Walking into the modern, Asian-influenced lobby in the Mandarin Oriental, Paris, you might forget that you are in one of Paris’ most historic districts, on the Rue St Honoré, surrounded by chic boutiques and neoclassical French architecture. If you continue past the smiling concierge and the solid marble bar in Bar 8, through a heavy, square glass door and into the fine dining restaurant, Sur Mesure by Thierry Marx, you might even forget that you are on planet Earth. On arrival, Charlotte and I found the Jouin-Manku-designed décor was the first thing to surprise us. The white walls with their peeling effect have a futuristic feel – like being on an executive spaceship – and, being unadorned, they allow diners to give their full attention to the food. We marvelled at the shape of the glasses, the cylindrical pyramid water bottles in frosted black glass and the pleasingly weighty, squat cutlery – all of which is part of the unusual intricacy of design that matches the intricacy of the food served.
There is only a set menu option, with six or nine courses for dinner and weekend lunches; ours was, however, a midweek lunch and we were offered the full nine courses or a five course lighter option. It was a difficult choice and one we pondered over while enjoying a glass of Duval Leroy Rosé Champagne, before finally deciding to resist our gluttonous tendencies and opt for the five courses. The restaurant lived up to its name in custom-making a menu that brought in some of the dishes from the larger menu to accommodate Charlotte’s allergies. This was rather fortuitous (for me), since it allowed us (well, me) to taste a little of the majority of dishes. Thierry Marx is known for a very modern style of cooking that experiments with flavours and textures to create an experience that is truly unexpected. The menu is no real help in divining how the dish will look or taste once it arrives.
Charlotte and I both began our meal with the structured and destructured sweet potato, which came in a stack of three separate glass bowls that each contained a single bite of culinary art. The first (there was a correct order, of course) was sweet potato served with nicely tangy mango chilli chutney. The second was a sweet potato square with tonka jelly – and a hint of Christmas about it. The final piece, vaguely reminiscent of a fried egg yolk, was a raviolo with yuzu, Marx’s Asian influences clearly apparent. For the next course, Charlotte was served a Mont D’Or soufflé with black truffle, which she loved. This dish was light yet robustly cheesy – which was good, considering the strength of cumulative flavour from dangerously pointed truffle tuiles, foam, reduction and sliced truffle. I had the pressed foie gras with smoked eel, named ‘Earth and Estuary’. This was a beautiful plate, with stripes of onion sauce and port reduction alongside the thicker line of foie gras. Most memorably, the sweet fruity port and smoky eel were a very interesting combination.
Our next courses were both variations on risotto. My ‘risotto under pressure’ came with black truffle shavings and that earthy, sweet aroma permeated the whole dish. The ‘risotto’ was a thick cream, served in a cylindrical tuile that gave a welcome crunchy texture. Charlotte’s risotto was similarly unexpected. It was served with a tiny amount of truffle oil on a spoon and the oysters made the dish pleasantly salty – but the surprise was that the ‘rice’ was actually finely chopped beansprouts. With these initial dishes we enjoyed a Jasnières Domaine de Bellivéres 2009, which had a little fizziness to it and slightly sweet hints of apples and pears. For the main course, I wanted to switch to red and the sommelier was able to choose a Morey St Denis 2010 from Burgundy. It was still an adventurous choice with my turbot but the sharp wine complemented the sweetness of the blackberry and beetroot accompaniments and enhanced the fish itself, further testament to the precision that goes into every choice at this restaurant. The squid ink cracker, salty and crisp, was also delicious! Charlotte was impressed with her chargrilled steak with eggplant gnocchi and crushed chickpeas. The meat was simply seasoned and succulent and the eggplant gnocchi filled the mouth with flavour. The dish was complemented by the lingering velvet of a spicy wine, a VDP de l’Hérault Mas Laval 2010 from Languedoc. We finally arrived at the dessert, a menu item which had been the subject of much speculation prior to our lunch.
The ‘sweet bento’ is a varying selection of sweets presented in three dishes that echo the sweet potato stack of the first course with an extra on the side. Again, there were a number of tiny bites, as one would expect from this homage to Japanese presentation, too many to describe in detail. Our favourites in this course included a mini pastry flavoured with Buddha’s hand – an Asian citrus fruit – and a mini Mont Blanc with chestnut cream. Some of the textures and flavours in Thierry Marx’s menu need to be experienced to be believed. The whole restaurant experience is (quite rightly) concentrated into that moment when a dish appears in front of you; the sensory and emotional experience of dining. There are several dishes that took me completely by surprise and some that it was impossible to clearly imagine beforehand, which makes the tasting-style menu very appropriate – if you were ordering à la carte, you might still be unsure about what was being cooked! But, in my opinion, this is part of the fun and I don’t want to give away all the secrets. In fact, I won’t even describe the inside of the bathroom to you, although it’s well worth a look. Two words: Koi carp. It won’t be what you’re imagining, but in an immaculate spaceship that serves exquisite risotto without rice, you should expect the unexpected.