Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Yellow Cab in Paris

Blinding sunlight like the flash of a camera’s bulb rushes through my mind. Blinding sunlight, searing heat and buildings of honey hued limestone, dusty and dry. A hot cityscape revealing itself, contrasting with the cool marble shaded concourse of Bordeaux station in the late 1980’s. Backpacking with two friends (I wonder what happened to them?) we arrived from an overnight trip hungry and unwashed. In front of us a fast food joint serving burgers; burgers, breakfast, station parade? I guess I was asking for it, but I was a gangly, skinny, spotty teenager who was starving and could have eaten a horse; and in part that is what I did, literally! 

But this is July 2011 and I am sitting at a table in the Marais. I am older and wiser (no, really), and certainly not skinny having been on a gastro-ride through 60 years of Bollinger and several courses of delights from Alain Ducasse at the Jules Verne earlier in the day. It is late, and although it is dark, the heat resonating from the limestone landscape, buildings similar to Bordeaux, brings back the memories of my teens as well as the speciality of the chef I am reading on the menu. I need to spread out and relax.

The table is in Le Taxi Jaune, owned by Chef Otis Lebert, whose biography includes Tante Claire and l’Ortolan in Britain. This is to outward appearances, a traditional bistro, where the French cuisine is innovative; brought up to date. A menu that gives the impression of someone who enjoys the true elements of French cooking but with hints at the slightly alternative, the quirky sense of humour is demonstrated by the neon lights above the bar. So when he recommends his speciality, steak, then smiles and clarifies, horse steak, I gulp, swig down my aperitif and say yes (well it is his speciality).

I started light (it was the heat): Salade des haricots et girolles. The plate was an elegant and simple salad; a delicious balance of fresh green and truffley mushrooms, small and tobacco tan in colour. Simple? I think that would be understating what lies beneath.

While the haricots were perfectly non-squeaky cooked, the mushrooms provided a wonderful soft contrast in texture, then the subtle slightly crunchy rosy pink spots of finely chopped shallot. There was a prickle, something teasing the lips and tongue, coming from the merest hint of cayenne pepper (though with the humidity and wine tastings, I had, to paraphrase Mike Leigh’s Abigail, sensitive lips) but I saw the specks, the tiny red dots, they were definitely there; tarragon and parsley, topped by the shallot, bring out the dressing, adding light liquorice and pepper notes; layers of complexity thanks to the subtle added flavours and spices. So, ‘simple’? No, delicious.

The main course arrived: Merlan de Cheval. On the plate a medley of food, colourful and rich in perfume; round slices of meat with a dark, chocolate brown, tangy and prickly peppered crust, hints of spiciness on the nose and tongue, then a beautifully fruity red bloody centre. The red onion butter, turned pink from the slow cooked slices, adds sweetness to the strong slightly bitter flavour of the meat. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have the grassiness or bloody iron ‘whack’ that beef gives, though it is similar in richness and does have a powerful flavour; sweetness and earth are perfectly combined.

Farcis of courgette and tomato accompany the dish. The courgette is a vibrant green stuffed with a lightly curried aubergine, raisin and tomato ‘ratatouille’, gentle in flavour and very more-ish.  The tomato was stuffed with the more traditional style of ratatouille, pepper, courgette and onion, again subtle and tasty. Finally, herbed mash gave balance, green flecks playfully opposing the rosy butter.

Otis Lebert recommended the Pichon Paillé 2009 Graviers  Bourgheuil to go with the main course, a leathery and vegetal cabernet franc, slightly meaty, and a perfect complement to the main.

I said my thanks and we shook hands (I actually wanted to bear hug him it was so good) and stepped into the sticky night air, swaying pendulously from the food and the wine. For some Joe le Taxi started running through my head, maybe it was an infantile obsession with Vanessa Paradis, whose song was around when I was travelling all those years back, more obviously the name of the restaurant stuck in my mind. Whatever the reason I zigzagged my way through the streets without the need to look back, on a large bed in a cool room with a contented grin on my face, I knew I would be back some time soon.

Restaurant Le Taxi Jaune
13, r. Chapon
Paris 75003
+33 1 42 76 00 40

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Life can be perfect (part 2 - the food)

A shudder, a jolt, and I hold on to the rail (just in case, you never know). The grinding noise begins and we are off. My first thought is the book “From Earth to the Moon”. The pod continues to shake as it makes its ascent, taking us up, not quite the speed of sound or light, not quite to the stars, but still giving us the magical feeling of being taken high up, very high up, nose bleedingly high up (I think you get the picture); a vertiginous journey. 

