When foreign correspondents socialise abroad, one thing they never complain about is the calibre of conversation. The work may pay peanuts, but the after-hours downtime is some sort of divine payback for all the dangers and frustrations that accompany it. The whole point of being a foreign correspondent is to be parachuted into occasions of extreme or bizarre behaviour, so one quickly builds up a store of extraordinary experiences with quite a bit of minutiae that can never quite make it into print. My recent time in Paris had this magical intermission with old friends from London now living on the Left Bank, another Balkans journalist passing through, plus a war photographer I hadn't really met before.
By the time we had demolished a few reputations (and several bottles of Dom Ruinart), considered how foul Putin really was, and laughed at the notion of a comeback for Conrad Black, it was nearly midnight. Apart from some diverting pâté de foie gras, we hadn't eaten. So we trudged down rue Montparnasse, carefully avoiding La Coupole and settling instead at the more modestly sized bistro opposite called Le Select. I knew it would still be open, as Sartre had his last coffee here with Simone de Beauvoir at four in the morning before his mobilisation in 1940.
Andouillettes, those gut-wrenchingly stenchy sausages made up of pigs intestines, calves mesentery, and other offal ingredients too disgusting to mention on a public website, have long possessed a special place in my stomach. I concede they are not to everyones taste but they provide a useful back-to-basecamp authenticity in their rubbery ponginess. The difficulty is that they linger far beyond their sell-by date so that by the time I awoke the next day I still felt as if I had been force-fed from a funnel ahead of an imminent execution.
It wasn't an exceptional andouillette, and the accompanying roast potatoes were overfried, with no crème de moutarde either. When plates are so flawed before you even begin them, I have a tendency to overeat in some mad desire to give the dish one last chance. This was all the more of a disaster, since I was supposed to consume two promising meals the following day – the first at Il Vino d' Enrico Bernardo, the second at Le Cinq. I didn't have to weigh up the options, or myself, to realise I had to abandon any plans for lunch and then undertake to walk everywhere for the next eight hours to get myself back to something approaching equilibrium before the evening meal.
There was good reason to take this triage approach. The previous time I had eaten at Le Cinq remains etched in that special memory-vault reserved for occasions of immense pleasure. The only irritant was that my nine-year-old son was so enraptured by his plateful of mashed potato saturated with Alba truffles that he ring-fenced it with his right arm and slowly worked his way through with a spoon in his left, ignoring the howls of protest from the rest of his family.
Anyway, after hikes to the Courbet exhibition at the Grand Palais, a photojournalism show at the Musée d'Orsay and a quick look at the Benin bronzes at the stunning new Musée du Quai Branly, I was fit for purpose.
Le Cinq has been through the wars over the years. It has just had one of its three stars removed by the Michelin man, and no-one seems to know why this calumny occurred, except that there were unfounded rumours that Philippe Legendre was about to depart. I had first encountered him more than a decade ago when he was chef at Taillevent and been impressed with his fundamentally classical approach with low key innovations.
Le Cinq still remains my favourite destination in Paris, whether to float or to sink your boat, depending on who picks up the tab. There is nothing very modest about the room, which, while not as hugely opulent as either the Ritz's L'Espadon or the Crillon's Les Ambassadeurs dining-rooms, manages to exude luxe and calme.
The reason for this sense of being in a very safe haven is that it is the signature restaurant of the George V, on which Four Seasons has lavished upwards of $125m since purchasing it nearly a decade ago. The complete rethink has made the George V the premier hotel in Paris, rivalled perhaps only by the Plaza Athénée, which houses Alain Ducasse. However, there is too much of the whiff of the fashion world at the Plaza Athénée for me to feel entirely comfortable.
My only complaint about the George V is the hanging of fake old master oils in key locations – the one touch of inauthenticity in the entire experience. What truly makes George V stand out, though, are the extraordinary flower-arrangements of artistic director Jeffrey Leatham. The cost far exceeds an annual seven-figure sum; thousands of fresh flowers are flown in twice a week from Amsterdam. For Christmas, the lobby is dominated by two trees trussed in deep purple lighting which also projects up to transform the colour of the central chandelier.
The guests at Le Cinq exude a rosy cheeked bonhomie that comes of being fiscally fit but not uniformly plutocratic. A table of diners celebrating a 60th wedding anniversary put our own 16th anniversary celebration somewhat in the shade. At the other end of the room, a large Levantine family group enjoyed themselves, including two children watching DVDs on their personal computers.
Before dining, I had made a special pilgrimage to the cellars with Eric Beaumard, the restaurant's voluble director, and Thierry Hamon, the sommelier. The cellars are 50 feet below street level in space that was created when quarries extracted stone for the nearby Arc de Triomphe. Here there are tens of thousands of promising bottles, including numerous vintages of prized wines such as the rarely seen Corton-Charlemagne by Coche-Dury, and a wonderful range of Musignys from Comte de Vogüé. Only the previous week, a group of five Russians came in and demanded to be given a memorable time. After careful negotiations between the diners, Eric and Philippe, they left €50,000 poorer but enriched by various special dishes and bottles of voting-age Haut-Brion and pension-qualifying d'Yquem.
We had hardly begun to consume our Champagne (a fragrant Laurent Perrier Grand Sicle) when the amuse-bouche arrived. It seems that, the grander the establishment, the more the chef desires to expose his beating peasant heart: it was ribbons of Serrano ham along with a suet pudding bowl with a tiny baked loaf infused with pancetta. This is quite an amusing joke – so out of context, yet authentic enough to convince you of its legitimacy. When that was over, new bread appeared, plus a small tasting bowl with an exquisite Tuscan olive oil, Ottavio Summum.
