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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Afterglow


Although I've been back from my gustatory tour of Paris for a few days now, I find myself still wrestling with the temptation to book a plane ticket to return immediately.   Even on my last visit as a student, I found the city completely captivating -- much more so, in fact, than any of the other incredible European destinations that I explored on that same trip.   But this time around -- having acquired in the interim a significantly greater appreciation for fine cuisine -- I found Paris to be even more enchanting.   Indeed, as I came to realize on the long flight home, only one other city has ever taken hold of me so quickly and effortlessly, and that was San Francisco.

Over the course of my much-too-short trip, I sampled a lot of degustation menus, took a lot of pictures, and scribbled a lot of notes.   As I now wade through the process of sorting this all out, I'm also trying to take a step back to see things from a broader perspective -- one that includes, for the sake of comparison, our own high-end restaurant scene here in the Bay Area.   For this reason, I thought it might be interesting to bookend my Paris trip with meals at some of the Bay Area's best restaurants.   Accordingly, shortly before I left, I visited The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton;   the day after I returned, I dined at Fleur de Lys.

One of the benefits of sampling so many great restaurants in such a short period is that it tends to simplify the process of comparing them.   After all, it's much easier to compare tonight's meal with last night's than it is to contrast two meals experienced several months apart.   On the other hand, a significant drawback to the approach I took in Paris is the sheer number of dishes that I had to try to keep in my mind.   Before I could let the nine courses served to me by one chef seep fully into my memory, I found myself poring over an entirely new nine-course menu.   Sitting here today, while several dishes stand out as being particularly memorable, others are swimming around in my head temporarily dissociated from the restaurants at which they were served.   So perhaps you can understand why I guarded my notes, pictures, and copies of menus as carefully as I did my passport as I wound my way through airports and taxis to get back home!

Overall, I found the entire week to be extraordinarily educational, revealing a lot about culinary innovation, the state of fine dining, Michelin ratings, and even the Bay Area's restaurant scene.   In the coming days (or more likely, weeks), I'm going to walk you through each of the seven excellent meals that I enjoyed in Paris, sharing photos and impressions along the way.   After that, I'll wrap things up by describing some of the conclusions that I reached -- and the new perspectives that I acquired -- as a result of my fantastic week in France.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Taste of Paris


As you may have guessed from the serious dearth of posts around here, the last few months have been completely crazy for me at work.   A massive patent case on which I had been working was slated for five back-to-back trials spanning from March through August, and the flurry of activity that's needed for such an enormous undertaking had our entire team completely consumed.   Then, suddenly and without warning, the parties reached a settlement that resolved the entire case -- changing my very existence overnight.   Whereas one day I felt like I was drowning in an endless sea of work, the next day I was happily concerned about whether I had enough work on my plate.   The summer vacation that I had written off as an impossibility was miraculously resurrected.   And when my close friend and coworker A decided to accelerate her sabbatical and travel through Europe now instead of waiting until later in the year, I found myself toying with the idea of a spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris to meet up with her.   And so it is that I now find myself sitting in a hotel in Rive Droite, midway through a glorious six days of fantastic food, wine, and fun.

Now, one of my fellow Bay Area food bloggers just returned from a great week in Paris last month, while another seems to be in Paris just about every other week.   But as hard as it is for me to believe, my last trip to Paris was nearly seventeen years ago, when a friend and I backpacked through Europe in the summer between finishing college and starting graduate school.   It was a time before I had experienced the wonders of San Francisco's incredible restaurant scene, before I had developed any kind of appreciation for fine dining, and -- most importantly -- before I had achieved the luxury of receiving a regular paycheck.   And believe me, when you're traveling as a student on $40 per day all inclusive, the Paris that you experience is one of baguettes and cheap fruit -- not degustation menus and wine pairings.

A lot has changed in the intervening years, most notably my admiration -- and even reverence -- for great cuisine and the talented chefs who create it.   But let's face it, for those of us who live in and love the Bay Area's restaurant scene, there's always someone standing by to rain on our parade by saying one of two things:   the premier restaurants in New York, on average, are better than San Francisco's best, and the top restaurants in Paris are even better still.   Is it really true that the upper-tier restaurants in Paris are that much better than the top restaurants in the Bay Area?   Does Paris really deserve to have ten restaurants rated by Michelin at three stars, compared to the Bay Area's paltry one?   If I were going to go to Paris, I simply had to find out.   Or, to be more honest, I should probably put it this way:   a trip to Paris -- specifically for the purpose of experiencing the offerings of the city's best establishments and chefs for myself -- was an absolute imperative.

Most normal people, of course, would book a flight and hotel and then give some thought to where they might want to eat.   I, on the other hand, approached it in precisely the reverse order.   After all, if I couldn't experience the great restaurants that I had read and heard so much about, wouldn't it be better to postpone my trip until I could?   (I'm hoping that at least a few of my fellow food bloggers, if nobody else, will understand my twisted logic here!)   I accordingly stayed up late one evening and called all of the Michelin three-star restaurants, a mere three weeks before my potential arrival date.   Not surprisingly, virtually all of the restaurants had limited availability, and getting the overall schedule to fit neatly into a six-day period was an exercise akin to the so-called "logic games" section of the LSAT that I had taken many years earlier (making me glad to know that it was useful for something).   In the end, I arrived at a schedule that truly excited me, a veritable tasting menu of Paris itself.   Here is my "seven-course" sampling of the city's finest:
Course 1:   L'Arpege
Course 2:   Le Meurice
Course 3:   Ledoyen
Course 4:   Guy Savoy
Course 5:   Pierre Gagnaire (lunch)
Course 6:   Plaza Athenee
Course 7:   Le Pre Catalan
All seven of the restaurants hold three stars in Michelin's 2007 guide for Paris, with Le Meurice and Le Pre Catalan having just been elevated to that ranking this year.   Of the remaining three Paris establishments that enjoy three-star status (i.e., L'Astrance, Le Grand Vefour, and L'Ambroisie), I couldn't get into the first one and didn't try too hard with regard to latter two.   After all, I would only be in Paris for six days, and I was reluctant to schedule too many days with both a lunch and a dinner (especially since I intended to order the degustation menu at dinner each night, which typically results in my skipping lunch both that day and the next day).   Thus, I resolved that the final three would have to wait for my next trip, and I went ahead and booked my plane ticket and hotel.

Well, I just returned from dinner at Guy Savoy this evening, and the results so far have been extremely interesting and very eye-opening.   I won't give away the results just yet, as I do want to evaluate all seven restaurants against one another before I reach any definitive conclusions.   So, tune in again starting next week, as I describe each of my dining experiences!