My review was born in the cab not five minutes after we left: "I can die now." That's said not entirely in jest.
It's hard to go through our evening course-by-course since that's been done and done well. That doesn't mean, of course, that I don't have some comments. A couple of changes have taken place since the pre-opening dinners. The butter is salted and Danish, fwiw. (They told us that when they served the bread, a miniature boule. Bread service was a little off. The first time, our breads were barely warm and, worse, were a bit overdone and very hard to break open. The second time, they were very hot from the oven. That made them easier to open but they were still a bit overdone and too crusty. Another tiny complaint: given the size of each one, we were surprised to have to ask for more.) Coffee or tea is now offered at the end, compris. Our hors d'oeuvres appeared on a similarly pristine, heavy silver charger. This course and every single item that followed was explained in a fair amount of detail. Our server—whose name we never got but who was top-notch—was clearly excited; after an initial over-effusive introduction, he reverted to merely enthusiastic mode. Far more important, he knew the menu and the preparations and the ingredients in detail. I asked about the citrus taste I got when I had the one-bite quail egg/anchovy and he told me how the dish was plated, including the lemon zest. When I asked about the slight fennel taste I noticed in the turtle soup, he told me about the unusual mirepoix that included, yes, fennel. And so on and so on. There was nothing I asked that he didn't have an answer for—including, most impressively, questions relating to some of the wine.
Each hors d'oeuvre was rich and highly sensory and flavorful and eye-opening in a different way. The quail egg/anchovy bite, for instance. What with the runny, mouth-filling egg yolk, it didn't taste of fish exactly, but it didn't taste as if the fish were missing, either. If that makes sense. You know it's there, but if you imagine salted preserved anchovy, you couldn't be more wrong. The brioche with the foie "filling" and the little quenelle of apricot: a rich, eggy, fresh slice of brioche, filled with foie and reminiscent of the common pairing of quince, without being quince. The brandade was a three-layer miracle: a truffle layer at the bottom, brandade in the middle, topped with a Sauce (à la) Crème (basically a béchamel plus cream, reduced), all sprinkled with a brunoise (tiny dice) of truffle. With a tiny silver spoon, you are instructed to stir the contents. The word "bliss" comes to mind.... A duxelles wrapped in leek, pork rillette... Tiny decorations, created or trimmed exactly, placed precisely. You taste components—indeed, you taste individual ingredients—even as you taste the whole. Textures, sensations, flavors, everything comes together yet maintains an integrity that makes the synergy even more enjoyable.
And everything is rich, everything is voluptuous. The clear turtle soup. I understand wanting a reduced, even more powerful soup. But I found the flavors and strength of the soup, as it was presented, nearly perfect. The slightly astringent edge of the turtle would have become harsher and the flavor more pronounced. I worry that the delicate, vaguely earthy flavor would have been overpowering in a stronger concentration. As it was, the fragility, the daintiness of the soup was a marvelous pause after the set of remarkably rich hors d'oeuvres. It was a chance to collect one's breath before plunging in to the three courses at the heart of the meal: the fish (filet de sole Daumont), the poussin (very young chicken), and the true pièce de résistance, the caneton Rouennais à la presse (the pressed Rouen duck).
Without belaboring each course, suffice to say that these were superb. The filet of sole with its accompaniments may, indeed, have been my favorite course (as distinct from my favorite item): a plate coated with Sauce Normande, a small "roll" of sole stuffed with a forcemeat of fish and cream placed dead center, a crayfish head at 12 o'clock, likewise stuffed. And now: shall I tell you what this meal is really about? Shall I share with you why it is extraordinary, so revolutionary in its way, so unique? Very well. Let me take a moment to tell you about what many of us might overlook as mere "garnishes" for this plate. The kitchen follows Escoffier's recipe almost to the letter in presenting a plate of parts. At five o'clock on the plate, lies a small mushroom cap—the size of a dime, maybe a nickel. At seven o'clock on the plate, a small ball of fish roe. But where most restaurants we visit might do a wonderful job with these things, let me tell you what goes into these two small, all-too-easily overlooked items at "Paris 1906." First, the mushroom cap is hand-carved, fluted, to make it pleasing to the eye. Then, it is stuffed with (to quote Escoffier) "a Salpicon of crayfish tails á la Nantua." And here, precisely, is what is so extraordinary: a salpicon of crayfish tails involves, in the first instance, preparing the crayfish, separating the meat and chopping it fine. Then, the tiny dice are bound with a Sauce Nantua. To prepare that sauce, in turn, you start with a béchamel, add cream, and reduce it by a third. Next, reconstitute the reduced sauce with more cream. To that, add crayfish butter. I'll skip the steps for preparing a crayfish butter, noting only that this, too, is a multi-step process. Having finally achieved the Sauce Nantua, you add it to the crayfish producing, finally, the requisite "Salpicon." Finally, many steps and much time later, you may fill the mushroom cap. And now you begin to see and to appreciate the astonishing amount of labor and experience and expertise entailed in preparing but a single item that garnishes a single plate in a multi-course meal. The second "garnish" on the plate, at seven o'clock is roe coated with breadcrumbs and lightly sautéed in butter. Oh là là !
