Dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant is like going from zero to luxury in 2.8 seconds. You may not be pulling 2Gs, but surely the thrill that NASCAR racers feel when they see the green flag and put pedal to the metal can’t be more exhilarating. My recent lunch at Paris’s Le Grand Vefour, which predates the French Revolution, is a feast for the senses and a showcase for chef/owner Guy Martin’s culinary artistry.
First of all, the dining room is worthy of Versailles. Jean Taittinger (of Champagne fame) oversaw the restoration after a bomb attack damaged the space in 1984. It’s all floor-to-ceiling gilt and filigree, with frosted glass panels in all the windows to ensure privacy while dining, away from the glance of any curious Parisians strolling in the adjacent Palais Royal gardens. The aristocratic Directoire-style silver is placed tips down, an 18th-century practice done to reveal the family’s coat of arms. The stemware’s luminous shine comes from crystal being steamed and hand-polished by the sommelier team. Champion NASCAR drivers would welcome a pit crew with this attention to detail.
The sense of history is palpable; after all, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Sand all dined here. Colette, Cocteau, Buffet and Chagall left behind drawings or watercolors which now grace the walls.
We begin with dazzling Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut Rosé Champagne (a favorite of both Queen Victoria and Edward VII) poured from magnums. It’s got a deep, surprising rosy color with active pinpoint bubbles and a chorus of red fruit aromas. Our amuse-bouche follows: a thin circle of broccoli floret bits dotted with Roquefort cream, surrounding a small vessel made from the outer shell of a braised pearl onion and filled with more cream that’s been charred with a brûlée torch. Simple, but scrumptious.
Much like a NASCAR race, there’s lots going on; it is, after all, nearly a four-hour event. The primary difference is that drivers accelerate, while luxury diners are allowed to float on a cloud of decadence. Soazig Bilien, our peerless server from Brittany, seamlessly orchestrates our meal. The choreography of Michelin service is a thing of beauty.
A handsome gold-rimmed bowl is filled tableside from a sterling silver boat. Creamy pale-yellow cauliflower bouillon perfumed with soft curry spices is then topped with a huge oval of meringue-like fish emulsion made from fresh haddock. It’s sigh-inducing — especially with the 2014 Domaine Geantet-Pansiot Marsannay, a lovely chardonnay.
We also share two beautiful Twix-like bars of duck foie gras terrine surrounded by shaved multi-hued radishes and kohlrabi. Sommelier Romain Alzy’s 2000 Leon Beyer Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) from Alsace is the wine surprise of the day — only moderately sweet (unlike Sauternes), but with intense flavors.
Our main dishes begin with a tender rectangle of roasted codfish topped with bougainvillea-pink beetroot glaze on a bed of whole white Paimpol beans. The unexpected wine pairing is a 2015 Château Ste Anne from Bandol in Provence, a light, earthy Mourvedre blend that displays soft, red fruit.
We also share two pieces of panfried veal rump surrounded by candied fruits with hints of ginger plus a split caramelized fennel bulb with chorizo jus. A simple 2010 cab/merlot blend from Château Peyrat-Fourthon in Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc brings an Old World nose of black fruit aromas. Each of our entrees comes with a small bowl displaying a ring of confited vegetables that showcase the kitchen’s mastery of craft.
Like the race car driver, we’re at the halfway point and it’s time for a pit stop. One of the highlights of great French haute cuisine is encountering the cheese cart. Before us on two huge silver trays are 25 perfectly ripe examples of France’s greatest hits, including my personal favorite, Époisses, Burgundy’s gloriously pungent soft cow’s milk creation that demands two spoons to coax a single serving to the plate. Sommelier Alzy comes through again with a pair of splendid wines: Roux Père & Fils Santenay and the rich Domaine des Bernardins Muscat de Beaumes de Venise Blanc, which shows butterscotch and glazed fruits aromas plus a note of quince paste on the finish.
Finally, the desserts are an absolute delight: thin roasted apple squares on Brittany shortbread topped with apple spheres and single popcorn kernels, all thinly coated with luscious caramel; and a pear and blackcurrant compote with chestnut mousseline and quenelles of pear and Indian long pepper sorbet, garnished with two tiny pear-shaped tuiles, complete with stems.
The late chef Charlie Trotter, America’s perfectionist king of elegance, mused that “when all four elements were happening in equal measure — the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambience… dining could [reach] a spiritual level.” Clearly, Le Grand Véfour has that in spades. As I stroll through Le Jardin du Palais-Royal with my dining companion back to our AirBnB, there’s a lightness to our step. For even as our bellies are full to the brim, it’s our hearts and minds that are joyously overflowing.
Jon Palmer Claridge is the restaurant critic for Creative Loafing, the Tampa Bay newsweekly. “Postcard from Paris” is excerpted from his new book, Drink More Wine! A Simple Guide to Peak Experiences NOW, available on Amazon and at Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg.