Thursday, 9 June 2016

Review of Maison Troisgros, Roanne: Evolution and Tradition

What does it mean to have three Michelin stars?  The Little Red Book, ahem forgive me, the Red Guide, states that a three-star meal must boast "(e)xceptional cuisine, worth a special journey".  During my Lyonnais detour, I put that boast to the test at Maison Troisgros, where the Troisgros family have reputedly been serving such a cuisine since 1968.


Roanne is a 70-minute train journey away from Lyon, an interminably long journey for a lone diner looking forward to experiencing another of his / her "bucket list" restaurants.  It is no empty boast for the Troisgros family to claim that they put Roanne on the world map.  The Burgundian Troisgros family first moved to Roanne and opened their restaurant in 1930.  However, it was only under the prodigiously talented brothers Jean (MOF 1965) and Pierre that it became one of France's greatest tables, featuring signature dishes such as the salmon in sorrel.  Christian Millau, one of the founders of the Gault et Millau restaurant guide, first visited Troisgros in 1962, sent there by none other than Paul Bocuse with the words "if you think my restaurant was good, you should go to Roanne where the food is better".  On Jean's death in 1983, a grateful Mairie renamed the street opposite Roanne train station, hitherto known as Place de la Gare, as Place Jean Troisgros.

The current chef-patron Michel Troisgros, son of Pierre, first returned to the family business in 1983 after his uncle Jean's passing, and joined his father in the kitchen.  Michel perhaps saw an outward-facing evolution as the way of the future; of the three three-starred restaurants that I visited this trip (the others are Paul Bocuse's Auberge du Pont de Collonges and the Haeberlins' Auberge de l' Ill, on which more later), Troisgros is quite clearly the most modern, the most international by a long stretch.  Its dining room reminds me of Tetsuya's in Kent Street (in a good way, overlooking a manicured garden and all) and above all, its cuisine incorporates a myriad of global influences, and a presentation style that is clean, modern and striking, almost avant-garde in its minimalism.  Its 2,500 label carte des vins, while paying due homage to nearby Burgundy, also boasts a stellar collection of Bordeaux, that international darling since time immemorial.  Given the above, it is unsurprising that it is also one of the few French entries in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, whose voters seem to like this kind of schtick.


A quick tour of the underground cellar, which holds some 15,000 bottles.  The sommelier tells me that the restaurant owns another 10,000 bottles stored offsite for ageing as they are not yet ready for consumption.  This is a wine programme with one eye clearly fixed on the future, and I am astounded to find that the pricing is very reasonable, not just by three-star standards.  OK, Burgundy is expensive but so is it in real life, but boy is there some value in the Bordeaux list.  As an example, aged vintages of Vieux Château Certan are offered for 200 euros nett and upwards, which isn't that far away from prices available on Wine Searcher.


Back at my seat now, and I wait for the repast to begin.   I do note the fine collection of Troisgros condiments, books, accessories for sale.  Such seems to be de rigueur in the grand old tables, with collections of greater size chez Bocuse and Haeberlin.

I lost my notes on this meal, so forgive me if my descriptions are a bit scant.

Canapés:


Good, not earth-shattering.  Then again, if a canapé can shatter your earth, you must be rather fragile.

Amuse Bouche: Skinny Gnocchi of Artichokes


A "pasta" made from artichokes filled with an artichoke cream.  Looks simple but I doubt it actually is.  Very good, and I particularly like the bitter, palate-cleansing effect.

First Entrée: White Asparagus, Glazed with Mustard, Basil and Red Chilli


Simply stunning.  White asparagus from Alsace (I can't seem to get away from Alsace, even at Bocuse where the two senior chefs and MOFs, Christophe Muller and Gilles Reinhardt, are Alsatians) napped with a (if I recall correctly) crème fraîche-based glaze of mustard (yellow), basil (green) and chillies (reddish-orange), it is incredible how the conjunction of two quintessences seems to bring out the best in each.  The asparagi are sublimely cooked and the best I have had this season (despite pigging out on quite a few in Alsace), quite possibly ever.  While I have always had a soft spot for them, enjoying them in this pristine, unspoilt state was almost like tasting their true beauty for the first time.  "All thanks to the wonderful asparagus", Michel says very modestly.

Second Entrée: Salmon in Sorrel Sauce


Breathtaking.  It does not look like much, but its flavours, the natural acidity of the sorrel slicing into the oily richness of the salmon, are remarkable.  At the venerable age of 53 years, this dish does not feel outdated in the slightest, even if its presentation is a little basic.  However, putting yourself in the shoes of a diner in the 1960s, the clarity and cleanness of the flavours must have been a revelation.  In this progenitor, one can clearly see the primitive DNA which would evolve in time into Michel's cuisine acidulée.  A great privilege to taste this, outweighed perhaps only by its sheer deliciousness.

