One can’t really eat history, but one can feel it and soak it up. Paul Bocuse is the living embodiment of French cuisine of the latter half of the twentieth century. There are no more than a handful of chefs living or dead who have had as great or greater impact on haute cuisine over that time period. Just being in his presence and in his temple of gastronomy made the evening special and worthwhile, especially as I got to share the experience with a number of other very interesting people. If only the dinner itself was as exciting as simply being there was.
We were a group of 30 people there for a dinner in honor of and as a benefit for the U.S. Bocuse D’Or team. Amongst others, the diners included Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Timothy Hollingsworth, Daniel Humm, Alain Sailhac, Gavin Kaysen and others. The first disappointment came when the group was split into two with the larger section consisting of the above notables moved into a private room. The smaller group including moi and a number of other interesting folk were shown to a table in the main dining room. Though I only knew one of my dining companions prior to that evening, the company proved to be excellent.
We had a set menu with wine pairings. We received an amuse, a gougere and a cup of reconstituted salt cod. The gougere was good, though not superior to others that I have had elsewhere. The cod, too failed to excite my taste buds. Our first wine was a bit of champagne, Alain Thienot Grande Cuvee 1999. This paired with the amuse as well as the first course, Soupe aux Truffes Noires V.G.E (plat créé pour L’Elysee en 1975. Quite hot and impressive visually, the soup arrived in a special bowl with the course description inscribed directly on it. Topped with puff pastry, the soup was basically a glorified pot pie. Though describe as a black truffle soup, I did not detect much truffle flavor despite the presence of truffles within. The soup was nice, it was rich, but nothing more.
I was beginning to question the foundation of Bocuse’s reputation, but then the next course arrived and it was spectacular. This was the classic Rouget Barbet en Écailles de Pommes de Terre Croustillantes. The potato scales covering the red mullet were simply perfect. They were crisp and delicious. The mullet was moist and provided an outstanding foil not only for the crisp scales, but the rich sauce as well. This was clever, well conceived and well executed, the dish of the evening. This was paired with a 2007 Condrieu from André Perret.
Granité des Vignerons de Beaujolais was served as a palate cleanser after the fish. The wine granita was nice, albeit somewhat pedestrian.
If this food was one thing, it was rich. I was already being to be full when the meat course arrived, the legendary Liévre a la Royale, Sauce Poivrade. This intricate dish is one over which many have waxed eloquently over on the eGullet Society Forums. The preparation was the classic as put forth by Sénateur Couteaux taking a large (about 6 pound) male red-furred hare (related to but different from a rabbit), goose fat , pork fat, carrots, onions, garlic, shallots, bouquet garni, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, aged Chambertin wine and the hare’s blood. Though I have come to understand that lievre a la royale contains foie gras and truffles, there was no mention of either in the recipe that the restaurant provided. The serving of the dish was a classic spectacle as the lievre was brought to the table in the copper pan with the appearance of it being intact. Chef Bocuse himself came to the table at this point to greet us and make sure that we were being taken care of. The meat and forcemeat were apportioned along with the rich, blood containing sauce. The reaction from much of the table was varied, with a number not taking to the dish. I liked its gamy flavor, though was already too full to fully appreciate its majesty. Much like the how the mere attendance at this fete surpassed the actual dinner, the mere fact of getting to try this legendary dish at this restaurant was a greater pleasure than the dish itself. The hare was paired with a 2002 Nuits-Saint-George 1er Cru, Clos des Forets Saint-Georges from Domaine de l’Arlot.
Lovely cheeses both fresh and mature from the affineur “La Mere Richard” followed, but I was still too full to appreciate them.
Desserts were classic as well including a lovely Tarte Tatin with vanilla Ice Cream and Caramel Sauce as well as a Crepe a L’Orange. Unable to finish either dessert, I couldn’t even look at the Petits Fours. At the end of the meal, we all reconvened in the private dining room for conversation and frivolity. The room itself was a shrine to Bocuse’s mentor, Fernand Point, with photos of that larger than life chef dominating the decor as well as the imaginations of many of the guests.
While the food may not have set off the gustatory fireworks I might have expected, it was certainly good. The evening’s price tag was not light and were the experience just of the food and drink, I might have felt the value was lacking. However, given the overall context and experience, the reality is that the evening was priceless.