Dinner at Ducasse. After Gagnaire and L'Arpege I was really hesitant about dinner at the Plaza. I knew what the food was like going out of the kitchen – but I had no idea what the experience would be like in the dining room. Would my home team come through?
I already knew that Grace would order the Menu Collection – the seasonal langoustine, crustacean, and truffle menu – and I would order the Menu Plaisirs de Table – the amuse bouche of the day, three half portions from the carte section of the menu – we'd both get cheese and a dessert selection.
We got there and the first person we saw – and that any diner will see – is the hostess extraordinaire – my friend who had the locker behind mine. We caught up a bit while our coats were taken and Karli was installed.
Dogs – tragically – are not allowed in the dining room at the Plaza. They are allowed everywhere else in the hotel – but not the gastronomic restaurant. They’re even allowed in the Relais – the brasserie in hotel – where sometimes it looks like the Westminster dog show – but not in the Restaurant.
But Karli had a private, comfortable, thickly carpeted corner – and my friend to dote on her – she was OK.
Dining room. I'd seen the dining room once before – on my orientation tour when I started my stage way back last August – but it had not even been set for service – kind of forlorn. But tonight it was dressed and lit – and first impression – I'm in love.
When I'd confirmed the reservation I'd asked for a room away from the windows – it was too cold at Gagnaire – and away from the kitchen – as we'd been seated at L'Arpege. I'd asked for a table to the left of the entrance, near the entrance to the restaurant – and away from the entrance to the kitchen. And we got exactly what we'd asked for. Now this is acknowledging that there really is no best table in the house – personal tastes vary way too much – but I was very happy with the table. Plus I could go out to check on Karli easily – without having to walk the length of the room.
We asked if we could visit the kitchen before service. At the hesitation I said that actually the chef was expecting us. Quick check and we were brought back. Weird going in through the dining room doors. Whereas at Robuchon I had full run of the house minutes after I'd arrived – at ADPA we did not go through the dining room doors – ever.
We were I think only the second table seated – arrived a little after service started at 20:00 – but the kitchen was already rocking. I thought I'd have a chance to say hi to the guys but they were already coming up to nervously check the order tickets on the board. I'll explain service another time – otherwise we'll never get to the food. So I just had time to say a quick hello to the chef – M. Moret – and the sous-chef – Cedric – and give kiss-kisses. Grace asked the chef what he'd recommend. He asked if we like everything. Yeah sure – then said that I should order since I knew the menu.
Back out the sommelier asked if we'd like wine. Again, thinking of our budget and capacity, we declined.
Denis – the dining room director – came over to take our order. I started to order – one Menu Collection, one Menu Plaisirs du Table – but then he said that he'd discussed with "Christophe" – that's Chef to me and you pal – and that he'd make us a surprise tasting menu. Uh OK.
Dinner menus gone – replaced by our dessert menus. The menus are vellum in metal frames, held in a small, slotted metal block – the dinner menu tall and rectangular, the dessert menu shorter, square. I ordered the fraises des bois for Grace – she is not into sweets but loves berries, and these are very good, from a supplier in Spain. For me the chocolate mint coupe with a green tea tarte.
But back to dinner. Bread – first we were served the bread. This is the maddening thing about Ducasse. You have no idea what went into what's served to you – do you? I mean as a diner now – I would have no idea what kind of torture went into getting these perfect little rolls – that if the slashes were too high or too low, if the ends were not thin enough, or equally rolled out – that they'd go into the reject pile. Not thrown away – but set aside for personnel. That's just the frickin' bread. But I really tried to just think like a diner.
And the butter. That the butter – one sweet, one salted – is molded perfectly – no holes on the side, smooth, even – and that's just the frickin' butter.
Another sommelier comes over and pours us glasses of white wine. We start to protest – but he says that we can just have tastes – so I'm thinking – ok we're going to go over budget – but ok – we'll cut out one of the other lunches or something.
The amuse-bouche – the langoustine caviar – for both of us. Uh oh. So we're both getting the Menu Collection – that's 300 euros a pop. OK we're going to be way over budget.
Grace asks me "Is this the crazy caviar dish?" Yeah – this is it. This is the dish that we'd always do after our lunch or dinner – forming perfect bars of caviar over perfectly trimmed rectangles of langoustines. Should I just say that perfect as an adjective should be implied chez Ducasse? I'm guessing that it was Laurent – Lolo – who done these. He and I usually worked shoulder to shoulder – once doing 30 for an ADF lunch – Alain Ducasse Formation – the Alain Ducasse cooking school lunch that follows a morning of class. Grace almost jumped back when she put her sauce spoon to her plate. "Oh my god – that's sauce? I thought that was a slice of something!" Nope – it's a perfectly – I know – perfectly applied rectangle of sauce – edges wiped immaculately clean. Grace delicately sliced into hers. I popped one whole caviar-crusted langoustine in my mouth – then the other. The langoustines are so fresh – almost sweet and crispy – the caviar salty, firm, and bursting – it's oscetra royal. In the creamy nage, I tasted a little more mushroom than before – different but still good of course.
