Great Expectations or the Tale of Two Cities

About a month ago,* Colette and I were alighting from the famous #31 bus on our way to the Clocher Periere on the Bvd Pereire for another one of their superb meals, and I spotted a new sign at the corner that said l’Agapé not l’Ampére, as it had for years. Whoa, said I, let’s take a gander. We approached and looked at the chalkboard in the window, 3 dishes for 39 €uros, not too bad, but the dishes offered didn’t turn us on. Then we looked at the carte, whoa again, dinner was 77 €uros and the “carte blanche” menu 110 €uros. Out of our league, said I. I was later to learn that the kitchen and frontroom teams came from l’Arpege, where anything less than these prices would have been unthinkable. In any case, we had our great meal at Clocher Periere and I thought no more about it until the next week, when Jean Louis Galesne in Les Echos wrote it up positively, followed soon afterwards by Emmanuel Rubin, Jerome Berger and François-Régis Gaudry. Meanwhile the blogosphere was going crazy, at least over at my old haunt, the eGullet Society of Culinary Arts & Letters. By the time I was able to return to that corner of Rue Ampere and the Bvd Malesherbes, practically every soul I knew had gone and been conquered. They all loved it. They all raved about it. They all said “Boy are you missing something.” Plus, the place has the best products in France: butter from Bordier; veggies from Alain Passard’s veggie source, Annie Bertin; meats from Hugo Desnoyer, etc. So the last soul on earth who hadn’t gone because he’d been searching the Pine Barrens of New Jersey for Jimmie Hoffa, and I went.** 1. He, who speaks French as well as he speaks 7 other tongues and is no shrinking violet, felt “pressured” by the waitguy. 2. Everything seemed “light” from the wine to the soups (the fennel and orange amuse gueule and parsley root velouté entrée) from the merlan to the lamb, only the cheese board and blood orange ice had much oomph. 3. The serving of practically the cheapest young wine on the wine list merited decanting in a designer blown-glass sculpture. My friend looked over at me. “I don’t get what the fuss was all about, do you? It’s good product, nicely prepared, but has no outstanding character.” Now to give them their due, it was not disgraceful and since they had been warned by another food nut to expect me, maybe they were trying too hard. But, given all the hoopla, it was a downer. On the other hand, one rainy, awful April day,*** a bunch of five of us motored out to Versailles to try Gordon Ramsey’s latest bit of empire building. We went thoroughly forewarned. Just a while back, March 22nd to be exact, Charles Bremmer and Marie Tourres wrote an article in the Times Online entitled “French reviewers give Gordon Ramsay a taste of his own medicine” quoting everyone from Simon to Pudlo and the press was uniformly bad. But as one loyal eGullet member pointed out – none of them had eaten in Versailles. Why Ramsay engenders such hostility is the stuff for psychiatrists not food critics however so let’s leave it at that. We alighted from our Alfa carriage, entered this dazzling modern chateau (the Trianon Palace) and were struck by its beauty, view and character (ah, there’s that word again). The carte was impressive and we sampled practically everything: for firsts: yummy stuffed calamar rings (coulda fooled me) with fried tentacles hidden under a salad, not bad; yummy Jerusalem and cauliflower and something else soup, risotto with chorizo and parmesan and an unforgettable pasta with an incredibly gutsy red sauce and a lobster atop. Mains were an OK monkfish, an unbelievable veal T-Bone with a Bearnaise sauce, a piece of lamb with top-class onions rings, and an undistinguished beef stew that came with lardons of pancetta (very tasty) on a bed of spinach (good) and cream of celery (fabulous). Then desserts: a tall tower with a most marvelous crunchy exterior of moelleux, a wonderfully tasty and moist crème brulee and a pannacotta that was OK. In summary, what would one say?: assertive, tasty and solid – certainly not light and in brief it all had character, even if everything was not perfect. This was the total un-Agapé. In this case, we, or at least I, went expecting to hate it (although truth be told, I’ve liked Ramsay’s food in the UK). I knew I’d be writing it up and looked forward to bringing down the famously potty-mouth show-off. But no. So back to my title. How much did expectations play a part in our or my reaction. I expected the world of Agapé and it failed to dazzle; I expected nothing but grief from Ramsay and he turned me 180º around. A tale of two cities 10 miles apart. * My last meal April 25th, fully paid for. ** My last meal was April 21st, fully paid for. *** My last meal was March 28, fully paid for From the tale, one discerns that I’d recommend: Le Clocher Pereire 42, bvd Pereire 17th, (Metro: Pereire ) T: Closed Saturdays and Sundays Lunch menu 17, dinner 29 and 38, a la carte 35-50 €. La Veranda at the Trianon Palace 1 bvd de la Reine in Versailles (RER: Versailles RD) T : Open 7/7 Lunch about 60-80 €.
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