L'Ambroisie: Absolute Perfection
What is the measure of true greatness in French cuisine?
In my opinion there is one overriding measure. A meal prepared by a great chef should achieve an absolute harmony without sacrificing the complex flavor profile of classic French cooking, while also giving the impression of clarity and light handedness in cooking. At the end of the meal one should feel uplifted and ecstasic rather than that one’s stomach is nearly bursting. When looking back at the meal in hindsight with the benefit of a couple of weeks that has elapsed, one should still re-live the culinary nirvana that is tantamount to a transcendental experience which may not be captured in words.
Clearly such moments are rare because the chefs who are capable of reaching that level of perfection are less than rare.
I only know 3 of them in my own dining experience: Freddy Girardet (whom I became familiar with quite late in his career), Joel Robuchon (whose new ventures should not be confused with what he was capable of when he was at the helm) and, Bernard Pacaud.
This does not mean that each meal prepared by these perfectionist chefs achieve a near perfect score. Nor am I claiming that other chefs are not capable of great moments. But my argument is that, among the Michelin three star chefs that I know, the three individuals I name here are or were capable of preparing great meals with a higher frequency than others and even their low points may be beyond the attainment of quite a few super chefs today who are parading as Michelin two and three star chefs (thanks to a drastic lowering of standards) in many countries.
Our 16 November 2006 meal at l’Ambroisie was certainly one of those meals which will linger forever in my memory. We also had exceptional company, and one friend who was with us with her family and who is an elegant lady endowed with a sensitive palate translated her impressions to writing:
“I must tell you that our meal at L’Ambroisie wasn’t just another good meal, but it was rather an emotional summation of our whole trip, its gastronomic climax. Every dish seemed to capture a small piece of M. Pacaud’s soul. The earlier course weaved a plot, and the conclusion solved it. Not for a second, was there a formality in dishes, which often defeats the narrative of the meal. Not for a moment was there a sense of the outdated or dull or monotonous. …And how could I possibly have all the right words to describe the kindness of both M. LeMoullac and M. Pascal?”
The plot, so to speak, kicked off with some of the best gougeres in the world (feather light and without the cheap trick of sauce bechamel as in the States) and a deceptively simple amuse-bouche. That is, slightly smoked Scottish Salmon, topped by “hashbrowns” and served with a dollop of crème fraiche and dill. What makes this simple Pacaud classic so special is that the salmon is devoid of excess fat (so typical of farmed versions) and the smoking is so subtle that it enhances the unique taste of wild Scottish salmon rather than substituting for it.
The plot seemed to have thickened with the first course of the night; “Filet de Bar Aux Cepes”. Simple sounding, is not it? Also it was easy to taste and appreciate, but our appreciation has intensified by each bite for reasons easy to state. First, the wild, line caught bar (translated as sea bass—but true bar does not exist in the States) in question was so fresh, juicy and sweet that even those who don’t think that the bar belongs to the pantheon of the most interesting fish species of the world (such as myself!) are bound to take their hat off. Second, both the cep (porcini) mousse and the circularly cut raw ceps were full of flavor and it was a sensual delight to see how the warmth of the fish heated the raw wild mushrooms (last of the season) in the plate and, consequently, its flavor gradually became deeper and more interesting. Third, the light emulsion of olive oil which was poured on top had the right touch of acidity, and the sauce truly bound the separate parts of the dish together and elevated their pristine and complimentary flavors, rather than masking them. The dish was vintage Pacaud, and the cooking was unmistakably in the tradition of Haute Cuisine Francaise: flavorful yet balanced, imaginative yet restrained, playful yet precise, aesthetically pleasing yet not obsessed by it alone.
What followed in the development of the mysterious plot (we had left the composition of the menu to Monsieur Pascal) was a shellfish course: “Corolle de noix de Saint-Jacques et brocoli, a la truffe blance d’Alba ‘O. Berluti’.”
Well, this dish pictured below was clearly a visual treat depicting the interplay of white, brownish and green figures with geometrical precision.
But, the visual impact is always a byproduct of taste harmony in Pacaud dishes. It is never an end in itself. And this dish, in juxtapposing the sweetest imaginable barely cooked nutty scallops from Brittanie, and, arguably, the world’s best broccoli cut into round flowers, sought a perfect unison of earthy, nutty, crunchy and sweet flavors, binding all of them together and sharpening their flavors with a parsley coulis kissed by garlic. What is meant here by “kissing” is that one tasted the garlic, but could not see it or have one’s taste buds attacked by rough flavors. Again a textbook Pacaud dish, that is, a dish of restraint without sacrificing intensity and true taste of two superlative ingredients: the best wild scallops and broccoli imaginable. Then, there was a final Midas touch that elevated this dish to a supreme status in the Pantheon of scallop preparations: shaved Alba truffles (Magnatum Pico) of the highest quality, specifically selected by Pacaud. For some reason best white truffles prove to be elusive in our Alba trips. (The seven of us had just visited Alba.) It looks like the choicest Alba truffles, the round, most aromatic ones which are also quite large in size (but this does not mean that the largest are the best) are gobbled up by restaurants outside of Piemonte. Here is the picture of the truffles that Pacaud uses. (Also please note that Pacaud slices white truffles thicker than they do in Alba. This may be an additional reason why they come across as more aromatic.)