The next dish was announced as scallops with leeks and black truffles – but where were the scallops? The shallow soup bowls, I was all too familiar with – those we held in the warmer under the pass – inconveniently in the way of the chef's legs – try grabbing out a hot stack of eight of those – balanced on your heels – with the chef rushing your way. The dish was filled with a tiny thundercloud of black truffles. Black truffle shortage? Not that you could tell looking in our plates. There was easily a ping-pong ball sized puff on each scallop. You could barely see the big fat scallop hidden underneath. For all the talk about how this year's black truffles were of an inferior quality – not here pal. With this much black truffle – and make that this much great musky, earthy black truffle – that was not even a consideration. The thick cloud of finely julienned black truffles were barely warmed through by the heat from the scallops – again disproving the claim that all black truffles need to be cooked – so biting into them you still had the texture and the flavour. Again I took huge mouthfuls. And whoever was doing the scallops got it right – of course – just seared on the outside, finished in the oven, and still almost raw at the very center. But the most amazing part of the dish – the leeks. Just garnish on the side – but wait – there's more. There was something black visible under the first translucent layer. I peeled it back – truffle – there was a slice of black truffle between each layer of leek. Oh my god – oh my god – oh my god. I said a silent prayer to my brethren who'd suffered so I could enjoy this offering.
I took a break to take Karli out – more for me than her – then back in for the next round.
Next course – lobster – lobster from Brittany – whose shells are mesmerisingly deep blue before cooking. The same kind of lobsters that they gave us for Christmas. This was another new dish for me – all the black truffles dishes are new. A half lobster tail with a huge, firm claw – garnished with a big, crisp round of potato – that had a slice of black truffle sandwiched within – and with a heady black truffle sauce. I ate the tail but gave the claw to Grace – I knew my limits.
Glasses of red were poured which meant the meat course was coming – the Pigeonneau – baby pigeon stuffed with foie gras, served with a crescent of cabbage stuffed with another foie gras mixture. Tender, rich, wild, but refined.
I took another mini walk with Karli.
Back in for the cheese. The cheese cart was brought over. They had a perfectly ripe Vacherin Mont d'Or. And more importantly – they had the olive rolls. They were my favourite when I did boulangerie. A mixture of brioche and puff pastry dough, they basically look like cinnamon rolls but savoury – spread with an artisanal olive tapenade – and brushed generously with a fragrant olive oil shortly out of the oven. I asked for two small cheese plates with Vacherin – with one leaning more towards their 2000 vintage Comte for grace. The Vacherin I could not help but having how we had on New Year's Eve in the kitchen – a big spoonful slathered directly onto an olive roll and devoured in big bites.
Then came the sweets – with a small glass of dessert wine – somewhere between amber and ocher yet still translucent. First the double tiers of macarons – chocolate and coffee that night – sometimes it's beautifully creamy vanilla. And a little silver basket of apple beignets sticks – that was one of my first jobs in gastro pastry – brunoising the apples and chopping the sultanas for the beignets. They were dusted with powdered sugar and shavings of lime – Microplaned of course. In a little pot comes an exotic fruit compote – served with tiny sugar tartelettes. The macarons, beignets, and tartelettes we'd sometimes grab on our way out of the kitchen at the end of service – but no compote.
And then came the desserts. Grace's fraises des bois/wild strawberry tart is thin rectangle – with each berry place point up – perfectly aligned – on with a lit birthday candle on top – I'd forgotten. Three biscuit layers – with a layer of fromage blanc sorbet on the bottom. Mine – served in a martini coupe – I can see a clear gelee on the bottom – with the small round, more chocolate-looking than green tea tarte on the side. I sink the spoon into the coupe – chocolate emulsion on top – and hit something firm – a quenelle of green ice cream – and dig down to get some gelee. I put the spoon in my mouth – and then just drop the spoon on the table – arms fall limp, body slumps aside. Warm chocolate emulsion, green tea sorbet, mint gelee, and crispy chocolate bits – think rich, dark chocolate Rice Krispies – it's dark and light, night and day, overall so incredibly refreshing I almost can't think. I can taste the herb of mint so clearly – rather than the taste we've accepted as minty – the greenness of the mint – but tempered with the warmth of the chocolate. I took a bite of the tarte and then another spoonful from the coupe – as I get closer to the mint gelee it makes even more sense – the contrast of the stark gelee with the dark chocolate crusted tart just stunning.
And then – then – copies of the menu of the dinner we've had tonight are casually placed on the table – personalized menus. With the exact wines we've had. The exact – different – dessert choices we've had. My body slumps back in my chair again. The food, the wine, the experience – and I know I haven't gone into the room and service – but need I really say that it was perfect and beautiful? No fumbling with notes – copying off wine labels and menus – we have personalized menus. That is fucking cool.
We have got to get out of there – before we pass out – so we ask for a candy cart selection to go. Yes, it's done chez Ducasse – and with style – with stylish, matching house grey and red and silver boxes. We get chocolates and bonbons and the rest of our pre-desserts packed to go.
On our way out – while Karli excitedly races around us off-leash – we're handed our house standard matching shopping bags – already filled with copies of the complete menu and a loaf of house bread each – tucked into another stylish protective bag – along with a copy of the same book we'd been presented at L'Arpege – not to mention with a second international gastronomic restaurant guidebook. I ask for business cards and we're each handed two.
When I get home I take a look at the big menu – they had also included a copy with prices – as I'd requested when I confirmed the reservation. I'd completely forgotten that too. At ADPA they had remembered every perfect detail.