I cursorily ate the next course, a carpaccio of Dublin Bay prawns, and blanc manger of sole with lime – but, had my eyes been closed, I wouldn't have been able to detect what precisely it was. However, in a fit of nostalgia, we had also ordered the tartare of sea scallops and Marennes oysters with an obligatory coating of caviar. This dish manages to hit me every time with its raw message of maritime origins and hyperintensive saline whiffs from the oysters. This alone justifies any calls for the restitution of that lost star.
I hadn't managed to get through the wine list, so I simply asked Eric to find an appropriate Chablis. It was a 2003 Grand Cru Les Preuses from Dauvissat that reconfirmed my love for Chablis with food. It is easy to dismiss Chablis as being flinty, austere, even acidic as opposed to the warm voluptuousness of other white Burgundies and Chardonnay. However, put it up against the right food for an immediate transformation: its steely teeth sink in, leaving an harmonious shimmer at the end of the encounter. I am pleased to report that we disposed there and then of my wife's earlier prejudice against all things Chablis.
There was an engaging diversion from the next table, when a pint-sized Northerner kept boasting to his companion about how wonderful the 2005 vintage was, but I couldn't tell if this was to rationalise an infanticide on his part, or merely show that he knew his way around the world of wine investment.
The next dish was not much larger than a poached-egg cup, but proved another knock-out thanks to its earthy flavours and wonderful appearance. It was eggplant with slithers of black truffle and morels that commingled in such a way as to defy all previous tastes of these individual ingredients. I was intrigued by the next dish but not overwhelmed: raw shrimps from St Gilles Croix de Vie smothered in a simmering broth along with a little wedge of seaweed. You can afford to be generous, though, when the next treat is the signature dish of angel hair pasta completely hidden by little shavings of Alba white truffles.
Our neighbours were racing ahead of us – but suddenly left abruptly, their plates half-finished on the table. What was that about? Chris, the self-effacing English waiter was distraught and wondered what the problem was. "I merely asked him if he would like some crackers with his cheese but I had to repeat it because he seemed to be hard of hearing." Later, he was told the departed guest thought he had been accused of being crackers, and took severe umbrage.
The final fish course was wild sea bass with abalone, and, again, there was an amazing blending of flavours from such straightforward tastes. The Chablis was beginning to mellow slightly, given that 2003 was an overhot year, which meant the added bonus of being able to follow its expansion and then slight exhaustion in the glass after an hour and a half of exposure to the air.
It was changeover time – and another wine I merely knew by reputation, a Forts de Latour 90. More than half of the 1990 Latour was consigned to the second label, which makes it an absolute steal at less than one-seventh the cost of the "first" wine. It was a massive success in both senses – the tell-tale monumental structure of robust Cabernet was again thrown into sharp relief by the accompanying food.
Rather than go with the noisettes of lamb, we chose jugged hare and roast grouse. It was the first time I had grouse in France that wasn't tasteless – and again, the cèpes played their part. The only miniscule flaw of the evening was that both the main plates were slightly cooler than they should have been (we were later chased back to London with a text message from the manager informing us that the engineers had been in the process of changing the heating elements for the plates).
We were disappointed at the abrupt departure of our aggrieved neighbours as we missed the stray snatches of conversation. On the next-but-one table there was a kindly-looking large man in a heavy tweed suit eating by himself and contentedly reading a book between courses. Maddeningly, he never opened his mouth except to eat. We were told later that he turns up once or twice a month, always has the complete menu gourmand before ambling into the night.
The cheeses were all excellent, if not really distinguishable from what you would find at say, La Fromagerie off the Marylebone High St.
We were in danger of ending up like those deceased characters in La Grande Bouffe, so we skipped the main puddings and merely had meltingly perfect chocolates with our coffee. Typically, I managed to dribble one down the front of the table-cloth. Within seconds a discreet waiter had covered the offending stain with a perfectly placed napkin.
Although we hadn't ordered any more water, an exotic bottle of still water from the Vosges, Eau de Wattwiller, was served with the coffee merely to allow us to rehydrate after this four hour experience.
I wouldn't expect to be able to consume so much food and wine on a nightly basis, unlike my hero A.J. Liebling, who regularly demolished larger meals than this for lunch. But despite such satiety, I was nowhere near as bloated or incommoded as the previous night with the solitary andouillette.
The other impressive fact that I only learnt later was that our chef was not in fact Philippe Legendre, but his sous chef David Bizet, who has worked with him for years. This is as it should be when a kitchen works smoothly, it shouldn't be discernible when the captain is away from the wheel.
Many top restaurants have this professionalism in spades – but few offer the delight and pleasure that all of the staff here exuded. It reminded me of the first French meal my wife and I shared at the then-two-star L'Arpège in the early 1990s – excitement and enthusiasm between the staff, and friendliness towards the diners. There was nothing stuffy or formal about the service at Le Cinq either.
Later I learned that the serving staff completely changes for lunch and dinner, which helps explain how they can keep up such energy levels.
Until recently the head sommelier had been Enrico Bernado, who has since departed and set up the restaurant I failed to visit for lunch. He was recently judged the world's best sommelier which even though I don't know how they arrived at this conclusion, certainly shows a high knowledge of the subject. At his new place the customers are not shown a menu, only a wine list, and dishes are served as an accompaniment for the wines chosen. I will certainly return to Paris soon to try it out--and, no matter what the hour that I keep chatting with my friends, I will not plump for andouillettes after midnight.