RAGING AT ROBUCHON’S

OK, this one’s a golden oldie from living in Paris in 2009 and published on the World Nomads website. Worth a resurrection, I think. Hope you enjoy it.

WE ARE all prisoners of our prejudices at times. We can try to combat them but . . . for instance, have you ever driven past one of those Classical revivalist McMansions and wondered what it looked like inside?

How surprised would you be if it was the epitome of good taste? Imagine getting past the columned entrance to find an ode to style and grace.

Well, it’s a bit like that at Joel Robuchon’s La Table in Paris, but the other way around. Outside it’s discretion itself; it crouches on a corner in the 16th arrondissement, just a short walk from the Victor Hugo Metro stop, as if embarrassed to be there. The shades are drawn, the colours muted, and tasteful typography above the front door announces you are entering ‘LA TABLE de Joel Robuchon’.

And yet inside . . . the smallish room is all black seats, black tablecloths, black plates, gold leaf side plates, gold water glasses, the walls are gold-yellow, the carpet black-and grey, and the wall lights throw a golden glow over proceedings.

You imagine they laid Gianni Versace to rest in something like this.

Popsi Bubblehead and I were there to meet Tim The Brave and actor chum Matt, and to partake of the lunchtime Menu ‘Club’ for 59 Euro (about $120) a pop. Not the usual fare for myself and La Bubblehead here in Paris but sometimes you have to push the boat out.

The Menu ‘Club’ comprises ‘un hors d’oeuvre [from five], poisson ou viande [ditto], fromage, dessert, cafe et 37.5cl de vin’.

“In the 11th best restaurant in the world?” exclaimed Tim The Brave. “It’s a bargain!”

Tim works in television so you can never be too sure of his facts but I’m sure Monsieur Robuchon is in that Pantheon somewhere. (According to the restaurant’s own website: “La Table was granted two stars by Michelin Guide and ranked among world’s 50 top restaurant.”)

Tim, as I think I said, works in television and so therefore was late. Honestly! You take a few days holiday and the call sheets just dry up!

And so Popsi and myself were led to our table for four and were able to snaffle the best seats – backs to the wall, looking out into the restaurant.

Two women with impossibly coiffured hair and high heels tottered in just after us and were seated nearby. They certainly were NOT having the Menu ‘Club’.

I say this because the Exocet of maitre d’s was at their table almost before their Louis Vuitton bags had hit the floor. Champagne, mademoiselles?

Popsi, meanwhile, was enjoying the light glinting off the golden water glasses and wondering if they would ever be filled with water.

She has a subtle way of attracting waiters in these circumstances – half-standing up from the table and waving her arms in the air like someone drowning at Bondi beach – but I really cannot approve of it in a place like Robuchon’s. Mainly because it doesn’t work.

Finally we did manage to catch the eye of a waiter the size and stature of a small rabbit. I did this by heaving my gold leaf side plate across the restaurant and catching him in the eye. I didn’t, of course, but the moment was fast approaching.

He looked about 12 and, as the afternoon progressed, it became clear he was a trainee, aged about 12. Perhaps he gets to deal with all the Menu ‘Clubs’. He was sweet, however, and we liked him.

We especially liked him when, shortly after, he came around with some lovely bread.

Though, of course, some butter might have helped. Cue more and prolonged arm waving from the Bubblehead. We must have looked like the advance guard of a semaphore convention.

Finally the boys arrived and the true purpose of the afternoon could begin: getting some scoff in.

And here is where Robuchon’s excels. The next few hours – we were almost the last to leave – was a crescendo of delights, right down to the caramel-centred chocolates served with coffee.

We ordered from the maitre d’, who had somehow managed to retrieve his head from the nether regions of the Lunching Ladies but still managed to further blot his copybook by sniffing “poisson et poisson?” when Popsi ordered fish for both her courses.

It’s a times like these that, living in Paris, I wish my French were better but somehow ‘shut your snotnose gob and take the fucking order, Pierre’ is quite beyond me.

To begin, though, a surprise. Up came an amuse-bouche, unasked for and unexpected, but which elevated our expectations of what was to come.