Needless to say, the scallop-broccoli dish was NOT a white
truffle dish that one finds great examples of in Alba, but it was rather a
variation of the so called “mer et terre” dishes, enriched by white truffles.
Indeed aromatic Alba truffles exhibit a hint of garlic aroma among others
components, and the juxtapposition of parsley-garlic coulis and the white
truffle did enhance one another and brought out the nuttiness that one can find
in very fresh diver scallops from certain regions of the world (esp. Galicia
If we except the superlative desserts, the “solution” of the plot was revealed by another chef-d’oeuvre of Pacaud: TOURTE DE CANARD SAUVAGE. Like all things which relate to taste, even the greatest masterpieces are ephemeral and neither words nor pictures can capture the experience. My overriding sadness in having this dish for a second time is that I know my daughter who is only 4.5 years old will never get to taste it as it is doubtful that Pacaud will still be tending his stoves when she grows up sufficiently to appreciate exceptional cuisine. At any rate she can enjoy the picture of the “tourte.”
I have eaten quite a few versions of game pies prepared by
master chefs in France
Another beauty of Pacaud’s narrative is that one actually has some room left for cheese. As far as I know, Monsieur Aloisse is the supplier of cheese to the restaurant. He is certainly a distinguished affineur, but I have yet to taste a cheese from him that will remain anchored in my mind as some of the Comte which are supplied to some restaurants (such as Les Ambassadeurs, Arpege, Ledoyen) by another great affineur: M. Bernard Anthony. This said, of the seven cheeses I tasted at L’Ambroisie, I noted three of them as being exceptional (a Coulommier, an artisanal Saint Nectaire fermier, and a very sweet and creamy Roquefort), one very good (the St. Marcellin) and three quite good (the Cantal, the Gruyere and the Chevre). To me, this is no mean accomplishment.
Another feature in the overall l’Ambroisie narrative that I admire is that, unlike what is in fashion nowdays, Pacaud does not believe in satiating you with a procession of sweets. Instead, he usually sends to your table one fresh fruity dessert to titillate the palate, and he follows it up with one of his exquisite desserts. In mid-November the first dessert course turned out to be “veloute de mangues en minestrone, babas bouchon au rhum”, followed by one of his masterpieces, “tarte fine sable au cacao amer, glace a la vanilla”. The former was a very modern dessert: exotic, tangy and aromatic. Rich flavors of neither over and nor under-ripe mangos and mango coulis danced on your palette with the perfume of coconut milk and the outstanding baby rhum babas (which can compete in quality with the Ducasse version). The babas were well soaked in fine quality rhum that added a touch of quite decadent zestiness.
Talking about decadence, Pacaud’s version of chocolate tarte with vanilla ice cream is the best chocolate-based dessert that I know. It is decadent not because it is extremely rich, but it is pure decadence because its flavors remain very intense and very ethereal at the same time. If you place your fork a few inches above the tarte and then drop it literally to the middle, the fork will pierce the tart through. Don’t be shy. Please do it!
A side thought: it is too bad that Pacaud is no longer preparing his millefeuille. It had always stood out among other millefeuille desserts prepared by other great chefs (such as Passard).
It is a sad thing, but one of the realities of life that
wine lists are always expensive in three star restaurants. Perhaps mark ups are
most excessive in the United States
L’Ambroisie is actually the only restaurant in the world
that I don’t impose my own views on the wine selections as I came to trust M.
Lemoullac’s Breton nose, whose qualities reveal themselves over time and with
repeated visits, just like M. Pacaud’s cooking or Madame Pacaud’s warm and
friendly Mediterranean personality which may not be detected at first behind
detached elegance, “a la Francaise”. At any rate, in the meal I described
above, Monsieur Lemoullac opened a 2004 Condrieu, from Cuilleron, and I always
like the particular site it comes from: Les Chaillets. 2004 is almost as good
as the other worldly 2003, with its focused taste of apricot seed and fresh
almonds, and its complex minerality. It
also went extremely well with our first two courses. I like Cuilleron and also
Andre Perret very much among Condrieu producers. It is a pity that most
sommeliers in France
Another great choice of M. Lemoullac for a reasonable price which went extremely well with our “tourte de gibier” was a Latricieres Chambertin 2000, from Trapet. The wine showed very well, and it was beginning to develop some complex aromas without losing its delicate and fresh red berry fruitiness. It was a silky wine with round tannins, and some exotic spices revealed themselves in the medium-long finish and blended well with the juniper berries present in the dish.
It is always hard to match a cheese course with a single wine. But we did quite well with a spicy, opulent Syrah based wine (2000 Cornas from Jean Luc Colombo) which was a rather tame and refined expression of Syrah without being overly woody or chocolaty—that is, in the international style highly touted by some wine journals.
The meal ended with single malt old Scotches that pair well with the chocolate dessert. I was also amused to hear that M. Lemoullac is one of the very few who share my view that one should never mix desserts (already cloying) and dessert wine. It is much better to have hard liquor at the end, or nothing.
But it is always better to have a digestive before stepping
out of the culinary heaven and into what can possibly be the most exquisite
square in Paris
Gastrovılle Ranking: 19.5/20 (Vedat Milor—7 December 2006)