Today is a very special day. Beyond our wildest hopes we managed to secure a reservation at the grand Le Grand Vefour, Paris’ finest gastronomic meeting place for more than 200 years. Paris’ political, artistic and literary legends including Napoleon and Josephine, have been dining here since 1784. Today chef Guy (pronounced Gee) Martin, inspired by art and artists creates a spectacular 3 Michelin star menu.
We walk through the inner courtyard of the Palais Royale, past exquisite boutiques some so special they have only a handful of items on display. The trees planted in a formal structured pattern have lost their leaves for the winter their bare branches trimmed and squared feel like they are in limbo waiting for spring.
The entrance to Le Grand Vefour comes into view, the red carpet bordered by potted greenery, privacy assured as we are led through a deep red velvet curtain. I have to say I’m feeling a little bit out of my depth now. Surely they will know I don’t belong here. I tilt my chin a little higher trying to give myself a little extra confidence to walk through the velvet curtain. Deep breath, head high, I step through, oh fuck, Guy Martin himself greets us on the other side, welcoming us in a flurry of French.
Clearly the fluster is a shared thing as my love seems to have misinterpreted the welcome and do you have a reservation; waving a hand at my coat “love, I think he wants to take your coat”. The idea of one of the top chefs in France offering to hang coats is something we will laugh about for a long time. The real kicker of course is that Monsieur Martin probably speaks excellent English. Hope he got a laugh too.
We are shown to our red velvet corner table where we get to sit next to each other rather than being perched on opposite sides of a table, how lovely. Tables here are named, with brass plaques, for those in history who were regular diners. We have been seated at the Joséphine de Beauharnais table, (that’s Napoleon Bonaparte’s missus). The décor is very much Napoleonic, heavily decorated; floors, walls and ceilings not an inch left unadorned. It has been beautifully restored to its original glory. Beautiful old gold framed mirrors not only on the walls but also the ceilings. The neoclassical paintings under glass are so delicate they almost look like they have been painted on porcelain. The white translucent background softly framing whimsical studies of pretty women.
The menu is presented….Guy Martin Vous Propose…Entrees, poissons (fishes), viandes (meats), desserts and les classiques. Just three or four perfect options under each. The menu has no English translation, dishes described in romantic detail far too complex for me to decipher without whipping out the iPhone for a quick google translate, which I have no intention of doing. Please can someone just choose for me.
The extravagance around me is feeling a little overwhelming but the wonderful welcoming warmth of the wait staff soon settles my nerves. The menu is explained. The Noix de Coquilles St-Jacques servies nacrees, celeri branche releve au gingembre et baies roses, jus cacao, is apparently scallops with ginger and pink pepper served with a chocolate sauce, oh and they are in season! We could also choose a ten course Menu Plaisir, fun menu, which is where each dish is Le surprise. We opt however for les classics, Chefs best suggestions.
It is a relief to make our order, now I can just relax, sip on Ruinart Champagne, enjoy the atmosphere and the anticipation of the dishes to come. Before long Voila! A surprise is sent from the chef, a lovely little taster of lobster tartare that melts delicately as soon as I pop it in my mouth. This unexpected gesture turns out to be only a small taste of Monsieur Martin’s generosity and warmth.
The entrée of Ravioles de Foie Gras arrives, Six perfectly formed ravioli lined precisely across a gorgeous gold and black plate. Each lightly touched by a delicate truffle cream foam and finished with a generous grating of fresh black truffle. As a visual treat it is breathtaking. After a moment lost in awe I cut into the first ravioli. Perfectly al-dente the small package of wonder yields to the blade releasing a yellow flood of butter and an exquisite fragrance. Spooning up every bit I know that this dish is a work of art before it is even in my mouth. Any preconceived ideas of what ravioli is, are swiftly forgotten. I have no words. The pasta perfect, the warm foie gras centre smooth and creamy, devine!
The waiter clears our very clean plates and we relax into a moment of contemplation. Deep in thought and discussion around how something so simple could be so so perfect we are surprised to have our waiter back; “chef will like to offer you two more ravioli au compliment”. Oh my goodness how can we say no. “Will this be ok?” Ohhh yes, this is very ok. And the excitement builds again as we wait for one more bite of heaven. I’m starting to think that this guy knows how to play this game. Tease, taunt, the pleasure crescendos and just when you think there is a plateau, there is just that little bit more pleasure to take you over the edge.
More perfection comes with the timing. The pace of service is spot on. We are allowed time to digest, decipher, discuss and delight in our first course before our main of Pigeon Prince Rainier 111 arrives. This course involves a whole show. We are presented the pigeons, oh yes we agree, it is indeed a pot of two pigeons. The dear little things are carried off to a warming flame to keep them toasty while the waiter carves them. The carving consists of a single swipe of the blade, across the bird, wing to wing, at forty-five degrees down the bird. The bird is plated with the carved opening slightly exposing the moist, dark pink flesh inside. A rich jus spooned over the delicate meat.
I am again feeling ever so slightly overwhelmed. I have only ever seen a pigeon flapping about on the city streets or hanging out on the electricity wires at home; and I have to say they have never looked like a possibility for dinner till now. I am excited to try something new and the flavour and texture of the meat is a wonderful experience. Dark in colour deep in flavour, crispy skin enveloping moist tender flesh, all glazed in a rich glossy jus. This dish is like nothing I have tried before, it is extraordinary.
We have moved onto a red and are now relaxing into it, allowing it to accompany discussion of flying rats. Just when we think the savoury elements of our meal are finished, a waiter appears and with a cheeky wink “surprise it is holiday time” another dish is placed before us “chef present beef and potatoes”. The rich shredded beef topped with potato puréed is a delicious and unexpected inclusion in our menu. Not only have the portions been very generous but they keep bringing little extras.
Thankfully they allow us a little time to recover from our last surprise before considering dessert. We are enjoying a little space between courses when the amazing cheese trolley that we have been watching making its way around the room comes to a stop at our table. Would we like some cheese selection to continue?…mmm so tempting, stunning cheeses but we had just loaded up at Fromagerie Quatrehomme earlier that morning and have a fridge full of incredible cheese.
I don’t know how they do it the French. You are supposed to have starter, a salad course, main course, a cheese course and dessert. We had just watched a skinny little couple next to us work their way through the ten course menu and still manage a cheese plate each, the size of which I would put out at a party. We politely declined the cheese, opting to save some imaginary space for dessert.
Three desserts to choose from and our very accommodating waiter again assisted with the selection. We went for the two he most highly recommended Cube Manjari and Crème Brûlée aux Artichauts…..yes it’s what it sounds like crème brûlée with veggies, I love the idea of it!
Our desserts arrive, the crème brûlée is beautifully caramelised with exquisitely perfect teeny tiny baby vegetables prepared in a sugary toffee, so pretty. It was the Cube however that was the star. Art on a plate! A dark chocolate cube dusted with sparkling gold, shone with brilliant elegance. The waiter explained how to open it by impaling it from above with your knife to fracture the fine chocolate encasing the intricate layers of heaven waiting inside. A spectacular and very memorable dish.
Just quietly the skinny French couple at the next table had both these deserts, each, after their cheese! Surely they must be planning on living on cigarettes and coffee for the rest of the week.
We are spent, wholly satisfied, I feel a glorious post culinary blush on my cheeks. We are expecting l’addition when surprise surprise, the waiter arrives with slices of traditional savarin cake with chantilly cream.…….Not today Josephine!