From here, we proceeded to the suprêmes de poussin, a diamond-shaped breast filet coated with a sauce thickened with foie gras (hence the color of the sauce). The chicken was far less robust in flavor than what had preceded it, though none the less delectable. But with it was, for me, was the first disappointment of the evening. Accompanying the poussin were two slices of cucumber, poached in butter (if I recall correctly), stuffed with a chicken forcemeat, the whole wrapped in salt pork. As one might guess, the salt pork was not M. Escoffier's invention. I found the cucumber disappointing. As wonderful as the poussin was and its sauce, neither was strongly flavored. To complement it, something more assertive would have been welcomed. As it was, the delicate accompanied the delicate. Maybe it's just, as our server noted, that Achatz is a fan of cucumber. But a less nuanced treatment of the cucumber would have pointed up with poussin more effectively—vinegar, say, or even citrus.
And then there was duck. There's really not a whole lot one can say about the duck. It's been oohed and aahed over. Everything you've read and everything you've heard is accurate. The duck is perfection: crisp skin, juicy meat, perfectly cooked. Slices and legs. I find I agree with Anthony (yellow truffle, in the first post of this thread): the gratin was a bit salty. But that didn't stop us from doing everything but lick the platter clean. The portions of duck and gratin were quite generous and we left little but crumbs and a drop or two of juice. We were given a small gravy boat of the sauce for the duck. It was gone as well. Beyond rich, beyond unctuous. I do not know the word(s); so extraordinary that I won't even try.
We both enjoyed the salad that followed quite a bit. In fact, a step back was absolutely imperative. The freshness of the greens (starting with the very peppery nasturtium and all the way down the plate to the asparagus tips) and the acid were precisely what the palate needed to rest, regroup, and take stock. Escoffier's recipe calls for a composed salad of equal parts diced cucumber, green beans, asparagus, and cauliflower bound with a little Sauce Mayonnaise (amazing how that sounds so much more...French when you preface it that way), spiked with chervil and tarragon. He also called for finely shredded lettuce and garden cress; I didn't examine the salad that carefully but I expect to find it all in place. And, indeed, as Escoffier recommended, the dish arrived with radish slices and nasturtium.
The meal ended with Achatz's (Beran's?) take on Bombe Ceylan. The original is a coffee ice-cream filled with a rum-flavored mix. Alongside sat a trio of rum-drenched cherries (instead of raspberries offered the pre-opening diners) Like others who have posted, I wasn't especially taken with it, but I would rather be less-than-thrilled with this course than any other. It's virtually impossible to like every single item that appears in a meal of this kind; to expect to adore every plate is unreasonable. In the event, I didn't and have no complaints about that. Three mignardises (accompanied by tea or coffee, if you wished) completed the tour: a beet fruit jelly tasting lightly but clearly of beet, an almost impossibly rich caramel dusted with fleur de sel, and pistachio nougat. Someone's job in that kitchen must be ensuring that the silver chargers gleam and are free of any marks, fingerprints, or extraneous atoms.
