Josh and I love food. We bonded over cheap student fare in July 1998 when we met on the Sound of America European tour, we lived a mostly vegetarian/pescatarian lifestyle for the first four years of our relationship as adults, and our only real vacation pre-kids was to a cooking school in Mexico - we love food. But last night, we visited our first Michelin star restaurant, which happens to be just up the hill from our apartment, less than ten minutes by car, in Chamalières, and it blew us away.
So, Michelin stars. Yes, they're awarded by the same company that makes tires, and once you hear why you'll understand why that makes sense: around the turn of the 20th century, Michelin was making bicycle and auto tires and wanted more people to use them, use them up, and buy more. But the roads were unmarked in most of France, and parochial French citizens didn't usually travel much further than they could comfortably walk. So the tire company started planting road signs (with the Michelin logo on them), sponsoring bicycle races, and publishing road maps/road guides. And thus the star rating system was born.
Every year, Michelin employees who have been secretly assigned to contribute to the Guide are dispatched into thousands of restaurants all over the world. They evaluate everything - the quality of the ingredients, the service, creativity, continuity, and more. The best of the best are awarded one, two, or three stars - one being a huge accomplishment for any chef, and three meaning it would be worth flying into that restaurant's country just to eat a meal there. The United States had 148 starred restaurants in 2016. France had 600.
Josh's colleagues had clued him in to Radio, after learning that we lived in Chamalières, but we were waiting for the perfect menu of the month. November was a winner so off we went. TO THE FOOD!
Before we ordered anything other than champagne, four dishes appeared on the table.
On the wider plate are two dishes - a little soft slice of bread with ham, a puree I identified as chestnut (but could be mistaken), and a little, perfect taste of fruit - I think lychee. In the white fish-shaped spoons were the most remarkable oysters. They were fresh and raw and formed into perfect domes by some gastronomic magic that didn't at all interfere with their brilliance. On top was a round 'craquante' of some sort, with a tiny piece of red fish, a citrus puree, and the smallest sprig of herbs that I'd ever seen. I love oysters, and this knocked my socks off.
On the thin plate: The red circles are beet chips with a gorgeous, tiny piece of fish on each, a little red puree of some kind, and a tiny slice of fresh beets. The little roll was filled with a creamy yellow butter and tiny green fish eggs. Heaven.
These were purees: pumpkin on the left, with chopped peanuts. Mushroom foam in the middle with some kind of crunchy grain. And finally cauliflower, with tiny croutons. It was so good our eyes rolled back in our heads.
Finally it was time for the meal. Now that our first seven dishes (plus bread) had been consumed.
This beauty is skate wing - that's the white on the bottom - from Brittany, with olive tapenade and yellow pea puree on top, little cones of what we think were radish or turnip, herbs, and citrus and olive purees as garnish. Josh, who doesn't like fish, loved it and so did I.
It was a good thing there was wine. We ordered a 2013 Pomerol, one of Josh's favorite regions, and it was lovely, not too expensive, and necessary to keep us from simply levitating with happiness.
Ah, the main dish, the 'plat' in French. Just a little pork loin with cabbage.
No, of course not. It's the tenderest pork loin ever, served on a thin circle of mushroom puree with minced oyster mushrooms on top. At the table another server gingerly added house-made sausage, smoked pork belly, and steamed cabbage to our plates, then a buttery, dark consommé that had us finishing another piece of bread, just to sop it up. By this point we were so relaxed, so happy, so full and so glad we'd saved the time and money to experience this incredible place.
It was also about then that I couldn't help but notice that the people around us, the tables of one and two and eight, were all wearing jeans and chatting normally, not rolling their eyes back and experiencing enlightenment like we were. This is just a restaurant to them, or to many of them, I suspect, and just a Thursday night. How remarkable. We'll definitely be back, but if it ever feels normal, I trust someone will promptly slap me across the face. This is a special treat.
SO. We were full, as I said, so naturally there were still four courses left! Next is just a little cheese. Monsieur the Waiter appeared not long after the main dish plates were whisked away - along with what had to be our fifth sets of knife and fork, replaced each time with new, pure silver ones in a different pattern - pushing the cheese cart.
It was about this time that Josh exhaled loudly and said "Uncle!" He still managed to eat a little cheese, though.
Next was a palate cleanser, a bowl of bitter citrus with a thin sheet of pure sugar on top, lime zest, and three dots of citrus coulis.
All that's left is coffee. But while the waiter, or maybe a special barista who only makes the coffees, I don't know, made our decaf espressos, yet another wonderful server appeared with yet another wonderful cart. Just choose whatever you like from the lollipops filled with booze and chocolate, candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate, tiny lemon-meringue pies, cookies, cakes, and truffles. I have never been sadder at the state of my belly than when I realized I could barely try anything.
By the time we finished it was three hours since we'd arrived, and we both felt like Alice, having fallen down a rabbit hole and realized that nothing is what we thought it was. The meal was expensive, but for the quality and the experience we'll definitely be saving up to do it again. It's amazing that something as simple as a meal can be so powerful, and so surprising.