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Michelin, part one: Benoit, Paris.

Mark Garner takes Liverpool Confidential's July expenses budget to gay Paree and murders it

Written by . Published on September 22nd 2010.

Michelin, part one: Benoit, Paris.

IT'S a long time since I've been in Paris. I once lived there for six months, back in 1990 at The Lancaster Hotel, just off the Champs Elysees: a member of the phenomenal Savoy group which included Claridges in London. The Hotel, although small, had more class in its little finger than the more famous Georges V had in its big fat overblown bottom. My time was spent wining and dining Parisian bankers with an unlimited expense account, a story for another day.

I was in a trance from which I was knocked out of by a waiter with much charm. Of course my table is waiting. Can I get you
a drink? I have saved
a table for you in the back salon. Glasses of Condrieu? A magnificent choice, Monsieur. I feel
myself relaxing.
I love being bullshitted

When I got tired of overly rich food from chefs who seemed determined to re-invent the wheel, I used to turn to what, back then, seemed to me to be the very essence of French farmhouse cooking: a bistro founded by Benoit Matray back in 1912. In those days, bistros were being opened by the guys like Benoit up from Lyon, mainly as a ruse to sell their wines.

On the one hand they had Burgundy and the other, Rhone. The English were drinking Bordeaux dry, so these fellers looked to Paris and its streets paved with gold. For some, the streets were indeed welcoming, but only with a huge amount of hard work.

The winning few had a secret weapon: their mums' cooking. And by the gods, could these mums cook. They brought up dishes like filet de sole Nantua, tete de veau, sauce ravigote and cassoulet. These were magnificent dishes, finessed in kitchens that were a pot’s throw from some of the world’s finest vineyards.

The last time I went to Benoit, it was in 1990 with a couple of friends, Malcolm and Nadia Oakes. Malcolm was, like myself, a great fan of good cooking. Like me, he was hugely impressed with Benoit. By then it was owned by Benoit’s grandson and was the only bistro in Paris with a Michelin star. Today, it retains that star but the grandson, in his seventies, has sold out. But what a magnificent sell-out. Because it was sold to Alain Ducasse, holder of more stars than Ramsay. This is the guy that has Gordon lying awake at night practising hate.

There is a debate in the North West about Michelin stars, the main question being, can we maintain and build on our existing crop and can the new owner of Juniper in Altrincham keep the only star that is attached to the region currently. But before we enter that debate I thought it about time I went back to France and tried a few one, two and three Michelin star meals so that my point of reference was brought up to date.

Which is why I find myself staring back at a hard faced young Parisienne shop assistant in the middle of an underwear shop. I had committed the sin of asking for directions. "Non," she replied, with her overly bleached hair bristling. If I still smoked, I could have struck a match on her cheek and she wouldn’t have noticed. You see, back in 1990, I had a chauffeur and didn’t need to know where the likes of Benoit were.

Believe me, do your research, ‘cos these arseholes won’t give you the time of day. Or, they send in you in the wrong direction. They assume you are American. They want payback for your granddad shagging their grandma for a pair of tights and an orange during the War. It took them a long time to learn the word "non"and once they did, they bloody stuck to it.

Don’t believe the Michelin guide either. It tells you to get off the Metro at Chatelet Les Halles instead of Hotel de Ville. Hotel is one hundred yards away; Chatelet is a bloody mile, filled with angry people who wouldn’t cross the road to piss on you if you were on fire. Which is the reason I am an hour late for my lunch and panicking that Benoit will have give my table away.

My travelling companion, who wasn’t getting at all hot and bothered like me, had found the right street and we walked through the door where nothing had changed. In about 92 years. The highly polished mahogany and brass bar on the right was gleaming, the customers were chattering and the food looked exactly the same as I remembered it. I was in a trance from which I was knocked out of by a waiter with much charm.

Of course my table is waiting. Can I get you a drink? I have saved a table for you in the back salon. Glasses of Condrieu? (¤15 each) A magnificent choice, Monsieur. I feel myself relaxing. I love being bullshitted. Ducasse has not changed a thing. It’s as if 18 years have gone nowhere. It looks like the menu hasn’t changed either.

