It is generally accepted that France is responsible for some of the best food in the world, so where better to start a culinary excursion than in Paris – home to some of the globe’s most highly regarded restaurants?
First opened in 1898, the iconic Ritz hotel re-opened its revolving doors this summer after a lengthy multi-million-dollar refurbishment in attempt to drag the hotel kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And what with it being so easy to visit Paris for the day with Eurostar’s speedy new trains, a trip across the channel to sample the food at L’Espadon (the hotel’s restaurant) seems impossible to resist. Arriving at St Pancras at the crack of dawn on a cold November morning; we caught an early train, tactically forfeited the included Continental breakfast, and found ourselves at the Gare du Nord with plenty of time to venture across the city in time for lunch. Though the many accolades of Mr Ritz are impossible to escape (the word “ritzy” is derived from the Hotelier’s namesake), Auguste Escoffier’s contribution to The Ritz, and to French cuisine as it is known today is often criminally overlooked outside of foodie circles.
César Ritz met Auguste Escoffier while looking for a chef to man the kitchens at Lucerne’s Grand Hotel National in 1886, then together the pair would go on to create a model of a luxury hotel where comfort, gastronomy and service were keen priorities. Furthermore, with so many members of high society choosing to entertain friends in restaurants rather than at their homes, the restaurant at The Ritz (under a different name at the time) became an epicurean meeting place, and it wasn’t long before Escoffier had become the most famous chef of his time, and notoriously the first chef to teach and index French cooking.
After passing through the main dining room with its lavish décor that could be mistaken for the dining quarters at the Palace of Versailles, it’s the use of light in the conservatory dining space of Les Jardins de L’Espadon that’s most striking. With heavily starched linen, substantial French Regency chairs and a palette of cool blues – this is the sort of luxurious dining room where one could almost expect to find the gelatinous bulk of Mr. Creosote, sat at the next table just one wafer-thin mint away from explosion.
With the lunch service, alongside the food from Chef Nicolas Sale that’s met with high expectations, the service is genuinely phenomenal. This type of knowledge and attentiveness is the exact sort of thing that the Michelin guide awards two stars – not to mention the fact that the plates all hit the tablecloth at the same time. Yet instead of an air of stuffiness (a tired Parisian stereotype) each of the floor’s waiters are easy going and friendly enough to instil a real air of comfort.
As for the food, we begin with canapés including an apple-green sphere of yoghurt with cucumber and a cylindrical wafer piped with sweet creamed corn, topped with crumbled shards of popcorn. This is washed down with a glass of Amour Deutz 2006 Champagne, somewhat excessively expensive at €60 per glass, even for five-star hotel standards. Next, a starter of langoustine cannelloni is chosen from the ‘Chef’s Signature’ section of the menu, offering three perfectly formed tunnels of spaghetti. These encase plump prawns that are presented with the sort of artistic finesse found around the corner at The Louvre, joined by a Meursault sauce that is as decadent as is humanly possible to create.
On the other side of the table, my companion’s beetroot starter is easily the least outrageous dish on the menu, arriving on a plate that’s painted with an emulsion of reduced beetroot. This works as a canvas for even more beetroot: some is smoked and some is completely raw, while a golden beetroot crisp adds further depth of texture to the dish. The decadence that is remiss from the vegetable starter, however, is delivered in spades with the main course of roasted duckling. Although difficult to find on the plate, the rich taste of foie gras is omnipresent with the duck breast that’s served expectedly pink, though still slightly over-cooked for my personal taste. The porcini mushrooms, nonetheless, are perfect with an earthiness that complements an addition of fig, a smear of squash puree and Iberico ham that adds an extra flourish of profligacy.
In stark contrast, a humble main of beef cheek is slow-cooked for what seems like an eternity, falling apart on the tongue without the need for any teeth, set aside miniature vegetables that surround the meat like points of a sundial. It’s the red wine sauce that’s poured with the zealousness of Victor Frankenstein adding the final touches to his famous monster, however, that really brings the flavours together. With so much depth, and such intense richness the red wine is a natural enhancer to this cut of offal, making the traditional decadence of French restaurant cooking completely impossible to overlook. To finish, a dessert of yuzu lemon is prettily presented with clouds of soft meringue atop a bed of rice pudding. On my side of the table, wild blackberries from Burgundy deliver an intense sharpness heightened by a blackberry mousse that shares the bowl with a slightly bitter celery sorbet and corrugated slivers of puff pastry.
Although L’Espadon is still yet to join us in the 21st century, the opulent dining room is stunning, the service is seamless, and the food – although not particularly ground breaking – is a fitting tribute to the reigning Father of French fine dining. For any fine-food aficionado visiting one of the restaurant cities of the world, the gastronomic experience at L’Espadon is essential. Well, what else would you expect from such an institution?
Photography: Vincent Leroux