Monday, 23 May 2016

Review of Paul Bocuse - Fifty-One Years of Three Michelin Stars, and Still Going Strong

After the tragic events of last month, I needed to tear myself away from Alsace, if only for a few days.  So I jumped on the slow train to Lyon, another of France's reputed gastronomic capitals.  Here was one of my "bucket list" restaurants, the Auberge du Pont de Collonges of the legendary chef Paul Bocuse.

Anyone who knows anything about French cuisine needs no introduction to Bocuse.  The renowned nonagenarian chef, pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, Meilleur Ouvrier de France 1961, holder of three Michelin stars at the Auberge du Pont de Collonges since 1965, founder of the global Bocuse d'Or cooking competition, who also infamously kept two mistresses alongside his long-suffering wife Raymonde.  While I never met the guy (he is apparently rather ill now and no longer does the rounds at his restaurant to greet his guests), he is quite clearly a remarkable human being and character.  How many people do you know could get away with saying appalling things to The Guardian such as "I adore women and we live too long these days to spend a whole life with only one" while taking his first mistress at 40, or, in response to a question from a diner who asked him who cooked at the Auberge when he wasn't here, "the same people who cook when I am here" (by the way, the kitchen today is run by Christophe Muller, MOF 2001 and a native of Alsace who apprenticed at that region's grande table L'Auberge de l'Ill under Marc Haeberlin).

But there is something about this place that has always fascinated me.  The fact that the menu hadn't changed for over 30 years was one of them.  Or the fact that he seemed to have four Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (a high honour bestowed at competition level by the French Ministry of Labour) working in his restaurant at any given time.  Or that the English-speaking media (mostly les Americains) always seemed to have its knives out for him, accusing him of being stale, staid, outdated and even racist, while he somehow maintained a five-decade-long stranglehold on his three Michelin stars.

Anyway, so I caught a taxi out from my base at the Hotel Lyon Metropole, riding northeast along the banks of the Saône, until I saw a pink, garish wedding cake-like structure towering over all else.  They sure don't make buildings like they used to; actually, I'm not sure they ever made buildings like this, present subject matter excepted.


The interior, is far more typique.  The dining room has the old-fashioned charm and resplendence you would expect of a long-running three-star restaurant in the regions.  Staff here are all male, typically tall, slim and handsome in that classic Michelin mould, looking much like they came from the same manufacturing line in Clermont-Ferrand.  The wine list here is punitively expensive, more so when you re a lone diner like I was.  There is a nice focus on the Northern and Southern Rhône, entirely appropriate since the Rhône flows a stone's throw away from the restaurant.

I play it safe and go for the Menu Classique, a safe-ish five course menu at 165E.

Amuse-Bouche: Cream of Green Pea


I suck my breath in.  This is the purest, sweetest quintessence of pea I have ever tasted.  It is gone within a few seconds, but I seriously recalibrate any expectations I may have had: this is ingredient-centric cooking with a dash of genius, an outdated concept, peut-etre?  Stunning.

Entrée: Quenelle de Brochet, Sauce Nantua


Superb.  The quenelle is a fishball from heaven, yielding to the merest suggestion of a knife waved over it.  The sauce Nantua, a bechamel-based preparation flavoured with cognac and crayfish, is like a seafood soup from heaven, savoury with its morsels of crayfish.  Dice of vegetables and mushroom add some much needed textural contrast, but it is all a blast.

I will add this for the atmosphere: the two Anglo-American couples to my left strike up some friendly cross-table banter with me, and despite the classicism of the food and the serious demeanour of the tall young men, this is the kind of place in which such behaviour seems almost appropriate.  I am not sure the Japanese wine buyers who were sharing the room with us would agree, but I like to think that Bocuse keeps a sense of humour about these things.  After all, you can't emblazon your name and/or image on every single piece of cutlery and crockery in the restaurant and take yourself too seriously right?

Main Course: Bresse Chicken Leg with Fresh Morels and Cream Sauce, Wild Rice, Sauteed Spinach


While this dish was excellent, it was for me the least impressive of the savoury courses.  The chicken was tender and tasty, but I wasn't blown away by it, and I suspect that my having switched to free-range chickens has something to do with it.  The sauce feels a bit underseasoned, although the rice more than makes up for it.  Fresh morels are in season now and are brilliant as you would expect.

This dish is far more substantial and filling than it looks.  After my waiter whisks my plate away, I feel the dreaded food wall approaching.  I distinctly remember the sage words of my friend, Parisien food writer Julien Tort, when he departed halfway through his tasting menu for a half-hour walk along the banks of the Saône; much more elegant, I guess,  than the Ancient Roman custom of inducing vomiting at banquets.  "Such are the old French ways", Tort writes with a sentimentality and a sense of loss that reverberates through the ages, "and we are no longer fit for it".  I content myself with a stroll around the courtyard and valiantly put my pidgin French to the test, trying to read Bocuse's tribute to the greats of French cuisine, starting with Antonin Carême, working his way through Fernand Point, Jean Troisgros, Julia Child (?) and, unsurprisingly, finishing up with His Lordship, Monsieur Paul himself.

After a good chuckle, I steel myself for the upcoming onslaught and return to my table.

Cheese Course: From La Mère Richard


All of my favourites were here: livarot, comté, camembert of Normandie, a lovely Saint-Marcellin, and the signature housemade cheese, a fromage blanc en faiselle a la crème double blitzed with sugar.  Very good, and its sourness was a great palate cleanser to prepare you for what comes next.

Dessert(s)

After cheese, they bring a two-tiered tower of mignardises, and a pre-dessert of chocolate pot de crème, rich, silky and delicious.  I am uncertain why the mignardises come out before dessert.  Then the unthinkable happens.

At a certain point, one of the head waiters nods at an accomplice, and they pull over three tables to flank mine.  Two are already laden with pastries whose names are no longer heard in "French" restaurants in Singapore: Paris-Brest, baba au rhum, floating islands (meringue clouds drizzled with crème anglaise), crème brûlée, raspberry eclairs.  A large silver tray is brought to top off the third: ramekins filled with raspberries, fruit salad, macerated strawberries, home-made ice cream and a red fruit coulis.


As my wife will tell you, indecisiveness is one of my weaknesses.  However, I reason with myself: why would they put all of these goodies in front of you if they didn't intend for you to select multiple items?  I treat this as my own personal buffet, albeit one of three-Michelin star standard.  A rum baba soon arrives at my table (extra shot of rum, s'il vous plaît), a slice of the Bernachon chocolate cake and just to fulfil my nutritional pyramid for the day, a dish of raspberries with Chantilly cream.


The Anglo-Americans, one course behind me, gasp in awe at my dessert buffet and almost gag as they see my trio of desserts being presented.  One of the males says repeatedly "You are my food hero" (note to the Asian Food Channel).  Despite my exhortation, they all opt for only one dessert each, one of them even skipped it!  For the record, the rum baba is top-class, the Bernachon cake is mildly forgettable and the berries are ripe and in season.  I ask the staff to box up the mignardises, which they do gladly.

As stuffed as Marco Rubio's election campaign, I stagger out, grinning like the cat who literally got too much cream.  I write to Tort, telling him what a brilliant dinner I had.  He loves his food, does our Julien, and he eagerly writes back, asking me what I had, so I tell him.

There is, perhaps, nothing more depressing than having one of the best meals of your life, only to be told soon after that you were doing it all wrong.  No, no, no, Julien is emphatic, no one orders chicken at Bocuse, and certainly not anything "a la broche".  We spend the next hour discussing what I should have ordered, dodine de canard, fillets of sole Fernand Point, red mullet with fried potato scales...


***

Three days later, my birthday arrived and I was at a loose end.  I was staying at a spa hotel and was counting on working off the accumulation of sins I had committed over the last ten days.  But I thought: screw it.  If a truck hit me tomorrow, would I regret more not going back to Bocuse and ordering the dishes that made its name, or not spending three hours sweating it out in the frickin' hammam?  I woke up the next morning, hit the gym extra early and called Bocuse to make a booking.

The Michelin mannequins are surprised to see me, the first expression of emotion I have seen cross their faces, but they are clearly pleased, surmising that they had perhaps played some role in my decision to return.  I am seated, confident and with a swagger I rarely feel, refuse their offer of the menu.  Francois Pipala, the directeur de salle and MOF 1994 (discreetly signified by three small vertical stripes in the Tricolor sewn onto the collar of his white shirt; yes, my Southeast Asian readers, waiters do have their own category in the MOF!), murmurs approvingly as he scribbles my order in his writing pad "oh, great order, a true classic...", before he suddenly stops.  "Maybe you have too much food?" he looks at me with a comically raised eyebrow.  I point to my already distended belly, and say "I will find room".  He has probably seen young punks pull this sort of nonsense bravado before and suggests "Perhaps the dodine and the rouget en demi (as half-portions), and a full serve of the sole Fernand Point?"  What a helpful suggestion, Monsieur, of course! 

