Edmond de Goncourt, diarist and peerless chronicler of a certain middle-upper literary class in 19th century Paris (“A ring at the door. It was Flaubert”), dined in the Eiffel Tower on 2nd July 1889. “Up there we were afforded a realization, beyond anything imaginable on ground level, of the greatness, the extent, the Babylonian immensity of Paris”. Sadly, de Goncourt records nothing of the food he ate, choosing instead to record the discussion he and his fellows had over “Javanese women” – but 120 years on, his assessment of what is now Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant which occupies the platform just above the second tier of the Tower, stands true: this may be the most exciting venue on planet Earth in which to have your dinner.
Then as now, the primary diversions are the unparalleled sights of le tout Paris, which offers a strangely distorted aerial view. On the horizon line sits Montmarte, quite isolated amid its low-rise neighbours, so distant you feel it must be in the most far-flung banlieu. The Champs-Elysées seems weirdly attenuated, with the Arc de Triomphe at the tip of one compass-point and the street-ending Wonder Wheel at another. There’s no comparable restaurant in London; Sushisamba, the latest high rise, does have enviable views, but it’s much less serious and grown-up a restaurant than JV, which is given over largely to groups celebrating event birthdays and couples marking anniversaries or engagements. (Marvellously, the atmosphere is made more special by the fact that once every so often one hears a polite round of applause from one table or another, neither its source nor its occasion ever revealed: a particularly quotable bon mot? An especially excellent piece of fish?)
Marvellously, the atmosphere is made more special by the fact that once every so often one hears a polite round of applause from one table or another, neither its source nor its occasion ever revealed
Much closer by, about six feet beneath the restaurant windows, tourists teem around the viewing platform, dressed in everything from tuxes to board shorts, inexplicably aiming flash cameras at the night sky, and never once glancing up to meet our gaze. On the hour, the Tower erupts in a dazzling burst of sparkling white lights, which from afar highlight (literally) its history as Gustave Eiffel’s gift to his city. At this proximity they’re less frantically epilepsy-inducing than I’d imagined, but do make one feel like a major celebrity arrives every hour, on the hour, deluged in paparazzi flashbulbs.
The décor of the room is sympathetic to the greater setting. The palette is deep amber and purple, with dendritic patterns of dim overhead lights set into the near-black ceiling. Rows of diamond-shaped windows act as inpection hatches for the giant coiled reels of the elevator system, echoing not just the girdered gridwork of the tower’s iron rigging, but perhaps the portholes of Verne’s Nautilus submarine, and recalling the Jules Verne quote that greets visitors as they await the lift at ground level — which notes that science can always, given time, make practical reality of the imagination’s wildest feats.
Likewise, Ducasse’s menu wisely doesn’t try to draw attention away from the fact you’re in the actual Eiffel Tower for dinner. Partly, of course, this is because his kitchen has to operate under some fairly stringent restrictions (no naked flames, for instance: no-one wants their last meal to be Tour Eiffel flambée). A webbed presentation plate and surgical-looking cutlery are soon whisked away, and replaced by plain crockery, circular with a straight chord cut from the edge: these plates are meant, I imagine, to be placed before diners in such a way that this straight line sits at the precise angle of the forward-slash in the restaurant’s “J/” logo, as seen on menus and servers’ lapels (this acute angle alludes in turn to the line of the Tower itself) – though I don’t think all the staff got this particular memo.
An amuse-bouche of chestnut, girolles and butternut suffered from a temperature imbalance: the butternut velouté was perfectly heated, but the chestnut, in a chilled mousse format, sat at the bottom of the glass like it had sunk there and shouldn’t be disturbed. A chilled semicircle of foie gras came accompanied by some refreshingly bitter and biting citrus flavours, dried, candied and marmalade. The accompanying 2011 Domaine Loew Riesling helped gel together the flavours of the fruit and the unctuous liver; it was less successful paired with the langoustine and ceps that followed. I was surprised that the Riesling was topped up a third time – to accompany fillet of turbot with crayfish tail and caviar-topped potato on a rich champagne sauce – and slightly more surprised when it transpired that the food and wine had fallen out of sync, a glass of Chardonnay (which smelled and tasted distinctly of “fake banana” – not a complaint: it’s a favourite flavour) arriving only as we were halfway finished with the turbot.
I have a tough time with game, and a saddle of hare, accompanied by a rilette of the animal’s meat and a celeriac purée, was something of an offal-taste endurance test for me for the first few mouthfuls (though my companion wolfed it down, if that’s the right verb). A 2009 Pomerol, however, took some of the more extreme soil-flavour off the hare meat.
The six-course tasting menu boasts two desserts. The first, a “Lemon Meringue Bar”, is largely unremarkable, but for its (again, presumably unintended) pairing with more of the Pomerol – not a happy combination. An accompanying lime sorbet, however, is zesty and properly cleansing. The second dessert, however, is heaven on a plate: a circlet of chocolate mousse “cake” styled to resemble one of the bolts holding the tower together, complete with an iridescently metallic glaze; at its centre is a pool of the most lusciously decadent chocolate sauce you’ve ever tasted, dark as oil. Seeking flaws, I quibbled slightly with serving what might function as the world’s most decadent afternoon-tea cake as a dessert at 10pm, then remembered what restrictions Le Jules Verne’s kitchen is under, and relented.
The key points are to bear in mind these “kitchen rules”, as well as the more conceptual self-regulation Ducasse has imposed on himself not to try to upstage the Eiffel Tower itself. If these slip the mind, there’s something surprisingly “trad” about the meal: a foie gras dish, a seafood and fish course, a sorbet and a chocolate dessert; on paper, only the hare as a meat course is a leftfield choice. On the other hand, the presentation and precision of these dishes is beyond reproach, it being no surprise that this is a menu which has been polished until – unlike the lift which brings you 400 feet up the tower – it squeaks.
My evening had an odd and somewhat unsettling postscript. When I realised I’d left my scarf in Le Jules Verne, it wasn’t so much the thought of a second ascent in that ominously clattering lift that worried me so much as the vocabulary I’d have to use to explain my mistake – my French hasn’t had much of an airing since high-school days. Having talked my way into being allowed back up to the restaurant I was greeted by the maîtresse-d’ with so horrified a visage it was as if I’d recently killed her firstborn and was on my way back for the second. When I tried to bumble my way through an explanation for my reappearance (“J’ai perdu mon écharf…” – surely that was right?), attempts to describe where I might have lost said scarf hampered by the surprising discovery that a couple enjoying their dessert had been whisked into the surely still-warm seats my companion and I had vacated mere minutes earlier, she raised a hand to silence me and turned away, as from a bad smell. I got my scarf back, but I couldn’t have devised a better test of exactly how far Le Jules Verne’s hospitality extends: after they’ve see you off, all smiles, into the lift, you might as well be dead.
The Eiffel Tower still resembles, on more than level, de Goncourt’s description, “a beacon left behind by a vanished… generation of men ten cubits tall”. Certainly, leaving for a second time after this farrago, I felt pretty small.
Le Jules Verne, Eiffel Tower, 2nd Floor, Avenue Gustave Eiffel, Paris, France
01 45 55 61 44; www.lejulesverne-paris.com