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Le Grand Véfour

by Francis Bown

Meals can be memorable for many reasons. They can mark life’s greatest moments, of both joy and sadness. Meetings and partings can take place over them. They can be times of love and times of anger. Yet seldom do they remain in our minds because of that coincidence for which every gourmet seeks – when exquisite food, ravishing wine, beautiful surroundings and solicitous service come together to create a moment which reveals perfection. Such occasions are rare, indeed. But they do occur, and then the memory turns the key in the lock and opens the door marked ‘Never To Be Forgotten’. Allow me to tell you about my lunch at Le Grand Véfour.

But first, let us go back for a moment to 1784. The place is Paris. Monsieur Aubertot decides to open an eatery in the arcade at the bottom of the Palais Royal gardens. He calls it the Café de Chartres. Eventually, it is bought by Jean Véfour and before long – Mr Véfour not being one to stand in the way of a little self-aggrandizement – the name of the dining room is Le Grand Véfour. And thus it is today. In this place Napoleon discussed tactics with Josephine, Victor Hugo thought about the miserable ones and Jean-Paul Sartre pondered the mystery of existence. As a destination for lunch, there is no better.

I was met at the door by the maître d’ Christian David. Mr. David is tall and elegant and full of charm. In fact, he is exactly what the maitre d’ of one of France’s most famous restaurants should be. He welcomed me back, for I have had the privilege of eating at Le Grand Véfour on a number of occasions. Then he led me into the dining room and I wondered, I hoped... and, yes, I was being taken to my favourite table in the corner. This, too, was the chosen table of the writer, Colette. To this precise spot she would be carried when she was crippled with rheumatism. And here, we hope, she found comfort and relief in the enjoyment of La Cuisine Française.

I perched on the crimson velvet banquette, a white tablecloth before me, and sipped from a flute of pink Taittinger champagne. On the table were red roses in a silver vase and butter (salted and unsalted) in a tiny silver commode. Everything was right and in its proper place. I looked about and admired once again this exquisite jewel box of a room. Few spaces can boast such a delightful mixture of black and gold, of red and white. It is a confection which both pleases and relaxes, for it is the product of refinement and good taste. Nothing jars. As the tables filled, an atmosphere of easy enjoyment filled the air and the waiters, in black tie (and there were many of them), began to bring forth the kitchen’s splendours.

Those splendours are created by a brilliant and inspired chef. Guy Martin comes from the Savoy region and was born in 1957. I mention the year of his birth, because Mr Martin always looks much younger than his age. (It is a characteristic I wish I shared.) His kitchen, which I have visited, is vast and is located beneath the dining rooms. From here come some of the finest dishes known to mankind. The anticipation I felt as I waited for my food was itself worth the journey from London.

It was the season for black truffles, so I really could not do other than start with perhaps the simplest offering on the menu: salade de pommes de terre ratte et truffes. How can I convey to you the pleasure of eating one of the most sublime dishes it has ever been my privilege to consume? Words seem inadequate, but let me try these: delicate, harmonious, flattering, ravishing... The slices of boiled potato (the very, very finest potato) were covered with slices of the divine fungus. “He who has not feasted on truffles has not truly lived.” In my glass was the perfect accompaniment, a Meursault of low acidity, discreet fruit and perfect balance (1er Cru ‘Les Cras’, Boillot, 2003 – 199ε). Sometimes life is good.

Next came another temptation to which I yielded eagerly: les ravioles de foie gras à l’émulsion de crème truffée. On each visit to Le Grand Véfour I have eaten the foie gras ravioli with truffled cream, for I regard it as one of the great dishes of the world. Its presentation has changed from time to time, and now it appears on a black, oblong plate. But the exquisite pleasure yielded by the translucent pasta and the warm, luscious liver within is immutable. Like a pussy cat I purred with pleasure, and thought how clever the splendid Chef Sommelier, Patrick Tamisier, had been to recommend the Meursault, for again it glided elegantly up to the food and kissed it gently on the cheek.

My main course showed – as if I needed any evidence – that the kitchen is not afraid of complexity and hard work. This fillet of lamb was stuffed with marinated salsify and the plate had intriguing elements of lemon, chervil and potimarron (a winter squash). I ended with another dash of brilliance from Monsieur Martin, the famous crème brûlée with artichokes. It does, indeed, sound rather odd. Yet the unusual combination, with its touch of asperity, is an inspired confection. This remarkable pudding should certainly be tried by anyone who is visiting Le Grand Véfour for the first time. (These four courses from the carte were 320 euros. A set lunch is available for 88 euros.)

You would expect the wine list to be French and to be full of gems, and it is. But modestly-priced bottles are available. There is, for example, a Greek red at 40ε. Still, you might want Mr Tamisier to pour something rather grander into the Schott glasses, so here are a few decent bottles which caught my eye: 1910 Lafite (5,000ε), 1981Latour (722ε) 1999 Yquem (900ε), 1999 Romanée-Conti (8,500ε) and 2005 Montrachet, Drouhin (750ε).

Was this the best lunch I have ever eaten? I am not sure. I know that it was one of the best, and the contemplation of whether it should go right to the top of the tree enables me to keep vividly alive what was a wonderful experience. So of one thing I am sure: this lunch at Le Grand Véfour will not be forgotten.

LE GRAND VÉFOUR
17 rue Beaujolais, 75001, Paris, France.
Telephone +33 1 42 96 56 27
Fax +33 1 42 86 80 71
Email: grand.vefour@wanadoo.fr

www.grand-vefour.com

Closed: August, Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday
Set lunch: 88 euros

© 2010 Francis Bown.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  For reviews of hotels and restaurants across the world, visit www.BownsBest.com

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