L’Ambroisie, Paris. 2006.

Three Michelin Stars!  For 15 years, every time I go to Europe, I can’t resist trying just one of these restaurants.  You know, if it’s the best in France, it will approximate the best in the world.  I’m the fish after the hook.  But today, I swallowed and felt the barb that I think got me back onto land.

We had lunch at l’Ambroiserie.  I settled on this place after scouring web sites and reviews: it was the most-highly-touted of the three-star restaurants in France, and reputed to be the toughest reservation in Paris.  I wrote them in my best French, a letter vetted by my daughter who is really fluent; they responded in writing with the lunch reservation I requested (dinner seemed to me a bit much, this time).

I’ve eaten at Moulin de Mougins and Pic (before they lost their third stars), Lucas Carton, and Troisgros.  Pic was memorable.  Troisgros was the best by quite a bit: I can still remember the giant flavours and honestly classy service. I’ve also had dinner at 30 or so other very good restaurants in France, and many more in North America.  I cook and love it, though not for a living.  I used to think not an awful lot gets past me when it comes to going out to eat. Now I’m not so sure.

So we arrived on time at the culinary cathedral. Three people at the door in black suits appeared to doubt we have a reservation.  We were however led into the second of three rooms, beautiful no question: 12 foot ceilings, food-motif tapestries, gorgeous furniture, perfect table settings.  Chairs were pulled out simultaneously for all three of us.  I’m fairly sure the ecclesiastical feel of the welcome was not in my imagination.  We laughed off a temptation to whisper.  I the man got the menu with the breathtaking numbers on the right but shared these with my wife and daughter who are of course curious.  But in for a penny, in for a pound: for a life-changing experience I was prepared to pony up.

My egg and caviar starter (€130!!) was very pretty on the plate (very green; I have a picture).  The asparagus had a really immense flavour that was still absolutely only asparagus, and was a perfect one-percent-south-of-crunchy.  The watercress sabayon covered two chicken eggs sitting on cooked spinach, and there was a big heaping tablespoonspoon of explosive fish-salt grey Russian caviar.  The eggs ran magnificently broken open, and putting it all in my mouth the experience was… eggs, plus caviar, plus spinach.  I added salt, same deal.  No, I didn’t have a cold.  I scooped it up with the asparagus, no change.  As I looked over and watched the waiters focusing their attention on one another I had this philosophical crisis: what’s going on here?  I can buy oscetra and make watercress sauce, boil eggs etc.  Is it the money?  Why else don’t I have these questions intruding on my enjoyment in other restaurants?

We had a beautiful Pernand-Vergelesses village white from Chandon de Brailles (reminding me of visits to the producer’s cellar where the young countess taught me about older white burgundy), and a rich, perfumed 1996 Pomerol recommended by the somellier.  I had no complaint about either of them, and I would say the value for wine was reasonable, although I estimate the markup was about 200%.

Robin had a beautiful langoustine and Sal had snails, both prepared with south Asian flavors.  Cross-tasting, I was bothered for a moment that the snail sauce might be burnt, but I don’t think it really was.  At only about a hundred Canadian dollars each, these two were respectable, but for quality and excitement nothing beyond good French-Asian fusion that has been available in several Vancouver restaurants for over 10 years, for (not to belabour it) about 15% of the price.

My main course was sweetbread done with a macaroni revolver and a whole bunch of huge fresh morels.  Half of the mushrooms were served on a side plate, in a separate sauce that, mixed with the main-plate sweetbread sauce, produced a rich sour flavour that made me happy.  The sweetbread was a perfect hockey puck, but in texture just a bit doughy.  I told myself to focus, and tried several times to make it seem better, but it kept coming up just feeling like a dumpling and lacking in flavour in my mouth, damn it.  Sal’s lamb was perfectly cooked, but after all just a very tender piece of lamb, with a perfect reduction-of-lamb-glaze sauce.  I picture those falsely self-effacing testimonials in successful chefs’ cookbooks where they insist it is the ingredients that they are offering, not the sauce, or marinade.  I want you to taste the vegetables, says Alain Ducasse, right beside the most beautiful picture of artichokes I’ve ever seen in my life.  But I know what ris de veau tastes like.  Somehow I want the great M. Pacaud to do something more than press it, braise it and put it on a plate with a normally-set-up cream sauce.

The food was very close to perfect.  But to be fair we didn’t come to this place for food, we came here in our way (to paraphrase Ruth Reichl) to feel wonderful, as for example I felt at Troisgros three years ago, when the sommelier chatted about the winemaker who produced the bottle we were having, and validated our having visited him. Here, my telling the guy that I had visited the winemaker prompted a sneer.  My feeling like someone worthy of being there seemed to me due for the level of recognition this place had been given.  Without that exchange of value, I’m just an adequately-affluent foodie with a full stomach, staring at the hard-to-believe bill.

A person can spend a million bucks on a car, $5,000 on a suit, $1000 on a night in a hotel, and $800 on a bottle of wine. Somehow I’ve always believed that adoring food as I do, I’ll be able to appreciate the last 10% or so quality that you buy with the last dizzy tripling of price.  At l’Ambroisie, either it all went over my head, or the 10% just wasn’t there.

We also had dinner two nights before at Mon Viel Ami, where all three of us were astounded at the quality and individual bigness of flavours, of course at under one-third the cost (and for dinner).   I’m still a romantic: if somebody can really find something intrinsic in the food at l’Ambroiserie (beautiful clothes on this, to me, barenaked French emperor), I love and envy you.  I’m sure it’s my short stature of gustatory imagination that gives me this uninspiring view of his wrinkled old ass, alongside the bill for €1000 (C$1500 at the time) for lunch for three. In 2006.  food 8.7 service 7.6 ambience 8.2 value 3.8

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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