Wednesday, 20 May 2015
Le Rech, Paris
As I mentioned in the other recent Paris post, there is always going to be a certain amount of risk involved in leaving the choosing of a restaurant in someone else's hands. Deciding where I'm going to eat is, after all, an activity that occupies 90% of my time (the rest of the time I'm actually eating, or asleep) and I consider myself, after all these years, to be quite good at it. It's one of my core skills, a key bullet point on my CV. "• Can choose a restaurant and not very often get it wrong."
And Rech was perhaps more of a risk than most, partly because it was a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant in Paris (the kind of place if I was spending my own money I'd avoid like the plague; I mean I like seafood but I also like not being bankrupt) but mainly because my only other experience of an Alain Ducasse restaurant didn't end well. To put it mildly.
Things started slowly. You shouldn't expect too much from cold amuses maybe but then, if they're not going to dazzle or excite, what's the point anyway? Starting off a fancy seafood meal with a teeny bowl of chopped sardine served with a small amount of cold seafood jelly (disconcertingly void of flavour, and welded to the glass as if it had been in situ for quite some time) doesn't perform any function other than to demonstrate you're not quite sure where your strengths lie.
Similarly sliced asparagus with seabass, I mean, it was fine but I would have felt much better about the meal as a whole had these first two courses been omitted. They both had that fridge-fresh, slightly confused aroma and sad, settled appearance of something having been plated a long time ago.
Fortunately, things picked up a bit. It's impossible not to be impressed by a vast platter of fruits de mer and this was as impressive as they come, with prawns, langoustine, rock oysters, brown shrimp, (tiny voice) whelks (I hate whelks) and some clams or cockles. Dipped in fresh mayonnaise and spritzed with lemon, it was all (whelks aside, I mean come on, they taste like snot) very good.
After we'd polished off as much of the seafood as we possibly could (I seem to remember there were a lot of whelks left over) the next course appeared, a signature Ducasse cocotte containing huge chunks of sweet Brittany lobster on a bed of some kind of grain - spelt? Lobster bisque was poured on top to liven it up a bit, but this was still a strangely unsatisfying dish, the spelt not really making a very good companion to the seafood, and it all a bit underseasoned. The lobster was good, but would have been even better presented in its shell as part of the previous course than dumped on hot porridge.
But then somewhat confusingly, the next dish, brill with morels, was really nice. Meaty, bright white fish and a pile of new season morels in one of those classical French cream sauces you'd almost forgotten existed amidst all the purées and foams of new-wave cooking. And like at La Regalade, I loved the way the morels soaked up so much sauce in their nooks and crannies that when you bit into them they exploded in the mouth.
The cheese course was just one type of Camembert, which could have been a bit disappointing for a cheese addict like me if a) we hadn't had so much cheese the rest of the trip I ran the risk of developing some sort of condition and b) it wasn't the single greatest Camembert I've ever tasted in my life. Which it absolutely was. I can tell you it was made in a town called Failaise in Normandy, and I can tell you it was aged in Paris for 22 days by master fromager Marie-Anne Cantin. But what I can't express in this post is just how deep and rich the aroma was, wet grass mixed with the monkey house at the zoo, combined with a beautiful complex flavour that ran and ran without being overwhelming or succumbing to harsh sulphur like so many old Bries and Camembers do. In a city with so many wonderful cheese shops (the next day we visited Fromagerie Laurent Dubois, where I would have spent the entire weekend if they'd let me), and a country with such an astonishing number of wonderful cheeses, to stand out takes supreme skill. This was a Camembert to rule them all.
Fruit salad is never likely to set pulses racing but was pleasant enough, with some pistachio ice cream, candied pistachios and mini meringues for colour and texture. And after that was their "famous" (their words, not mine) XL éclair, an impressive bit of pastrywork stuffed with chocolate ice cream. It, too, did its job well enough.
Perhaps the point of these press events isn't that everything is to any particular individual's taste, particularly not a restaurant snob like me whose back was up as soon as I heard the name Alain Ducasse and saw they were charging €76 for five courses. But in the end, even objectively I have to conclude that the food is not as good as that at the cosy little bistro we were taken to the day before, who even managed to squeeze in premium ingredients like asparagus and morels for a little under half the price as Le Rech.
It's a strange position to be in, after having studiously avoided Alain Ducasse restaurants for five years, finally being persuaded to try one again and being disappointed - again. Like the meal at the Dorchester back in 2010, none of it was horrible, it just wasn't worth the money, and while my emotions of having eaten for free at this one in Paris is of mild guilt (or is that gout, it's hard to tell these days), if I'd had to pay for it myself I would have not been happy at all. So I can't really recommend it to you, either. Go get your Camembert from Cantin direct, get your éclairs from your favourite local patisserie, and try this Timeout list for some cheap'n'cheerful seafood options. And what you save on lunch at Le Rech you can spend on a round of Pastis after dinner. Doesn't that sound like a lot more fun?
I was a guest at Le Rech as part of an organised press trip. Tickets were provided by Eurostar and included Business Premier meals by Raymond Blanc. Until we come up with a Paris version, download my app for the top 100 restaurants in London.