Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée - 3rd visit

Alain Ducasse's eponymous restaurant at the famous Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris was among the first few European fine dining places I visited when I just learned about gastronomy in 2006. I returned here 2 years later and several months ago I brought my wife for inaugural dining experience at Chef Ducasse's flagship restaurant. However, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée (ADPA) just went through a major facelift, along with the hotel's renovation that cost about EUR 200 million. It meant when I re-visited ADPA in Nov '14, it looked as if I just came to this place for the first time. The food, the decor and the kitchen teams have been changed with the exception of the restaurant director and the head sommelier. Alain Ducasse launched a new concept called "Naturality"; in short the Chef believed that we should eat healthier, more in harmony with nature and at the same time respecting the environment. To implement this, he immediately removed meat, both red meat and poultry, from the regular menu (an un-Gallic decision and looked more 'extreme' than Passard's vegetable revolution in 2000). The current menu at ADPA exclusively focuses on the La trilogie: vegetables and fruits, fish and shellfish, as well as cereal. The ingredients would be brought fresh daily to the restaurant - the vegetables will be grown at the Trianon (from Château de Versailles gardens) and taken care by Alain Baraton, the head gardener; the fish will be supplied by Gilles Jégo, a fisherman and wholesaler, from Quiberon or Lorient ports; while the cereal will be coming from all over the globe. Having dined here, I could testify that the essential French haute cuisine techniques to prepare (including cooking and seasoning) the new 'trilogy' produce remained intact. The ingredients were carefully executed with high precision skills producing various (nearly) flawless dishes.

My wife and I arrived at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée near 9 PM. We were a bit late as we unexpectedly met our good friend coming from Newcastle; he happened to be on an assignment in Paris the following day. Denis Courtiade, the charming maitre d' maison, greeted us near the restaurant's entrance. Then, we were escorted to our table in the middle. The interior design of its lavish dining room has been transformed into a less formal and lighter space. As I was walking into my seat, there were a few novel & outstanding things that caught my attention. 1st, the gargantuan chandeliers garnished with Swarovski crystal dangle from the high ceiling were still there. They were suspended closer to the dining tables and now guests would enjoy the sparkles from the small crystals throughout the evening since the restaurant does not dim the light anymore as the night passes. 2nd, there are three circular banquettes whose outer design having convex shapes and made of polished silver shells that would elegantly reflect the multicolor 'rain' captured by the crystal pendants from the chandelier. 3rd, to the left of the dining room, there was a table topped by a big structure that looks like a boat's hull enveloping a table for four. Lastly, in the back of the room, a tall cabinet stands covered with great panels that fade as the night falls. Inside, I was told that there were plenty of silver pieces and crystal wares provided by Christofle and Saint-Louis; these two were the oldest and most prominent arts and craft houses in France. I did not feel the current decor to be less luxurious than before. On the contrary, I loved this new concept designed by Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku who were bold enough to remove the traditional starched & pristine tablecloths in favor of clean and solid oak tables. The distance between tables is spacious. The attention to details is amazing. Under the wooden table, it's connected by leather material. The new chairs are very comfortable with fluffy cushions covered by high quality leather. The white folding stool for ladies' bag is cool and prior to the meal, diners would found a delicate, twisted but suspended organic shaped ring (similar to a Möbius strip) sit at the dining table. There are simply too many unique and special table wares to mention here. In short, the new dining room is awesome!
As soon as we sat, the parade of food began. Instead of the standard and predictable champagne as aperitif, we drank refreshing and healthy juices (a mixture of carrot, apple, celery and a touch of ginger) in glass tumblers accompanied by dense cereal toast. After that, we're given mullet fish in 'sashimi' style with bottarga. Then, come a ceramic bowl containing sorrel, salsify and chestnut; at the same time, there was a rice bread (supposedly gluten free) with salted butter supplied by Frederic Leroux from Cauville-sur-Mer. A decent beginning. After having a short conversation with Monsieur Courtiade, he proposed to create special menu for us that will combine masculine (M) and feminine (F) elements for me and my wife respectively and we gladly accepted the offer. I've been here twice, so I was very confident that we would be well taken care of. The amuse-bouche did not finish yet.The kitchen brought us grilled Sardines (including its crispy deep fried bones) in olive oil - a humble fish that was well executed. The marinated fish was crunchy and tasty with good sauce. Lastly, Sea bream tartar served with lemon caviar and chick pea mousse - a good combination of dorade and smooth grains; refreshing, light and slightly acidic. Finally, we were relaxed for several minutes before the main show started.       

