L'Hôtel de Ville
Grand Gallic menus suffer from repetition compulsion. Breton lobster; Bresse poultry, truffles, foie gras; ducks from blabbity-blah carved and caressed at your side—these are the fuels that ignite into Michelin stars. But look past the familiar ingredients, and the chef's individual style becomes clear.
So just who is tending the pots at L'Hôtel de Ville (formerly Girardet)?Is it the specter of Fredy Girardet, the genius chef who retired from here in 1996?Or his star protégé-successor Philippe Rochat, who's determined to cast off the Oedipal yoke?Let's credit them both in a period of transition.
The chefs delight in quivery texture. An amuse-bouche of a fennel-wrapped morsel of trout in an herbal gelée leads to a jellied consommé de petits pois lavished with frog's legs and caviar. They know how to mix French and German, high and low: the folksy macaroni timbale encircles a rich fricassee of sweetbreads and chanterelles. They treat seafood with Japanese reverence—just taste the brilliant still life of barely cooked scallops arranged around a sea urchin shell filled with satiny mousse. And they cherish the Mediterranean: the tastes of grilled sea bass, artichokes, olive oil, and aged vinegar are layered to create a Riviera feel in your mouth. Add great bread, glorious cheeses (try the chèvre d'Aubonne and the Gruyère Hauteville), and a sommelier eager to showcase the region's crisp floral whites, and the result is magnificent.
Rochat has refreshed Girardet's original dining room (carpets in search of an airport lounge, beam-me-up-Scotty lighting) with Missoni carpets and Venetian stucco. As for the service, expect a tribunal of men who carry themselves with the gravitas of heart surgeons, all rushing to your side to minister to a crumb.
1 Rue d'Yverdon, Crissier, Switzerland; 41-21/634-0505, fax 41-21/634-2464; dinner for two $272.
"Bonjour, Alain Ducasse," says a custardy voice. "Reservation next month?Of course. And in which hotel are you staying in Paris?" I stammer out my friend's address, in a quartier favored by West African immigrants.
The voice turns acidic. "Please confirm early on the day of your lunch." I call back a month later. "We've canceled your reservation because you're not staying in a hotel," the voice says. "But—I happen to have a table." Click.
From the discreet lobby of a Belle Époque mansion in the ritzy seizième, an elevator sucks us up to the inner sanctum of haute gastronomy. You half-expect the trompe l'oeil bookcases, magnificent chairs, and heroic draperies to be wearing NO TRESPASSING signs.
And our menu dégustation (the medium-priced one)?The amuse-bouches (prosaic spinach puffs; Jabugo ham with balls of pedigreed melon) don't live up to the room. The staff serves with a smirk. But Ducasse's mastery of the Mediterranean shines in the lobster with a cold white-bean salad perfumed with basil and olive oil. I ask the waiter what's in the sprightly sauce—coconut?Almonds?He mutters something and marches off in mid-sentence, returning with foie gras ravioli in truffle sauce, marred by dense dough and too much butter and salt. If the fillet of sea bass is overcooked and forgettable, the pigeon is neither: it's livery-tasting and nearly raw (the waiter said "rare"; I didn't expect sashimi). A scary claw sticks out from the plate.
To forget the disturbing bird, we attack the desserts—rhubarb macerated in strawberry syrup, and a tart bejeweled with raspberries that must belong to some über-species.
Then, with an odd smile befitting the city of the Mona Lisa, the maître d' hands us the check. We brace ourselves, read it, and reel in shock all the way back to our undesirable arrondissement.
59 Ave. Raymond-Poincaré, Paris; 33-1/47-27-12-27, fax 33-1/47-27-31-22; lunch for two $316.
Comme Chez Soi
At Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, my dinner date—Mom—tries to distract me from the subtly spectacular food. She adores the petite dining room, confected in the style of the Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. But friends had suggested we book the chef's table, set in an annex just off the kitchen and surrounded by brick walls grafittied with superlatives from celebrity guests. We wait for dinner entombed in their salutations.
My Russian mother is new to all this, so dinner turns into Q & A. Over the amuse-bouche (a delicate piece of rouget with a tart, creamy sauce and wisps of crisp endive): "Why did that waiter sneer when you wanted to order two different tasting menus?"
"Because at this kind of restaurant, they prefer you order one tasting menu for the whole table. But I always ask anyway."
Between the cold consommé—perfumed with Thai spices—and the precious sturgeon fillet bathed in a red-pepper emulsion: "Why is the maître d' showing family pictures to all our neighbors while completely ignoring us?"
"Because at Michelin-starred restaurants you're either intimate or… intimidated."
After buttery slices of squab in a star anise-tinged reduction: "Look, that young chef brought an infant into the kitchen. Why is he holding it over a pot?"
"Because—I don't know, Mom, maybe he wants to baptize it in court bouillon. Eat your mandarin tart! Aren't you impressed by this gorgeous food?"
"Nyet," she says. "Give me a huge kitchen and eighteen sous-chefs, and I could cook better than this."
"Maahmmy! I love your borscht, but really…"
23 Place Rouppe, Brussels; 32-2/512-2921, fax 32-2/511-8052; dinner for two $117.