Our destination is, appropriately though, the Jules Verne, an Alain Ducasse restaurant set above the first level of the Eiffel Tower, where Bollinger is hosting the presentation of the RD Champagne lunch. After twelve vintage tastings, twelve swishes, slurps and spits, twelve sets of notes, all that hard work, it is time for fun. I have faim de loup to use a phrase.

With another ‘welcome’ glass of champagne, we are ushered to our tables and to enviable views over the Paris skyline, passing huge yellow spinning wheels, pulling the elevators and the crowds of tourists below, and giving a sense of motion, the impression of a Mississippi steamboat. Introductions to our fellow diners done, we are sat down and the food begins.

We began with an amuse bouche: Langoustines rafraîchies au caviar; soft pink luscious Dublin bay prawns, juicy, dribbling down the chin juicy, topped by a nutty fishy salty, greeny black caviar, and garnished with red onion, chive or lemon zest; each garnish different and each bringing a pleasant addition to the flavour. The prawns lay on a strip of crustacean mousse, saline and rich, bringing out the sweetness of the prawns, specks of cauliflower caught the eye and demonstrated intimate detail. (Frankly, if this was ‘amuse’ my taste buds were already getting hysterical!)

Next came a starter of Homard de nos côtes court-bouillonné. Pieces of meaty Brittany lobster flavoured with fennel and woody herbs, the aniseed perfuming the creamy fishy flesh. Around this, a kaleidoscopic vision of endive, spring onion, carrot, fennel and radish ‘acidulé’ giving colour to the plate and a spectrum of flavours to the palate; sharp lemon acidity, mouth wateringly emphasising the sweetness of the meat. Pepper and smoke from the endive and onions, fennel and radish, juxtaposing the acid zing, complimenting the sweeter vegetables and drawing out the lobster flavour further. This coral reef of colour rested on a bed of pink jelly, a reduction of pink champagne, perhaps, as this was the accompanying wine? (I didn’t get the chance to confirm it).

Continuing the fish theme, we were presented with a plate of Blanc de turbot doré en cocotte with a medley of pan fried Provencal figs and violet artichokes, a tangy wine and fish stock sauce added a saline kick to the plate. The turbot was pure flavoured, unadulterated juicy meatiness, and perfectly cooked. The pan fried figs and poached artichokes gave alternate sweet and sourness, caramel and subtle hints of earthiness, to this wonderfully flavoured fish. Sadly the flesh on my figs tasted a bit over toasted, a bit burnt, tainting the flavour slightly, but that aside this was a delicious dish, matched perfectly with the Bollinger 2002 Grande Année.

We followed with game: Pigeon en crapaudine cuit au sautoir.  Pan fried chestnut coloured nuggets from a spatched pigeon sliced open to reveal a wonderfully moist pink centre. Petit Pois à la Française with mange tout provided a spring fresh accompaniment, lifted further by the wine vinegary twist, and then made mellow by the dark meaty stock, hints of bacon from the pan frying and red onion adding smoke and sweetness to the gamey meat.
Brie de Mieux to cleanse the palate. Well it’s cheese isn’t it? Not quite. This was a really strong mature creamy and spicy prickly long flavoured sock’n’sweat cheese, dots of basil pesto and lightly dressed side salad garnished this very welcome and refreshing break in our meal. Along with that was the ‘vin surprise’, guests having to guess the year of the vintage, the association of Bollinger and Bond films goes back forty years (hurrah and huzzah for the Brits, Olly Smith guessed the 1975 vintage champagne correctly).

Finally, presented in a space age Sputnik dish, surely a nod to Moonraker, came the Vacherin citron fraises des bois. It was so flavoursome that I almost forgot to appreciate it, let alone digest it. Why? Again, on a theme of sweet and sour; the flavour of the light but rich strawberry creamy moose was quite intense, the feather light creamy melt-in-the-mouth teaspoon sized meringue curl and a scattering of crispy marshmallow style candies provided all the sweetness you could ask for in a desert. Contrast that with the refreshingly zingy lemon juice and lemon curd opposing the strawberry, so light it was almost imperceptible and a crisped lemon slice as sharp as you can get and mouth puckeringly tart. Poured over this, the coulis with Little Scarlet sized wild strawberries in it. I throught I had died and gone into orbit (to paraphrase).

After all the champagne and rich food; the flavours; the sharpness versus the sweet, the drinking, the eating, the force feeding until I felt fit to burst, the idea of cramming myself into a small lift..? I needed air, to take the stairs, to burn it off. With gravity working in my favour, my pace increased as I descended, first slowly, then faster and faster, steps becoming a blur (or was I just flattening them?). It seemed like I was racing the lift to the finish. But, in truth, like my waistline, I lost.