LETTER FROM PARIS | November 15th 2007
Sarah Dallas raises a sommelier's eyebrow, flattens a duck, and raises an eyebrow of her own at the prices in one of Paris's poshest restaurants. The view is stunning, the food a touch less so ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
La Tour d'Argent, Paris's oldest grand restaurant, has always been steeped in frosty French formality. And even after a recent revamp, the old protocol remains firmly in place. Comfortably settled at our table, my husband eased off his jacket. Within seconds, the head waiter had bounded over, displaying an impressive agility impressive in a man of his ample size. "Non, non, monsieur", he tutted, stuffing arms back into sleeves as though wrestling with one of the restaurant's famous ducks. "Desolé. One must keep the jacket on at all times." A later attempt at loosening the tie produced a sharp intake of breath from the sommelier.
Staying glued to the full dress code has been de rigeur at the Tour for decades. It is difficult to imagine that in 1582, when it first opened near its present location, this sumptuous eatery was a simple tavern where a primitive meal could be enjoyed. Today, the menu is somewhat more elaborate. Following the tradition of Paris's great dining rooms, prices are displayed only on the carte handed to the gentleman, who could be forgiven for turning slightly ashen (lobster comes in at a cool 175, or $260).
Yet, after sampling one of the kitchen's most popular entrees, the quenelles de brochet "Andre Terrail" (a mere €45), a meltingly good poached pike dumpling served with mushroom and cream mousse, thoughts of the final bill were remote, merging smoothly into the distant traffic down on quai de la Tournelle. As the subtle flavours wove their magic, the tiny lamps on the tables began to glow more brightly, and the restaurant's dark, lacquered ceiling shimmered with the reflection of a passing boat on the Seine.
Whatever you may think of La Tour d'Argent (it has dropped out from Paris's hip list since losing two of its three Michelin stars), its circular dining room boasts one of the most spectacular settings of any restaurant in the city. Even toddlers will be familiar with the curved windows and plush table settings, now that the Tour has been immortalised in "Ratatouille", Pixar's latest animated hit. A meal here involves a sense of occasion that is hard to beat–from the entry hall lined with autographed photos (John F Kennedy, a parade of film stars and French presidents) to the battalion of waiters that springs to attention every time you visit the bathroom.
A recent renovation has propelled Tour's new owner, 27-year-old André Terrail (whose grandfather, Claude, won three Michelin stars here in 1951) into the headlines. But despite the tasselled splendour of the dining room and the general striving for pomp, the atmosphere is not all that intimidating. This is largely due to the clientele, a lively mix of families on vacation and business diners on expense accounts. At a nearby table, a small boy in a mini-tuxedo blew bubbles into his silver water goblet and whined for Coke. At another, a waiter assured a nervous first-timer that her champignon de Paris was not scrambled eggs (they both come with a distinctive yellow hue).
La Tour d'Argent is renowned for its pressed Challandais duckling, prepared in ritualistic fashion on a platform in the middle of the dining room. Served in its own blood, it is flavoured with port, cognac and spices. "It is terribly unfashionable, but absolutely delicious," Andre Terrail told me.
All the duck dishes are for two and are among the more digestibly priced items on the menu. Our canneton Tour D'Argent (€60 per person) arrived in three stages; first, proffered on a large platter for our perusal; then whisked away to reappear sliced and served in its rich, dark jus. The crispy, tender thighs were presented last. Since 1890, diners who choose the duck receive their own serial number, printed on a postcard; the kitchen celebrated its one-millionth duck in 2003. The accompanying vegetables, a handful of frites puffed up to resemble tubes, were definitely an afterthought.
The kitchen sends out deliciously old-fashioned desserts. Profiteroles au chocolat chaud (€23) hardly pushed the boundaries of innovation, but they did provide some delectably fluffy pastry.
But classic cuisine, even at this level, is going to get a mixed reception in a city that has grown accustomed to adventurous chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse. Cholesterol-laden sauces and three-tier cheese trolleys don't attract the applause they once did. Can the Tour keep up, with so little evidence of fresh thinking on the menu?
"We are evolving," insists Mr Terrail. "The customer will always experience classical cooking at the Tour, but behind the scenes we are constantly refining our techniques and ingredients." He claims that following fashion is simply not what La Tour d'Argent is about. It's a fair point, but surely he would like the restaurant to win back its Michelin stars? "I have the greatest respect for the Michelin team," he smiles thinly. "If we do the best we can, they will surely follow."
(La Tour d'Argent, 15 quai de la Tournelle, Paris 75005. Tel: +33 (0)126.96.36.199.31)