Thursday, September 23, 2010

Paul Bocuse; The first 3-starred cab off the rank

In the first piece I wrong about this trip, I said that one of my motivations for eating at all of these restaurants was to get a taste of the culinary world as it is now; to plant a yardstick. As we headed towards the first of the 3-starred restaurants, I realised that this was going to be a problem, because Paul Bocuse isn't about food “now”, it's about respecting the history of French cuisine and, more accurately, paying tribute to the dishes that chef Paul Bocuse created during his stay near the top of the French culinary landscape. It's probably worth mentioning that he's had those three Michelin stars for nearly 50 years.

But therein lies the problem. How can one taste the current, and still respect the past? If food is art, can it be timeless?

My dinner at Paul Bocuse only left me more unsure of the answer to that question.

There are four thing that you notice about the restaurant immediately:
1.The outside is like a gaudy Swiss cottage.
2.The inside is well-adored but in an ever so slightly dated way (ala a glamorous restaurant from the 70s or 80s that hasn't changed.
3.Everything has the Paul Bocuse name or logo on it.
4.There are approximately 6000 staff members on the floor.

There are a few different menus on offer, but we opted for the big boy: the grande tradition degustation (at 215euro plus wine). It's a journey through all of the classic dishes that Paul Bocuse invented during his career. Signature dishes like the truffle and foie gras soup and the whole Bresse chicken roasted in a pigs bladder (with more truffles). Signature dishes that were invented decades ago.

And therein lies the problem. You're paying to experience what eating in the 1970s must have been like. The restaurant even has the token coloured man who opens the door for you on arrival and spins the music box when it's someone's birthday or anniversary (yes, they wheel a cart into the dining room and play the music).

But maybe that's just me having a problem with this. I don't like “hokey” things. And here you're almost choking on them.

But what of the food? The legendary dishes that this man has been responsible. Well, they're good. I suppose. But I'm saying that with a tainted palate, because if I had been tasting those dishes in 1970 I would have definitely been blown away. There is no doubting that there are some great flavours on the plates they bring you. But the problem is that food has come so far since then. Chefs are using modern techniques and appliances to extract maximum flavour and perfect texture in a dish; they're pairing unfamiliar ingredients to create taste sensations. With all of that in mind, why do we need to pay tribute to the past? Why should Paul Bocuse continue to receive 3 stars when this food just isn't reflective of good food NOW?

It reminds me a lot of the debate in Sydney about Tetsuya's losing being demoted from three to two hats. Tetsuya's is one of Sydney's most important restaurants for the influence it has had in elevating Sydney cuisine to world standards. But it's still relying on the food that elevated us years ago. Maybe the demotion in Sydney happened because Australian's don't have the same regard for the past that the Europeans seem to?

After our so-so meal at il Convivio, we were speaking to a Roman who was saying that it's an important restaurant for the locals. Maybe it only has that Michelin star for that importance?

So who's right? The old world of Europe or the new world that Australia belongs to, where instant gratification is a seen as a birthright by some? Maybe the good meals I had in New York were also a symptom of that New World desire for constant evolution and constant improvement with no regard for the past?

Either way, Paul Bocuse just didn't cut it for me. The degustation concludes with an unlimited selection from a stunning selection of cheeses (all in stunning condition) and an unlimited number of desserts from the huge dessert cart, but it all just feels underwhelming and nothing close to what a skilled pastry chef can do if he/she pours his or her heart into a dish. I've had some stunning dessert courses in my short life, and an unlimited selection of old “standards” just isn't going to get a rise from me.

Maybe I'm too young to appreciate it? Hey, the dish of sole with a cream and tarragon sauce, tomato, mushrooms and pasta brought back some good memories of when I had fish in cream and tarragon sauce as a child. Maybe if I was eating stuff in 1970 then I'd appreciate it a bit more. But the fact is I wasn't. And while I did enjoy all of the food and respect the history behind the dishes, I left feeling underwhelmed and, with the menu never changing, absolutely no urge to return. I'll get some instant gratification elsewhere.

Michelin star count: 8

1 comment:

g said...

That's crazy that they can still serve up 30 year old dishes and still maintain their 3 stars. But then again, everything in Europe (to me) seemed to revolve around history. From the food to the architecture to the overall culture, it's all about maintaining that history at all costs. On the whole it comes across as charming, but I'd imagine that when you're paying 400 odd euros as part of a world food safari it'd fall a bit short.