I’m glad I read about the mirepoix before lunching at Le Grand Véfour, Paris’s oldest grand restaurant. Mirepoix is the culinary term for a mixture of finely diced vegetables – the regularity of the cubes’ size is very stringently adhered to – the basis of stocks, sauces and all manner of cordon bleu preparations. It’s everywhere at Véfour: a langoustine tail of exceptional savour sits on a disc of minute cubes of courgette and mango, scattered with black sesame seed; a hollowed-out artichoke heart, all of two inches across, is crammed with even tinier cubes (so small that you cannot, in all honesty, identify the vegetable/s involved). It’s even in the palate-cleansers: minuscule pieces of tofu float in a clear, wondrously tasty chicken consommé that marks the division between fish and meat courses.
Véfour has had a colourful history, as is perhaps inevitable for a restaurant which has been in existence, in the same location, at one end of the gardens of the Palais Royal, since 1784; here, in its first incarnation as the Café de Chartres, Revolution was fomented. (I’m mildly surprised the place, clearly an aristocrat HQ, survived the ensuing Terror intact – I picture Revolutionaries very carefully skirting past the place – but then all I know about the French Revolution comes from a 1964 Doctor Who story.). It’s been through various incarnations, under various owners (including Jean Véfour, who purchased and renamed it in 1820, and transformed it from café to grand restaurant), and was, throughout much of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, the holder of three Michelin stars; currently, under chef Guy Martin, it holds two.
Collars without ties is one thing, but checked lumberjack shirts? Blue jeans? Robespierre would have been sharpening the guillotine blade
In 2013, under the auspices of Relais & Châteaux, Le Grand Véfour has probably never looked more spectacular. You enter, via a colonnaded arcade, a high-ceilinged, daylight-filled room whose every inch is mirrored or tiled – the tiles finely hand-painted in exquisite detail, the frescoed ceilings corniced in gold. It’s a bewitching illusion of time travel; clientele aside, one of the few indicators you haven’t gone back in time two hundred years are the discreet plaques which indicate whose favourite seat each banquette has been over the last two hundred years, from Napoleon and Josephine’s, to Victor Hugo’s and Colette’s. Further evidence of its unique history comes as you ascend a short flight of stairs to the restrooms: the stairwell is black-carpeted, black-ceilinged, and its walls covered in blackboard-like panels. As your eyes adjust, you discern, on one such panel, an original Jean Cocteau illustration, executed in the most delicate white chalk line, hovering spectrally on all that black.
All that has been left to chance, then, are the clientele. Here, as in top-class restaurants the world over, this means female guests dressing up smartly or spectacularly (I loved the young woman arriving in full evening dress for a 1pm booking – I wish more people took lunch so seriously), while their male companions have made the common error of assuming that being able to afford a €300 chef’s tasting menu means they can wear what they damn well please. Collars without ties is one thing, but checked lumberjack shirts? Blue jeans? Robespierre would have been sharpening the guillotine blade. On the plus side, Le Grand Véfour isn’t just for tourists; it was predominantly French that I heard spoken (with respectful quietness, perhaps because of the servers’ formidable, but unconvivial, formality) and several parties swept in with the casually grand air of regular visitors.
It’s easy to see why you’d keep coming back, because Guy Martin’s tasting menu at Le Grand Véfour starts superbly – a dish of foie gras-filled ravioli with black truffle cream is an early highlight – and simply gets better and better. A substantial piece of turbot is served on a sharply flavoured creamed artichoke; a piece of beautifully tender lamb is rolled around a central length of cucumber and served with basil emulsion, peas, cucumber batons and cubes of stark-tasting chevre. And a disc of the tenderest shredded beef, topped with potato and finely sliced black truffle, is, my companion declares, his favourite beef dish ever (even if he does compare it to “the world’s poshest cottage pie”).
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It also grows spectacularly beautiful, with the most overtly elaborate techniques reserved for the sweet items. To skip ahead, a second dessert of dark chocolate and red berries arrives as a marbled crimson cube some three inches across – a giant relative of the mirepoix, maybe – which proves to be a chocolate shell, coated in dehydrated fruit, and filled with compote, fruits, red fruit jelly, and a mint tea ice cream. Before that, a still more attractive dessert based around violets is served: violet cream piped onto a circlet of dragonfruit (diced, bien sûr), a little tower of the cream wrapped in violet jelly, and a sorbet of the flower topped with a quenelle of wickedly sharp lemon sorbet. I’ve turned up my nose my whole life at Parma violets, violet creams, et al, but may have to climb down. The violet here is distinctly flavoured but bereft of that sickly perfumed quality I associate with violet-flavoured sweets; pairing it with the sharp lemon sorbet produces a combination that borders on the transcendent. The last time I nearly wept over a dessert – you don’t forget a thing like that – was at Salt in Sydney in mid-2004; this, then, is the best dessert I’ve had in a decade or more. The only higher praise I can give Le Grand Véfour is that this fantastic dish in no way unbalanced the meal. This is as good as dining gets. C
Le Grand Véfour, 17 Rue de Beaujolais, 75001 Paris, France
+33 1 42 96 56 27; relaischateaux.com