Sunday, 10 April 2016

Paris - Le Jules Verne

When I was planning my gastronomic tour of Paris, Le Jules Verne was not on top of my mind, in fact, it wasn't on my list at all.

It was the girl's desire to finally do more than walk around the Eiffel Tower, which was all we'd done on our previous visit to Paris.  While I only had a few precious nights available for dinner in arguably the centre of modern cuisine, I gladly aquiesced to SC's request, after all, le Jules Verne was an Alain Ducasse restaurant!

Oh, and I'd secretly been wanting to scale the Eiffel Tower myself - seriously, who wouldn't?

Our last trip to Paris had been in the heart of winter, and even though it was freezing cold, every time we'd visited the Eiffel Tower, it was a bustling and busy tourist location.  This visit was spring and while it was still cold by Hong Kong standards, one thing was missing on our visit.....  

The crowds.

Our visit had coincided with the tragic events in Belgium and understandably, there was a nervousness around Paris, which had manifested as a severe reduction in tourists.  It was a little weird seeing so few people at one of the world's most recognisable landmarks.

Hardly any crowd at the Eiffel Tower
Not that we'd have had to wait in long queues anyway, Le Jules Verne has it's very own entrance and elevator to the second level (which was about 123 metres up the tower).  We'd arrived before the opening of the main doors to the elevator that would whisk us up the famous landmark, but we weren't the first to arrive - a family from the US were in front of us in the queue and we merely smiled and as they complained about just about everything they could think of!

Eventually the doors opened and we received a taste of what it was like to live in Paris nowadays, a security check, our bags scanned and a short walk through a metal detector.  Trivial to ensure the safety of diners and visitors, but at the same time, just a little sad.

The glorious ride up the elevator was short but spectacular.  The subdued lighting in the lift allowing for a great view as the box silently and swiftly made its way up the infrastructure of the tower.  We'd made the ride with the complaining family and desperately hoped that we wouldn't be sitting close.

I was surprised by how massive the restaurant was!  Opened in 2007, the restaurant was an enterprise that nearly rivalled the tower's construction itself.  Seventeen months of surveying, eleven months of development and one hundred and twenty days of construction, le Jules Verne was a modern marvel of engineering in it's own right.  It was designed by Patrick Jouin, whose plan was to let natural light dominate by day, while tempering the atmosphere by night, so that the Paris skyline helps awaken the senses.

I couldn't have been happier with the placement of our table, it was right by the window and quite private, considering the open plan of the dining area (well, there were multiple dining areas).

No complaining US diners were in sight!

Our waiter for the evening arrived to give us the lowdown on the menu, in a way that has to be said was just a little stiff given our surroundings.  I guess it's easy to get jaded serving tourists regularly, even if you're doing it from one of the most spectacular sites in the world (especially if you don't speak French!)  We quickly made our decision to try the 'menu experience', a tasting menu of six courses.

Before our meal started, the girl gleefully accepted a glass of the rose champagne and a silver chalice with bread was presented, along side a round of classic French butter with logo of the restaurant prominently stamped.  Watching the champagne being poured with the Paris vista glistening through the window of le Jules Verne was a perfect moment.  We were in Paris!

Our meal commenced with marinated sea bream with citrus.  The sea bream came to us, almost floating in a clear glass bowl and was very delicate in its appearance.  The bream, highly prepared in a ceviche, came with textures and flavours of citrus, along side a touch of dill.  The fresh fish was very subtle in flavour, with the acidity of the citrus slightly overpowering the fish, then the strong dill aftertaste sitting heavy on the palate.  A little more of the bream may have helped balance the dish a little better, and although not perfect, the dish was enjoyable none the less.

I was a little confused when our second course was presented.  There's no doubt that you're in Paris, foie gras is on practically every menu, but with a menu that read 'pan-seared duck foie gras with walnut condiment', I was expecting a luscious piece of cooked foie gras.  What we received instead was a duck liver pate with a toasted tuile and a walnut puree, served with a light green salad.  I don't mind pate, I probably like it a little less than the girl, but for what it was, the pate was nicely seasoned and very creamy.  Not what I was expecting at all, but it was OK.

