress purée was extremely powerful in taste. The three tastes were astonishingly calibrated and lifted the dish close to perfection.

After followed the Bresse chicken. It is now stuffed with truffles and served with truffles in various ways. The chicken was as good as usual. I rated the dish a tad lower than usual (usually a perfect dish) because the sauces with the chicken did not have the truffle taste of fresh truffles as it should. Perhaps a very tiny issue but if one has to find something that could be improved then that is it. The chicken was served with finely cut and perfectly cooked oignon blanc enhanced by finely diced truffles and braised salsify. The onion had a superb taste of onion but without any hint of the force or sharpness onions.

The meal ended with the tarte sableé au chocolat, glace à la vanille. The chocolate tart was as good a usual. From a technique point of view it is an exceptionally impressive creation. It is very light but provides a powerful if not rich chocolate taste. I was less impressed with the vanilla taste of the ice cream this time. It was a notch less perfumed than it usually is.

Should you go? Yes I think any serious gourmet need to try this place at least once. Service is very good, the wine list does contain a number of reasonably priced wines, and the dining rooms, and especially the one in the middle is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the world.

This is not the place to go for those who feel that the way we dine and what we eat at restaurants need to be challenged and changed. Well actually maybe it is the place to go to for all those since L'Ambroisie provides good evidence that there is no urgent need to change the way we eat or what we eat, but instead that there is a need for the vast majority of Chefs to focus more on what ingredients they serve and what they do with them. Once they have sorted that out they can try to reinvent food.

Gastroville rating of L'Ambroisie: 19/20

/ MJ

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