France has a rich culinary tradition – shining names like Carême, Escoffier and the protagonists of Nouvelle Cuisine (most importantly Michel Guérards und Fernand Point) have left most important marks on Haute Cuisine all around the world. Michelin and Gault-Millau are the guidebooks for any foodie… And, there are places of culinary pilgrimage with a long tradition, most notably L’Auberge de l’Ill (the third star sind 1967), Maison Troisgros (three stars since 1968) and Maison Pic (where three consecutive generations were awarded three stars). Truly impressive, given that outside of France Winkler held three stars for highest number of years…
My affection and love for these ‘great houses’ began in Alsace at the Auberge de L’Ill where the atmosphere, the pride of the culinary heritage, the dedication to the diner and, most strikingly, the implicitness of being top-notch without being arrogant was just impressive. The whole gastronomic theatre is celebrated in the best possible way. For me, the overall experience was just moving.
Being infected with this virus I planned to visit the other ‘great houses’ to see whether they can live up to their reputation and manage to create special moments. Last autumn I finally got the opportunity to do so… Somehow I feel that a report about my lunch at Maison Troisgros should come first…
Maison Troisgros is legendary – 41 years of three Michelin stars: Jean-Baptiste Troisgros and his wife Marie bought the Hôtel des Platanes in 1930 where Marie became the first chef de cuisine. Trained at Lucas Carton and Ferdinand Point the two sons Jean and Pierre succeeded Marie at the stove and the first star came in 1955. In 1965 the restaurant was renamed Les Frères Troisgros and got its second Michelin star, the third in 1967. Clearly the two brothers were among the most influential chefs in the Nouvelle Cuisine era. Interestingly, in the mid-70s sous-vide cooking was re-invented by Geroge Pralus at Troisgros…
Finally, Pierre’s son Michel came back to Roanne in 1983 to work alongside his father after the sudden death of Jean. Trained at the Lycée Technique Hotelier in Grenoble where he met his future wife Marie-Pierre Michel had travelled the world to gain experience in some of the then best houses. This included posts at Frèdy Giradet in Lausanne, Taillevent in Paris, Chez Panisse in San Francisco, Comme chez sois in Brussels, Hotel Connaught in London and Michel Guérard in Eugénie-les-Bains. What a tour! In 1998 Marie and Michel took over as the current owners of the Maison Troisgros.*
Today, the reputation is stellar – it consistently ranks about the best restaurants in the world and has also been voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ by Zagat (2007) and Opinionated About (2008). Quite impressive…
After some driving I arrived at Roanne and immediately saw that there is a central station just across the street from the restaurant. Hmm, next time I will definitely come by train given their spectacular wine selection which I couldn’t enjoy this time that much…
I was a bit early and sat down in the library where Michel Troisgros has gathered a nice selection of cookbooks but nothing more, not a stunning hall-of-fame of the most important books of many great chefs. Somehow nobody really noticed me so it took some time to get a coffee and some water. Almost exactly at noon a waiter approached me and asked where I wanted to have my aperitif. I opted for the terrace in the small garden, an oasis to really leave all everyday’s troubles far behind.
Nibbles were nice but not overwhelming: a warm tomato with sesame and ginger on the stick was quite good and refreshing, a cracker with semolina and lime as well as a nice poached Japanese tomato with coriander chutney on top of a kind of puri (which I found a bit too large). After a short study of the menu card and ordering I was escorted inside…
Modern in its best sense the main dining room (there is also a separate room for groups) is really welcoming and generous – enough space between tables such that one is not forced to participate in the conversations of other diners. The interior creates a truly comfortable and relaxing atmosphere.
Surprisingly, Michel decided to discontinue the menu of signature dishes of Jean and Pierre. Now, there are still three classic dishes left. So, choice was easy – I simply opted for the Impression d’été menu (7 courses at €185) and included one signature dish from Michel from the ALC selection (frog legs). In the end, they charged only €15 supplement for this – more than fair I would say…
It started with ceps and pear and I must say that this accounts to my Top 5 dishes in 2009. Thinly sliced like a carpaccio, both products were shockingly good and worked amazingly well together. But, the special moment came via a citrus vinaigrette with mustard seeds. First, the dimensioning was perfect as if one of the poor guys in the kitchen had counted the number of mustard seeds – a perfect balance of citric, nutty and spicy flavours together with rustic ceps and slightly sweet pears. Second, though it had only a bit texture it was sublime and the small biting effect significantly elevated the dish. Third, the vinaigrette enlarged the dimension and perception of the dish. DIVINE.
As a second amuse I had artichoke gnochetti with smoked sardine. Another winner – Troisgros thinly slices the artichokes and fills them with a cream of artichokes, olive oil and cumin which is delicious on its own. Then the flavour spectrum is augmented by adding one piece of smoked sardine, some orange zests and hazelnut oil. A masterpiece in craftmanship and composition of flavours. Only the sardine could have been more present, say one small piece per gnochetti as he now serves the dish (and adds poutargue). This is a very programmatic dish as it clearly shows the character of Troisgros’ cuisine acidulée. Outstanding!
After these two dishes I was ready for the meal of my life if the master would have sustained that amazing level. The first course of the menu arrived: oysters with sorrel. Gently poached, the oysters emerged fleshy and a bit veal-like. But only on the surface, the aftertaste had an intense sea food flavour which was intensified by sorrel and caraway. Only the overall mouthfeel was a bit too harmonious lacking textural contrasts. Interestingly, the sorrel was not over-dominant. Excellent to outstanding.
