Sunday, October 21, 2007

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Paris

Among my friends who I eat with regularly, B. is known to be difficult to impress. I can't remember the last time I was able to pick a place that really "wowed" him. Would a three Michelin star chef's signature dish, like Guy Savoy's famed artichoke and truffle soup impress B.? "Eh, I couldn't really taste the truffles.." he said. While B. is hard to impress, it is his wife S. who often finds places that please him (and me). I was a bit nervous bringing them to L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, after all, it only has one Michelin star. However, I shouldn't have worried, because they both were very happy with our meal.

I think what works best about the restaurant is the concept itself: 40 stools situated at a bar, surrounding an open kitchen. By now we had enough of five-hour dinners in the refined and hushed dining rooms of three star restaurants. L'Atelier let's you get up close and personal with the chefs and the food. You can see them make what you eat. How simple, yet fun that can be!

The other thing that works here is of course, the food. If the French revere their chefs the way Americans revere rock stars, then Joël Robuchon would be the Mick Jagger of France. His swan song, shortly before he retired was the creation of L'Atelier. He has been called the most influential French chef of the post-nouvelle era and the Primus inter pares of Paris' three Michelin star restaurants. A few notable awards like Chef of the Century and Meilleur Ouvrier de France help cement his reputation.

The starters were wonderful. I had pig trotters (I know, sounds terrible, but it had tons of rich flavor and was wonderfully presented) and scallops, while B. had foie gras and S. had eggplant. Things were off to a great start.

The main course was an easy choice as we had already seen it come out of the kitchen before we ordered: the Dover Sole. The butter-smooth goodness of the fish was cut nicely by acid from fresh lemon juice.

But the real show stopper here were the mashed potatoes, oops, "potato purée" as they say over here. I cannot begin to describe the rich buttery, unctuous, smooth, potato goodness in that small bowl. It is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. I don't wish to sound hyperbolic here, but this is what I would ask for on my death bed, a bowl of Joël Robuchon potato purée.

As this was B. and S's last meal in Paris, we planned on keeping dinner short: only three hours tonight. So S. and I ordered Chantreuse souflées while B. ordered something called Le Chocolat. It was simple, not too sweet, and just right to end the meal.

What a great way for B. and S. to end their trip to Paris!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Salon du Chocolat Paris

The Paris transportation strike has wreaked havoc on the City. We managed to get to Montparnasse on line 4 from St. Michel near the Pantheon, but the Ligne 12 was shut down. So we walked, and walked, and walked for over 30 minutes on Rue Giuginard towards the Paris Expo.

Finally, nous sommes arriver!

This place is immense! The Salon occupies two main halls of the Paris Expo which looks to be the size of two football fields. There are hundreds of exhibitor booths, in addition to a performance stage where dance performances highlighting the "history of chocolate" from its Aztec roots, selection of "Miss Cacao", and the daily chocolate fashion show occur. There is also a demonstration hall where Michelin 3-star chefs show you how to create their sensational chocolate dishes, and a lecture hall where various academics and doctors give lectures about chocolate and its putative health benefits. There is also an art gallery section where works of art in the style of New York graffiti are display--all constructed of, you guessed it, chocolate!

But, really we came here for the tastings, and we were not disappointed. Like baby birds to a mother's beak, we chirped "goûter?" repeatedly at each chocolate counter.

Bon Jour Madame, peut-être goûter?

Bien Sur!

Mais Oui!

There were of course almost all of the World's most famous choclatiers in attendance. Michel Cluizel had a booth. His chocolates are renown for having connections to cocoa plantations around the world including Sumatra, Venezuela, Ghana, Java and the Cote D'Ivoire. He believes in ethical and sustained production of cocoa that is fair to the local farmers while preserving the environment. He also eshews artificial additives such as soy lethicin (an emulsifying agent).

Here is a photo of one of the Choclatiers at his booth working on a large chocolate sculpture. Each of the fish took two hours to create and the entire piece involved about two days of work.

However, the highlight of the trip was to obtain the elusive CBS (Caramel-Beurre-Salé), salted butter caramels from the famed Choclatier Monsieur Henri Le Roux. He is believed to have recreated the recipe in the 1970's from an ancient gallic recipe and has since been copied extensively. Yet, he remains the original and best example of the famed French salted caramel (those of you who received the salted caramels from Artisan du Chocolat from me last year must now realize that it was an ersatz version of the Henri Le Roux original!). The company is now owned by a Japanese conglomerate (the Japanese love their French confection!), but Madamoiselle Le Roux (Henri's daughter) still works for the company, and even posed for a picture with me.

And, while we are on the subject of Japanese and Salt, two interesting finds at the show. First, this is the head of the famous Isetan Department store in Japan. He and his colleague went around to each famous Choclatier and obtained their autographs and cards for a poster that they will display in their world-famous Tokyo food halls.

And here is a picture of the many types of salt you can purchase here at the chocolate show, black salt!, as well as grey salt and even green salt! They are all natural forms of the mineral.

Now back to the chocolate. Some particularly exciting finds of the day. Monsieur Jean-Paul Hevin is the hot new comer to the French chocolate scene. He is causing excitement over his unique combinations of cheese and chocolate, unctuous creations that of course pander to the decadent French palate. I think only my friend A. could handle these bad boys, but I will have to insist that we share them.

