Friday 27 April 2012

Passage 53, Paris

When researching which restaurants I wanted to eat at in Paris I took a great deal into consideration. One of the reasons for choosing Passage 53 (aside from the two Michelin stars) was its historic location in the ‘Passage des Panoramas’ - the oldest covered walkway in Paris.

As one of the first commercial passageways in the world to have a glazed and then gas lit roof it’s considered the forerunner to twentieth century shopping malls. Strolling around the passageways before and after our meal was a real treat – a great spot for people watching.

Hailing from Hokkaido in 2000, chef Shinichi Sato arrived in France to learn how to cook French cuisine. He soon landed a job with Pascal Barbot at L'Astrance (a restaurant that now has three Michelin stars and has been in the top 25 of the S.Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the last six years).

Over the next few years, Sato continued his education by training in upwards of ten other two and three star restaurants around France. During this time he also spent a season at Mugaritz, dubbed ‘the Spanish Astrance’ at the time.

His talents were soon spotted by the influential* Parisian Desnoyer family (see here), asking him in 2009 to head up the tiny Passage 53 restaurant, tucked away in the Passage des Panoramas (*In 2010, Hugo Desnoyer became the first French butcher or ‘boucher’ to feature in ‘Who's who?’)

This faith was soon repaid, when six months after opening, with the wonderful Desnoyer produce (and vegetables from Joël Thiébault) at his disposal, Shinichi’s cooking was awarded its first Michelin star. The following year, a second star was bestowed – making Sato the first Japanese chef in France to be awarded 2 Stars by Michelin.

Taking our seats in the intimate dining room, my one criticism of the restaurant would be the low chairs, as a six-footer I started to get the tingle of pins and needles after just a few courses. I loved the tiled floor, and rustic exposed beams hinting at the building’s age.

A pop of colour was provided by Marc Chagall’s dream inspired illustrations on Bernardaud’s fine Limoges porcelain – mine depicted ‘Double Face Blue and Yellow’ my wife’s portrayed ‘Painter with Palette’.

We opted for the €110 degustation – every dish was perfect: perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, perfect balanced, perfectly executed, perfectly composed, perfectly presented:

The amuse bouche consisted of a fresh, vibrant Broccoli Velouté, crowned with tiny broccoli florets – perfection.

The bread served was a flavoursome ‘country style’ sourdough with two Bordier butters: one salted butter and a chilli spiced version. I took a shine to the Stephane Rambaud deigned Forge de Laguiole horn handle butter knife (now on my Christmas list).

After the amuse, an optional ‘Caviar’ course was offered; at €30 a head extra, my wife and I decided to share one.  Simply presented under a glass domed cloche with fine Capellini potatoes (an Italian term meaning ‘thin hair’ that is usually applied to a spaghetti-like pasta with a diameter between 0.85 mm and 0.92 mm), the fine French caviar was truly divine – making me wish I had bought the caviar spoons that I saw in Fauchon the previous day.

It was difficult to know how the caviar was going to be topped but the chef pulled it out of the bag with an exceptional Veal Tartrate with chopped Gillardeau oysters. Paired with an oyster foam, wafer thin slices of radish, iced cucumber and an apple jelly, this dish was truly exceptional – I’d go as far as to say the best plate of food I had throughout my entire Paris trip.

Simply and for obvious reasons, entitled 'The White Course' was another pièce de résistance – a delicious cauliflower crème and perfectly cooked squid, capped with confetti of paper-thin cauliflower.

After three extraordinary dishes, even with two stars I was expecting a weaker one to come along eventually… the White Asparagus dish was not it! Another course starring crème de la crème seasonal produce – the asparagus had been draped in translucent slices of pata negra ham fat and accompanied by nasturtiums and a suitably subtle Parmesan cream with delicate laced tuiles.

Premium ingredient, after premium ingredient, the next to grace our plates was a wonderful piece of Turbot. Dressed with pea foam, white and violet flowers and accompanied by broad beans, morels, shimeji mushrooms, baby turnip with the textural crunch of spelt grains – this dish was another masterpiece.

Bowling us over once again, the next fish featured Duck Foie Gras with a rhubarb 'soup' and strawberry compote – unimaginably beautiful flavours in perfect synergy.

With Hugo Desnoyer’s son-in-law Guillaume Guedj as owner, restaurant manager and maitre-d, the meat dishes were always destined to be outstanding. The Sucking Pig with its smoky gammon flavour certainly lived up to all expectations.

Looking at the picture, you'd never know that underneath the white herb sauce, salad leaves and pea shoots lay concealed perfectly cooked pieces of French bean, mange tout, cabbage, carrot, turnip, shallot and green radish.

The Lamb dish that followed was equally creative and tasty.  The lamb itself was sublime – served with clams and artichoke and then artistically garnished at the table with vibrant dill polka dots.

The final dishes to be sent down the narrow, rickety 1798 spiral staircase (listed as a historic monument) were the quintuplet of desserts (perhaps inspired from the chef’s time at Pierre Gagnaire.) These included:

‘Lemon Pie’ a fresh yoghurt with puffed rice crispies and bursting citrusy pearls.

‘Strawberry & Laurel Panna Cotta’ with a fabulous strawberry sorbet.

‘Rum Baba’ – whilst my wife loves the classic ‘baba au rhum’, I’m not generally a fan; the Passage 53 take on it was however a delight… for me, it was not too boozy and I loved the addition of the different textures and flavours: honey, orange, sorbet and jelly.

‘Milk ice cream’ – refreshing and simply served with a crisp crumb.

‘Chocolate Tart’ – with the thinnest, crisp pastry I have even seen this rich chocolate tart with indulgent caramel was textbook quality.

For me, a great thing about a Japanese chef heading up the Passage 53 kitchen was being able to finish the meal with a good quality Japanese green tea and, of course, the classic French petite madeleines.

Perversely, in an interview last year for ‘Paris etc.’ (see here), Chef Shinichi Sato says, “I don’t think that our restaurant actually merits 2 stars. Since we were given the recognition, we have to continue to improve in order to become deserving of the status.”

Looking back over the posts of the other two Michelin star restaurants at which I have eaten (The Ledbury, Le Gavroche, Pied à Terre and Kajitsu and Momofuku in New York), I certainly believe that Passage 53 belongs in this company – every dish was a tour de force.

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