Next was my insert: roasted frog legs with cauliflower. A seemingly simple dish but Troisgros shows how simple dishes can be brilliant. Treated like a saté he roasts the frog legs with a pesto of cumin (separately roasted in the oven), pine nuts, eggplant, olive oil, tamarind and coriander which brings in a very intense curry note without dominating the just perfect frog legs . Two backdrops: roasted cauliflower would immensely enhance the dish by adding some texture. And, in the end, the jus was a bit too fatty for me which turned out to be problematic in the course of the overall menu. Excellent.
‘Half moons’ (mezzaluna) of potato, chanterelles and potimarron was next. Potimarron is an intense pumpkin better known as Hokkaido which was just in season in September. Similar to the artichoke dish, potatoes are thinly sliced and filled with a pumpkin cream. The sauce was based on a light beurre blanc with Jerez vinegar which added a slight acidity (hey, this is Troisgros). Overall subtle, almost decent but very delicious dish without any rough edges. Excellent to outstanding.
Cod with grapes and endive – another dish served with a beurre blanc, this time based on a special Languedoc wine (called Ravio?). Hmmm, it started to feel a bit repetitive and also made me feel full. The dish itself was impeccable: a perfectly cooked cod, confied red grapes, walnuts and a bit too less endive (the special kick here). Excellent to outstanding on a stand-alone basis, but clearly inappropriate in terms of menu dramaturgy.
Blue lobster with Poudre du Voyage and barberry. Clearly the weakest dish especially for a restaurant of this class – the lobster was overdone, there was way too much butter and the spice mix was over-dominant. And, I must say that using Roellinger’s Poudre du Voyage does not seem too creative for a chef of Michel Troisgros’ reputation. Last but not least, there was not enough spinach to provide a significant counterpart to the intense flavours. Poor.
Venison with capers butter and pommes soufflées. A benchmark specimen of venison, masterly prepared – tender and brittle just like good game needs to be. On the negative side, the beurre de câpres was way too fatty and rich for me although it formed a nice accord with the venison. Troisgros would not be Troisgros if there would be not acidity – here the vinegar in the beurre was a bit too strong. Overall, still a very good to excellent composition.
The selection of cheese was excellent but not really memorable. I was quite surprised that they had only a rather limited number of cheeses (maybe it was only one of two carts?) – here in Germany the top houses are often criticized for not having 30+ types in stock…
Desserts: the lemon verbena sabayon with chocolate was excellent – a bit old school in forms of the dense presentation in a glass, but the flavours were distinct, clear and shining. Slightly too creamy for me…
The second small dessert was mikimoto of pear and coriander – really outstanding as the sweet and intense pear ice cream joined forces with intense and fresh strawberries as well as a strawberry jus seasoned by coriander. For the first time of the meal, the partly crunchy partly soft meringues suggested a kind of textural interplay… By the way, the dish is called Mikimoto in honor of Kokichi Mikimoto who was the first to produce cultured pearls in the early 1920s…
As I was about to explode I was glad that the last dessert was rather small and one of the true highlights of the meal. Noisette biscuit with mirabelles – simple but very interesting as there was also a temperature contrast due the warm biscuit. The mirabelles were amazing in flavour and worked nicely with the nutty biscuit! Somehow I had the feeling that this could resemble a deconstructed galette. At Troisgros? Rather not on purpose… Outstanding+!
A nice presentation of petit fours concluded the meal – I really like the boys (?), I was really tempted to play with them a bit but felt too full too move more than necessary.
Service was attentive and professional but not as hearty and nice as at Pic the day before. As I had to drive back (train next time) I allowed myself only one glass of red (Menetou Salon 2008, Domaine de la Tour Martin) to accompany the venison.
This was an excellent meal, yet not outstanding as I would have hoped for given all the praise Michel Troisgros’ cooking receives. The first two amuse and the last two desserts were really outstanding or divine but on the other hand especially the lobster was quite disappointing…
Compared to the structuralist approach of modern cooking (pulling all strings in temperatures, flavours and textures) Michel’s cooking almost completely lacked the textural dimension. So, as I am used to the utmost balance of modern dishes I felt that most of his dishes are incomplete and could benefit from more textures. This could make them more interesting overall by adding rough edges and surprises.
My third issue was menu dramaturgy but maybe that was a singular experience – the two consecutive beurre blanc dishes almost killed me, in most other dishes there was too much butter… So, this was not light in any sense.
We are talking world-class here, far beyond champions-league or first national division and then I expect more constancy, more edges and a more thought-out menu dramaturgy. I just wasn’t thrilled and moved as much as during my meals at Amador, Schoss Berg, Hof van Cleve (new review to come) or Oud Sluis (update to come). Here and at most of the other top houses I visited in France last year I have the impression that the French have somehow the connection to the absolute top.
Nevertheless, the cuisine of Michel Troisgros is truly unique because there is a recurrent theme in all dishes: acidity. His dishes are subtle and clever but for me they are still stuck in Nouvelle Cusine in composition and preparation. If he goes the next step as already visible in the first two more modern dishes this will be a worth any trip. In the meantime, I will come back when I am in the area and do not plan a special journey only to eat at Troisgros.
So in the end Maison Troisgros didn’t wow me as I had hoped for and the spirit of a ‘great house’ didn’t come across that much – it just didn’t click… Maybe next time?
* Source: Maison Troisgros Website