Next great find of the show is Monsieur Jean Charles Rochoux. He's only had his own atelier in Paris for three years and this is his first Salon du Chocolat. However, mark my words: this is a guy to watch. He may have the most beautiful packaging of any of the Choclatiers at the show, but that is not the reason to buy Monsieur Rochoux's chocolates. His truffles are so rich and concentrated in chocolate goodness that they would melt if you touched them -- he includes a wooden pick in each box for that purpose. The cream in his truffles demands that they are eaten within 10 days (as if they would last that long!). I plan to stop by his shop off the Rue de Renne in the 6th arrondisement (but only after the darn traffic strike is over and the metro is working again)!

Of course, the grand damme of French chocolate, Maison du Chocolat, cannot be forgotten. After all, the founder Robert Linxe all but created the concept of enrobing ganache to create the modern chocolate creations that are now widely enjoyed. With shops in New York, and around the world, it is no wonder that they represent classical French chocolate to perfection for most people. For me, its a little bit, N'import de Quoi as they say in French (whatever?). If I can buy them in New York, why should I lug them back from Paris?

I'll mention one final discovery of the day: Foie Gras and chocolate. Could there be any better savory chocolate combination? Although I didn't go for it, many people were buying foie gras and chocolate baguette sandwiches!

Okay, but after all the samples, what else is there to do? Well, sit your derrier down and watch Patrick Bertron of Relais Bernard Loiseau (3 Michelin Stars) make Croquant de Chocolat Tainon, caramel de fruits secs a la sauge, ganache et coulis aux fruits de la passion -- got that?

The free tasting sample was even better than looking at the finished product. My friend B. didn't like it though, but his wife S. seemed to enjoy it. We all thought the chocolate coated chicken that was also demonstrated was a bit of a stretch though.

Of course, after all that food, we had to rest. So we went to the dance performance area and watched (i.e. slept) through and interpretive dance history of chocolate followed by a selection of the day's Miss Cacao (the semifinalists from each day go on to compete in a finale at the end of the show). Participants are selected from the visitors to the show, and are dressed in costumes from chocolate-producing countries.

Drum roll please...Miss Cacao semifinalist is...

We nap for another hour until the day's final extravaganza: the Chocolate Fashion show. We have already seen some of the chocolate dresses being made during the day:

And even photographed some of the ones on display:

And the show-stopping finale piece by Maison du Chocolat with a chocolate globe headpiece (not shown here).

The show starts with a bizzare Can Can military tatoo type opening number (complete with chocolate pasties): (video to come soon!)

Then the first model appears:

And my camera dies. Sorry, you will have to wait for photos from B. and S.'s cameras on the show. But let's just say it was very entertaining!

At that my friends, wraps up my coverage of Salon du Chocolat 2007 from Paris. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as we did attending the event! More soon. Now, I'm off to spend another day in Paris!!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

How the French Stay so Thin

I now realize how the French can eat all those baguettes and foie gras yet stay so thin. They walk everywhere. This is only my second day in Paris and I have never walked so much in my life (except maybe when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro)! In fact, I've walked so much I broke my shoe!

Yes, the sole of my shoe peeled off because of all the pavement I have been hitting. I wandered into BHV, a giant department store at the Hotel de Ville and was directed to this little stand in the basement: a guy there makes keys and fixes shoes while you wait. I love how Parisienne's walk so much that this happens often enough that someone can make a living fixing shoes while you wait! That or it is a sad commentary on our "throw away" culture in the US!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

About a Macaroon

I first came across a proper French macaron in the giant food halls in the basement of Takashimaya and Isetan department stores in Tokyo. The Japanese have a national obsession with French pastry and chocolate -- and that was my circuitous introduction to French patisserie.

In my opinion, the French macaron is the holy grail of cookies (if it can really be called a cookie, it is much more than that). Made of almond flour, egg whites and sugar, it has a crispy meringue shell that covers a tender and slightly chewy center. In between the two halves of the meringue is usually a filling of some sort, be it fruit confiture or chocolate ganache.

Entire books are written about French macarons. I have read that they are notoriously difficult to make. Entire batches are discarded if the weather is too humid for them to set correctly. The French are very serious about their macarons!

My trip to Paris brings me to the mother ship, Lauderée. The original store was founded in 1862 by Louis Ernest Lauderée on the Rue Royal where it still exists today. It was his grandson, Pierre Desfontaine who is credited with inventing the modern macaron in 1931.

The inside of the store still has the original hand-painted ceiling and very small customer service area. They sell over 15,000 macarons a day from this store, but it's hard to tell given that there are only three people behind the counter and waits of over 30 minutes to get a chance to buy your macaron are not uncommon.

I bought two boxes of macarons today, one for B. and S. and one for the road. My box didn't last for long. I barely had time to take a photo before gulping them down. Another signature Lauderée confection is shown below. Sorry, I don't know the name, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Monday, October 15, 2007

À Bientôt: Off to Paris!

I haven't packed and its 2AM. My flight leaves at 7:15AM and I know this is going to be an all-nighter. I've been really swamped lately helping Chandra with a poster for the ASA, all the hullabaloo with the new Stanford Anesthesia Annual Report redesign project and book chapters yet to edit and write! Anyways, Molly doesn't seem to think it is a good idea to be so rushed, she's shaking her head at me disapprovingly. I know, things don't look good right now...