Ledoyen by name, le doyen by historical fact. This is Paris’ oldest restaurant. It is indeed also one of les grandes tables du monde, but its beginnings are humble, having started as a modest inn serving fresh milk from the cows that grazed its grounds around the Champs-Elysées. In 1791, under the reign of Louis XVI (just), Pierre-Michel Doyen leased the land and converted the site from a guinguette (drinking/dancing venue) into a restaurant de qualité – Doyen. This was at the height of the French Revolution and the years that ensued were the years of the National Convention and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. It is even said that whilst Citizen Maximilien enjoyed lunch at this restaurant, in one of the meeting rooms upstairs, the Montagnards plotted the Thermidorian Reaction (aptly named given that that is where the kitchen and dining room are now).
The restaurant survived the Revolution intact, but fared less well twenty years later following Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig and the Allies subsequent occupation of Paris when Cossacks were bivouacked by the Champs-Elysées gardens. When they left the capital, they left behind desolation (as well as their word for quickly – bistro). Under Louis-Philippe and the July Monarchy, state architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff (think Place de la Concorde, Gare du Nord) was commissioned to renovate the city and in 1842, he refit this pavilion in the neo-classical style. These works were later augmented with an Art Nouveau architectural roof in 1909.
Over the next century, Ledoyen was oft frequented by artists, writers and duellists (pistol fights were common in the nearby woods). Impressionists Manet, Degas and Cézanne; writers Zola, Flaubert, Cocteau, de Maupaassant and Gide; were all regulars, with the latter group remembered today by the Les Litteraires meeting room named after them.
Originally owned by the family Desmazures, its recent ownership has been the subject of a little controversy. Through the years, the building had become the property of the City of Paris, but its lease was almost sold to an Italian entrepreneur, Carlo de Benedetti, behind the then-mayor’s back (the mayor at the time being Jacques Chirac). When he and his officials found out what was happening, via the newspapers, they were furious and rescinded this deal, retendering the lease. Legendary nightclub owner, Regine, beat nine others to it. She eventually sold out to Vivendi, who were in turn bought out by investors, Group Epicure, for whom the restaurant is an advertisement for their catering business and thus is not necessarily under pressure to turn a profit. This succession of owners has inevitably meant a succession of chefs. Notable cooks that have passed through these kitchens include Jacques Maximin, Joël Antunès and Ghislaine Arabian. The last, gave up the reins to current incumbent, Christian Le Squer, in September 1998.
Born in Morbihan, on the Breton coast, at only eight years old, Le Squer knew he wanted to be a fisherman, although he had to wait until fourteen to finally make it out to sea. It was on this fifteen-day virgin voyage that he was introduced to the kitchen and decided that being a chef might be better; ‘I really wanted to transform the fisherman’s catch into something delicious’. At twenty, his parents sent him to stay with friends in Paris who owned a boulangerie/patisserie. He liked it, but realised that his future lay in haute gastronomy. Therefore, he enrolled in hotel school, where he found himself rather the talented potato peeler – ‘a turn of the wrist, simple, but very important’. After graduating, he worked his way through some of Paris’ most famous restaurants – Le Divellec, Lucas-Carton, Taillevent and l’Espadon (at the Ritz) – before becoming head chef at l’Opéra, at the former Grand Hotel (now The Intercontinental). This is where he made his mark, winning two Michelin stars in the process. Two years later, Ledoyen came calling and Le Squer answered. From l’Opéra, Patrick Simiand (maître d’hôtel) and Nicolas Gras (chef de pâtisserie) followed him to his new post. He has a reputation for being a humble, hardworking perfectionist with a great sense of humour. In the kitchen, he places the emphasis on ingredients, preferring to keep his cuisine pure and simple. His goal is ‘to have flavours etched in the memory of those who dine in my restaurant. They must always remember the meal they enjoyed here’. As recognition of his success, in 2002, Michelin awarded him ‘a wonderful gift from the heavens’ – a third star.
The Pavillon Ledoyen, sitting within the Jardins des Champs-Elysées, neo-classical pediments and engraved Grecian columns gracing its exterior, is now a historical monument. Once within, one makes their way, via a tall staircase, upstairs to the spacious Napoléon III dining room, which was restored by Jacques Grange in 1994. It is long and narrow and fits close to fifty. Wide bay windows that wrap the whole room are draped with heavy carnelian curtains and cream blinds. Along the opposite wall, bevelled mirrors are bordered with decorative panels whilst the high, dark wood ceiling, from which chandelier basins are suspended, is stencilled with ornamental patterns. Several decorated wooden chariots dot the room. Tables are at a discreet distance and double-covered with white tablecloths over burgundy ones. Gold and venetian red narrow-striped armchairs are comfortable. Monogrammed napkins and plates; a large gilded charger; and heavy, silver cutlery clutter tabletops. The room is bright, smart and nostalgic.
Amuse Bouche 1: Macaron betterave avec anguille fumé; foie gras, fruit de la passion et tuile d’épices; royale de cèpes et persillade; l’eau de truffe coagulé; tuiles de polenta; et chips de pomme de terre violette. A colourful assortment of four amuses appeared on a porous black tablet from which the serveur insisted one was taken before placing it on the table. Beetroot macaron, filled with cold, smoked eel mousse, had an almost polystyrene feel, but melted away on the tongue immediately leaving an intense savoury sugariness. Gingerbread croquants encasing foie gras layered with passion fruit jelly followed. Flavours and textures were contrasted well here; first spicy crackle, then tart, smooth fruitiness; finishing with rich foie. Strong mushroom aroma emanated from a petite, parsley-peppered circular cup of cèpe and persillade (garlic and parsley sauce) cream. Upon bite, its delicate, crumbly shell snapped spouting delicious, velvety soup. Last and alas least liked, there was truffle à la Adria. This spoonful of spherificated black truffle was technically adept, but unpleasantly pungent.
Crispy, rustic-cut shards of polenta and vitelotte triangles came separately. The former were light and flaky with faint corn taste whilst the latter were crunchier and supplied some salty smack. Vitelotte is a South American breed of blue-violet potato, curiously also called le truffe de Chine.
It must be mentioned that these amuses were, all in all, some of the best I have ever eaten.
Les Pains: Baguette; pain au speck; pain marin; et brioche aux céréales. Four forms of bread were baked onsite – baguette, speck roll, squid ink rye and cereal brioche. The baguette was crunchy with charred tips and fluffy centre. Pain marin, made with squid ink, was the most interesting and visually striking variety. It had thick and yeasty crust; dense, cake-like interior; and strong, smoky squid taste that was reminiscent of krupuk (prawn cracker). Seedy, crisp-coated brioche was very nice with the lightest, moist middle. I was not able to try the speck roll as it had Tyrolean ham cured with juniper berries. Butter was excellent; it was Bordier.
Amuse Bouche 2: Le potage d’Adèle Pidou, revisité. A variegated verrine of varied layers arrived. Cream-coloured royale of foie gras, implanted with pink salpicon of lobster, was coarsely covered in vert avocado Chantilly and topped off with ebon toasted breadcrumbs and truffle. At the table, warm wild mushroom consommé was decanted atop the concoction, transforming it before one’s eyes. The calm, smooth surface of green and black blended and bubbled until settling, rolling and scraggy, like moss green mountains showered with swarthy snow.
Straight away, the smell of mushroom and subtle earthiness issued forth. Every layer had unique taste and texture: grainy, smoky soup; herby cream; sweet, lissom lobster; soft foie mousse. And it worked. The components were continually mixing, changing the complexion of the glass and composition of each spoonful; each bite was different to the last.
One might wonder what the chef had in mind with such a mish-mash of miscellaneous elements. Well, there is a story; actually, it is from a story – La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet. Written by Marcel Rouff and published in 1924, this book is full of fictional tales about the foodie Dodin-Bouffant (some say modelled on Brillat-Savarin). The one that matters to us here is from its most celebrated chapter, which concerns the culinary duel between this gastronome and the greatest gourmand of his day, the prince of Eurasia. The latter, eager to earn an invitation for dinner and thus a chance to sample the cooking of the former’s incredible chef, Adèle Pidou, prepared a sixty-course-thirty-wine spread for him. Dodin-Bouffant, instead of being impressed, was indignant at his host’s indulgence and decided to repay him with a humble, four-course, bourgeois meal. Many have heard of the pot-au-feu – basic, but brilliant – that formed the plat principal and humiliated the prince into realising the errors of excess, but less know of the entrée that preceded it – le potage d’Adèle Pidou. In the book, this soup takes over two pages to describe, composed as it is of such things as rump of beef, vegetable juices, egg yolks, white asparagus, artichoke, mushroom, champagne, cinnamon, chicken stock, carp roe, crawfish-and-melted-cheese croquettes…it was something so incredible, though so complicated that it could not be recreated. Le Squer has taken up this challenge, though modifying the recipe somewhat to make it more amenable to today’s palates.
Entrée 1: Oursins de roche au goût:iodé/végétal. Two open purple urchins, sitting side by side, but one brimming with avocado mousse and mounted by cold sea urchin soufflé, the other filled with warm tarama d’oursin and cauliflower cream and frothing with a foam of urchin jus, were both balanced upon bricks of fleur de sel. Starting from the right, the soufflé had an interesting, nearly spicy brininess that was countered by the creamy, cool avocado. Moving to the left, the second, whose foam had been audibly bubbling since being brought to the table, had much fainter flavours: the airy, emulsion was rather bland whilst the cauliflower-roe combination, mild then salty.
Entrée 2: Grosses langoustines Bretonnes, émulsion d’agrumes. Still-shelled, butterfly Breton langoustine tail, akin in appearance to a canoe, carried another tail, intwined and pan-fried in pâte de kadayif; a subtly smoky jelly of langoustine bouillon and agar-agar held the tail upright. Tableside, a thick mousse of citrus, coriander and olive oil was poured over the tail. The large, slowly-grilled shellfish was fresh and succulent – its seasoning of star anise, fennel, coriander and Szechuan pepper imparted sweet aniseed and lemony warmth without the heat. The onboard orb was composed of almost confit tail meat that melted in mouth and Turkish pastry crust – crispy and light – littered with lemon balm, mint, marjoram, chervil and tarragon that offered herby sweetness and minty lemon. The emulsion was intensely aromatic and had citric tartness made milder by the fruity olive; this dissolved into sauce as the langoustines were eaten. The quality and size of the shellfish was outstanding; their accord with the agrumes, certainly agreeable.
Actually, the sauce was so good, I had to ask for more. However, after slowing down to allow the kitchen time to accommodate my request, I was eventually told it could not be obliged.
Plat Principal 1: Blanc de turbot de ligne juste braisé, pomme de terre truffées. Big, braised block of turbot, precisely cut into a rectangle and branded with dark diagonals of brayed black truffle and breadcrumbs imbued with squid-ink, bathed in a truffled beurre blanc that concealed a bed of crushed ratte potato. Immediately, the class of fish, not to mention its immense size, as well as the skill and care employed when extracting the fillet, were all easily apparent. Its arrangement was also admirable; simple, yet elegant, incorporating the most basic contrast of black against white, emulated by the ebony plate and ivory emulsion and brightened by only the smallest sprigs of celery leaf. For all this, the taste disappointed. Cooked just through and thus still just translucent, it was more fictile than firm and its flakes did not fall off each other easily either. The meat had none of the rich, fatty deliciousness that turbot ought to have, especially when wild. It may sound as if I am being harshly critical, but to have such a generous slice of such a fine fish as this was is a rather rare thing. Therefore, to have it missing what intrinsically makes it so yummy, its unctuousness, is like receiving a huge, glossy, box on Christmas day but, after ripping the wrapping off, finding it filled with woolly socks. That being said, it was still a decent dish. The ecrassé of pommes de rattes – purportedly the potato of choice by Joël Robuchon for his infamous mash – had nice consistency; neither entirely smooth nor unfavourably lumpy, but treading the fine line in betwixt the two. Together with the velvety, rich beurre blanc it was very tasty. Although the truffle in the sauce shone through, that topping the fillet went unnoticed, instead the inky breadcrumbs they were blended with added an interesting, toasted note.