Le menu Jardin Marin (Menu Garden - Marine)

Lentilles vertes du Puy et caviar, délicate gelée (Green lentils of the volcanic hill served with caviar, delicate smoked fish jelly and pressed caviar cream) - Unexpected but smart combinations that worked perfectly together - a new interpretation of the traditional caviar with blini recipe. For full enjoyment: the thin & subtle buckwheat pancake would hold the pressed cream, lentil, cold jelly and caviar altogether to bring out the layers of delicate textures and delicious flavors. In particular, the texture contrast of lentils and caviar generated explosive flavors in the mouth. This was fabulous! - masculine

Langoustines bretonnes, caviar doré, nage réduite (Steamed Brittany langoustines served cold with golden caviar and aromatic consomme infused with lemongrass & ginger) - A new presentation of ADPA's classic in more generous portion. It's as excellent as the previous version. The langoustine was fresh, meaty and of the top quality. It was enhanced by caviar's briny and (little) salty taste as well as the 'Asian-style' broth's deep flavor. A balanced dish with no dominating elements. My wife had no problem finishing this appetizer - feminine

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Domaine des Baumard Savennières Clos du Papillon (Pale yellow & smokey white wine with complex minerality; sweet honey notes on the nose with a long finish)

Tarte friande aux cèpes, homard du Cotentin tiède (Gently braised lobster from Cotentin served with its jus and Ceps crispy tart) - A magnificent dish that looked both luxurious and rustic. The blue lobster was superb, rich and supple; the ceps were meaty, earthy and slightly nutty; they're brought together by the intense yet harmonious lobster sauce. Truly seasonal and memorable - masculine

Saint-Jacques d'Erquy, chou-fleur en fine croûte, tartufi di Alba (Sea scallops from Erquy served with brioche of comte & cauliflower and white Alba truffle) - A popular dish at this restaurant. The most special part was: the entire cauliflower was encased/baked inside the beautiful comte brioche-crust, then it's carefully sliced & served in front of guests - clever and tasty. The dazzling & tender scallop was precisely cooked and inherently sweet; well-complemented by rich brown sauce and grated of fragrant & rather intense white truffle. My wife easily loved this spectacular dish - feminine
Accompanied by wine: 2012 Domaine Marc Colin & Fils Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Le Charmois (White Burgundy made with chardonnay. Fruity, good body, and long finish - not bad)

Rouget de l’Île d’Yeu en écailles, jus civet lié au foie, tian (Île d’Yeu red mullet on scales served with liver sauce and vegetables tian) - The flesh and its crispy scales were very good, but I found the sauce made of the mullet's stock and valuable liver was so strong that it (often) overpowering the overall flavor when consumed together. A powerful dish, but not as good as the earlier stuffs. The baked vegetable gratin (tian) was colorful, rustic and beautiful. They consisted of fennel, onion, butternut squash etc.; helping reduce and balance the intense flavor from the fish's liver - masculine

Bar de l'Atlantique saigne, jeunes poireaux, olives noires (Atlantic sea bass ikejime method served with young leeks and black olives) - The ikejime technique worked well here in that the sea bass was successfully maintaining its high quality (fresh and flavorful). However, similar to the case of red mullet, my spouse said the black olive stock was too rich which I also agreed. A little sauce was sufficient to savor this white fish with great texture. The leek was alright - feminine

Riz noir accompagné de coquillages (Camargue black rice baked with shellfish, calamari and octopus) - A nice and new way to end the meal before heading to desserts; reminded me of Japanese kaiseki. I loved the al dente texture, subtle aroma and nutty flavor of this whole grain rice. It was even more enjoyable to chew the 'wild' rice with fresh cockles, clams, squids and so on. I hope the restaurant would keep serving a rice dish prior to cheese/sweets in the future - both

Accompanied by wine: 2010 Clos des Brusquières Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Elegant with layers of sweet & spice; medium tannins with cherry finish - should develop better in the next 5-10 years, a bit too young now)

Doyenne du Comice rôtie, châtaignes et liqueur de myrte corses (Roasted pear's variety served with chestnuts and myrtle liqueur from Corsica) - The maitre d' was very generous and giving us several desserts to savor. The 'caramelized' roasted pear was quite delectable; it came with crunchy chestnut and myrtle (made of 'berries' and tasted like gin). The ice cream was pleasant - masculine

Peau de lait cru de Normandie, fraises des bois (Normandy milk skin with warmed wild strawberries) - The milk skin was 'similar' to yuba and served warm in contrast to the ice cream at the sides. We liked the smooth texture and light flavors of the milk skin served with sweet wild strawberries. Overall, it's refreshing and the portion was very generous - feminine

