French gastronomic culture – the thing foodies’ dreams are made of – from delicate sauces to rustic bread, from stinky unpasteurized chesses to the most ornate pastries you have ever seen, with its multi course presentation and social custom the French really know how to dine! Well it seems UNESCO also think French cuisine is rather special as in 2010 experts from the UN cultural organisation said France’s multi-course gastronomic meal, with its rites and its presentation, fulfilled the conditions for featuring on the “world intangible heritage” list. The “world intangible heritage” list, which until now numbered 178 cultural practices – including the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, was drawn up under a 2003 convention, now ratified by 132 countries. It seeks to protect cultural practices in the same way as UNESCO protects sites of cultural value or great natural beauty. The UNESCO experts singled out French gastronomy as a “social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups”.
It was with this sense of celebrating the most important things in life that Rachel and I, with empty stomachs and gleeful smiles, sat down at Restaurant Le Meurice to embark on “The Gastronomic Meal of the French” by Yannick Alleno. The menu is a homage to French cuisine, using fine seasonal ingredients, locally sourced; Yannick has combined his talent with the remarkable food and wine pairing of award-winning sommelier Estelle Touzet.
Having been pre-warned by Anne, the hotels Marketing Director, that this meal was somewhat filling Rachel and I had already skipped breakfast to mentally and more importantly physically prepare for the multi – and I mean multi – course lunch!
Restaurant Le Meurice is located in the ground floor of this magnificent hotel, the dining room looks to be something straight out of the Palace of Versailles. Beyond the majestic gilded glass door, you discover ancient mirrors, chandeliers and noble materials such as bronze, marble and other frescoes. The grand windows overlook the Tuileries Gardens and, with light flooding the space, the pure white and silver decor conveys a feeling of harmony in this extraordinary room.
Rachel and I are shown to our seat in the far corner of the room by Sandrine, Restaurant Manager, we are perfectly positioned to watch our impending gluttonous doom arrive from the pass. After a glass of champagne, served by the extremely talented Estelle, our first course arrives, the aperitifs: squash leaves, squash pulp with date puree and hazelnut lokum. This delicate tasty morsel was only a hint of what was to come. Following the aperitifs came the soup course; now I am not normally one to order soup, usually soup is non-awe inspiring, only useful for a cold, but what arrived at our table was rather striking. A gleaming porcelain bowl filled with the yellowest yellow liquid I had ever seen, like a bowl of sunshine on a cold winters day this delicate consommé was any but boring, complex in flavours despite it transparent appearance, probably the best soup I have ever had!
It was now time for the starters, yes we have only just got to starters; steamed scallops and seaweed was up first. A beautifully presented plate with a vivid red sauce thanks to the hibiscus juice, the scallop tasted like it had just been lifted out of the sea, fresh, briny and moist. This was swiftly followed by the vegetable black pudding with garlic thin apple cake, a strange dish that defied expectations; it looked like black pudding, it tasted like pudding, but it wasn’t black pudding – genius! Last of the starters was the parmesan cheese pastry, craterellus mushroom coulis – a visually striking dish with round discs set lightly atop the risotto, the smell of the parmesan wafting in to the air as you broke the creamy rice with a fork. Now somewhat understanding the need for a no breakfast policy on this lunch we prepared ourselves for the main event, and my favourite dish of the meal, beef tail and Parisian mushrooms, roasted ribsteak and seasoned shallots with vinegar. The ribsteak was divine, perfectly cooked with a blacked outside and rare red meat as you cut into the steak, but the highlight of this dish for me was the beef tail, now the only way I can describe the taste was the beefiest beef I have ever had the pleasure to eat, succulent, tender and real delight to the senses.
As I have previously exclaimed time and time again, the French are masters of the dessert and, apart from maybe the Italians, none come close to the visual and taste sensations that the pastry chefs of France create – whether it be a Michelin kitchen or a local bakery you wont find better! Being that we were eating a menu that paid homage to such a distinction it was with great delight Rachel and I waited for the arrival of our first dessert course, the mignardises.
A pear bonanza, with poached pear with brandy and sesame light cream, a chocolate pear flavoured with tonka bean and the playful frozen pear lollipop, arrived at the table. Rachel and I did not know what to eat first, it was our luck though that the handsome and enigmatic head chef, Yannick Alleno, has joined our table to talk us through this dish. We started with the poached pear, soft, juicy but with a buttery caramel taste from the brandy used for poaching, then the chocolate pear with robust tonka overtones, a stark contrast to the poached pear. Then last, the lollipop, what a fun dessert, the outside of this frozen sorbet consistency lolly was popping candy, Rachel and I laughed like children as we sat there allowing the candy to pop on our tongues. Now, like any UNESCO heritage site or world intangible heritage, the best is usually saved for last. Whether it is the finale of an opera or the inner sanctum of an ancient temple, that wow factor is the final explosion on a tour of your senses, and that is just the case as the last course of this astonishing menu. The Mont Cherry – sinful, decadent, powerful, the perfect end to a perfect meal. Rachel did not even speak or sample the dessert wine during this course for chocolate had taken over!
Restaurant Le Meurice is, in conclusion, a magnificent splendour in both its presentation and décor to the ingenious food served from the kitchens. Had UNESCO had the choice to nominate an ambassador of the gastronomie française they would have undoubtedly chosen Restaurant Le Meurice. Rachel and I left there stomachs full, smiles high and feeling rather patriotic – Vive la France!
Restaurant Le Meurice
Le Meurice Hotel
228 rue de Rivoli