Plat Principal 2: Ris de veau en brochette de bois de citronelle rissollée, jus d’herbes. Whole roasted veal sweetbread, marinated in soy sauce then skewered with two stems of lemongrass and sprinkled with sweetbread-crumbs, was served sitting atop an atoll of salsify amidst a shallow, pastel viridian herb sauce. This was another dish that satisfied several of the senses: golden brown, white, vivid green – the clean, bright colours were beautiful. As soon as it was seen, it was smelt. Lemongrass, with its heady, exotic bouquet, blanketed the table. This time, thankfully, the flavours fulfilled their promise. The sweetbread, consummately cooked, was deliciously caramelised without whilst still creamy within; small morsels of the gland that had been oven-dried and applied as garnish gave added crunchy contrast. Textures aside, the taste was exquisite and unexpected. The citronelle was clear to see, but the thoroughness of its suffusion was a surprise; so much so, that I made a point of testing some of the flesh furthest from the stems and even this tasted just as strongly. Its soy marinade, a natural flavour enhancer and full of umami, meant the meat was able to stand up to the toothsome sauce – a collage of coriander, chervil, chives, mint, tarragon and parsley – that offered zingy, green freshness. For all the heavy, intense savours, this dish was delicate, refreshingly light and quite lovely.
Plat Principal 3: Toasts brûlés d’Anguille, réduction de jus de raisin. Grilled smoked eel, enveloped in Médoc sauce shaded deep burgundy, studded with a bar of dried shallot and beset on dense toast blackened with squid ink, was partnered with hollowed potato packed with horseradish and crowned with red shiso leaf. Balanced, elegant, faintly fruity and acidic, the complex and mellifluous Médoc reduction married superbly with the rich, smoky, subtly sweet eel. The toast was softer and moister than its dusky, solid disposition suggested yet still had full inky flavour. Shiso leaf was fennel-like whilst the peppery horseradish pleasingly opposed the cool potato. This was an adept reworking of the old Loire dish, matelote d’anguilles – a stew of eel, wine, shallots and garlic served over fried bread. Here, Le Squer successfully renews and refines this fisherman’s recipe creating something that was strong, but sophisticated; simple, but serious; and a very fitting climax.
Le “Grand Dessert Ledoyen” en cinq compositions…
Dessert 1: Levure glacée, râpé de chocolat blanc et d’amande. A perfect quenelle of yeast-leavened ice cream, crowned with shiny silver leaf, lay upon a steamed, sugarless marshmallow waffle wrapped in grated white chocolate and crumbs of almond. The smooth ice cream had a very interesting taste that verged on sour with a clean, muted sharpness; it was evocative of cheese, possibly parmesan, without its creamy milkiness. The marshmallow was an ethereal foam and essentially solely a vehicle for the subtle, though distinct white chocolate which, as it was so slightly warm, also encouraged it to melt to favourable effect. This was similar to a semi-deconstructed blancmange – the set mould manifest as the marshmallow, the almonds and white chocolate extracted and employed externally and as for the yeast, well I can only assume that cornstarch ice cream did not work.
Though designated the first dessert, this effectively cleansed the palate.
Dessert 2: Croquant de pamplemousse cuit et cru au citron vert. Makeshift millefeuille arrived assembled upon a platform of candied compari and orange marmalade imbued with dill, mantled by raw segments of grapefruit marinated in lime, honey and spices, which were covered with cylinders of citrusy sorbet themselves finished off with a feuille de sucre sprinkled with some more dill; dots of basil and of candied grapefruit peel punctuated the plate. The confit confiture slab, clearly coloured by the compari, was bittersweet, sticky yet firm whilst the fruit, succulent and sapid. Sorbet was contrarily icy and bursting with citrus. The croquant contrasted with the softer consistencies it crowned and had some spicy tang from its embedded dill. The syrupy beads exploded with either heavy herby-sweetness or concentrated citric sourness. All the elements were well-thought out and well-judged with clean flavours and assorted textures. The bright, fruity hues – orange, gold, green, pink – were appealing too.
I must admit though that I was ever-so-mildly dismayed by the broken lower layers that had begun to tilt.
Dessert 3: Tarte rustique: Cidre, pommes. Enwrapped within warka pastry and hidden beneath cider mousse were moist apples immersed in sauce cidre; the croustarde came circled with jus de pommes vert. Pâte à brik (North African thin pastry) was very crunchy whilst the filling was soft with fruity apple and strong, punchy cider essence. The frothy foam had sparkling sourness and fermented fragrance whilst the coulis, real vigour and slight acidity.
