Helene Darroze, Paris. 2007.

We chose this one from among four or five sought-after up-and-coming Michelin one-star places in Paris.  The reviews we read were universally positive.  The chef and owner is a protege of Alain Ducasse, a great and established three-star French chef, a sort of metastatic pattern of great kitchens that is common in Paris and elsewhere.  We made our reservations on the Internet and were warned to reconfirm, which we did.

The room, in the quiet Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood, was up a wide flight of stairs.  Tables each had a strong standing lamp, giving a starkly-illuminated effect which might have been intended to set the modern look of the decor off to advantage.  Certainly we had no trouble seeing the purple velvet wainscoting and brightly-coloured wall tapestries.  Black-lacquer furniture with orange and purple upholstery was a not-unpleasant contrast to the very traditional white linen table setting.  But the welcome was perfunctory and the atmosphere neutral.  It felt like we had come on the wrong night, forgot to dress, or had stumbled into a government office that happened to be open for dinner. Eventually they seated us.

The amuses-bouches arrived: savory cheese-flavored pastry puffs light and lovely in the mouth.  But the staff seemed nervous: there wasn’t much time for eye contact, or a lot of patience with our imperfect grasp of the subtleties of the food, rendered quickly in French.  The headwaiter, who came by the table a couple of times, seemed to me unpleasantly fey and excessively theatrical in describing what was being served.  He clearly didn’t think hanging around to field our questions was worth the trouble.  Both of us ordered the set menu and had with it half-bottles of red and white Burgundy from the respectable shipper Jadot.  The wine was fine.

Dinner started in an interesting way with a sour, salty cold tomato soup with a dollop of mustard ice cream melting in the center.  The very different flavours were balanced and interesting; the soup was refreshing and easy to finish.  A second, shellfish course was nice but not warm enough, and lacked the flavour interest of the soup.  I started to worry that the crayfish tails might have been frozen.  Next came quite a beautiful squid and cold clam salad, the squid soft, not at all the chewy kalimari you get in bars back home, accompanied with a delicate sour dressing that made the whole thing mouthwatering and kept us hungry for more.

The main course of veal in Asian-spiced meat glaze with veal kidneys seemed to me a nice combination idea.  There was a fan of interesting delicious vegetables alongside, but the meat (which was cooked perfectly) was tough.  The kidneys were succulent and would’ve been fine by themselves.  One couldn’t fault the kitchen (only the supplier) for the tough veal, but still…  Desserts were numerous but a bit repetitive, with all shapes of otherwise similar frangipane cookies, finally ending with a bizarre cotton-candy haystack of sugar spicules on top of a coffee ice cream.  This last business was a bit too big, and seemed to verge on dangerous as we tried to chew through the pins of sugar to get at the ice cream, which tasted rich and wonderful.

Mademoiselle Darroze never appeared that we were aware of.  The friendliest person in the place was a sort of receptionist/accountant lady with a calculator down at the main floor entrance who seemed really interested in whether we liked our dinner.  I wondered if she was the Mum.

Our hotel concierge told us that the prices there (about $400 Canadian for two including $125 worth of wine and drinks) were high because the place is “hot”.  Our impression: most of the heat was in the form of air; the food was good, but not up to a level (if there is such a thing) to offset the big side-helpings of self-indulgent arrogance, or quite to justify the price.  7/10 for the food, but more like 4/10 for value. Anyway we won’t be going back.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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