My dining companion, Cat, had Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard (¤28) served in two slices with a little rock salt which I thought it needed, as it happens. It came with a Parisian-toasted brioche which pointed to the Alain Ducasse

machine for perfect patisserie. Cat said it looked phallic. I wasn’t sure about that, you lot can decide for yourselves.

If Gordo had been with us I am sure he would have elucidated in great detail. I ordered Salade Benoit a la truffe d’ete(¤32) which was a pillow of tiny, spankingly fresh baby salad leaves, lovingly cuddling little slabs of bacon batons, foie gras and duck rillets on tiny slices of croutons. A boiled quail’s egg sat on top, the whole lot sprinkled with just-shaved white truffle.

The Condrieu (Faury, 06) was working it’s magic, a fairly rare white wine from the Rhone valley, served slightly this side of chilled which allowed the flowery nose to kick up its skirts. This writer was starting to remember again why he loves his job.

To both mine and the waiter's surprise, Cat chose Cassoulet Maison (¤26). A big blustery dish full of chunks of duck confit, Toulouse sausage, ham hock and slabs of bacon. The current chef, David Rathgeber, who came over from the Plaza Athenee, M. Ducasse’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant up the road, has kept it the same for over 90 years.

Chefs with chips on their shoulders and ambitions that are far in advance of their abilities are ten a penny. They would have tried to stamp their inadequate authority on the dish and messed up. M. Rathgeber is clearly a chef of great ability, comfortable enough in his skills to know he needs to simply replicate what the Matray’s have perfected down the years. It is a very special dish. Nice and chunky with great swells of flavour.

A bottle of Savigny-lès-Beaunes 1er cru - La Bataillère aux vergelesses, A.Morot ( ¤65) was doing the business by now, a workmanlike red Burgundy, fresh and sharp enough to stand up to the battering of flavours from the cassoulet.

It also partnered well with one of the most enjoyable dishes of the past three years or so, Saute Gourmand (¤39). Delivered in a copper pot, it started life as a bunch of rowdy wild mushrooms, all lining up in the early morning outside M. Rathgeber's kitchen window shouting “Choose me, Chef! Please, choose me”. It finished as a broth made from the mushrooms into which had been introduced truffle oil, sautéed ris de veau, foie gras and crêtes et rognons de coq. I daren’t translate those but they tasted great. They were topped off with a few crayfish for good measure. Big chunks of crusty bread mopped it all up.

The current team have brought the menu up to date in the handling of the classic puddings. Now they are far better than they were. This comes from the Ducasse ability to throw weight about its restaurants with a steady stream of superb pastry chefs. I chose three. I am greedy. Millefeuille of Vanilla Cream, Gourmandise Mara and Assortiment de Tarte, (all ¤13). These are outstanding, the art of the patissiere at its highest and being shown in the slightly burned caramel taste and a crispness of the puff pastry that is really high class and evident in only a handful of kitchens across the world.

I spent a lot here. ¤268 in fact. I wanted to ensure that I left nothing to chance. But I have to tell you that the couple of French bankers sat next to us had the three course menu at ¤38; it looked every bit as fabulous as the a la carte. Note that it is only available at lunch.

This is one of three reviews that I am undertaking from my trip to Paris, culminating in piece which shall sum up my particular thinking on the Michelin debate. I hope that you guys will join in that debate. One thing I can say on this evidence is that Michelin are much better at food reviewing than they are at giving directions, a bit like the Parisians themselves.

Rating: 18.25/20
Breakdown: 8.75/10 Food
5/5 Service
4.5/5 Ambience
Address: Benuit
20 Rue St. Martin
(Metro Hotel de Ville! Look out for the Tour St. Jacques)
01 42 72 25 76

www.benoit-paris.com (great website this, have a peek)

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AndyAugust 1st 2008.

Mon Dieu! Left Bank Bistro in Formby do an early evening two courses for £7.95.

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