Dessert 4: Givré de Litchi en Eau de Rose. Miniature fresh meringue semisphere, mounted with litchi mousse then crème, supported sugared pink rose blades as well as batons and laminae of more meringue; around this, shelled Réunion litchis and pomegranate seeds were arranged in rose syrup. Clear and crisp rosy meringue was matched with fluffy mousse, which made with lemon and mint, had fresh sweetness and was a spot sharp; the well-sourced fruit itself was juicy and delicate. The charming harmony that litchi and rose inherently have was a nice theme and although there was nothing wrong here, this was a little forgettable.
Dessert 5: Glacé de caramel fumé, pistils de chocolat. Ice cream Yule log of caramel encompassed with cream, resting on chocolate kindling, was shrouded with smoked milk and flaring nougatine tuile flames. The ice cream was quite delicious – caramel middle, rich yet not sticky; lighter, smooth outside – whilst the creamy mousse was very smoky, almost bitter. The pistils, held in place with chocolate sauce, worked to brilliant effect, breaking into tiny bits upon bite. The brittle, caramelised nut chips were another texture and another tasty flavour.
Petit Fours: Île flottante; boule au café; macaron pistache; et tarte cannelle. Petit fours were presented upon a stripy polychrome panel. Inverted île flottante involved sweet, almost liquid crème anglaise atop unbelievably airy meringue. Coffee boule that dissolved instantly in the mouth was slightly bitter; its espresso jelly accompaniment, on the other hand, much stronger. Light, crispy pistachio macaron had decent savour. Extremely thin tart was filled with thick, smooth condensed milk and dusted heavily with sweet, aromatic cinnamon.
Mignardises: Caramel au beurre salé et au chocolat; Kouign Aman; et amandes caramélisés. Lunch is never over until mignardises are munched. Squares of salted caramel were rather hard and chewy though had good salty-sweet balance whilst chocolate caramels had excellent taste and melted in the mouth. Kouign Aman is a traditional century-and-a-half old Breton butter cake from Le Squer’s birthplace that he has refreshed from something normally heavy and indulgent into a daintier brioche. This treat is now formed of layer upon layer of loose silky pastry folds encased in crunchy, caramelised crust. Almonds are typically an optional addition to the Aman, thus allowing the chef to apply his fondness for deconstructions here by serving these nuts roasted and on the side.
Staff were diligent, efficient and polite. The serveurs were well-informed, attentive and very, very professional (read rather serious), but in complete contrast, Monsieur Frédéric Pedrono, premier maître d’hôtel, who looked after me, was very friendly, hospitable and amusing. His face was always smiling, whilst those of those around him were always straight – although I think I wore even a couple of them down by the time I left. Monsieur Pedrono actually proved delightfully entertaining, a foodie himself and an avid reader of gastronomic history, he took evident delight in entertaining me with stories from culinary folklore. He had even more fun when reversing roles and challenging me to detail the dishes to him – the ris de veau’s six-herb sauce and yeast ice cream were his highlights. However, do not consider his behaviour overly familiar or at all unfitting; his attention was obviously welcome and his enthusiasm for the food infectious.
The food was really very good. I admit there were a couple of dull dishes, but from fourteen courses including extras, this is not a bad return. The starting amuses were simply some of the most impressive I have ever been served. To be honest, the oursins de roche au goût:iodé/végétal that succeeded these were really a nonissue and almost mistaken for another amuse; nothing bad, but nothing great. Things were back on track with grosses langoustines, a signature, but the turbot, another signature, was another course that failed to shine; again it was good, but not as good as it could/should have been. Next, the ris de veau was what I had been waiting for – what I am always waiting for – a dish that forced me sit up and pay attention and I was not allowed a moment’s rest as the anguille fumé that followed was so tasty I was not able to slouch back in my chair just yet. The desserts were, on the whole, very nice. Again, some were better than others with the tarte and rose-litchi included in that latter list. The levure glacée was very interesting; the croquant, punchy and pretty; whilst the glacé de caramel fumé was an excellent, indulgent little finish. It was not over though, not before well-made petit fours and mignardises were proffered and polished off.