One of the waiters apologises with a little glint of mischief in his eye.  "I am sorry, sir, that we had to serve you Scottish salmon, but at least it is Label Rouge.  If you had come thirty years ago, we would have caught the salmon from the Loire for you".  Try to imagine a waiter in Singapore cracking that joke with you, and you see why I treasure, nay, I frickin' adore the service experience here in France.

Main: Pigeonneau, steamed with Eggplant, Mandarin Peel and Cabbage, Purée of Orange, Marmalade and Garlic, Squab Juices


Three dishes in a row, three triumphs.  I know this is a three-star restaurant but this is utterly superb.  The acidulée component is very subtle in this dish, as subtle as the gentle perfume imparted into the squab by the slice of mandarin peel (see the little orange thing between the eggplant and the squab?).  With the sweet onion and the utterly divine jus, however, you don't need much more.  Brilliant.

I am not sure if it was the fact that I had scored a brilliant hat-trick with the savouries, but the desserts were noticeably less thrilling...

First Dessert: Some Faux Egg Thing in a Nest


I distinctly remember the waiter telling me the outer skin was made of coconut, stuffed with ice-cream and a mango puree.  I'm not sure if Michel has been talking recently to his brother Claude (he of Brazilian "Tropical French Cuisine" fame), but I don't know what to think of this dessert.  While it was good, it lacked any sense of place, it felt like it could have been served at any semi-modernist restaurant around the world.  

Second Dessert: "Off-Season Butterfly", Passionfruit


I really didn't understand this dessert.  The maitre d' told me that they had replaced the usual dessert on the menu with these two.  This was introduced to me as an "off-season butterfly", and it looks pretty off-season too; the butterfly, in particular, looked like it had seen gentler springs.  I can't recall for the life of me what was going on here, although I remember something chocolatey off-set with the sourness of the passionfruit.  Decent, but like its predecessor, it's not really a three-star dessert.

Petits Fours


I can't recall anything about these guys, so they obviously weren't particularly memorable, either memorably good or memorably bad.  Fair.

Conclusion

This was an excellent meal.  I did notice that Troisgros appears to have removed many of the Asian and Japanese influences that previously marked his food.  Savouries were absolutely world-class, albeit in a more modern style, but desserts were a noticeable step down.  Conceptually, whereas Troisgros seemed happy to let the savoury courses be presented in as natural a state as possible, there seemed to be a lot of sleight of hand, visual illusions / allusions in the desserts.  Pastry does not have predetermined forms and it is up to the patissier to impose his creativity and will upon his ingredients, but I find the desserts a bit played with, sacrificing flavour and primal satisfaction for the trompe l'oeil which marks desserts at so many modern restaurants.  It seems a bit of a wank to say it with reference to a grand old three-star table, but desserts here really need some work if they are to keep pace with the savouries.

Service was great, and very confident.  It did not seem to have an elder statesman presence like Bocuse, and the crew seemed more cosmopolitan, more relaxed than their counterparts in Lyon.  For me, in almost every aspect of the experience, from the modernity of its food to the manner of its staff, Troisgros feels less like a three-star in the regions and more like a Parisian counterpart.  Except of course, few restaurants in Paris could afford to devote precious real estate to something as frivolous as a garden.

I learned at the end of my meal that after some 86 years in the same spot, Maison Troisgros would up stumps in late 2016 and relocate to a luxurious château in the nearby village of Ouches, which will also boast a twelve room five-star hotel amidst seventeen hectares of landscaped grounds.  I asked my waiter why this move was taking place now, and he merely shrugged his shoulders, saying "the family have been renting this place all this while, and they bought the new place, so..."  While I was pleased to have had the opportunity to dine at these iconic premises prior to the move, I can't imagine the Mairie would be very pleased to have a Place Jean Troisgros without a Troisgros in place.

And of course, we come back to the acid test: would I come back?  Absolutely, and especially with a group of friends so we could do justice / some serious damage to the stellar wine list.

MAISON TROISGROS
Score: 18.5/20
Chef-Patron: Michel Troisgros

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

Address: 1 Place Jean Troisgros
42300 Roanne 
France
Tel: +33 4 77 71 66 97
www.troisgros.com

2 comments:

  1. Nice write, loved the staff humour. The food looks amazing, especially the asparagus and salmon. Was it lunch or dinner? Degustation or a la carte? Our IWFSKL is half threatening a Rhone visit next year, have to ask Uncle Wong to fit it in. :D

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    1. Cheers Brian.

      Lunch, prix fixe menu at 110 euros. They graciously added the salmon as an entree portion for 25 euros (advance order), which I thought was a bargain. I didn't agree a price with the restaurant prior to sitting down, which is a dangerous game to play at three-star level!

      I should add that in the lunch menu, you really only get two savoury dishes if you don't add supplements like the salmon. Given the weakness of the sweet kitchen, this may not be satisfactory, especially if you are contemplating a large group.

      If you are going Rhone, then Paul Bocuse is also an absolute must. I know you have been there before but the place is amazing, and the memories still torment my growling stomach on a regular basis.

      Please give my best to Uncle Wong!

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