Alain Passard is widely regarded as one of the greatest chefs in France and therefore, by extension, in the world. He has held Michelin stars for most of his working life and in 1996, Michelin gave him three stars, its highest ranking and one that Passard has held on to for a decade and a half.
Chateau Margaux is, without a doubt, one of the world’s greatest wines. The wines of Bordeaux (in France) are still divided into growths (sort of like first division, second division, third division etc.) based on a classification devised in 1855.
Many would argue that the classification now needs to be reworked but there is no disagreement over the exceptional quality of the first growths Margaux, Latour, Lafite, Haut Brion and Mouton (not part of the 1855 list but promoted in the early Seventies).
Of the first growths, Margaux is probably the most refined: fabulous, delicately perfumed wine with great finesse. Its white wine Pavillon Blanc, of which it makes only a tiny quantity, is the best and most expensive dry white wine in Bordeaux. Since the early Eighties, the wines have been made by Paul Pontallier, a legendary winemaker with few equals in his sphere.
So when Dhruv Sawhney, who knows more about fine wine than anybody else in India (and being rich, can afford the best wines), wrote to say that he was hosting a dinner where Passard would cook and six different vintages of Chateau Margaux, Pavillon Blanc and Pavillon Rouge (Margaux’s second red wine) would be served, it seemed like the dinner of the year.
There was one other factor. In 2001, five years after his restaurant L’Arpège in Paris had won three stars from Michelin, Passard declared that he was throwing out 12 signature dishes from his menu because they contained meat. From now on, he would concentrate on vegetables and a little fish.
This should have been the death knell for Arpège but, over the last decade, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength and Passard’s example has made other great French chefs (Pierre Gagnaire, for instance) look again at vegetarian options for their menus.
So, I was intrigued. Could you really pair the world’s greatest and most delicate red Bordeaux with vegetables?
And how would Indians respond to vegetables cooked by one of France’s greatest chefs?
The afternoon before the dinner I chatted to Paul Pontallier about the decision to pair some of the best Margaux vintages with vegetarian food. It turned out that Paul himself eats very little red meat and loves vegetables.
He wanted to prove to Indians that vegetarians could enjoy great wines and so, he pursued Passard relentlessly for months till the chef agreed to come to India for a week and cook three dinners: at the Leela in Bangalore and the Taj hotels in Bombay and Delhi.
In Bangalore and Bombay, the dinners were paid, ticketed events. In Delhi, Dhruv very generously picked up the tab and invited his friends.
Paul and I were still discussing wine and vegetarian food when Alain Passard joined us. While Passard’s English is not perfect, he does speak the language well enough to get his point across.
I asked him why he threw his most famous meat dishes off the menu and he gave me an answer that only a French chef can come up with: colour.
“I want my plates to have lots of colour,” he said. “And with meat I cannot do that. With vegetables, I can put as many colours as I like on the plate.”
As we spoke, it became clear that Passard’s attitude to food was roughly the same as Paul’s attitude to wine.
Though Paul would get three stars if Michelin had awards for winemakers, he sticks to the French tradition of venerating the terroir (a term that refers to the soil of the vineyard, the micro-climate etc.) and arguing that in great vineyards, there is very little for the winemaker to do.
His job just consists of allowing the wine to express the terroir. (Paul is overly modest. Margaux went through a bad patch till he took over. So clearly, terroir is not everything.)
Passard’s attitude to his vegetables is the same. In 2002, he opened a farm, 150 miles from Paris, where he now grows every single vegetable served at his restaurant.
The vegetables are delivered to his restaurant daily (sometimes, he says he even drives the truck himself) and he treats his farm like a vineyard, picking out parcels of land where the terroir is better.In his view, the point of his food is the quality of the vegetables. His job as a chef is to translate the taste, intensity and freshness of the vegetables to the plate.
To hear Passard talk about his vegetables is slightly surreal. He is obsessed with peas "they are like green caviar, so beautiful." He loves beetroot, "especially the white beetroot."
At Arpège, one of his signature dishes is a tomato stuffed with 12 different flavourings: citrus zest, herbs, spices etc. He serves it with wildflower ice-cream as a dessert.
I’ve never eaten at Arpège mainly because I could never afford it (expect to pay a thousand euros or so for dinner for two more if you are ordering good wine) but such largely vegetarian friends of mine such as Shyam Bhartia who go there all the time say that the food can be outstanding.
Rahul Akerkar of Indigo who ate there in the summer was bowled over by the meal and invited Passard to India.
The problem with Passard’s approach to food is that it is less recipe-bound and more ingredient-centric. So, if he has the right ingredients, everything goes well. But if the ingredients are not those he is used to, then the dishes will taste different.
It is the same with Paul and wine. Give him grapes grown in say, Nasik and he will make very good wine. But he will never make anything that approaches the standards of Chateau Margaux, because his wine depends on the quality of Margaux’s grapes.
So, how would Passard fare in India?
From all accounts, he got a mixed response. In Bangalore, he discovered that many of the dishes came back to the kitchen with lots of food still uneaten. Some of us may have concluded from this that not everyone liked the food but three star chefs look at the world differently.
