France

France- Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée- ✪✪✪

France- Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée- ✪✪✪

Though set in a dreamlike, gorgeous interior décor style that mirrors Ducasse's incredible Monaco restaurant, several dishes were serious misses, and like other Parisian 3-stars this place is among the worst-priced experiences out there. Seemingly lost in its own opulence, the restaurant presents a boring and rudely short menu for a comical price. I cannot recommend. 

France- La Vague D'Or- ✪✪✪

Putting this review together was a struggle, because there is absolutely no way I could fairly capture the stunning beauty of La Vague D'Or's surroundings at the all-encompassingly gorgeous Residences de la Pinede in St. Tropez, France. Offered aperitifs as we arrived poolside, I have to admit that I could have stayed in that exact spot for days. I haven't been to a more gorgeous spot in my life. 

La Vague D'Or Patio

La Vague D'Or Patio

ST. TROPEZ, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $301 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Run by one of the youngest chefs to achieve 3-star status Arnaud Donckele, La Vague D'Or attempts to capture the flavors of Provence in their style and presentation. This place perfectly nails the combination of Provençal ingredients in a Mediterranean setting. 

We got the chance to meet Arnaud after the service; he speaks zero English, but was extremely friendly. The kitchen has a strangely long, narrow main corridor with the Pass and the Expo stationed at the very end of that corridor, the hot lines and cold cold lines next to each other on the far side. Lots of squeezing past each other and near-collisions, which seems odd. They didn't seem to let it get in the way of putting on an incredible service. 

First Bites: Stuffed Olive + Ham, 8/10

First Bites: Stuffed Olive + Ham, 8/10

As we continued relaxing on the ungodly-beautiful pool terrace, a handful of small snacks made their way to the table. First, some olive stuffed with ham presented on the end of a stick. These olives practically burst with flavor, and the saltiness of the two main ingredients play well together. 8/10. 

First Bites Ensemble

First Bites Ensemble

Next, a large and complex arrangement of tree, wire mesh, plastic box, and food were brought over to our table. I was anxious to hear the story behind this beautiful, if somewhat complex, presentation, but was told that it was just chosen because it looks nice. Throughout dinner, unfortunate serving staff could be seen hefting these enormous contraptions to diners' tables. An 8-top table required almost the entire staff to come together for the service. These things must weigh 50 or 60 pounds apiece. Hm. 

First Bites: Foie Gras + Pine Nut Crest, 8/10

First Bites: Foie Gras + Pine Nut Crest, 8/10

Some foie gras with pine nut crust, also on the end of a stick. I'm getting an "offering from Nature" vibe here. Crunchy and rich, it tastes like someone made foie gras into a Twix bar. 8/10. 

First Bites: Almond-Stuffed Grapes, 9/10 

First Bites: Almond-Stuffed Grapes, 9/10 

Next, presented on a square-ishly shaped flat spoon, some grapes from Provence with the seeds removed and replaced with almonds. The almonds were super crunchy and fresh, and they tasted almost perfect against the fresh grape. It worked for the same reasons that peanut butter and jelly work together. 9/10. 

First Bites: "Company Bread" + Lard, 9/10 

First Bites: "Company Bread" + Lard, 9/10 

The next amuse-bouche was charmingly titled: "Company Bread;" the dark portions towards the bottom are a thin grilled-on slice of lard. Some really strong ham flavors that harkens back to the olive presentation. 9/10. 

First Bites: Aubergine Tempura, 7/10

First Bites: Aubergine Tempura, 7/10

"Aubergine tempura" is crispy and crunchy, and it honestly tasted a lot like it looks... Fried eggplant. It feels a little like something you'd find at the Minnesota State Fair. Greasy and tasty. 7/10.

First Bites: Octopus Broth + Tomato Cracker, 8/10

First Bites: Octopus Broth + Tomato Cracker, 8/10

Calamari octopus, served with an octopus broth and tomato cracker. The cracker itself, laden with octopus, had tons and tons of flavor. The broth had a lemongrassy/Thai feel to it, which once again paired nicely. Lots of simple, enjoyable one-to-one flavor interplays at work so far. 8/10. 

First Bites: Oyster + Béarnaise + Yuzu, 6/10

First Bites: Oyster + Béarnaise + Yuzu, 6/10

The last of the patio snacks—an oyster with a thick layer of Béarnaise sauce mixed with yuzu. The yuzu gives it a citrus flair, but the Béarnaise is super, turbo, offensively rich. 6/10.

Interestingly, it is only at this point that we are now handed menus to select our meals. I have to say that I'm not murderously stuffed but I am definitely feeling more full than I'd like to in order to begin a meal. I opt for the smaller of the two menus, titled "Timeless," 5 courses, at €270; the other set-price menu is called "An Epicurean Adventure," at €340 with cheese course and €315 without. They also offer a wine pairing for my menu at €120, and one for the Epicurean Adventure for €145. I was driving so chose against wine; my dining partner went for the full-boat menu with pairing (a bold move). 

La Vague d'Or Place Setting

La Vague d'Or Place Setting

La Vague d'Or Views

La Vague d'Or Views

We get seated in a corner with gorgeous views of the patio, pool, and sunset. I cannot emphasize enough: this is The Most Beautiful Hotel Ever.

La Vague d'Or Dining Room

La Vague d'Or Dining Room

The dining room itself is a touch plain; lots of exposed wood and gentle curves, a bit of artwork and mirrors but otherwise not a ton of adornment. 

Bread, 8/10

Bread, 8/10

Lovely hand-folded French country bread. Always a welcome start in my book. 8/10.

Course 1: Amberjack + Spider Crab + Tomalley Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 1: Amberjack + Spider Crab + Tomalley Ice Cream, 8/10

First up, a lovely dish of Amberjack, Spider Crab, and a sorbet made from tomalley, the green part of the lobster's insides (not something I had previously known one could/should eat). The rich-flavored sorbet really brings out the best of the vegetables, and as you can see the plating is pretty awesome. I love the geometry of this dish. 8/10.

Course 2A: Langoustine + Citrus, 8/10

Course 2A: Langoustine + Citrus, 8/10

Course 2B: Langoustine + Citrus, again

Course 2B: Langoustine + Citrus, again

The server describes this next dish colloquially as "Langoustine two ways;" the sauce is made from a Japanese citrus called Hassaku (about halfway between an orange and a grapefruit) together with olive oil infused with grilled prawn heads. Lots of great, crispy crunch from the asparagus and a touch of aloe vera. 

On the right, a small bowl of grapefruit (only subtly different from the Hassaku) with langoustine prepared in a slightly different way. It's hard to detect what this second dish is trying to say, but it's interesting to get two similar angles on the same dish. 8/10. 

Interlude: Smoked Egg Cracker, 8/10 

Interlude: Smoked Egg Cracker, 8/10 

As a small interlude dish; a smoked egg cracker with a tiny layer of beef. Pleasant. 8/10.

Course 3: Sea Bass + Seafood Broth, 8/10 

Course 3: Sea Bass + Seafood Broth, 8/10 

This complex dish of sea bass is served on a bed of vegetables and seafood; Roma tomatoes, clams, and zucchini grown by Yann Menard, who is apparently a very famous farmer in Southern France, and itself smoked in some oregano grown in the gorgeous Alpilles sub-region of Provence. There's a shitload going on here, but somehow it all works together. This is an insanely fresh, summery, professionally-planned seafood dish. 8/10.

Course 4: Zitone Pasta, 9/10

Course 4: Zitone Pasta, 9/10

As a total bonus because my dining partner had a longer menu, the restaurant generously gave me a course of Zitone pasta with the subtitle, "a tribute to a chef who taught me so much." The pasta is filled with black truffle and foie gras, and includes some delicious artichoke with strong basil flavors. It is served on what can only be called a stump with squirrel-hole in it. 9/10. 

Palate Cleanser: Thyme Flower Granita, 8/10

Palate Cleanser: Thyme Flower Granita, 8/10

Served along with a touch of absinthe, this thyme flower palate cleanser has fennel flavors in the sorbet. 8/10.

Course 5: Chicken Supreme + Pasta, 7/10

Course 5: Chicken Supreme + Pasta, 7/10

Post-Sauce

Post-Sauce

Course 5B: Side Dishes

Course 5B: Side Dishes

A fascinating cooking technique that the kitchen was proud enough of to bring by our table as it was in-process: this "Chicken Supreme" is cooked in a cow's bladder. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite lock in the moisture like one might hope; the chicken is slightly dry. The green consommé, which the kitchen brews like a tea, brings things mostly back in balance. On the side, a chicken wing and an "oyster of chicken" with an actual tea, strong and slightly herbal. 7/10 overall. 

Course 6: Tomme D'Arles Cheese, 8/10

Course 6: Tomme D'Arles Cheese, 8/10

Another bonus course (they were incredibly generous and friendly in general) this time a completely delicious riff on Tomme D'Arles cheese. An ancient cheese recently re-cultivated in the Southwestern Alpes d'Haute Provence region, it is put on top of a delicious pile of pickled pears, with some môle honey and a glaze of Boutellian olive oil (a French variety of olive). On the side, some chopped pear and sorbet, which are both totally excellent. 8/10.

Course 7A: "A Sensual Encounter Between Dark Chocolate and Raspberries," 9/10

Course 7A: "A Sensual Encounter Between Dark Chocolate and Raspberries," 9/10

Bergamot/Raspberry Juice

Bergamot/Raspberry Juice

And now, finally to the desserts. This next course actually had several components. First, some chocolate made like a crème brûlée served with frozen raspberries and a side glass of bergamot/raspberry juice.

 

 

Course 7B: Warm Chocolate Cake, 9/10

Course 7B: Warm Chocolate Cake, 9/10

Next, some warm chocolate cake, melty and excellent, served alongside...

Course 7C: Raspberry Sorbet, 9/10

Course 7C: Raspberry Sorbet, 9/10

...Some super-sugary, delicious raspberry sorbet. This is an overwhelmingly huge dessert, by the way. 9/10 overall.

Course 8: Petit Fours, 8/10

Course 8: Petit Fours, 8/10

Some pretty amazing petit fours were served next. From top to bottom, a tarte tropezienne, also known as the Tart of St. Tropez, made of brioche and with strong flavors of orange blossom.

Next, a pistachio cake with an explosion of colorful fruit, and some absurd gold leaf. Lastly, kumquat filled with kumquat ice cream, also with absurd gold leaf. 8/10 overall. 

Interlude: Orange Chocolate, 8/10

Interlude: Orange Chocolate, 8/10

As a small last interlude that continues the citrus theme, some chocolates with a deep orange flavor. 8/10.

Course 9: Tarte Tatin + Apple + Rhubarb Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 9: Tarte Tatin + Apple + Rhubarb Ice Cream, 8/10

Tarte Tatin with Apple and rhubarb ice cream. Rich, almost exactly like a French version of an apple pie. Dessert is feeling excessive at this point. 8/10. 

Combava from the kitchen

Combava from the kitchen

A Combava, similar to a makrut lime, is part of the mix in the last dessert. They generously bring one out from the freezer with white gloves to show it off. It has a strong, oily, citrus smell. 

Course 11: Stracciatella, 8/10

Course 11: Stracciatella, 8/10

Very lastly, a gorgeous stracciatella. Big chunks of chocolate throughout. Vanilla bean flavors punch through and dominate the dish, which is completely fine with me. 8/10 

The hotel grounds at night

The hotel grounds at night

A few parting views of the gorgeous hotel as we depart. I'll return here someday.

France- Les Prés d'Eugénie- ✪✪✪

Situated in what could only be described as the French version of a one-horse town called Eugenie-les-Bains (famous for its hot baths) is the extremely outsized Prés d'Eugénie, Michel Guérard’s flagship restaurant. With an on-site spa and cooking school along with 3-star restaurant, this facility is a destination resort about a thirty minutes’ drive from Bordeaux wine country in Southwest France. It is also enormously huge, and looms over the tiny town it occupies like a blimp docked in a field. Michel inherited this property from his wife's family in the early 70's, and after a dynamic career in Normandy and Paris in the late 50's-60's where he came up as a pastry chef working along the likes of Bocuse, he moved here to make a huge success of this place. Michel pioneered a French cooking style called "Cuisine Minceur;" a lighter yet authentic style of French cooking that relied more on ingredient freshness and flavors than on buttercream enhancement. Michel's restaurant won its third star in 1977 and has kept it ever since.

Holding a 3-star ranking for 39 full years might, it turns out, lead to some small amount of ego- he is quoted on his own website saying, “I cook the way the bird sings- free, clear, light, cheerful, ethereal, calm, silky, smooth… I play with the joy of flavors the way Mozart used to play with notes- impertinently, inquisitively, and poetically.” Holy shit Michel, don’t feign modesty- tell us how you really see yourself. 

Unfortunately, after my evening there with friends, I would stop well short of a comparison to Mozart. Maybe John Williams. 

Les Prés d'Eugénie Exterior

Les Prés d'Eugénie Exterior

EUGENIE-LES-BAINS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $245 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Les Prés d'Eugénie Grounds

Les Prés d'Eugénie Grounds

The property itself and associated grounds are extremely well-kept and impressive to roam around. Lots of intense gardening, complete with running brooks and everything-in-straight-lines architecture. 

Les Prés d'Eugénie Gardens

Les Prés d'Eugénie Gardens

Les Prés d'Eugénie Chandelier-Thing

Les Prés d'Eugénie Chandelier-Thing

With 15 minutes to kill, there are a ton of cool spaces to lounge around and enjoy. This chandelier-lit outdoor area is just one of many spots for a stylish repose. 

Les Prés d'Eugénie Lobby

Les Prés d'Eugénie Lobby

Entering the building itself, things immediately got extremely French and completely absurd tout de suite. 

Loulou's Lounge

Loulou's Lounge

After a somewhat halting, bizarre host-stand greeting, we walk into Loulou’s Lounge Bar, an oddly-named wing of the hotel that features an insane collection of fine-china crockery, elephant tusks, furs on couches, 18th-century portraiture, old desks, bizarre Chinese cupboards full of Armanac, pianos, fireplaces, and so much more. The goal appeared to be “whimsical,” and after achieving their goal they decided to way, way past it into batshit nuts territory. 

Loulous' lounge

Loulous' lounge

What in the absolute fuck

What in the absolute fuck

In what is surely one of my favorite elements of French restaurants that also have sweet lounges, we are given copies of the menu to peruse, a glass of champagne, and 20 minutes to cool our heels and read before a member of the staff comes out to talk us through the document. 

First Bites: Frog's Leg + Olive Bread + Vegetables, 8/10

First Bites: Frog's Leg + Olive Bread + Vegetables, 8/10

While still waiting comfortably on the enormous Chesterfield couches, we are brought a few bites to enjoy- from top to bottom, a tempura-fried frog’s leg in a cup shaped like a goosefoot, a swirl of olive bread, and a delightfully fresh bite of vegetables. The frog’s leg is particularly good- the flavor is best approximated as a really, really high-end chicken nugget, but richer. The olive bread is simple but flaky and buttery. The vegetable bite is super refreshing. A lovely self-contained pre-tasting experience. 8/10.

Place Setting

Place Setting

After enjoying a few bites, we are led to our table in the main dining hall. Images of birds, horses, and other animals abound. Check out the Audubon-Style place setting. Our seat itself has lovely views of the gardens, which in late Spring are approaching full tulip bloom. Fantastic.

Les Prés d'Eugénie Dining Room

Les Prés d'Eugénie Dining Room

A quick mention of service here- English skills were okay but not great, and virtually no special effort was made to enhance our evening, full stop. While we didn't have much call to interact with our wait staff, their default mode seemed to be somewhere just short of rolling their eyes at us. 

Bread, 8/10

Bread, 8/10

A few simple servings of white bread were on offer. Nothing stunning but acceptably delightful. 8/10.

Butter, 10/10

Butter, 10/10

Nobody knows how to crush a good salted butter like the French, and this was no exception. One of the tastiest cubes of dairy I have ever run across. 10/10.

Course 1: "Zephyr of Truffle," 7/10

Course 1: "Zephyr of Truffle," 7/10

After a few days of 15+ course Spanish restaurants with small bites, it was a little jarring to jump right into the first course with no further ado in the form of this “Zephyr of Truffle,” shaped like a cloud. Resting on a vichyssoise broth thick with flavors of leek, onions, and potatoes, this dish really knocks “heavy” straight out of the park and right off the bat (two baseball analogies in one, you are welcome). For a place this classically French I should have been ready for something as big as this, but I damn well was not. 7/10.

Course 2: Mushroom + Asparagus Soup, 7/10

Course 2: Mushroom + Asparagus Soup, 7/10

At the waiter’s gentle pressuring, I had chosen the next course to be a mushroom and asparagus soup that was apparently a specialty of the house. Now, in describing this course, I’d like you to imagine a bowlful of piping hot cream of mushroom broth. Put that in a Vitamix. Add five entire sticks of Kerrygold butter. Blend. Add two more sticks. Blend again. You’ve got a basic idea of just how unspeakably, murderously rich this soup was. Gotta say, a little intense for moi, but I can see the charm. Big, chewy morel mushrooms and crispy asparagus abound. I finish this course extremely concerned if I’ll be able to carry on, because it’s just that heavy and buttercream’y. I'm feeling like I must somehow be missing the lightness of style that Michel is famous for. 7/10.

