Unexpected Restaurant Experiences

August 1997

Pré Catelan, Paris

Today we had lunch at Pré Catalan, a Michelin one-star restaurant in the bucolic 2,000-acre Bois de Boulogne park in the west of Paris. We had planned to dine here eventually, but after Patricia Wells wrote a rave review in the International Herald Tribune – their new chef is one of Joël Robuchon's protégés – we thought we'd better come while we could still get reservations

And what a meal we had! After an amuse-gueule of puréed eggplant with tomato purée with baby garlic croutons sprinkled on top, the real meal included fois gras, cream of cauliflower and onion soup, grilled cabillaud (cod) with saffron-red pepper coulis, roasted lamb (the eye of the rack), half a dozen cheeses, and the dessert was layers of pastry and rhubarb puree and chicory ice cream. And of course ending with chocolate truffles and a dozen "sweets" to go with the coffee. And that was the small menu!

Even better, it was in the Entertainment Book. Interestingly, the deal for restaurants isn't the same as in the U.S., where one entrée is free if you purchase another of at least the same price. Here it's 25% off the entire bill, including drinks and wine. Since we always order wine, and not the cheapest, and since "service" (tip) is included, it turns out to be a better deal for us.

The prix fixe menu, which, as is often the case in French restaurants, had to be ordered by all at the table, featured lamb, which we ordered rosé – pink. They removed the silver domes with a flourish, but when we cut into it found that unfortunately it was far from pink; in fact it was well done. They agreed that it was not the way we ordered it, whisked it away, and apologized profusely. The waiter showed us the check to convince us that the order he had placed had indeed been for rosé. While we were waiting for the replacement they brought a shrimp dish, compliments of the chef. The shrimp were gigantic, nearly a main course by themselves, and perfectly cooked, with a delicious sauce.

Not a bad reward for a, temporarily, overcooked entree.

Paul Bocuse, Lyon

This reminds me of another lamb experience we had at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, a famous three-star Michelin restaurant outside Lyon in 1991, a few months before our return from Germany. Perusing the menu, we soon realized that the à la carte prices for the entrees we would have preferred were more than the entire prix fixe menu, which featured lamb, and which we ordered. In the meantime, little annoyances intruded: Looking around the room, I noticed that the lamp in one of the wall sconces had burned out – Michelin would definitely demerit them for that! Evidently one of the staff noticed my pointing it out to Betty Lou, because before long someone came with a little ladder to replace it. We ordered "eau gazeuse," carbonated water, which the waiter served, opening it with a bored air. He suddenly became alert when we pointed out that there had been no telltale hiss. Indeed the bottle was of the correct type, but was obviously defective. He quickly returned with one with a satisfactory fizz.

I don't recall now what the introductory courses were, but they must have been three-star quality, or they probably would have stuck in my mind because of what happened next. I should admit that lamb is more Betty Lou's favorite than mine, so when I sawed at it and chewed and chewed it, I resolved not to comment. However, Betty Lou had come to the same conclusion, so we once again called over the waiter. We're experienced in complaining, so we just quietly pointed out the problem with the lamb. He returned it to the kitchen; no doubt to have our opinion tested, and on his return apologetically asked what we would prefer. So Betty Lou chose the renowned Bresse chicken with vinegar sauce and I ordered the entrecôte with Marchand de Vin sauce and truffled mashed potatoes.

We noticed that no more lamb was served that night. But we were really surprised, when he came around to schmooze the patrons, that Paul Bocuse himself had actually been in the kitchen! He's so often absent, filming culinary shows or on various publicity tours that we never expected he would actually be present. We told him how much we enjoyed our meal, but no mention was made by anyone about the lamb.

But I'm sure this has put us in rarified company – those who have sent back a dish at Paul Bocuse!

Georges Blanc, Vonnas

This, in turn, reminds of an experience at another three-star French restaurant – not because of a problem, but because it isn't that far from Lyon. Although it's in Burgundy country, that year, 1995, we had actually been touring Beaujolais before our visit. Blanc also has a hotel on the grounds, but it was much more expensive than we wished to spend, so we had made reservations at a B&B nearby.

(I guess it's just a matter of priorities – one summer, over 30 years ago, after visiting Betty Lou's parents near Cleveland, we left to visit my parents, who lived near Syracuse. We stopped at a campground outside Buffalo, set up our backpack-size tent – the trunk of our '91 Mustang wasn't that large – changed into presentable clothes inside, i.e., on our backs, and went into Buffalo for dinner. The dog in the adjacent RV appreciated the doggy bag we brought back. Our camping space cost $1 and the dinner was $60.)

At George Blanc we were each able to select a different menu. Although I don't recall exactly what it was called, I chose the rustic or country one. For an early course, they brought me a platter of 12 frog legs. I, with an assist from Betty Lou – we always share – finished off every last morsel, soaking up the remaining garlic butter with bread. Then the waiter brought me another platter of 12! I was horrified – had my ordering in French somehow been misunderstood? The waiter reassured me – the standard portion was 24, but they only brought 12 at a time to make sure they were hot! We were a little less assiduous cleaning this plate, with the thought of the many courses yet to come.

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