I’ve never been able to make up my mind about the food in Paris. For many years I stuck to the position I had evolved during my youth: it is impossible to eat badly in the French capital. This is the romantic view, shared by many people of my generation who have happy memories of cheap bistro meals that turned out to be terrific; of amazing local produce; of excellent local wine at everyday prices; and of our first Michelin-starred meals.
Now, I’m not so sure. These days I tend to make quick trips to Paris, often at short notice so I rarely have the time to plan where to eat. Often, I end up having dinner at the nearest available restaurant. In theory, this shouldn’t matter because it should be impossible to eat badly in Paris. But, in fact, it does. It is very possible to eat badly in Paris. The city may well have more excellent restaurants than any other. But there’s an awful lot of crap being served as well.
What’s more, I’m not sure the French care that much. Fast food chains are on the rise (and it isn’t just tourists who go to the McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee) and ordinary bistros and brasseries are content to churn out mediocre meals very quickly. Plus, there’s very little good ethnic food. A Parisian’s idea of an ethnic meal is Italian. So, despite the preponderance of Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, none of the ones I encountered would have lasted a week in London or New York.
There are the great restaurants, of course. My first Michelin three star meal was at Chez Boyer in the Champagne region nearly three decades ago. I still remember every dish as clearly as if I’d eaten it only last week. I doubt if standards then were that much higher than they are today so my guess is that I was merely a foodie virgin in that era. These days I find that France’s claim to gastronomic excellence has been weakened because the rest of the world has caught up.
I’ve had very mediocre meals at great French restaurants (Bocuse, Grand Véfour etc.) so the notion of three Michelin stars has lost its cachet. On the other hand, three star restaurants in cities in other countries (New York, London etc.) have been excellent. It could be, as some have suggested, that Michelin three star food is now universal. You are assured the same quality no matter where you eat. (Partly because the great French chefs have also globalised their operations). So there’s less and less reason to go to Paris for a great meal.
By common consent Alain Ducasse is now world’s greatest classical chef. Ferran Adriá might be the king of molecular gastronomy but Ducasse has the classic crown to himself now that Joel Robuchon, his one rival, seems to be spending more time on the pared-down L’Atelier chain than on complicated food. Ducasse has three stars at the Monte Carlo establishment where he made his reputation.
He has three stars in Paris at his eponymous restaurant at the Plaza Athenee Hotel. And he had three stars in New York till his restaurant closed down. This made him the only man in history to ever run three triple-starred restaurants simultaneously. I had a bias against Ducasse ever since I first ate at Spoon, his mid-level restaurant at London’s Sanderson Hotel where I used to stay. (Spoon did the room service at the Sanderson as well). It was a silly restaurant based on the idiotic idea that guests could combine ingredients and sauces in a random fashion.
Spoon has closed (in London; it survives in other locations) and so I persuaded myself that I needed to give Ducasse another try. Invited to his three star Paris restaurant, I steeled myself for what should have been the meal of my life. Of course, it was no such thing. It was fine; better than fine, in fact. But, perfect? Hardly. To indicate that we were in for a three star experience, they brought us lots of canapés, all focusing on such luxury ingredients as foie gras and black truffle.
They were okay, at best. My first course was the house speciality of langoustine. This consisted of perfectly cut cylinders of very fresh langoustine topped with caviar. Along with the dish came a Thai-flavoured soup made from the stock. The dish was good; with such great ingredients, how can you go wrong? But it was not terribly memorable. My main course of veal was not much better than so-so.
Of course the veal quality was good (at those prices, you could buy the whole herd not just the calf) but I thought it was heavy going and struggled to finish it. For dessert, I chose another speciality. This is allegedly the master’s take on that old classic, the rum baba. The baba itself was wonderfully light. The cream that came with it was delicious. But from what I had heard, the sommelier was supposed to let me choose from up to twenty different rums till I found one that seemed perfect. In fact, he offered just one. I asked for a choice.
He agreed and offered a few others but I shouldn’t have had to ask in the first place. Not at those prices and with those three stars. Along with coffee came endless petit fours and macaroons (the French are obsessed with macaroons). It was the same feeling as the canapés: abundance rather than excellence. Will I remember this as a good meal? Absolutely. As a meal devised by the king of chefs? No way.
I had other interesting meals in Paris. I went to Lapérouse, a wonderfully historic restaurant, full of little rooms, dating back to pre-revolutionary times. The atmosphere was great. The food was on par with Bombay Zodiac’s Grill. (And that’s not a compliment.) At the Auberge Dab, I had such bistro classics as snails and hanger steak, the onglet cut that only the French know how to cook properly. At the Buddha Bar, vastly influential in its time, but now past its prime, I had the worst Far Eastern meal I’ve had in years with strange, surly French service.
Eventually, after a few more expensive meals, I concluded that you had a better chance of eating well at a top restaurant in New York than in Paris. What France does well is the simple food. If you give the fancy restaurants a miss and take your chances with the bistros and the brasseries, you may find far better value. One evening, after I had looked down on Paris from the Sacre Coeur church in Montmartre, I veered away from the tourist hordes and found a small, unpretentious café called Le Troubadour, full of locals.