Chocolat et café de notre Manufacture, sarrasin torréfié (Chocolate and coffee from our Factory with roasted buckwheat) - Another beautifully presented dish. The chocolate was thick and strong in flavors; good news for chocolate lovers. The coffee's aroma and its taste could be detected too while the home-made ice cream was of good quality. Additionally, there was a small slice of chocolate tart with grains on top and it was exquisite. The chocolate cream in the middle was nice and not too sweet; it went along with the ice cream too - masculine

Citron niçois et algues kombu à l'estragon (Lemon from Nice and kombu seaweeds with tarragon) - The elegant look of this yellow fruit could be deceiving. It was actually quite intense with plenty of flavor 'explosion' (such as bitter & very sour) from the many elements as well as the lemon itself in different forms and textures. It was quite an experience though I did not really love it - feminine

Accompanied by wine: 2011 Maison Chapoutier Le Coufis Vin de Table de France Doux (Lush, sweet and fruity with good clarity and decent finish, quite nice)

Baba imbibé du rhum accompagne de crème peu fouettée (Rum baba served with lightly whipped cream) - It was still the finest dessert of Chef Ducasse albeit lack of presentation here. The 'sponge' cake was superbly moist and delicate; it was flawlessly complemented by the soft bean cream and top rum quality with its intoxicating aroma. Each byte was a pure indulgence ... ethereal indeed - both

The mignardises have been reduced. We only had chocolate with praline inside as well as sweet & seedless muscat grapes - both of them were excellent though I still prefer the old 'unhealthy' petit four trolleys and macaroons. For digestive, both of us opted for tea infusion. My spouse had lemongrass & mint whereas I had rosemary & lemongrass plus a little bit of honey; it was great. A little comment on the wine list: it's entirely new and presented in different ways. For instance, the menu arranges the bottles (from various origins) by generation, varied from five, ten to fifty years - if I recalled correctly. The price and the mark up were pretty steep, but they had more reasonably priced options for wine by the glass, such as what I drank above. They were not that remarkable, but paired quite well with the food. I was pleased with the quality and it's directly proportional with the cost of Parisian fine dining standard.

Both of us very much enjoyed this food symphony; it was delicious and excellent throughout although a bit short of my first meal here. In spite of this, the main star of the show was ADPA's hospitality lead by the capable and amiable Denis Courtiade. We experienced the pinnacle of what 'perfect' service was like/supposed to be (it was a very busy evening and all seats were taken). Denis always paid full attention while being discreet at the same time; he could be humorous when necessary but knew exactly when not being obtrusive. I felt to be treated not just like royalty, but as an 'old' friend coming to his place. Staffs were respectable to guests, yet they were not intimidated and made diners felt very comfortable. Our "femme maitre d" named Cecile also did a wonderful job. She was professional and friendly. My wife loved talking to her about many things and you could see the small details such as an eye contact and body language that she really engaged and enjoyed the conversation as well as doing her job. As a matter of fact, the special part of the whole dining room brigade was the smooth flow/movement, gestures and postures as well as the flair. Their performance was sensational. They're well supported with elegant uniforms designed by George Feghaly - mostly in white and grey that beautifully matched the overall ambiance. Even the sommelier when not discussing about the wines, also delivered fine service. Monsieur Courtiade shared that it was his aim to give guests an unforgettable experience and for us, Denis absolutely achieved that goal with flying colors. On top of that, I comfortably declared that it was the finest and most fun service I've ever received in any restaurants. I doubt other place could do better job than at Ducasse's main Paris establishment.   

I respected the effort of Alain Ducasse who keeps challenging himself, even when he's nearly 60 years of age. It shows that even though he is no longer active in the kitchen, his brain was still very much active to re-invent himself by taking an initiative and leadership role in this innovation. He decided to distance himself from traditional ways among French 3-star places in terms of who can make the best foie gras, albufera sauce or truffle dishes. For Chef Ducasse, this made sense since he has the expertise and ample of resources to materialize his ideas. It was not as easy as it looked; the new ADPA with its 'zen' revolution has cost him a (Michelin) star. He experienced this before and I'm confident he will be able to regain the red guide book's highest honor at most in two years. Overall, I had another exceptional meal at Plaza Athénée. The dishes were delicious and balanced, the wine list was a dream, the interior was elegant and detailed, and above all the service was amazing. The meal lasted nearly 4 hours and we generally felt engaging most of the times especially by the food and sometimes by the restaurant's hospitality; there's never a dull moment. Come with an open mind and curiosity, you will surely be rewarded here. You're welcome to see the pictures: Ducasse Plaza Athenee in Nov '14

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 99 pts

Overall: 97.5/100

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