Course 3: Lobster, 9/10

Course 3: Lobster, 9/10

Next, an entire half-lobster cut longitudinally, smoked and served with a baked onion with a delicious creamy sauce inside. The lobster is extremely well-cooked; not squishy or overly firm, and extremely fresh. 9/10. 

Not For Eating: Hand Cleanser

Not For Eating: Hand Cleanser

After the lobster, we are brought a charming warm dish of lemon and flower petal water, which we are invited to cleanse our hands with in case we decided to get paleolithic on the lobster (I hadn’t, but it was a nice touch). 

Palate Cleanser: Elderflower, 7/10

Palate Cleanser: Elderflower, 7/10

In what felt like far too soon into the meal to offer such a thing, we got a large palate-cleanser of elderflower granita, which ended up being a generous double-handful size that felt like an Icee rather than a small intermezzo. 7/10.

Main Course: Beef

Main Course: Beef

In a nice gesture of showmanship, a waiter brought over the nearly-completed main course of wood-cooked beef on a copper plate, and we are invited to breathe in the heavy smoke. Kind of cool.

Course 4: Beef, 10/10

Course 4: Beef, 10/10

"Hollow Fries," 9/10

"Hollow Fries," 9/10

Minutes later, the beef itself was brought out- you can see that “Medium Rare” means something quite different in France! Warm but obviously barely-touched by the heat of the wood fire, hats off to Michel for selecting an extremely high-quality cut of beef- incredible, soft texture paired with an almost fruity richness, this is easily one of the best cuts of meat I have ever had in my life. Paired up with a grape sauce that adds some sweetness to balance it out perfectly. To the side, some “hollow fries,” that have the shape of a whole potato but contain nothing but air on the inside. This is truly a work of art. 10/10. 

Course 5: Cheese, 9/10

Course 5: Cheese, 9/10

Next, the cheese cart is roughly hewn from its resting place towards our table. For some reason, even though it has wheels, two gentlemen carry the whole enchilada through the air for service. Seems like an easy problem you could fix with some new casters. 

With a rich collection of cow’s, sheep’s, and blue cheeses, I chose an Epoisse (personal fave,) some pont l’eveque, and a sheep's cheese. Since they’re just buying them and presenting them nicely I don’t give restaurants a ton of credit for their cheese selection, but this was pretty excellent. 9/10.

Course 6: Mignardises, 8/10

Course 6: Mignardises, 8/10

Finally, a handful of small snacks for dessert (passionfruit with the silver, pineapple with the gold), some pâte de fruits, and bob’s your uncle, as they say. We're done, in a meal that went by way too fast. 8/10.

Last Bites: Dried Fruits, 7/10

Last Bites: Dried Fruits, 7/10

Along with the bill came this small collection of dried and either well-sugared or chocolate-covered fruit. 7/10.

Exiting the Resort

Exiting the Resort

If I were to visit this restaurant again, I would recommend getting the smallest of their menus called the Terroir Sublime. At only 130 Euros, it’s a much more reasonably-priced menu for what you get. The extra 105 euros that a colleague and I paid for the "Enchanted Palace" menu only buys you some slightly different choices that are absolutely not more delicious, and as an additional kicker the 130 euro menu actually comes with wine made by the proprietors.

France- Auberge de L'Ill- Two Stars

Update: in the 2019 Michelin guidebook, Auberge de L’Ill lost their third star after 51 years of enjoying the book’s highest ranking. I expect to see them back on the list soon, but what a blow!

Perched on a Spring-flooded riverbank with massive willows and a gorgeous lighting scheme, it doesn't get more classically French or classically beautiful than this restaurant in this particular Alsace village. The location itself seems pulled from a fairy tale novel about French restaurants.

The Haeberlins

The Haeberlins

This restaurant in particular is one of two or three that I had been most looking forward to out of the entire tranche of global 3-star restaurants, alongside Osteria Francescana in Italy and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan. The Haeberlin clan, Alsatian culinary masters, have run a restaurant on this site for over 150 years. For most of that history, it was called L'Arbre Vert (the Green Tree), but after it was destroyed near the end of World War 2, the family renamed it Auberge de L'Ill, short for Illhausern. It won its first Michelin star in 1952, its second in 1957, and its third in 1967. So, long story short, it has held 3 stars for almost 50 years. Reasonably, I expected a lot. 

For many reasons, this place didn't live up to my high expectations, but foremost among them was the clueless, cold, and often incompetent service. For example, to celebrate my joy at attending this most prized restaurant I ordered two glasses of wine. They brought the wrong selection not once, but twice in a row. I've never had that happen at any restaurant I've ever been to, to say nothing of a 3-star restaurant. They recognized their mistake and gave me the initial glass on the house, but the sommelier made a comment in French that implied I had maybe somehow purposefully bamboozled them out of a glass of wine ("Et très heureusement on peut maintenant les comparer." Wasn't quite sure what to say to that one. Ha, I hypnotized you into fucking up your one job? 

Auberge de L'Ill Exterior

Auberge de L'Ill Exterior

ILLHAUSERN (ALSACE WINE COUNTRY), FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $259PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

Illhausern, France

Illhausern, France

Illhausern itself, perched at the Northern end of Alsace wine country, is a gorgeous ancient gem of a town. I only had a few hours to explore both this and nearby Ribeauville, but I could have spent a week. 

Auberge de L'Ill Lobby

Auberge de L'Ill Lobby

Walking into the main entryway, they had trotted out their Springtime panorama complete with lambs, eggs, and a whole bunch of other nonsense. I got the feeling the place was trying to convey that it didn't take itself too seriously, but upon later reflection it does indeed take itself way too seriously, so this decorating choice is strange and inconsistent.

Auberge de L'Ill Dining Room Entryway

Auberge de L'Ill Dining Room Entryway

See what I mean? This is a dead-serious dining room, complete with gorgeous hand-cut flower centerpieces, strong lighting, and a whisper-quiet romantic noise level. 

Table Setting

Table Setting

Centerpiece

Centerpiece

First Bites: Rice Cracker + Butter/Balsamic + Just Butter Cracker, 8/10

First Bites: Rice Cracker + Butter/Balsamic + Just Butter Cracker, 8/10

First, a few bites to start. From left to right, Asian herbs on a rice cracker. The middle one was oilier and had a balsamic middle. The one on the right was a butter cracker filled with butter and a butter glaze with roasted nuts. Decadent but delicious. 8/10.

Bread + Butter, 6/10

Bread + Butter, 6/10

Right around when this bread and butter landed 10 minutes had already gone by, my order had been taken, but I had't been offered water. Odd but not entirely out of bounds.

The puck of salted butter was from St. Malo, a part of Bretagne famous for its awesome buttermakers. The bread had a hard and extremely crunchy outer shell- I felt like I was deafening my co-diners around me by biting into it. 6/10. 

Course 1: Lobster + Almonds + Pistachios, 7/10

Course 1: Lobster + Almonds + Pistachios, 7/10

An interesting dish- a unique combination of almonds, pistachios, and langoustine all in one plate. The langoustine was incredibly fresh and well-cooked but extremely soft; the nuts were thrown into the dish at the last second and so they were still very crunchy. I understood the objective of playing off the textures and creating a neat flavor interplay, but it felt pretty disjointed- the crunchiness of the tree nuts overwhelmed the experience. 7/10. 

20 mins, still no water. Getting thirsty.

Course 2: Foie Gras "with Japanese Inspiration," + Sake, 8/10

Course 2: Foie Gras "with Japanese Inspiration," + Sake, 8/10

Junmai Sake

Junmai Sake

This next dish was a really cool idea- a foie gras presented to look like a piece of sushi together with a Junmai sake. Ten minutes before the foie arrives, the server pours the sake to give it a chance to breathe. From a sake house founded in 1505 and famous for samurais' preference for this brand on the eve of battles, this Kenbishi Junmai exhibits an extremely interesting nose- very expressive- with notes of fresh chocolate. Appropriately, the foie is plated "with Japanese inspiration," including a border of seaweed, making the foie look like sushi. Some pineapple on the right for a nice tropical fruit kick. The foie itself just melts, and pairs fantastically with sake. 8/10. 

Course 3: Sea Bass + Rice + Coriander Emulsion, 8/10

Course 3: Sea Bass + Rice + Coriander Emulsion, 8/10

Sea bass served on a bed of coriander and dashi. The fish itself flakes apart easily, and is fresh and totally excellent. The triangular dumpling is made of rice noodles; another subtle Asian reference. It tastes almost exactly like fish sticks, and has a bizarre texture that makes your teeth click. Carrots and cucumbers inside the dumpling are a nice touch. 8/10.