Le Squer has a fascinating style. There is a seriousness in precision and execution equalled by light-heartedness in design and delivery. The choicest produce is procured – one needs only to look at the langoustine or turbot to see this – and cooked consummately; I cannot recall a single mistake in this aspect. Dishes were capricious in conception. With le potage d’Adèle Pidou, for example, as much as I liked it for what it actually was, I loved the whimsy behind it even more. I thought it maybe an insight into Le Squer, the man; good-humoured, creative, a gastronome, a romantic – none of which are bad qualities in anyone. The langoustines and glacé de caramel fumé, meanwhile, were presented with pleasing playfulness.
Un chef sans frontières, Le Squer seems to find inspiration in everything and from everywhere; he is happy to use whichever technique, product or idea is required to reach the best result. In this one meal, themes drew on classic recettes, his Bréton upbringing, former mentors, molecular gastronomy and even fairytales; this resourcefulness was not restrained to his influences, but stretched to his ingredients too – lemongrass, litchi, shiso, Szechuan pepper and kadayif pastry shared plates with truffle, parsley, potato and polenta. With the grosses langoustines and ris de veau, Le Squer remembered the lessons learnt at Lucas-Carton, under Alain Senderens and his penchant for reinventing and refreshing recipes of yesteryear – the modern-day matelote, witty rework of the blancmange – were exemplars on how it ought to be done. I found the chef’s eclectic attitude delightful, but for all their creativity and ingenuity, dishes remained distinctly within the framework of traditional French cuisine – and I mean this favourably.
The arrangement of all the plates was appealing, but nothing was showy for showiness’ sake. There were no tabletop theatrics either, or even tableside carvings and servings. There was a restraint, although maybe modesty or sensibility are more apt descriptions, with diners’ attention focused on the food itself and the tastes and textures therein. And the dishes do deserve undivided attention as Le Squer does not handicap himself to pleasing a single sense; he amuses the bouche, engages the eyes and entertains one’s nose – the food can even incite the intellect. Full-on sensory stimulation is on offer. There is the impression too that these are highly refined recipes that have been perfected slowly but surely. For instance, to make the sweetbread’s herb sauce – which I must admit is not admired unanimously – six individual herbs are required; this fact alone had me reflecting on the thought, tireless trial-and-error and practice that must have been needed before the final, desired fusion was eventually found.
Thus far, I have waxed complimentary about Ledoyen and indeed it is an excellent restaurant. However, there is something that prevents me, at the moment, from proclaiming it as my favourite. It is not so much the cooking – I ate the ris de veau and anguille fumé with my eyes closed – or the service – as mentioned, I formed a very pleasing rapport with my captain. If truth be told, I do not know what it is; really a je ne sais quoi.
If I must attempt to articulate it, it could be that the restaurant lacks warmth, although again I find that hard to write as Monsieur Pedrono was so hospitable and the food did have âme and élan. Possibly, even though it did not affect me directly, there was the faintest implicit reticent inkling of ‘rigidity’; a sort of sobriety and sense that suggested this was a place of business. Or perhaps it was the dining room – not that this would usually matter to me – which walks the fine line, or tightrope, between brimming with old world charm and being stale with the air of a faded relic. Actually, there was one tiny detail that did trouble me, but it is admittedly rather silly: the eel fillet and the croquant were cracked. I can imagine the princess-and-the-pea Andersen-esque analogies already – do not worry, I can take it – and I know this sounds so immaterial and trifling – and it is – but it must be remembered that this meal was in the midst of many (at restaurants similarly marked by Michelin). In this context such minutiae become more apparent than one would imagine; cooking at this level is of such a standard that such trivialities can, unfortunately, become striking.
I do not wish to end on a sour note though; Ledoyen does not deserve it.
The cooking is excellent and, at times, even better than that. Le Squer merges modern and classic methods to create a cuisine that is original and confident whilst fully respecting the traditional. Dishes are sophisticated, satisfying and crafted to showcase and magnify the finest ingredients and their innate flavours. The kitchen is also generous with guests receiving exquisite and ample amuses, petit fours and mignardises – which are also when the chef likes to have a little fun. By all accounts, Ledoyen is going from strength to strength too; having re-established itself amongst Paris’ culinary inner circle, it is now a contender for the title first among equals.
And this old man is showing no signs of slowing down.
Pavillon Ledoyen, 1 avenue Dutuit, Carré Champs-Elysées, Paris 75008
tel: 0033 1 53 05 10 01
nearest metro: Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau