THE FINEST MEAL OF MY LIFE

Joel Robuchon, who died a few days ago, was generally recognised as one of the finest chefs of the last fifty years. I had the pleasure on eating his food when he was in his prime at Jamin in the Rue de Longchamps only once.

In 1987 I was given a brief by the Financial Times, for whom I was writing a food column at the time. Go to Paris, I was commanded, and carry out a tour d’horizon gastronomique of the city. So off I went. In the space of a few days I ate at Les Ambassadeurs at the Crillon Hotel (2 Michelin stars at the time), Jules Verne halfway up the Eiffel Tower (1 star), Michel Rostang (2 stars), La Maison Blanche (no stars but the hot restaurant of its day), Guy Savoy (soon to be 2 stars), Lucas Carton (3 stars), Apicius (2 stars) and Jamin (3 stars).

I can remember standing under the eves of La Madeleine looking out at the doorway of Lucas Carton through a curtain of rain and thinking if I ate another slice of foie gras or stuffed courgette flower,  I’d be sick. After a minute two, I sucked in my paunch, gritted my teeth and set off for pétoncles aux courgettes et au flour du thyme,  rognons de veau roti entier au beurre de geniévre and a millefeuille de fraises de bois

Brilliant though that and the other meals were, it was  the one I had at Jamin in the Rue de Longchamps, when Joel Robuchon was in his prime, that lives  most vividly in my memory as the finest meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. I wrote about it at some length not long afterwards.

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‘You don’t really expect to encounter the perfect restaurant meal in this life, but my lunch at Jamin came as near as dammit. The bumpers of 1934 armagnac with which the meal closed at 4pm may have had something to do with it. Perhaps the coup de champagne or two with which proceedings kicked off at 12.30 sharp played a small part. But, myself,  I put it down to what happened in between. 

I was on frontline duty for the Financial Times, who had dispatched me to Paris to report back on what the busy French men and women of business were troughing in their course of their working day. Rather more than you or I, was the short answer. Research boiled down to two substantial meals a day for five days. I don’t invite sympathy, but even the most hardened liver wakes twitching and shrieking in the small, dark hours with constant treatment of this kind.

I trundled round Michel Rostang, Apicius, Jules Verne, La Maison Blanche, Les Ambassadeurs at the Crillon, Lucas Carton and the newly opened Guy Savoy, taking in the obligatory meat and two veg at each, so I had a  little experience against which to judge the excellence of Jamin. And excellence I expected.

The reputation of Joel Robuchon and his team had gone before. He was currently rated the hottest culinary property in Paris, and therefore in France, and therefore, in French eyes at least, the world. Reports had filtered back. Those who had been there behaved like people who had seen a vision of the Virgin  Mary. So what the heck, I thought. I may never pass this way again, and even if the FT shies like a startled horse at my expenses, I’ll not spare the boat for a ha’pth of tar. Hence the ‘Garcon! Un coup de champagne, mon bon homme, s’il vous plait.’

It’s pointless to pretend that Jamin had the grandeur, say, of Le Tour d’Argent or the panelled and chandeliered charm of Taillevent. Its pink and beige interior was not in the same class as the fluid elegance of Lucas Carton, but it was comfortable, pretty and plush.

I settled back in my seat. I looked around. The place was filling up. A glass of champagne appeared miraculously at my elbow. I sipped. My worldly cares slipped away. A plate of amuse-gules manifested themselves on the table, exquisite to the eye and to the mouth, The dramas and by-play at the other tables began. I watched the platoons of waiters swoop and circle like ballroom dancers in a measure, coordinated quadrille.

The service was immaculate. The waiters were marvellously disciplined, never pushy or intrusive, never outstaying their welcome or leaving me in limbo. The dishes came and went with such timing that I never felt hurried, or had to wait a moment longer than was exactly right to settle one course and prepare myself for the next.

And such courses. On the ha’pth worth of tar principle I opted for the Menu aux Truffes, a snip at 650 F, and left the choice of wine to the sommelier, a slip of a lad who looked so young that he would’ve had difficulty in getting served in a pub in England.

How would you describe tarte friande de truffles aux mignons et lard fumé? Coins of black truffle, about the size and thickness of a 10p piece, overlaid so that they formed a single dense black disk, set on a bed of finely diced onion and smoked bacon, both of which have been gently softened. Simply really. Not much to it, just a compendium of earthy flavours brought into harmonious balance by a large chunk of pain de campagne that had been grilled and rubbed with garlic. It was bloody wonderful.

Magic away one dish, and conjure up the next – langouste roti aux truffles et aux asperges d’hiver in little bowl with a lid. Lift the lid, and watch a little puff of fragrant vapour rise up. There are the claws of the lobster, shed of their armour plating, crossed like swords on an escutcheon, and chunks of tail sitting in a pool of deep orange sauce flecked with truffle and decorated by brilliant green asparagus. Oh my. And tasting more of lobster and the sea and all good things than I had ever imagined possible. Do I dare to mop up the sauce with a piece of bread. I dare. The imperturbable waiter removes the bowl.

Next agneau pastoral aux herbes en salade – a brace of lamb chops, a little pile of fresh herbs dressed in a vinaigrette and a puddle of mashed potato. The kind of thing anyone can whip up on a Thursday night before dashing off to the pub quiz. Well, perhaps, not quite. We’d be lucky to find lamb chops so delicately flavoured, so succulent. My garden doesn’t produce herbs as dazzling and dainty, and where would I find the truffle juice to add to the vinaigrette? And it takes a spirit even more spendthrift than my own to use potato simply as the binding agent for Herculean amounts of butter and cream, let alone to work them into a sublime, slinky, silky ambrosia.

And then came a moment that transported the whole of lunch to a different plane. I expressed my delight in the lamb dish in measured terms in French to the waiter who  had come to conjure away the plate. 

‘Voulez-vous encore, monsieur?’ he asked.

And so I did. Have a second helping, that is.

By this time I was well settled in. Cheeses came and went, an opulent and fragrant selection. And then pudding one, a gratin de framboise et son coulis;  pudding two,  a caramelised pear something and pudding three – I cannot remember pudding three. My impressions are a slightly vague. To be absolutely frank, by this time I had sunk two half bottles on top of the champagne, one of Meursault and the other a rich and fruity Rhone from M. Chave, both selected by the youthful sommelier from the less  expensive section of the wine list.

Food and wine and service are merely the details of eating in any restaurant. It’s the grand sweep of things that really count, how they knit together. A restaurant is the sum of its parts, The food may be all very well, but what about the service? Or the service may be absolutely splendid but the decor may not be – how shall I put it – quite to your taste. Or the voice of the someone  at the next door table may have a penetrating and irritating timbre. I could fault with Jamin on none of these front. It was a truly remarkable place to be at peace with the world.

The maitre d’hotel in charge of my section came over to enquire solicitously after my well-being. I replied in a strongly positive fashion.

 ‘Je crois que monsieur est anglais,’ he said. 

I replied in French that I was.

It transpired that he’d spent part of last summer in England and had developed a secret passion for cricket. There were one or two points he didn’t quite understand. Much relaxed by this time and encouraged by a bumper of 1934 armagnac, I explained  the finer points of ‘la règle LBW’, ‘la différence entire le google et le off break’ and ‘le run out’.

Some time later I tiptoed out into the waning light of a Parisian afternoon. I’m felt like a king. Not only had I eaten some fabulous dishes, been treated to a second helping of one of the courses, but I’d enjoyed that rarest of rare experiences – I’d spoken French to a Frenchman that he could understand. 

Some six months later, I discovered by accident that all the waiters at Jamin speak fluent English, There’s nothing like making a chap feel at home.

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