Course 4: Lobster + Morels + Asparagus

Course 4: Lobster + Morels + Asparagus

I can't think of a more classically French combo than lobster, morel mushrooms, and asparagus. The lobster is perfectly cooked and not too buttery. Morels add a bit- another dish that can describe as buttery, fatty, and overly rich but good. 8/10.

Course 5: Pigeon + Tortellini + Truffles, 7/10

Course 5: Pigeon + Tortellini + Truffles, 7/10

Check out the color on that pigeon flank. The bird itself is is earthy and rich as hell, you can taste the farm it comes from. Surprisingly, the lentils that accompany are cooked unevenly- some are soft and overdone, some are firm and just right. The tortellini is bread-y and mushroom-y. 7/10.

Course 6: Cheese Cart, 9/10

Course 6: Cheese Cart, 9/10

If I was expecting any restaurant to knock the cheese cart concept out of the park, it would have been these guys. And, I'll say they mostly nailed it. A wonderful and diverse collection of soft, hard, goat's, and blue cheeses from across France but with a focus on Alsace-regional producers. I selected a handful of Monk's and Pont L'Eveque-style cheeses, and regretted 0% of said choices. 9/10.

Course 7: Mignardises, 8/10

Course 7: Mignardises, 8/10

A delightful small tray of mignadises- lemon marshmallow, Kiwi tart, madeline, and a rose-flavored macaron. Awesome. 8/10.

Course 8: "Crispy" of Red Fruits, 9/10

Course 8: "Crispy" of Red Fruits, 9/10

This dish is, quite charmingly, titled a "crispy" of red fruits. It's actually a zabaglione (an Italian-style dessert of whipped egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine) with some insanely awesome rhubarb and raspberry flavors. 9/10. 

Course 9: Banana Sorbet, 10/10

Course 9: Banana Sorbet, 10/10

A truly incredibly banana sorbet with citrus and kalamansi. The two fruit flavors paired off perfectly. Definitely the high point of the meal. 10/10.

Course 10: Petit Fours, 8/10

Course 10: Petit Fours, 8/10

A variety of small final dessert set to finish things out- pâte de fruits, noisettes, and chocolate. 8/10.

As I reflect on my final thoughts about these restaurants, I'm trying to consider why my service experiences in these French 3-stars have been so uneven. Some restaurants, like Guy Savoy or Pavilion Ledoyen, the service was warm and approachable, friendly and thoughtful even. It's not the US-Style chef-handshakes and kitchen tours, but the attitude was at a minimum kind and courteous. Both this place and L'Ambroisie were both rude disasters- self-important, careless, cold. Others who have visited at least one of those restaurants point to a high-end restaurant culture in France that is made to cater to regulars, not visitors, but I doubt that actually captures the full extent of it. Nor would I fall back to ugly stereotypes about high French culture being conceited or arrogant. It felt more like a rational response to incentives- their three stars are unlikely to ever get taken away (and in any case, I obviously wasn't a Michelin inspector), they're always going to have a backlog of people willing to cough up to try their restaurant. To them, perhaps, providing a high-end service experience is simply not something they invest in or train for because it has no impact on their ability to create their art or get customers. I'd love to hear what others think on this topic. 

France- L'Astrance- Two Stars

Update: in the 2019 Michelin guidebook, L’Astrance lost their third star after 11 years on top. Three 3-stars lost their coveted third in the 2019 book, causing quite a stir. I expect L’Astrance will be back!

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $184 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Pascal Barbot

Pascal Barbot

Pascal Barbot is an up-and-coming culinary all-star. His tiny 25-seat restaurant, tucked under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is a beautiful statement in modern French style. Service was almost coffee-bar casual at certain points, which was actually a hugely welcome change from some of the more formal Parisian 3-star neighbors. 


First Bites- Vegetable Tart 10/10

First Bites- Vegetable Tart 10/10

A tart with layers of foie gras and mushroom appeared first, with cirtus and fruit creme dollops flanking it. A great start. 10/10.

1st Course: Apple + Mushroom, 8/10

1st Course: Apple + Mushroom, 8/10

Layers of Mushroom Underneath

Layers of Mushroom Underneath

Next came thinly sliced apple and mushroom tart. Lots of work! Layers of soft mushroom and crunchier apple work well together. Enjoyable and interesting course. 8/10.

2nd Course: Oyster + Flower Salad, 10/10

2nd Course: Oyster + Flower Salad, 10/10

Oysters with a salad that brimming with bright flowers. A stunningly beautiful presentation. Small leaves have an almost coconutty, tropical flavor. Amazing dish. I can't quite place the taste of the small round baked guy; doesn't matter, it's delicious. 10/10.

3rd Course: Mackerel + Dipping Sauce, 10/10

3rd Course: Mackerel + Dipping Sauce, 10/10

The Dippin' Sauce

The Dippin' Sauce

Mackerel with a big ol' dipping sauce. This is easily the best mackerel grillé I've ever had. Underneath is a base of extremely soft material- tastes like mozzarella. Flavor is woody and smoky, the seeds on top have a great crunch. Love this dish. 10/10.

4th Course: Veal + Black Truffle, 10/10

4th Course: Veal + Black Truffle, 10/10

The main act is this dish of veal and black truffle. Super soft and delicious. A deep, dark, forest floor-y dish, in a good way. 10/10.

5th Course: Duck + Oregano + Cherry, 10/10

5th Course: Duck + Oregano + Cherry, 10/10

As a follow-up main, duck with oregano and cherries. Oregano sets the Cherries and duck off perfectly. A hint of salt. Duck-and-cherry pairings are traditional and a bit predictable in French cuisine, but this one sets a new, high bar. 10/10. Inside the cherries is an almond oregano mixture.

6th Course: Cheese Course 8/10

6th Course: Cheese Course 8/10

First cheese course is a beautifully presented flower with melon leaf and red fruit. A ton of goat cheese on the inside. 8/10

6A: Melon Leaf

6A: Melon Leaf

6B: Nectarine Cracker

6B: Nectarine Cracker

Next, a "cracker" and nectarine dish. Cracker is fun and full of fruit. Delicious. Nectarine has a sorbet richness. Simple and peachy. 9/10.

Course 7: Fruit + Sorbet + Egg + Madeleine's, 9/10

Course 7: Fruit + Sorbet + Egg + Madeleine's, 9/10

Final round of dessert is fruit, sorbet, egg custard, and Madeleine's. The fruit is fresh and delicious. I haven't seen stuff this fresh anywhere in Paris.

7B: Sorbet

7B: Sorbet

7C: Egg Custard

7C: Egg Custard

7D: Madeleine's

7D: Madeleine's

France- La Maison Lameloise- ✪✪✪

Seated in the heart of Burgundy wine country, La Maison Lameloise has been 3-star rated since 1979, and has been run by the Lameloise family for three generations (Pierre, Jean, and then Jacques). Éric Pras took over the kitchen in 2008, and has maintained the hotel/restaurant's 3-star status ever since.

Maison Lameloise Exterior

Maison Lameloise Exterior

CHAGNY, FRANCE (BURGUNDY WINE COUNTRY)

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $255PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Eric Pras

Eric Pras

Renovated into a hotel in 1921, the gorgeous Lameloise building was originally a 15th-Century coach house.

Currently under the leadership of Eric Pras, the restaurant was run by three generations of Lameloise chefs (Pierre from 1921-1944, Jean from 1944-1971, and Jacques from 1971-2009). The restaurant achieved its third Michelin star in 1979, and has held it since. 

Eric, only 36, has worked with Pierre Gagnaire, Bernard Loiseau, and many other famous French all-star chefs. He's filling some big shoes at Lameloise. 

According to his website, Eric is attracted to ideas like: "nothing is as difficult as simplicity." I like a good chef-philosopher. 


First ites, 8/10

First ites, 8/10

First off, a beautiful and diverse amuse; each plate lands delicately and precisely from a different server. It's a very pretty and hearty welcome to the restaurant. Starting with the foie gras spoons, this dish is stunningly good.

First bites: Micro Sandwiches

First bites: Micro Sandwiches

Second Spoon is very pretty but flavors are just okay- interesting crunchy texture combined with a nice soft foundation.

All the way on the left, some micro sandwiches with preserved meat. Delicious. 9/10.

First bites: Snail + Tomato, Canapes, 8/10

First bites: Snail + Tomato, Canapes, 8/10

Tomato with snail is served warm- a super-Burgundian dish- and the fruits themselves are exploding with ripeness. The circular canapés are bland and don't say as much. 8/10.

1st Course: Melon + Chèvre Soup, 9/10

1st Course: Melon + Chèvre Soup, 9/10

What an awesome idea- melon with melon water and goat's cheese in the center. Dashes of olive oil and spices make this thing really sing together. Clever, creative, and the chèvre is quite strong and pairs nicely with the melon. 9/10.