Now Popsi and I are not great fans of foie gras. In this we are one with Jamie Oliver, who will not have the stuff in his restaurants. Or so he said on a TV show once when he showed viewers a ‘normal’ goose liver and then a foie gras. It was a grotesque, fatty balloon of a thing. How you can bleat about free-range chicken and then eat foie gras is beyond me.

Though a Frenchman did once tell Popsi that it was all OK because the farmers played the geese classical music while they force fed them. We think he was joking. We hope he was joking.

So what to do when a waiter delicately places a shot glass before you and explains that it’s parmesan foam on a pureed foie gras, with (we think but our French escaped us at that moment) a thin red layer of pureed chestnut.

Tim, who earlier that day I had been trying to shame into not buying foie gras, was triumphant. “What now?”

I confess that the smell was enough. I could have sucked up a pint of that parmesan foam alone, to be honest. It also worked perfectly with the extraordinary richness of the foie gras.

Popsi couldn’t eat hers and I must confess to struggling with mine but this had much to do with finding foie gras – quite apart from the ethical issues – far too cloying.

For starters Tim and Matt both chose l’aubergine en caviar legerement fume, aux jeunes legumes croquant. This turned out to be a small risotto-style dish – beautifully and delicately smoky – with crunchy miniature vegetables.

Personally I always thought that aubergines were the work of the devil until Jeremy at Snakebean in Sydney’s Oxford Street forced a traditional Thai smoked aubergine dish on us last year (go there, ask for it – you will not regret it). It is the only thing to do with aubergines; except throw them with all your might at people who force-feed geese.

Popsi went for the carpaccio of sea bream while I, meat eater that I am, hogged it up with Le pied de cochon (pig’s trotters) followed by a main course of spring lamb (l’agneau).

The bream was beautiful; sushi fresh, fanned out like a traditional beef carpaccio, drizzled with lemon and harbouring a hint of chilli that lifted but didn’t overpower the fish.

The trotters were a hit, too. Not actual trotters, of course, but a slightly salty, slightly jellied melange of chopped flesh and herbs, topped with Parmesan shavings and heaped on what in France is called a tartine but what we call two small slices of bread. Stunning stuff, well-presented.

The mains continued this excellence; there was a whole deep-fried whiting with a herb butter; beautifully soft lamb chunks with basil for myself and Matt; and cod poached in a vegetable bouillon (with a yummy aioli) for Popsi.

Honestly, that poor food got moved around the table like pass the parcel at a kids’ party. And with the same enthusiasm: “Pass it to me! Pass it to me, you bastard!” (Though maybe that was just MY parties…) Honestly the elbows were moving so fast it looked like a photo finish at the Melbourne Cup.

Our pre-pubescent waiter also brought a small plate of spuds to the table, declaring it to be “our world famous mash”. Perhaps its fame has not reached Bondi yet. Personally I like a few lumps in my mash and this, for me, was a little too smooth – as if someone had whipped up some cream and waved a King Edward over the top of it.

That said, it did go amazingly well with the gluttonously rich lamb jus. And it did all get scraped off the plate and eaten.

Dessert, cheese and coffee followed. The cheese was a couple of slices of perfectly pleasant brie, the coffee was good but the desserts du jour themselves held another, final surprise. I mean, who knew that basil sorbet could taste so heavenly? Yes, basil. It came with a small portion of something cakey but I have no recollection beyond that sorbet.

Here’s a thing, though; what’s with the gold dust on the little black plastic dessert spoons? Is it really gold? Is it really necessary? Am I worth more going out than when I went in?

All in all an interesting afternoon but somehow the software was let down by some of the hardware. For instance, you never, never bring up a second bottle of wine (those 37.5cl added up to two bottles of a decent red) that has already been opened before it reaches the table. Popsi’s keen eyes caught this but she forgot to mention it until we had left.

And, finally, there really should be a keener eye kept on the toilets; Popsi discovered a tissue issue (lack thereof) in the ladies that could have been embarrassing had she not had a bit of a sniffle that day.

Still at 59 Euros each it was little enough to pay for the pleasure of taste-testing at Robuchon, and we waddled into the late afternoon more than happy and more than replete.

Bon appétit indeed.

Address : 16 Avenue Bugeaud, Paris 16ème.

Non smoking restaurant.
PETS ARE ALLOWED. (My capital letters … you can’t smoke in there but you can bring in Fido)

www.joel-robuchon.com

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