The dish that exited me most on the menu was the warm green asparagus from Provence with vin jaune mousseline and thin slices of pancetta.  The large asparagus spears were served on a rectangular plate and took up most of the real estate and the delicious mousseline was added at the table.  I simply loved the combination of the buttery sauce, asparagus and salty pancetta, carefully mopping up every speck of the sauce as I quickly devoured the dish.  Additional freshness came from broadens and peas, adding a vibrancy to the plate!  I'm really into asparagus at the moment and I have to say that this dish was a pleasure to eat.

Over the course of our first few plates, the sun had been slowly setting on the Paris horizon and to be honest, I can't remember a time where it captivated me more.  Watching the skyline slowly disappear, only to be replaced by the glittering lights from the 'city of love' was truly magical.

I'd had high hopes for our next course, consisting of sautéed sea scallops, tastes of raw and cooked radish and a tasty reduction from the pan of the scallops.  The dish looked wonderful when placed in front of us, a couple of large scallops paired with a couple of radishes gave both colour and aroma, which was very enticing.  My scallops were cooked beautifully but were perhaps not quite as fresh as you'd expect, with a slight chewiness thats absent when completely fresh.  I loved the reduction with the scallop, it was sweet and had a depth of flavour that tickled the palate and brought a smile to my face.  However, my palate was completely smashed once I tried the radish, which was filled with tapenade, my most hated food substance ever.  Look, I could go on a rant about tapenade, but I won't for now, but it would have been good to note such a divisive and powerful flavour on the menu, I would have asked for a substitute!

Main course was a tale of two tastes for me.  The seared beef fillet with truffled macaroni and cooking jus looked lovely on the plate, with the macaroni sitting on a bed stewed onion.  The perfectly medium rare fillet was superb, especially with the sticky jus that provided an extra hit of flavour.  I really struggled with the macaroni, which was stuffed with a substance that I couldn't quite pick out, but didn't at all like.  The stewed onion, when combined with the mystery substance was just too overpowering for my palate, it really was unpleasant for my tastes.  The girl, who is able to take those strong winter flavours had no such trouble, and found the strong tastes to her liking.

Dessert was a little weird for me, exposing me for the first time to the idea that avocado can be served with coconut, pineapple and passionfruit!  As much a palate cleanser as a desert, the dish was vibrant and colourful, but just a little weird.  Stewed pineapple with fresh shavings of coconut?  Little squares of avocado with orange?  Probably the only thing that made sense to me was the passionfruit sorbet!  Look, the dish mostly worked, but in a way was just a little too 'complex' for a pre dessert or palate cleanser.  It left me a little confused...

In what had to have been a classic signature dish, our final dessert was the crispy 'Tower nut' made with chocolate from Alain Ducasse's chocolate manufacturer in Paris.  Designed to resemble one of the many thousands of nuts (as in nuts and bolts) in the tower infrastructure, the rich dark dessert was lovely.  I'm not a huge chocolate lover (for desserts), but the textures and flavours of the hexagonal treat were well balanced and provided just enough bitterness to balance out the sweet sugary hit.

We finished off with a sample of petite fours and a big bowl of marshmallow, the latter being given to us with such abandon that it felt as if le Jules Verne had shares in the company!

While le Jules Verne is one of the many restaurants of well known and the much loved Alain Ducasse, the day to day running of the kitchen has been left to long time protege Pascal Féraud. Our tasting menu for the evening had been created by Chef Pascal and was largely successful in my view. The menu told a story and built nicely, and while everything was cooked very well, I have to admit to struggling with a few of the flavours.

Starting off a little poorly, service improved dramatically over the course of the evening and I like to think that our knowledge and understanding of the food helped balance out the fact that we didn't speak French!  You've probably heard many times that the French can be unforgiving of those that don't attempt at least a little French, and it's probably true - it's definitely worth attempting a little of the native language, if only to show that you've tried.

There's no doubt at all that le Jules Verne is one of the most rewarding dining experiences I've had, even considering that I had some challenges with the menu.  A place like le Jules Verne is more just a food experience, it's a life experience that's worth completing at least once.  The ride up the elevator is the beginning of an experience that is both rewarding in so many ways.

As we reluctantly left the dining room to make our way back down the elevator, our timing was such that 'our' family from the US were defending with us.  Interestingly, there was no complaining and a look of satisfaction across their faces.

I'm sure we shared a similar look...

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