2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli + Summer Fruits, 10/10

2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli + Summer Fruits, 10/10

Course 2B: Tempura Lobster Claw

Course 2B: Tempura Lobster Claw

The next course is super interesting- ravioli with lobster and a fried tempura claw on the side. The claw is piping hot, and the server recommends that it be eaten first; delicious. The strawberries are frozen-cold, which is a fun contrast. Strawberry-tomato sauce ties it together perfectly. Original, interesting, delicious. 10/10.

3rd Course: Turbot + Rhubarb + Pasta, 7/10

3rd Course: Turbot + Rhubarb + Pasta, 7/10

This course of turbot with rhubarb in small pastas has stand-out fish, but the small mushrooms and spinach don't match it. Neutral, buttery taste accentuated by the very-buttery sauce. 7/10.

4th Course: Foie Gras, 7/10

4th Course: Foie Gras, 7/10

Next is a very pretty plate of foie gras with coquilettes and haricot. The small hard squares are tasty and precisely-made, but the Foie itself is unremarkable and heavy. 7/10.

5th Course: Veal + Zucchini, 9/10

5th Course: Veal + Zucchini, 9/10

"Veau avec courgettes," accompanied by a cracker with more courgettes. This dish exhibits a deep, smoky flavor; super complex. Beautiful colors and a confident, beautiful presentation. 9/10.

6th Course: Cheese Tray, 10/10

6th Course: Cheese Tray, 10/10

I would have been terribly sad if the cheese cart in a 3-star Burgundy restaurant was anything short of spectacular. An enormous assortment of beautifully laid-out, delicious cheeses from many different local farms. I asked for the house specialties and got a pretty excellent selection of soft cheeses. 10/10.

Soft cheeses

Soft cheeses

7th Course: Lemon Ice + Petit Fours, 9/10

7th Course: Lemon Ice + Petit Fours, 9/10

Next up is the first dessert course- lemon ice, small petit fours... The apricot-flavored bite all the way on the right is lovely and bright, the chocolate guy tastes just like a s'more. Raspberry tartelette has a nice spice on it. 9/10. 

Raspberry Tartelette

Raspberry Tartelette

8th Course: Crêpes Suzette, 9/10

8th Course: Crêpes Suzette, 9/10

Preparing the Crêpes Suzette tableside

Preparing the Crêpes Suzette tableside

This next dessert was totally over-the-top; Crêpes Suzette made tableside with sorbet, Grand Marnier, and small petit fours. The Grand Marnier flavor charges through loud and clear. Oranges play off nicely. 9/10 and great presentation. Sorbet had a marshmallow- shaped ice cream underneath.

Sorbet

Sorbet

Final Bites: Hard + Soft Passion Fruit, 9/10

Final Bites: Hard + Soft Passion Fruit, 9/10

Lastly, a small plate of hard and soft Passion fruit candy. An excellent conclusion. 9/10.

France- Pierre Gagnaire- ✪✪✪

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $154 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Tucked into the tiny Hotel Balzac right off the Champs-Élysées in Paris is Pierre Gagnaire's eponymous establishment. 

The restaurant itself reminds me a bit of the Simpson's episode where Moe attempts to turn his bar into a family-dining restaurant. 

"If you like good food, good fun, and a whole lot of…crazy crap on the walls, then come on down to Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag." I mostly thought that because there are a ton of newspaper clippings, old medical journal pages, and what one may generally term as crazy crap on the walls of this iconoclast chef. It's actually pretty tasteful and fun to look at.

 

First Bites: Cherries, Watermelon, Grape, + Herbs, 9/10

First Bites: Cherries, Watermelon, Grape, + Herbs, 9/10

To kick things off, a black squid ink ball, Uzu lemon tart with black olives in small shot glass, and a big glass with cherries, watermelon, grape, herbs. Zingy and super tasty. 9/10.

First Bites: Paprika breadsticks, 9/10

First Bites: Paprika breadsticks, 9/10

Hand-rolled breadsticks with paprika came next.. The small balls with dots are pumpernickel and Parmesan. Simple but delicious. At the bottom of the sticks' bowl is a delicious red meat sauce. Fun, complex, interesting, engaging. 9/10.

Breads + Butter

Breads + Butter

Log-shaped butter

Log-shaped butter

Delicious, delicous bread and butter. I have to say that the log-shaped butter is a clever and interesting presentation.

Just-baked breads

Just-baked breads

1st Course: The Smorgasbord, 8/10

1st Course: The Smorgasbord, 8/10

There's a lot going on in this course, so like a dork I'll break it down into constituent parts and discuss each. Overall rating is 8/10.

Course 1A: Skate wing, White Fish, Seaweed, 9/10

Course 1A: Skate wing, White Fish, Seaweed, 9/10

This skate wing is soft, tender, served in a fork and presented on top of seaweed and "pillars" of white fish... Delicate sea flavor with strong salinity. Great balance of textures. 9/10.

Course 1B: Red Currant Soup, 8/10

Course 1B: Red Currant Soup, 8/10

Next was some red currant soup- flavorful and sweet. 8/10.

Course 1C: Cuttlefish & Green Apple, 9/10

Course 1C: Cuttlefish & Green Apple, 9/10

Cuttlefish and green apple- almost potato-like starchy flavors... 9/10.

Course 1D: Crab & Bone Marrow Bisque, 9/10

Course 1D: Crab & Bone Marrow Bisque, 9/10

Green crab with bone marrow bisque was next- ungodly rich, with a big umami flavor. Such an interesting statement in contrast to the lighter dishes served next to it. 9/10.

Course 1E: Anchovy, 8/10

Course 1E: Anchovy, 8/10

Though normally not the biggest fan of complete, raw fish (my first experience at Hyotei was certainly mixed) this anchovy is crisp and crunchy. Check out the beautiful presentation on the folded leaf- 8/10. 

2nd Course: Liver Mousseline + Veggies, 7/10

2nd Course: Liver Mousseline + Veggies, 7/10

As a layup to the final savory courses, this liver mousseline with green veggies and flat beans arrived. A dense, rich presentation that played decently well together but not perfectly. A big heavy dish that made me feel full right before the big courses. 7/10.

3rd Course: Duck + Potatoes, 9/10

3rd Course: Duck + Potatoes, 9/10

Duck and potatoes are outstanding and rich. Look at those colors! 9/10.

4th Course: White fish, Potatoes + Greens, 9/10

4th Course: White fish, Potatoes + Greens, 9/10

A touch greasy, but an overall refreshing seafood dish to round things out before dessert.

5th Course: Petits Fours and small desserts, 8/10

5th Course: Petits Fours and small desserts, 8/10

Fun, lavishly presented Petit Fours and hand-made desserts. 8/10.

6th Course: Strawberry Everything Dessert

6th Course: Strawberry Everything Dessert

Dessert part one was three version of strawberry desserts- the thin pasty to the right cracked with the gentlest touch of the spoon; some were served hot and some were served cold. Reminded me of one of my favorite desserts of all time from Ryugin. 9/10.

7th Course: Dessert part deux, 8/10

7th Course: Dessert part deux, 8/10

A lovely assortment of cheesecake, cherries, and currants... Fruity and light; 8/10

Beautiful, hand-carved presentation

Beautiful, hand-carved presentation

Last Bites: Handmade fruit and nut bricks, 9/10

Last Bites: Handmade fruit and nut bricks, 9/10

What struck me most about this meal was the sheer creativity of the front- and back- of the house working together. Every dish was set down with a synchronized flourish from the very well-trained staff, and the kitchen is obviously willing to try new things. A fantastic restaurant, and well worth the visit. 

France- Le Pre Catelan- ✪✪✪

Le Pre Catelan Exterior

Le Pre Catelan Exterior

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 6.5/10

PRICE PAID: $316 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Frédéric Anton

Frédéric Anton

Nestled in a very pretty corner of the very sad, prostitute-laden Bois de Boulogne sits the castle-like Pre Catelan. 

Frédéric Anton has run the place since 1997; prior to that, he was a head chef in the Robuchon empire. Le Pre Catelan has held two stars since 2000 and got their third in 2007, putting them on the youngish end of the spectrum for French restaurants that hold three stars. 

With an exterior I can only call "Lordly," and "Indifferent to its Surroundings," the restaurant hulks silently in the extremely drab woods to the West of Paris known primarily for its criminal activity. As the Uber vehicle took me down the driveway, a hooker with broken heels and hole-filled stockings stood at the end and stared listlessly ahead. I have never been to a more surreal and dislikable space, but was willing to be open-minded about the meal. 


Can you guess where this butter was served?

Can you guess where this butter was served?

Uh oh, it looks like someone has discovered the joys of branding their butter. I haven't seen a move quite this hokey yet, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. I'd love to have been in the staff meeting where someone floated this idea:

"Guests will see the butter, and they'll be like, 'Holy shit, I'm at the Pre Catelan right now.' And we'll be all, 'Your mind is blown right now, right brah?" And then, profit."

First Bites: Vegetable Soup, 6/10

First Bites: Vegetable Soup, 6/10

First out of the gates- a surprisingly bland-looking vegetable soup. It was light and fairly refreshing, but not much of a start. The culinary equivalent of a limp-spaghetti handshake. 6/10.

1st Course: Crab Soup + Caviar,  9/10

1st Course: Crab Soup + Caviar,  9/10

French Caviar

French Caviar

Laced with some pretty attractive curry tones, this crab soup was a much stronger opening statement. What can only be described as an enormous quantity of caviar flanked the dish, and offset the creaminess with a zingy salinity that was more than welcome. Unlike most caviar, this comes from France; an interesting statement about the precedence of things French. 9/10.

2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli, 9/10

2nd Course: Lobster Ravioli, 9/10

Served with a foie gras cream and a pretty ludicrous number of gold flakes, this lobster ravioli was as decadent as it was pretty. 9/10.

3rd Course:  Cod + Algae, 10/10

3rd Course:  Cod + Algae, 10/10

A really impressive and colorful presentation of cod with algae. Came with a side of some of the best mashed potatoes I've ever had. The fish almost pops open. This was a really outstanding seafood dish. 10/10.

4th Course: Veal + Sweetbreads, 5/10

4th Course: Veal + Sweetbreads, 5/10

Course 4A: Onion Rings

Course 4A: Onion Rings

If you've ever dined in Cajun Country, most Louisiana restaurants worth their salt will offer some kind of plate called a "heart attack special." This was Le Pre Catelan's Heart Attack special. I literally could not believe how much of this course was fried in heavy oil, and most of it is some heavy-duty stuff to begin with. Veal, sweetbreads, fried onions... While fairly tasty, I have to be honest: I didn't want to finish. 5/10.

5th Course: Cheese, 9/10

5th Course: Cheese, 9/10

Some pretty excellent cheeses came next- to the left is a "Pays Basque," which is neutral but pleasant, exhibiting some decent Gouda flavors. To the right- a cheese called "La Langue"- has a rose flavor to it. It is made from cows milk from Champagne and Burgundy, and has a wonderful spectrum of flavor. 9/10.

6th Course: Balsalmic Cream, 8/10

6th Course: Balsalmic Cream, 8/10

This white fluffy guy has surprisingly strong balsamic flavors, with what is essentially ice cream on the inside. Charming. 8/10.

7th Course: Petit Fours, 8/10

7th Course: Petit Fours, 8/10

Finally, three small desserts on a plate. The one all the way on the left is super nutty; the second has strong coconut flavors, and the third is awesome and extremely strawberry-y. I notice that Anton can't help but spread a bit more gold leaf on the last one. 8/10.

Le Pre Catalan (15 of 15).jpg

An uneven meal, with some pretty fantastic wins (the cod) and some pretty memorable overreaches (the veal). 

France- Epicure- ✪✪✪

Epicure Breakfast Table

Epicure Breakfast Table

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $90 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Located in the gorgeous Hotel Bristol and overlooking a lush interior garden, Epicure keeps all the beauty of French cuisine without making it intimidating or snooty.  Service was casual but friendly, and this was some of the best breakfast food I have ever enjoyed. Period.

1st Course: Salmon & Flatbread, 9/10

1st Course: Salmon & Flatbread, 9/10

First out was some gloriously simple salmon and flatbreads. The salmon is smoky and super fresh. The bread is fluffy and soft. The cream is super dense and rich. This is true breakfast. 9/10.

2nd Course: Jambon, 8/10

2nd Course: Jambon, 8/10

Presentation was a touch messy, but this ham with cream sauce was salty and delicious. Good balance of textures.  8/10.

3rd Course: Golden Eggs, 10/10

3rd Course: Golden Eggs, 10/10

Beyond being unspeakably decadent (gold and all...) this egg custard with caviar served perfectly in a dark-colored shell was an explosion of flavor and textures. A really well thought-out dish; and the yolk was on the bottom.

4th Course: Fruit & Yogurt, 6/10

4th Course: Fruit & Yogurt, 6/10

Branded Fruit Plate

Branded Fruit Plate

Ended on a bit of a disappointing note, sadly- not particularly fresh fruit or good yogurt- 6/10- also, as an American I'm accustomed to Greek yogurt, so this "real" yogurt tastes like water. I like that they took the opportunity t0 brand the dish, though.

France- L'Assiette Champenoise- ✪✪✪

TINQUEUX (REIMS), FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $233 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

In a beautiful, hilly neighborhood near Reims called Tinqueux you can find this gorgeous Champagne Country hotel/restaurant . I joined them for dinner and a night's stay courtesy of my hotels.com tactics, and selected their middle-of-the-road menu called "Savor." 

Hate to be a jerk, but service here was average at very best. Not only were the people working there totally disinterested in explaining anything in English (I know, a very American expectation) they were hard-pressed to say anything at all in French, either. In addition, even though this was a relatively small number of courses, we managed to hit close to five hours. Mostly by being ignored for forty minutes at a stretch. Absurdly long.

1st Course: Tomato & Spinach Croquettes, 7/10

1st Course: Tomato & Spinach Croquettes, 7/10

First out were two filling courses of vegetable pie- tomato and spinach- that were an interestingly heavy introduction to the menu. 7/10.

2nd Course: Veggie Ensemble, 7/10

2nd Course: Veggie Ensemble, 7/10

A pretty grouping of vegetables in a light broth emerged next. I liked the panache of the carved carrot inserted on top- pretty to look at, but rather bland to eat. 7/10.

3rd Course: Tomatos & Vegetables, 10/10

3rd Course: Tomatos & Vegetables, 10/10

This course was, without a doubt, the rockstar of the evening. I couldn't believe how much fine knifework went into this extensive, summery vegetable presentation. Insanely creative and crispy-fresh to boot. 10/10.

4th Course: Ginger in Vegetable broth, 8/10

4th Course: Ginger in Vegetable broth, 8/10

Another gorgeous dish served with the perfect plating: ginger and a light vegetable broth to round out the salad courses. 8/10.

5th Course: Brittany Mullet with Scales, 8/10

5th Course: Brittany Mullet with Scales, 8/10

A fascinatingly spiny Brittany Mullet was served next- cauliflower and broccoli served as an interesting textural contrast to the fresh fish. 8/10.

6th Course: Hen & Potato, 8/10

6th Course: Hen & Potato, 8/10

A very traditional, simple presentation of hen and potato. The standalone leaf is a pretty but merely decorative addition. 8/10.

7th Course: Chocolates, Served in Silver-Chocolate Dish, 8/10

7th Course: Chocolates, Served in Silver-Chocolate Dish, 8/10

I think it's pretty cool that the restaurant bothered to have cocoa bean-shaped serving dishes made custom for serving their first chocolate dessert. The chocolates themselves were delicious but a bit too creamy. 8/10.

8th Course: Tons of small baked goods, 7/10

8th Course: Tons of small baked goods, 7/10

This next dessert could only be described as a shitload of sweet baked goods. Eating one was a delicious treat; eating seven was work. 7/10.

9th Course: Chocolate Tarte, 9/10

9th Course: Chocolate Tarte, 9/10

I like how the shape of the curl of chocolate on the tart recalled the first vegetable course. A creative, pretty finish to some pretty stellar food. 9/10.

France- Bernard Loiseau- ✪✪

UPDATE: Some very sad news- Le Relais Bernard Loiseau has lost its third star, and as of the 2016 book is now a 2-star restaurant. Michelin is under some pressure for the stress their three star rating puts on chefs- interesting reads here and here

Bernard Loiseau Exterior

Bernard Loiseau Exterior

SAULIEU, FRANCE (NEAR BURGUNDY WINE COUNTRY)

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $328 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Occupying a prominent space in the very small downtown of Saulieu, Bernard Loiseau seems to be an industry to itself- by the time you’ve added up the space taken by the hotel, the restaurant, the spa, and the shop with all the Bernard Loiseau collectibles, you’re in the double-digit percentages for the town's economy overall. 

As seems the tradition with excellent European countryside restaurant/inns that have achieved 3-star status, after checking in at the front desk I was immediately asked if I would like an aperitif on the beautiful garden terrace. Laid out neatly under large, Sherbet-Orange colored awnings is one of the most tranquil and beautiful gardens I have ever visited.

The unspeakably gorgeous garden

The unspeakably gorgeous garden

The gardens butt up against the pool and cabins that are part of the property- I took a walk down there, and the garden is full of beautiful hand-hewn stones like this one:

Awesome hand-hewn stone

Awesome hand-hewn stone

An interesting note about the experience- the restaurant uses the terrace experience as a staging point- you gather your thoughts about the meal and make dinner, dessert, and wine selections all in advance before proceeding to the dining room.

The dining room itself has a tall, airy feel- almost like a ballroom or a tiki hut. The beams are light and fashioned from wood, and most of the lighting on this bright summer day was natural with small artificial lights further to back close to the kitchen. All around was bright, verdant greenery, colorful flowers, and insects humming in an intensely-alive environment. 

Service, led by the dynamic and friendly Eric, is formal and in a typical head waiter- assistant waiter- server- runner format, with at least six different people including the sommelier stopping by at some point during the meal. The attitudes were quiet and respectful but not haughty, and I got great service from everyone involved, except one runner who seemed bent on getting me to consume another glass of wine before a very long drive, which I politely declined three times.

First Bites: Light Baked Bread, 8/10

First Bites: Light Baked Bread, 8/10

Upon receiving my aperitif, a small dish of light baked bread with cheese arrived. Excellent for pairing with a light drink or champagne, they were warm and tasty. 8/10.

First Bites; Amuse-bouches, 9/10

First Bites; Amuse-bouches, 9/10

Next, a small plate of amuse-bouches. The one on the left is effectively a fried cheese-ball with rice inside- super homey and delicious- the square is crunchy, and the spoon was a creamy, fruity delight. 9/10.

For the next courses, I was led into the dining room and was almost immediately greeted with this fascinatingly-colored, delicious dish:

1st Course: Tiny Bird Legs, 8/10

1st Course: Tiny Bird Legs, 8/10

Tiny, delicate pigeon on the bone in a green minty sauce; the server encouraged me to eat it with my fingers- they provided a small dish of water with lemon for cleansing. 

The taste was rich and delicious- imagine the tenderest, softest chicken wing you’ve ever had- and the sauce paired well and made total sense. I skipped the cream in the middle, since it just seemed like an excuse to pile on the fat to this already caloric dish. Also, there was butter:

Butter

Butter

2nd Course: Sabot fish & Red Wine Sauce, 7/10

2nd Course: Sabot fish & Red Wine Sauce, 7/10

Next came an extremely pretty Sabot fish in red wine sauce with skin perfectly seared on top. The white fish was flaky and soft; basically perfectly cooked . My only complaint here was that the red wine sauce took things a touch far- there’s no reasonable way to pair anything except a rich sauce with this extremely light fish, I get that- but it was overwhelming. Like taking a delicate piece of sushi an smothering it in McDonald’s BBQ sauce. 7/10. 

I’ll take a moment to mention that Eric pointed out the plates used in the “Bernard Loiseau Classics” menu- they’re all at least 25 years old, and all but 4 of them have survived service in the restaurant since they were made in the 80s. They were all pretty and accentuated the dishes nicely.

3rd Course: Chicken, Liver, Black Truffle, 10/10

3rd Course: Chicken, Liver, Black Truffle, 10/10

Next, a truly perfect dish of soft chicken breast with liver, black truffle potatoes, and asparagus. You won’t find a more classic French dish anywhere in the world, and this one was executed just perfectly.  The breast was incredibly soft but somehow still well cooked enough to avoid being pink. The potatoes, heavy with truffle, backed up the protein with perfection. The asparagus was bracingly fresh and stood well on its own or with the vegetables and chicken. The liver was a touch rich, but coming off a full week eating food with that kind of richness I’m willing to give them a pass. 10/10. 

4th Course: Cheese, 5/10

4th Course: Cheese, 5/10

To round things out, they hauled up their unremarkable cheese dish with way too many mild cow, mild sheep, and uninteresting goat cheese options.

Cheese Selections

Cheese Selections

I selected some Epoisse and some monk’s cheese- the experience was utterly similar to spending ten minutes at the cheese counter at any Whole Foods. The server didn’t have much advice either, and for some reason was surprised that I hadn’t already selected my cheese in advance. 5/10. 

Three small decadent desserts arrived next, each with a small fleck of edible gold leaf- the first one chocolatey, the second one creamy and herbacious, the third one rich apple-flavored. They were paired up next to this delicious monstrosity:

5th Course: Dessert Pastries, 9/10

5th Course: Dessert Pastries, 9/10

Self-suspended layers of chocolate crackers held together with extremely dark, rich chocolate ice cream. A melon sauce surrounded the outside- it was a huge dish to take down, and a rewarding and delicious dessert. 9/10.

Lastly, a tiny plate with a baked almond “cresting wave,” a tiny pâte de fruits, and a dark chocolate truffle with the Bernard Loiseau logo. All delicious and super over the top. 9/10

6th Course: "Cresting Wave" dessert, 9/10

6th Course: "Cresting Wave" dessert, 9/10

France- Pavilion Ledoyen- ✪✪✪

Pavilion Ledoyen exterior

Pavilion Ledoyen exterior

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $375 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10


About two hundred yards to the West of the Petit Palais along the river Seine in Paris sits Yannick Alleno's gorgeous Pavilion Ledoyen. 

Built as a garden mansion for Napoleon III more than 150 years ago, the pavillion was taken over in 2014 by the Alleno group and serves as a restaurant, event space, and bar. From the walking tour I took after the meal, it was clear that they were still growing into their space- much of it was built out and restored, but some parts were very much untouched since the Second Empire. 

The gilded entrance, like most of the rest of the structure, is beautifully restored. 

Pavilion Ledoyen Main Entrance

Pavilion Ledoyen Main Entrance

Let's kick things right off. To start, you're brought a small panorama of nature that happens to include small bites to eat. 

The ravioli is creamy and cumin-y, with a tropical dairy texture. The hibiscus and sweet onion is crunchy and the flavors reminds me of Hawaii- coconut oil, pineapple, etc. There are some pretty amazing dim sum and soy flavors at work too- a strong start. 9/10. I also really like the spongy platform that the course is served upon. 

1st Course: Ravioli & Hibiscus, 9/10

1st Course: Ravioli & Hibiscus, 9/10

A colorful offering of salted and unsalted butters, along with some pretty awesome breads.

Salted and unsalted butters

Salted and unsalted butters

Awesome, awesome breads

Awesome, awesome breads

Next up, Iberico ham with a rich sauce. The ham is well-salted, and the fermented gelee is a heavy idea so early on in this menu's story. 6/10. Good but mouth-burningly salty. 

2nd Course- Iberico ham with Fermented Gelee, 6/10

2nd Course- Iberico ham with Fermented Gelee, 6/10

"Twice-marinated anchovy" - Wonderful, crunchy texture, but the fried components (that tasted a lot like fried onions) layered another portion of butter and fat on an already rich start. 7/10. 

3rd Course: Twice-Marinated Anchovy, 7/10

3rd Course: Twice-Marinated Anchovy, 7/10

The pasta in this next dish is poured right on top of the remains of the previous- an interesting statement about refreshment and renewal. The sole has an almost sushi-fresh quality- cool and clean. 9/10. 

4th Course: Sole and Pasta, 9/10

4th Course: Sole and Pasta, 9/10

4A: Pasta in the renewed sauce  

4A: Pasta in the renewed sauce  

The fifth course was a lovely dish of panko and sauce- we were encouraged to dip the bread in the sauce for the maximum experience. 9/10. 

5th Course: Panko, 9/10

5th Course: Panko, 9/10

The lettuce serves as a gentle "border" and the sauce delivery is beautiful to watch. Check it out:

Next up: caviar with delicious, tiny, crunchy squares. As good as caviar gets. 10/10.

6th Course: Caviar and Crunchy Squares

6th Course: Caviar and Crunchy Squares

Next up was sole with green tomato sauce. The sole pairs with green peas fantastically well. Chanterelle mushrooms make this guy sing. 10/10.

7th Course: Sole and Green Tomato Sauce, 10/10

7th Course: Sole and Green Tomato Sauce, 10/10

Peas, mint, and langoustine next. An absurdly colorful dish with tons of flavor. 9/10.

8th Course: Peas & Langoustine, 9/10

8th Course: Peas & Langoustine, 9/10

I'm not sure if this is the official title, but the server described this as "lobster and cabbage bones." A beautiful design that looks like sculpture, bright and spongy lobster pairs well with crispy, crunchy cabbage. 8/10. 

9th Course: Lobster with "Cabbage Bones", 8/10

9th Course: Lobster with "Cabbage Bones", 8/10

During the course of this project, I've experienced a relatively wide array of Wagyu beef on a few continents. This was, hands-down, the absolute best. I want you to imagine beef the consistency of actual butter, but with pure grassfed flavors that give it an otherwordly aura. You can taste hay, the farm, fresh oats... It was quasi-religious. 10/10.

10th Course- Wagyu Beef, 10/10

10th Course- Wagyu Beef, 10/10

These dessert bites were served "on the beach," a nice, if confusing, statement in the narrative of the meal. He's wishing us a good vacation? We need a beach trip after all the food? Not quite sure what he's after here, but still delicious and gorgeous to look at, 9/10.

11th Course: Dessert on a Beach, 9/10

11th Course: Dessert on a Beach, 9/10

This was pitched as Calvados apple pie without the pie, which I'll admit I sort of understood. It was just simply-presented, awesome pie as far as I was concerned. You can see someone took the time to gently cut small lines into the surface before laying down some vanilla ice cream. 9/10.

12th Course: Calvados Apple Pie, 9/10

12th Course: Calvados Apple Pie, 9/10

Going tropical again, this time with a coconut and white biscuit dessert. Really strong coconut flavors speak nicely to some of the earlier courses. 9/10.

13th Course: Coconut with White Biscuit,  9/10

13th Course: Coconut with White Biscuit,  9/10

I was offensively stuffed at this point, but they managed to get me involved in this final round- beer pie and truffles, a classic and spectacular ending. Loved every part of it. Man was this thing a marathon. 10/10.

14th Course : Beer Pie with Guinness and Chocolate Truffles, 10/10

14th Course: Beer Pie with Guinness and Chocolate Truffles, 10/10

And, a final goodnight to this beautiful structure. Amazing meal, amazing service, truly worth the journey. 

France- Guy Savoy- ✪✪✪

Entering the French Mint, en route to Guy Savoy

Entering the French Mint, en route to Guy Savoy

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 9/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $425 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Set in unreal surroundings- the French national mint- Guy Savoy's European branch puts on a hell of a show on the plate. The US version, by the way, is in Vegas. 

Come early, because you 1) have to get past a handful of guards with guns, and 2) you have to take a lot of steps to get there. Luckily, they left a lot of signs:

The restaurant is located in what used to be the office of the Mint's President. How subtle.

Guy Savoy (2 of 21).jpg

Guy Savoy offers two, similarly-priced menus: The Product Menu, and the Colors, Textures, and Savors menu, which is slightly larger. I opted for the CTS; a four-hour experience that was paced in a leisurely fashion. Service from Denis and Michel was extremely attentive and formal- to my far left in the dining room were some important elected officials, and the rest of the crowd glanced at their watches with a certain the-private-jet-is-idling-at-Charles-de-Gaulle-goddammit look to them. 

First bites were a torchon of foie gras with cold courgette soup. The torchon is extremely rich and meant to pair with the intro champagne- the culinary equivalent of a warm handshake. The soup is zesty and refreshing on a hot day, the culinary equivalent of nice air conditioning to accompany said handshake. Tiny crisp under the plate is playful and delicious. 8/10, good opener dish.

First bites: Torchon of Foie Gras

First bites: Torchon of Foie Gras

First Bites: Cold Courgette Soup

First Bites: Cold Courgette Soup

Another small intro bite- the small crisp under the main plate. 

First bites: Wheat crisp with Tomato and Pesto

First bites: Wheat crisp with Tomato and Pesto

The first dish is cucumbers- soft, with an almost waxy consistency. The tiny, delicately placed crumbs are soldered-on with a rich sauce that lends structure. Fun dish. 8/10.

1st Course: Cucumbers, 8/10

1st Course: Cucumbers, 8/10

This second dish really amped things up by a few notches. Caviar with courgette leaf crisps and egg custard. Cucumbers beneath followed by a larger ring of cucumber. 

2nd Course: Caviar, 10/10

2nd Course: Caviar, 10/10

Each egg was explosively fresh. This dish is totally transcendent- three different types of caviar that each work well together or alone. Outstanding presentation- 10/10. The crisps don't add much and represent the wrong season but I don't care.

 

For the third course, we switch gears into vegetables with peas & egg. Those two ingredients work terrifically, but this is a heavy dish. The egg had a jelly-fish-like appearance, and check out those colors! 8/10.

3rd Course: Peas & Egg, 8/10

3rd Course: Peas & Egg, 8/10

After an already filling setup into the main dishes, I have to be honest when I say that an enormous half-lobster was not what I expected next. And yet.

Chanterelles in the main body are a nice touch. The onions are soft and French-onion-soup-like in character and texture.

Have you ever bought a fresh-boiled lobster from a roadside stand, and tried to consume it standing up? It's messy. So was this, which was a weird experience in such a nice place. 7/10. I'm not saying I stood up while I ate it. 

4th Course: An Enormous Lobster, 7/10

4th Course: An Enormous Lobster, 7/10

This mussels dish was announced as the chef's specialty. As seafoody and ocean-y as it gets, like a delicious rich mud. 8/10.

5th Course: Mussels, 8/10

5th Course: Mussels, 8/10

Here's where we reach the height of richness- mushrooms, huge slices of black truffles, and Parmesan cheese gathered together in one soup. It comes with a mushroom brioche to go with- truly decadent; 9/10. 

6th Course: Mushroom & Truffle Soup, 9/10

6th Course: Mushroom & Truffle Soup, 9/10

Here come the Laguiole steak knives. This next course- a veal cutlet- is brought by the table so you can see it before they serve it. Cutlet, liver, and sweetbreads are a massive, filling finale of the main courses. 8/10

7th Course: Veal Cutlet, Liver, Sweetbreads, 8/10

7th Course: Veal Cutlet, Liver, Sweetbreads, 8/10

As a nice wind-down, some warm Burgundian cheese with an almost almond and chocolate flavor. The sandwich is crunchy and has a light flavor of watercress. 9/10. 

8th Course: Burgundian Cheese, 9/10

8th Course: Burgundian Cheese, 9/10

An extremely awesome marshmallow and meringue. Nothing to say but 10/10.

9th Course: Pre-dessert Marshmallow, 10/10

9th Course: Pre-dessert Marshmallow, 10/10

This dessert totally blew me away: dried, frozen, and fresh strawberries all together in a tart. Great combo of temps, flavors, textures. Super amazing dessert dish. 10/10.

10th Course: Strawberry tart, 10/10

10th Course: Strawberry tart, 10/10

"All-Black" chocolate dessert. With cardamom. 9/10.

11th Course: "All-Black" Chocolate & Cardamom, 9/10

11th Course: "All-Black" Chocolate & Cardamom, 9/10

Lastly, a choose your own adventure dessert cart. Cheesecake, melon sorbet, chocolate mousse. 9/10, great cart.

12th Course- Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Cart, 9/10

12th Course- Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Cart, 9/10

France- Le Meurice Alain Ducasse- ✪✪

Update- as of the 2017 book, Le Meurice Alain Ducasse is now 2-stars :( :(

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $80 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Situated in the gorgeous Meurice hotel on Rue de Rivoli, Alain Ducasse's hotel restaurant has one of the most palatial surroundings imaginable. The restaurant serves breakfast out of what could only be described as a gold-leafed ballroom, complete with tall white marble fireplace, mirrors, paintings, chandeliers, and the whole nine yards. If an ensemble had leapt from the curtains and sang, "Be Our Guest," I wouldn't have even registered surprise. 

First Bites: Bread + Jam, 8/10

First Bites: Bread + Jam, 8/10

As with your traditional carb-heavy French breakfasts, we began with a tower-plate of bread. Pain au chocolat, croissants rolls, all paired up with just-made jams and confitures. Nicely presented and with beautiful flavors. 8/10.

Course 1: Tropical Fruit Plate, 8/10

Course 1: Tropical Fruit Plate, 8/10

Is this a beautiful, tropical fruit plate that appears to have been precisely and delicately cut by a trained hand? Yes, it is. Is it exceptionally different from a fruit plate one might get from, say, room service at a Hyatt Regency in Dallas? No, it is not. Still pretty good, though. 8/10. 

Course 2: Black Truffle Egg Benedict, 9/10

Course 2: Black Truffle Egg Benedict, 9/10

If you, for any reason at all, are trying to inflict a heart attack on yourself or a loved one, please by all means try this dish out. I'm not kidding when I infer that an entire stick of butter had to die to make this egg benedict. The truffle on top was just icing on the cake (haha get it? But yeah more butter). Truly, magnificently decadent, but please don't try this at home. This is a butter hurricane wrapped inside a fat tornado. I shall name it, "the ButterCane." 9/10. 

Course 3: Crêpe, 8/10

Course 3: Crêpe, 8/10

A small pile of crepes with chocolate and sugar. Simple and pleasurable. 8/10.