I ate the old bistro standbys – a slab of foie gras with good bread and confit of duck, washed down with cheap wine – under the Parisian sky and decided that it was places like this, with their leafy, open courtyards, that made France special for me, not the fancy restaurants. On another evening, wandering through the Left Bank, I stopped at a bar with a small restaurant upstairs. There was more foie gras and I gorged on an authentic cassoulet, full of the tastes of country sausage and on fat goose, washing them down with inexpensive wine from the South West of France. I could eat a Ducasse-style meal anywhere. But this was the France I remembered.
You don’t associate the Swiss with great food – especially if you are visiting Switzerland just after you’ve been to France. But that’s a mistake. Long before Ducasse earned the title, a man called Frédy Girardet was regarded as the world’s greatest chef. His restaurant, in Crissier, near Lausanne, become a pilgrimage spot, rather as El Bulli is now and Joël Robuchon called him ‘the king of chefs’ and ‘the chef of chefs.’ Some time in the 1990s, Girardet retired, at the height of his powers and at the peak of his reputation. His second-in-command, Philippe Rochat took over the restaurant and named it after himself (though the Swiss named the street where it stands after Girardet). Rochat retained the staff and the old boy’s three stars and continued turning out excellent food. But Switzerland’s moment had passed.
Post-Girardet, the world lost interest in Crissier and Rochat, a rather severe man who speaks no English, failed to inherit Girardet’s publicity even if he got the stars. I went to Rochat only because I was staying in Vevey, about half an hour away, but in retrospect, I really should have planned a special detour: it has exceptional food. Girardet was a great chef for his times but we’d probably find his food too heavy for modern sensibilities. Rochat has lightened the cuisine, paid more attention to presentation, looked to Japan for inspiration and now turns out food that beats the hell out of the stuff served by most Paris restaurants. My starter of ceps, cut into perfect circles and stuffed with their stems in an agaric mushroom foam was to die for.
So was the picturesque lobster carpaccio served to my partner. Then I had langoustines, that were so much better than Ducasse’s, while my companion’s veal in a curry-influenced sauce made each mouthful worth savouring. I met Rochat afterwards and while language barriers made conversation difficult, I was struck by how much of an old-style chef he was, checking each plate as it left the kitchen. He told me that he changed his menu with each season, inventing new dishes at least four times a year. I told him how pleased I was that his food did not depend on caviar and truffles but squeezed flavours out of ordinary ingredients. He nodded graciously and gave me a copy of his cookbook. It was full of recipes that featured caviar and truffles. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing.
I ate so well in Switzerland that, I suspect, I put on a kilo a day. The restaurant at my hotel, the Mirador, had one Michelin star but the young chef was clearly on his way to a second. A sashimi of tuna was paired with salad flavours: a hunk of beefsteak tomato, a tomato cream and a rocket sorbet. A suckling pig sampler took each part of the pig and cooked it differently: crackling, boudin, a sort of samosa and a perfectly grilled piece of pork. Ten minutes down from my hotel, which was on top of Mont Pelerin, was the wine country village of Chardonne. One Sunday, I ended up at what I thought would be a nice local restaurant: La Montagne. Instead, it turned out to be a gastronomic restaurant run by a young chef called David Tarnowski who had previously won a star at Jaan, the restaurant at the Le Montreux Palace Hotel. Now, Tarnowski and his Peruvian wife had opened their own place. I drank a white wine from the village (I had passed the vineyard on my way to lunch) and feasted on fish from the lake, on a risotto with summer truffle and bacon and on some of the best bread I had eaten in months. Why, I asked Tarnowski, who is French, had a chef of his obvious talents (he had worked with Ducasse) ended up in a small Swiss village? “Because that is life,” he said. I guess you have to be French to understand that.
The more I ate in Switzerland and France, the more convinced I became that what I really love about Europe are the family-run restaurants where the husband or wife cooks and the rest of the family serves. A few hundred metres from the Mirador is Chez Chibrac, a restaurant with nine rooms (which is why they call it a hotel.) It has been owned for decades by the Chibrac family. The father cooks the main meal. The mother is the pastry chef. The two daughters serve. The son-in-law helps the father in the kitchen twice a week and helps manage the hotel. I sat out under the trees, overlooking the Swiss riviera and ate great traditional food: a casserole of snails in red wine and a Swiss take on a cassoulet. Afterwards, the son-in-law offered to drive me back to the Mirador and the daughter complained that her mother, who must be 70 now, would not part with her recipes. “She says that once we know how to make her desserts, she won’t have anything to do,” she explained. Breathing the mountain air, drinking the local wine and eating such delicious food, I realised that I did not miss Paris and its Michelin starred restaurants at all.
My conclusions? Well, that in terms of fine dining, France’s advantage is rapidly being eroded. In terms of simple bistro and unfancy food, it has an edge but any advantage there is defeated by the complete absence of any kind of international cuisine. The food in Switzerland is much, much better than any of us have a right to expect. So maybe Switzerland should be a foodie destination. And finally, no matter what you eat, it always tastes better if you dine at a beautiful place and are fed by the family who manage the restaurant. It’s always better to eat under the stars than at a restaurant that has Michelin stars.