Monisha Rajesh visits a vegetarian restaurant in Paris and stumbles upon a circus of flavours and theatrics
It's never a good idea to click on YouTube links titled 'What the meat industry doesn't want you to see', yet they are so enticing. Four minutes and many grimaces later you've now decided never to eat foie gras or buy a sausage roll again.
After the horsemeat scandal, and with continual reminders of the horrors of the meat industry from programmes like the BBC's The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, it's no wonder that more of us are turning vegetarian. With this in mind it doesn't seem so strange that Alain Ducasse, the original Michelin Man, has taken meat off the menu at Plaza Ath’n’e in Paris.
I used to live in Cannes and a vegetarian meal never extended to anything more complex than grilled goat's cheese salad and onion soup. So once the furore over Ducasse's stripped-down menu had died down I went for lunch one Friday ready for a nuts and grains and lentil-filled feast. What I wasn't prepared for was the theatrical production. A jacket was brought for my partner and pinched at both shoulders to check the fit before the double doors were pulled open and we entered centre stage.
Bronzed businessmen sat in cream leather seats around bare wooden tables, peering over half-moon glasses. Above, two gargantuan chandeliers lit the room, orbited by individual strings of crystal raining down like a freeze-framed firework. It was the most beautiful boardroom I had ever seen.
To the left was an important couple, seated like two pearls in a giant leather oyster shell curling up and over their heads. With the precision of thought unique to the French, the rest of the tables were aligned like train seats: seated almost side by side, dining couples could only view the backs of those at the table in front, granting a genuine sense of privacy.
The tasting menu seemed the most sensible option and began with deep-fried food with a face. Yes, a sliver of grilled sardine, its skin gleaming like foil and a crisp edible head and spine, eyes bulging, mouth open. Ah, so no 'red' meat then.
It was followed by a steel bowl of bland puy lentils on cold caviar jelly. This was supposed to be spooned onto warm buckwheat pancakes and blobbed with sour cream and black caviar, but after the first pancake we nudged it to one side and twiddled thumbs for the next course, a miniature piece of art that should have been laid in the window of Ladur’e.
Halves of c’pes were arranged between three rose-red chunks of Cotentin lobster and served with a 2008 Pouilly-Fuiss’. A cleanser of black rice, samphire, and scallops was mixed at the table with the swoop and flair of a magician's hand and scooped up with a flat wooden spoon.
It crunched, tingled and lodged delicious salty, nutty bits in my teeth that tided us over until the arrival of a slab of Atlantic sea bass paired with a 2009 Chambolle Musigny. Red with fish? Quel horreur! But the fish, studded with pungent black olives and infused with a stonking umami stock made this a tough dish that worked perfectly with the wine.
Then it all got a bit hilarious. Pudding came in half a coconut shell lined with a bed of crisp praline, a mattress of chocolate and a pillow of buckwheat ice cream. A quick wrist flick from our waiter and a tiny jug poured a stream of molten chocolate from on high and a one-gloved sommelier produced a ten-year-old port and a 70-year-old Calvados to add to the unfinished pairings on a table now starting to resemble a chemistry set.
I think there was a lemon sorbet with algae, I know there was cheese with varicose veins, and from one final flourish came a board of homemade pralines so fresh they were still attached and needed slicing apart from the mould. And as for the tisanes? Enter stage left a silver trolley covered in pot plants.
While the food was fun the staff are the real stars of the show. From the jokes and the japes, the flair and the flourishes, their performance was nothing short of sensational.