(For those curious about the house-made non-alcoholic selections: the hors d'oeuvres were accompanied by a fizzy ginger/elderflower/pineapple juice. The turtle soup and the sole shared a hojicha (a green tea that is roasted) /apple/passionfruit creation; the poussin was accompanied by rice/carrot/white pepper and the duck and salad by cherry/lapsang souchong (a smoky tea)/sanbitter. LDC commented, and I also noticed, that the servings were not especially generous—particularly when compared to the pours I received of each wine. I would also be remiss not to note that, as the evening—and the courses—wore on, the servers several times offered an additional partial pour of wine. I have no doubt that LDC would have received more of her non-alcoholic beverages had she asked. But I didn't have to ask.
I will not rehearse the wines—if anyone is particularly curious, PM me and I'll be happy to respond with a list of exact names and vintages. I will single one out: it was the one I liked the least but it was perhaps the most unusual and extraordinary white I've ever had. Chosen to accompany the turtle soup, it was a Domaine de Montbourgeau Savagnin "Etoile" (Jura, 2005) that tasted, as explained during the pour, like a dry sherry. A fascinating choice inasmuch as a splash of sherry is added as a standard last note to turtle soup. Here, it was not sherry at all, but the savagnin grape, a distant relative of the traminer. It's from the Jura, in eastern France. Like sherry, it grows the equivalent of sherry's flor while aging in the barrel. Only in this case, it's called a voile, a veil. Unlike sherry, the wine is not fortified. But take a sip and it has the most uncanny resemblance to a fino. I didn't care for it but it was a truly extraordinary thing to taste. For those who are wondering, I would offer this advice: don't drive. This is a lot of wine. Added to the extreme richness, you're not gonna feel like wanting to drive, most likely. And you probably shouldn't.)
One pacing note: while we weren't rushed, exactly, this was not an entirely leisurely evening either. Although it took almost precisely two hours, we were kept moving the entire time. There was never more than a few minutes at most between courses. Frankly, especially given the nature of this menu, more time would have been welcomed. And, in fact, I left to go to the restroom at one point simply to buy a little time to decompress. More than once wines were presented for the coming course even as I was enjoying the last few sips of the previous course's selection. There simply didn't seem to be a true understanding of the desire and the need to let this take a little longer. I'm not suggesting that dawdling be encouraged; only that these courses are, for the most part, so rich, so amazing, that it takes time to savor and to appreciate what's going on. And sometimes that means that it helps to let us linger a little from time to time. That never happened and, although it didn't rise to the level of rushing us through, we never once felt like we had a chance to completely relax, either.
(Parenthetical, historical note. This is a fascinating story. If you have the least interest—which is something I can easily imagine some LTHers tempted by this dinner will have—you might want to read a little about César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier. They opened the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1898. That's right, 1898; the Ritz Hotel in London opened in 1906.). In fact, they'd been planning the move for a while. The Ritz Hotel Development Company was in place, anticipating the day and, in fact, construction had begun already in 1896. Good thing, too, because in 1897, Ritz and Escoffier were fired. Richard D'Oyly Carte (yes, the guy who started the opera company, later known for performing works by Gilbert & Sullivan) had brought them to London in 1889 to serve as general manager and chef of his brand-new Savoy Hotel, the first in the world with electric lights and elevators. They were sent packing less than a decade later on suspicion of embezzling wine and spirits worth well over $400,000 in today's dollars. No matter; both were geniuses and the new Paris establishment opened its doors to the public in 1898 with Ritz and Escoffier in place.)
Last non-parenthetical, non-historical note: Anthony mentioned early in his post that he was waiting to feel like he was in Paris in 1906 and he noted that he was not feeling that way (at least in the beginning). I think that's a wonderful point to discuss. I never felt like I was in Paris in 1906. But I'm not sure that's what I was looking for; I'm not even sure that I'd have been happy if I felt that. What I did feel, and what I liked feeling, was something like that but different. For all the people around me, for all the music (French, albeit not turn-of-the-century) and dark monochromatic interior, for all the not-inconsequential hum of conversation and interactions with servers, I felt like I was in a cocoon. The table, the service, and the food were well-lit and in focus. And everything else was there but fuzzy. I really liked it that way. The plates and the food were the stars of the evening; the only other person who really mattered was my wife and she was in the cocoon with me. Servers would arrive, present or explain something, answer a question, or do something else useful and then evaporate from my consciousness. We were able to share a unique, awe-inspiring-in-its-way, never-to-be-repeated experience with each other. What more could I ask?
“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?” (Julia Child)