Passard decided that this meant that the portions were too large and reduced their size. Consequently, in Bombay, guests complained that they were still hungry when the meal was over.
By the time he got to Delhi, Passard had got the portion sizes right and the Taj had imported vegetables from Europe. Plus he and his sous chef were pleased with the calibre of the kitchen staff. (The great man said nothing himself but I had the sense that the French felt that the Taj Bombay kitchen was not sufficiently co-operative or flexible.)
As for the food itself, let’s divide it into two separate questions.
One: how did the wine pairings work? And two: was it of the standard expected from one of the world’s greatest chefs?
We began with a plate of mixed (largely imported) vegetables served with a young (2009) Pavillon Blanc. The pairing worked, I thought, because of the honey-citrus sauce which matched up to the wine (which, by the way, must be among the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs).
Then, we had a plate of two simply cooked tomatoes on a bed of blackberry compote with Pavillon Rouge (the second wine of Margaux).
Tomatoes and red wine do not normally go together but Passard’s genius lay in selecting relatively bland tomatoes and allowing the blackberry compote to bring out the fruit in the young wine.
The next course was another of those technical marvels: a celeriac risotto with no rice but a black truffle flavouring. The vegetable (also called Knob Celery, it is a popular winter root vegetable in France) does not go with wine but Passard made the pairing work.
The trick, I thought, was that he focused on a truffle and cream taste while using the celeriac purely for texture. We drank a terrific Margaux 1989 with it.
The dessert was a chocolate and avocado souffle with Margaux. The guys from Margaux loved it and Paul knows the food and especially his wine far better than I do but I didn’t think it worked very well.
The soufflé had a nasty bitterness that did nothing for the wine which was a great 2003 Margaux.
As for the food itself, I’ll go with Shyam Bhartia’s judgement: it wasn’t a patch on the food at Arpège. Passard is used to cooking for 30-40 people in the course of an entire evening in his own kitchen with his own vegetables. Here, he was cooking for a hundred plus guests in an unfamiliar kitchen, with unfamiliar ingredients and trying to pull off unusual pairings.
So I guess we can’t judge his cuisine on the basis of the dinner.
The following evening, a dozen of us met up again at Le Cirque at the Delhi Leela. Passard was packing his bags for Paris so the food was in the hands of Le Cirque’s chef, Mickey Bhoite.
Mickey has no particular love of vegetables and nor had he been given the opportunity to repeatedly sample the wines beforehand as Passard had. Even so, his food was terrific.
We started with a 1999 Pavillon Blanc which must rate as the greatest Sauvignon Blanc I have ever drunk full of an unmatched depth. Mickey has Tuna Tartar on his menu normally but this evening he made it with toro, the fatty part of the tuna belly that is much prized for its taste in Japan and used as sashimi. The dish worked brilliantly with the Pavillon Blanc.
Next we had a rich risotto flavoured with rosemary and parmesan into which Mickey had added a glass of Pavillon Rouge. We drank a very nice Pavillon Rouge 2003 with it.
Paul had brought along two great Margaux vintages. We drank the 2001 with one of Mickey’s signature dishes, a noisette of French lamb cooked sous vide (in a vacuum container in a water bath) for 70 odd hours at a stable temperature.Not everyone likes the texture of sous vide food but the point of Mickey’s lamb is the fat which has a delicious flavour of its own. While everybody had the lean bits with the 2001 Margaux, I ate the fat while drinking the Pavillon Blanc.
It is strange for a dish to require two different wines, one white and the other red, but some clearly do. (Other examples: good, fatty Kobe beef or Peking duck.)
The Leela produced a cheese platter for the final knockout wine: the 1985 Margaux, possibly one of the greatest red wines I’ve ever drunk.
Paul was nervous about the effect the cheese would have on the palate (“Camembert is not a friend of wine”) but fortunately for us, these were bland, inoffensive, supermarket-type cheeses. So the wine was not affected while the French sneered gently about the quality of the cheese.
Dessert was tiramisu though I had one of Le Cirque’s wildly fluctuating Floating Islands (good sometimes, not so good at others – including tonight).
We had met at 7.30 and broke up at 12.30 am so obviously, a lot of good wine was drunk. Speaking for myself, it was nice to have good wine with the traditional pairings. Passard gave us, as Sanjay Menon said, a master class in pairing but you can only have so much of that sort of thing.Sometimes it is nice to have red wine and lamb without too much fuss or adventure.
As for the future, the guys from Margaux will be back. They were here last year and they will come again. They seem attached to India and Paul, in particular, loves the country.
Passard wants to come back to cook Indian food. He told me that our problem was that we fried our spices. We should just add a little at the end, he said. (Yeah, well, you go your way and we’ll go ours…)
I don’t know what Margaux will do next. But it’s a measure of India’s growing importance that one of the world’s greatest wines should treat us as a destination of choice.
China is in love with Lafite (they even make their own bootleg Lafite). But I think we are far luckier to have the finesse of Margaux. If Lafite is Dior, then Margaux is Hermès.
From HT Brunch, December 25
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