Reach for the Stars
Imagine a restaurant with horrible food, lousy service, exorbitant prices, and an arrogant maitre d' who just for the hell of it kicks you in the seat of the pants on your way out the door. The Miami Herald would give this place their lowest assessment: "Satisfactory." Therein lies just one of the problems with according restaurants ratings. Another is this: Excepting a few big-city newspapers whose "star" classifications exert influence, these assignations are meaningless. Of course I'm not including the superstar of stars, those given out by the Michelin travel guide. These differ from the rest in that receiving even one is a big deal. Any more than that is a very big deal: Only 52 restaurants in all of France have two stars, and less than 20 have three, the highest you can go. Which brings us to La Palme d'Or, an upscale French restaurant in the Biltmore Hotel; more specifically to "Le Tour des Toques," a program that brings chefs from Michelin-rated restaurants in France to Palme d'Or during the first week of each month, where they prepare their specialties in conjunction with chef de cuisine Philippe Ruiz's own impressive menu.
The visiting December chef was Grégory Coutanceau, of the Michelin two-star Restaurant Coutanceau in La Rochelle, France. I savored every bit of his "lobster stew," the roasted claw and tail meat scattered on the plate with vegetables, a single wild-mushroom ravioli, and an intoxicating ginger-lime sauce. A prix fixe four-course menu, including a savory sampling of fine French cheeses, is $72; with wines, $92. That's a bargain considering how unique an opportunity this is for people who appreciate fine cuisine, but "Le Tour des Toques" is not conducive to restaurant reviews. Gregory will be back in La Rochelle by the time you read this, and unless you have exciting travel plans in your future, you won't be able to try the aforementioned dish. Don't fret: Coming up for the holidays will be chef Jean-Pierre Vigato of the two-star Restaurant Apicius in Paris (three-star Paul Bocuse appears in July).
It takes a talented and secure chef to work with Michelin-inflated egos, and Philippe Ruiz is just that. His prix fixe menu costs $69 (two-person minimum). The formal European elegance of the room, featuring French Renaissance furniture, stately window drapings, and tuxedoed waiters, might have you believe things are more expensive than that. First-rate food reinforces this perception, as does stellar service. The waitstaff was professional without being stiff, the sommelier recommended a delicious and appropriate wine, and manager Michelle B. De Waele assiduously worked the dining room to ensure things ran smoothly.
Appetizers are more daring than main courses. Even those that lie on the cusp of outrageousness, like the mille-feuille of prosciutto ham and Atlantic king crab with smoked milk crème anglaise, or the phyllo dough basket filled with curried blue crab, an emulsion of ripened tomatoes, and yellow bell pepper sorbet, contain only a few clearly defined ingredients. More traditional beginnings also are offered, such as "Petrossian" beluga caviar with warm blinis and classical accompaniments, or a terrine of duck foie gras with black truffle, dried fruit compote, and spiced brioche.
We chose to fuel our foie gras fancies in the form of ravioli: six round, voluptuous pillows of thin, semitranslucent won ton skins, half containing slivers of rare, juicy goose liver, the other three filled with goat cheese. Generously portioned for a starter (and for $16), the ravioli were served in a shallow bowl with a whipped, potent froth of black truffle juice and julienne truffles on top. Earthy ingredients, heavenly flavor -- food doesn't get any better than this, though two roasted langoustines with wild chanterelle mushrooms ($18) were almost as good. Chanterelles, always a treat, paired perfectly with the lobsterlike langoustines, which came cooked to a soft, not mushy, texture in a luxurious crustacean-based court bouillon boosted by leeks, carrots, orange, and thyme; it was finished off and enriched with quite a bit of butter. (The French finish things off with globs of butter so often they came up with a term for doing so: monté au beurre.)
Although chilled tomato soup with goat cheese mousse and fresh herbs sounds tempting, 'tis more the season for a velvety cream of pumpkin soup ($10) with thin slices of smoked duck breast, a puff of whipped cream, a hint of nutmeg, and a small mound of fresh, sweetened chestnuts. Another winner.
La Palme's haute but uncomplicated Southern French cuisine can best be gleaned from main courses like duck aiguillette (long, thin strips of breast meat) with aged mustard, polenta, grated nutmeg and turnip confit; venison cutlet over linguini with sweet fruit and wild mushrooms; and roasted veal tenderloin ($39), three thick, rare disks wrapped in smoky bacon, with porcini mushrooms, fresh sage, veal demi-glace, boulangere potatoes (thinly sliced and baked with chicken stock, shallots, and thyme), and enough fresh truffles staring up from the center of each slice to hypnotize a foodie. Seafood courses likewise showcase Ruiz's simple yet exquisite cooking style. Two that were particularly delectable: Dover sole ($38), pan-seared in salted butter with artichokes deux façons ("two ways"); and fricassee of lobster with baby morels, carrots, turnips, asparagus, and a pan sauce of sauternes (chicken stock, lobster bisque, tarragon -- and monté au beurre).
Portions are moderate, but the richness of ingredients sneaks up on you. Take my word, you will not leave hungry. Do, though, try to leave room for one of pastry chef Michel Chiche's desserts. They're of the fussied, composed variety, in which visuals share precedence with flavors, not my favorite type, but scrumptious, which is what counts. I especially loved the ice creams: A divine key lime and rosemary scoop made the "citrus rose" of grapefruit and orange segments worthwhile regardless of what one feels about citrus, while a very deep bittersweet chocolate sorbet ($10) likewise dominated the light and lovely triangle of hazelnut dacquoise and fanned, caramelized banana that surrounded it. Pistachio ice cream was hardly noticeable on the busy but unbeatable "mikado" plate, what with crisp criss-crossed chocolate wafers, caramel coulis, chocolate sauce, a clump of rum-infused dried fruit, and thin strips of chocolate "antennae" jutting into the air.
La Palme d'Or is quaint, sophisticated, and romantic, the last of these being especially true in the far room, whose windows look out upon the alluringly lit Biltmore pool. With the holidays and you-know-what upon us, this is an ideal place to indulge a loved one -- or one who loves fine food. I give it ************* (thirteen) stars.
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