I need to highlight, if I haven't already done so in previous pages, the transformative power of great service.  Pipala has worked in the front-of-house for some 35 years, all of them at Bocuse.  Watching him is to watch a craftsman at the peak of his powers, a master of guest psychology, authoritatively commanding attention and sharing knowledge with a grave mien, only to raise laughter with a well-timed wink, raised eyebrow or laugh.  He may serve, but he is not servile, and has large tables eating (figuratively, of course) out of his hands.  I have seen very few front-of-house staff of such calibre, and certainly none in Singapore, not even close.  Bravo!

Amuse-Bouche: Casolette de Homard à l'Armoricaine


Not wanting to subject me to the brilliance of the pea cream again, my waiter brings this as a birthday salutation from the kitchen.  "As you have already had the pea cream before", he says.  The casolette, a full-blown entree costing 60E on the carte, is the best lobster preparation I have ever tasted, bar none.  I love it in my bowl, I adore it in my spoon, and I hate it when it disappears.  I sit back and giggle, incapable of words (I was dining alone so who would I speak to anyway?).  Amazing.

Entrée: Dodine de canard à l'ancienne pistaché, foie gras ( 27.50E en demi)


Sorry, but this is a bit dull for me.  Perhaps in a full portion, I could have appreciated the texture of the dodine and the foie gras more.  Perhaps in a larger serve, the ingredients in the dodine would have had greater opportunity to shine.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

First Main: Rouget barbet en écailles de pommes de terres croustillantes (32.50E en demi)


This may well be the best thing I have ever eaten.  I know I have been saying that a lot in this post but this dish is seriously chock-full of top-level scrumptiousness.  The red mullet is moist and flakes gently, the potatoes taste of potato and are immaculately crispy, the sauce, an emulsion of rosemary, orange with teased-out veal jus, simply sublime.

Second Main:  Fillets of Sole, Fernand Point (80E)


A very old-school dish that would be banned under today's dietary guidelines: beautifully-cooked and meaty sole fillets (that's OK) on a generous bed of tagliatelle (carbs, can't have that), topped with a sauce made only of butter and egg-yolks and browned under a salamander grill (!!!).  Flavours are subtle but enchanting, the richness and decadence of the sauce an absolute highlight.

After all this, the idea of confronting the cheese trolley or the dessert buffet is rather intimidating.  I ask one of the head waiters whether they can do a dessert a la carte, rather than having to face head-on again the horror of those three tables of doom.  He bristles just a little; sir, all of our desserts are a la carte, we just present them all in front of you at the same time.  Right, I guess that's a no then.  I order an espresso to close off my repast, and the mignardises arrive again to test my resolve.

As I ride back to my hotel in the rain, I smile again, reflecting on how much these two meals have taught me about the history of French gastronomy, and how we perceive the fundamentals of restaurants and their proposition.  Of course we have nothing like this in Singapore, but it grieves me also to think how much that is good and classic we have left behind, in the name of inventions, fads, trends.  Or how so many have abandoned food as being the context for conviviality, rather than the reason for or in place of it.  Or how we have effectively trashed the service industry by keeping wages low and somehow rewarding people for just turning up, as opposed to actually rewarding excellence.

It then dawned upon me why Bocuse hadn't changed his menu in 30 years.  Perfection?  He may well have achieved it.

L'AUBERGE DU PONT DE COLLONGES
Score: 19/20
Chef Patron: Paul Bocuse
Executive Chef: Christophe Muller

How many Michelin stars I think it will get: ***
How many Michelin stars I think it should get: ***

Address: 40 rue de la Plage
69660 Collonges au Mont d'Or
France
Tel: +33 4 72 42 90 90
www.bocuse.fr

4 comments:

  1. ahhhhh, that makes me want to go there so much! Even though it's not exactly my kinda food, the love, the attention to detail and your descriptions are divine.

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  2. Thanks very much Tori! You really should!

    I was talking to a friend about this recently, and I remarked that Bocuse's is the kind of food that even non-"foodies" / gastronauts / gourmets could very easily appreciate, because it is not cerebral or pretentious, and it is not played with. Put simply, it is all about superlative ingredients cooked superbly, and with classic flavour associations which have stood the test of time. And unlike many modern restaurants with their garden-scatter presentations and nitro-frozen bollocks, you certainly won't go hungry.

    There is really nothing not to like about that!

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  3. Twice!!??! I am so envious. Good points and your signature pithy writing here. We have indeed lost this sense of real excellence where the chase for deconstructed foraging novelty seems to overwhelm simple and brilliantly prepared food. Bocuse remains one of the lunches of my life, totally memorable for food, service and ambience. I'd go back in a second.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Brian, very glad to have my decision vindicated! ;)

      Fully agreed. I'd go back for a third, in a second!

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