SIMPLY THE BRESSE – BUT WHERE’S THE REST?

14 Feb

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany wanderings ago, we were enjoying one of those slow, boozy journeys going through France from north to south, taking in as many of the relevant routes des vins as we could.  As ever, and due to all sorts of reasons you can probably guess, the portion of the trip which traversed Burgundy passed at a particularly leisurely pace.

We chanced upon the unremarkable but delightful village of Chagny, just south of Beaune, spotted a restaurant called Lameloise and had a quick glance at their posted menu.  Back then (and we’re talking a couple of decades), 35 euros was deemed far too extravagant for the price fixe, however luxurious and wonderful it may have been.

Fade out, fade in, and a couple of years later we wound up in Chagny yet again, this time with a few more bob between us and by now knowing this establishment was in the very top echelon of French gastro-venues, holding three Michelin stars under legendary chef Jacques Lameloise.  The menu may have risen five or six euros, but this time we decided to take the plunge.  We have never regretted that decision, nor repeating it three or four times over in the years to come.

In amongst many of the most wonderful dishes I’ve ever eaten, one stood out, the first I’d ever tasted which truly earned the epithet “orgasmic.”   This was pigeon de Bresse en vessie avec sa foie et la pate fraiche.  The French region of Bresse produces simply the best and, consequently, most expensive, poultry in the world.  I don’t know exactly why – different chefs, farmers and butchers will give you different reasons.  Suffice to say, they live longer, are therefore bigger, eat the finest food available to mere birds and, for all I know, have their own personal trainers.  As a result, they taste incredible, lend themselves more to poaching than roasting and simply love cream sauces.

The pigeon at Lameloise (actually, what we would call a dove) was poached inside a blanched pig’s bladder which is then ruptured before its contents is carved at table.  Its gras liver is chopped into fresh tagliatelle before being given a generous robing of sauce Albufera.  Arguably the finest sauce ever conceived, this is a veritable cholesterol tsunami of double chicken stock, double cream and foie gras butter.   The breast is unctuous, but by far the best bits are the legs and thighs, which possess a dense texture and almost-gamey flavour.  Put together on the same plate, this is, quite simply, the finest dish I have ever eaten and one I admit I have actually wept over.

Naturally, on leaving we asked where these delectable birds could be bought, to be told they were stocked by a butcher just around the corner.    I can’t remember what we paid then (they were out of pigeons, so we went home with a chicken), but we have repeated this purchase on every subsequent visit to France, usually at the wonderful butcher in Paris’s Rue de Buci market.  You can pick one up which will easily feed four for about £25.00.   That’s a lot of money, but Lilliputian in contrast to the 260 euros charged for a two-person serving of Bresse chicken by the similarly three-starred Epicure restaurant housed in Paris’s five-star Le Bristol hotel.

Two hundred and sixty euros!

So, like driving a vintage Ferrari Superamerica, sipping a 1951 Armagnac or shelling out £3,000 for a Saville Row suit, you’d assume there were a lot of things which made what is, after all, a chicken worth – on its own – the price of a very, very good meal in hundreds of other less-starry French – and even Parisian – eateries.    Well, there weren’t.  The bird proved the centrepiece of perhaps the silliest, most disappointing meal I have ever eaten.   It’s a nice enough room and the staff are almost-ridiculously over-attentive, but for that sort of money, I almost expect exotic sexual acts to be performed upon my person by the entire restaurant corps.
To put this in perspective, there were some very good amusing guests – a little pot of layered sorrel mousse, foie gras and scrambled egg; a prawn wrapped in tandoori-ed vermicelli – and one first course, a sea urchin concoction, was quite brilliant – but then it does clock in at 78 euros.  The other offering, at 88 euros, was macaroni stuffed with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras, all gratineed with Parmesan.  How could it not be good?  Well, the chewy pasta was way the wrong side of al dente and the iron kick from the artichoke all but killed off any of the more delicate flavours within.

So now we’re salivating as we await the arrival of our poulet de Bresse – and what an arrival it is.  A waitress enters the room carrying a plinth supported by two silver chicken legs, complete with feet and claws.  Atop the plinth sits a vast, medicine ball-sized globe of offal, inflated by steaming vin jaune, almost bursting with the slight veins giving the impression of a marbled sphere.   Ruptured at table, the bird is removed and the breast carved off, to be presented atop a wafer-thin slice of foie gras, the whole robed in a truffled cream sauce with a few irrelevant crayfish tails thrown around for good measure.

We were assured the legs and thighs – as mentioned, the best of the Bresse – would be re-introduced as a different serving.
Well, I don’t know what they did with them, but what we were presented with was a soup bowl containing a few tablespoons of intense chicken consomme, in which rested a mirepoix of chicken, foie gras and vegetables – and the chicken component tasted and ate very much like the birds back-oysters and gizzards.  We didn’t dare ask what had happened to the limbs, but I’m sure as heck they never had more than a nodding acquaintance with what we ate.

Seasonal cheeses – a nice touch – were perfectly fine and I know we could have ordered more, but at 30 euros a serving, this meant each morsel came in at about five euros.

And so to desserts – from 32-36 euros.  Most posh puds prove a bit of a let-down, although I am reminded of Lameloise’s sublime tarte aux fine pommes with Granny Smith sorbet and the most sinful raspberry millefeuille ever to pass my lips.
At Epicure, we chose “Priceless Nyangbo Chocolate,” with liquid cocoa, thin wafers and gold-guilded sorbet.  Now, we love chocolate, but this was just chocolate-on-chocolate-on-chocolate, some bits of which were wetter than others.  There was no differentiation in tastes – just an ultimately boring blizzard of cocoa.

As for the Iced Vanilla from Madagascar, cooked in liquid nitrogen, with melted caramel, salted butter, pecan praline and hazelnuts, what’s not to like?  Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Well, perhaps not exactly dislike, but suffice to say if I had a a tub of high-end vanilla ice-cream, some nuts and a jar of supermarket salted caramel sauce, I could offer you a very similar dish.  And the nitrogen bit is just plain affected – the texture is nowhere near as silky as a good ice and the process does nothing for the flavour.

With wines – we drank a silky rose Champagne, a perfect Chassagne Montrachet and a sparse but delicious Nuits St George – this Sunday lunch would have hit north of 700 euros on the foodie Richter scale.   I know all the rationales – luxury ingredients, astronomic property prices, ultra-high server-to-client ratio, cellaring costs – and I have adored, paid for and excused what I thought at the time was some extremely expensive food.   But this included the best foie gras, of which I was always offered more, both in Paris and Gascony; asparagus almost buried in shaved black truffles in Provence; and numerous poulets de Bresse all along the Rhone Valley – and all at a fraction of Epicure’s pricing.

I’ve  checked around and all the three-stars in Paris have similarly stratospheric charging policies.  Alain Ducasse at The Plaza Athenee gets 360 euros for its price fixe, or you could save 45 euros by opting for Guy Savoy’s eponymous noshery.  In this company, Epicure’s seasonal menu seems nothing short of a gift at a mere 130 euros.

To put this in context, the previous night we enjoyed a perfect meal at Bofinger, a bastion among Belle Epoque Parisian brasseries.  Premier Cru Normandy oysters and a soup of foie gras and truffles crowned with puff pastry were followed by a mountain of the finest choucroute – four types of sausage, a ham knuckle, slab belly pork – before the cloud-like conceit which is ile flottante.  Pre-prandials were Creme d’Alsace flavoured with various eaux de vies, the bivalves paired well with a flinty Chablis and the pork-fest ably helped down by a glorious Premier Cru Alsatian Riesling.  A Bas Armagnac and a glass of Poire William correctly served in a bowl of crushed ice proved the perfect outro.  Still not cheap, but all this for at least one-third of what Epicure would have deprived us of, plus a bustling, cheery, convivial ambience.

So I have to conclude there is a point and price at which food is just no longer worth it and the only reason Epicure charges such prices is because it can (should you want a decent mixed cocktail at their bar, by the way, that’ll set you back a further £25).  I also have to suppose to most of our financially-endowed fellow diners, this was no different to us mere mortals shelling out for a steak and ale pie and a pint in a country pub.  And that I find depressing – not because I can’t afford it, but because if I could, the food I’d be served would arouse none of the passion, excitement, revelation or tears of joy I have repeatedly experienced at many other, allegedly lesser establishments, whether it be a tiny Lyons bistro or rustic Bordelaise farmstead.

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