As many of you know now, I was given the honor of being named Master Chef of France in late 2011. The induction ceremony took place in France on March 24, 2012. This event coincided perfectly with my Mom’s birthday and since I wanted to take my sous-Chef, Manuel, to France for some culinary inspiration, I booked my trip right away. This is the account of my week-long trip to France, adventure by culinary adventure. To start from the beginning, click here. Enjoy!
Well, after an exceptional lunch at Apicius and some afternoon shopping at the chic Galerie Lafayette, I was excited to get to our dinner at the restaurant of Chef Jean-François Piège. Getting a reservation was not easy: you had to call exactly 2 weeks before the date you wanted to book. So I called, at 9 am (so 2 am Texas time!) as instructed on March 15 for a reservation on the 29th. I had recently seen some creations by the chef in my Thuries magazine. There seemed to be a lot of buzz around his new place that is upstairs from his more casual brasserie and that was designed by the famous India Mahdavi. It is set in what looks like someone’s apartment.
Maybe my expectations were too high – I was in fact expecting perfection – because I was a bit disappointed with our meal. Chef Piège comes from the ranks of Ducasse so I know he is talented. He is in fact one of his most famous chefs as he is known for his collaboration with Ducasse on writing several important culinary bibles: Le Grande Livre de Cuisine, Bistro, Brasseries et Restaurants de Tradition, Desserts and Pastries and others.
However like many restaurant patrons, my experience started when we walked up the stairs to the second floor dining room. The hostess seemed a little cold and it did not quite set a relaxed mood for us.
Then we were seated in what seemed like a very intimate table. I might have enjoyed it more if I was on a date but dining with my sous-chef Manuel in this low-lit (you will see later that it was not good for taking pictures), romantic setting just did not do it for me!! All joking aside, the seating felt a little strange. I think that the well-educated Houston diners would agree and come to the same conclusion as me: the tables were too spread out and isolated in this small place making it hard to get the overall feel of the restaurant.
I wish the chef had been there, maybe I would have understood things better with his explanation. He had a good excuse because he was judging the French Top Chef competition. In fact, I later saw him in action on TV and he was amazing. He was very articulate in giving precise feedback to each participant. He was able to verbally express his vision and philosophy about food which was really amazing to watch.
While the ambiance impacted our overall experience, the flavors* of our dishes were rather exceptional. To start, Manuel had the lobster Thai style with fresh coconut and cilantro. The broth had a pure clean savory flavor of lobster and was sweet at the same time but the flavors blended well, neither one was too overpowering. I had the bass with baby vegetables with carrots, fresh herbs, carrot dust and watercress pesto underneath.
Following our appetizers, we had the choice of one meat that would be interpreted 2 ways by the chef. Manuel’s first dish was a homemade spicy sausage with cumin harissa broth and couscous made of broccoli, cauliflower, mint and parsley. I was amazed that there was no grain at all in the dish but had the same texture and taste of couscous. My first dish was chicken ravioli in a light broth.
Manuel’s second dish was a lamb loin sous-vide with celery sous-vide and a ragout of carrots and beans. It was a little spicy; it must have been made with espelette. My second dish was chicken sous-vide and crayfish. It was a revisited classic of “poulet ecrivisse”. It also had a crayfish sauce and a seaweed tuile.
Sous-vide is a slow cooking technique at a low temperature. It allows the meat or fish to cook evenly and stay juicier. It also keeps the original color of ingredients but this can give the impression that the meat is not cooked and so people might not like this aspect.
The desserts were the highlight. They were very well executed. There were actually 3 small desserts: a macaroon type meringue filled with a creamy berry Chantilly (it had a creamy yogurt texture), a sorell granita (kind of like an herbed icy sorbet) and a very light blanc manger (you can try our version from our Pastry Chef Jami Kling at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge).
Since we did not finish up that late we decided to try out a bar that I had been to a few years ago, the Kube. That is where I had seen the bags for keeping wine bottles cool back in 2010 and where I had some amazing cocktails. Unfortunately it was completely dead because it was already after midnight! We had a quick drink but did not stay long because that night we planned to stay up all night. No, we were not planning on going to a discotheque…we had plans to go to the huge professional market in Rungis.
After our drink, we caught a taxi that took us to Rungis. We got there at 1:30 am only to find the doors locked! Check back next week to find out what we did…
French lesson of the day (I am always making sure this does not happen to me!): Rouler quelqu’un dans la farine.
Translation (figurative): To pull the wool over someone’s eyes.
* I apologize, I could not take any notes and my account is from what I remember. Therefore I might not be 100% accurate in detailing the ingredients of each dish.