I ate at a filthy roach coach when I was in Yountville, California because Thomas Keller made me eat there. I was famished and slightly buzzed after drinking a few too many glasses of fermented grape juice. Every restaurant in the quaint Northern California town was filled and I wanted food immediately. There was a restaurant called Bouchon that also had a quick fast food brasserie. I stood, frustrated, in the line that went out the door. My eyes were diverted when I noticed what seemed to be the entire kitchen crew of Bouchon leave and go to a no frills, chorizo and papas food truck.
Curious, I wondered over. Men and women in chef whites were inhaling the grub as if they hadn’t eaten in years. One of the men said, “If only I can cook as good as this. This here, this is where the real food is at.” That man was Thomas Keller.
He and the rest of the crew recommended a few dishes to me. Thomas said that he doesn’t eat Michelin star food every day. He said it gets tiresome and boring. He continued and said that there are exquisite cuisines for dirt cheap right outside of his French Laundry’s door; one just has to open their eyes and look.
I told him that I was going to Paris, France, on a culinary trip. I feel that the old French classics are fading away even in France and I wanted to experience them before they become extinct. He recommended me one particular place. That place was Gusteau’s.
I arrived in Paris on the eve of the 21st. The streets were filled with grime and traffic that reminded me of an even more jammed packed New York City. It was the perfect cocktail of what an established city inhabits: honking, smog, and a butt load of rats. Aw, I was home I thought. The city lit up all night long and into the morning as I perused the plazas and conclaves hidden among the city’s mystique. I bummed a cigarette off of a couple of romantics. I’ve only tried smoking once before when I was in my teens and I figured this was as perfect time as any to give it a second go-around. The romantics lit one up and then lit mine. I coughed up a new lung. This really bummed their romantic moment. I gave their cigarette back. They walked off cursing me in French. The only words I made out were, “Stupid American.” I laughed and thought that was just part of Paris’ ambience.
I wanted to create my own Paris experience. I didn’t want Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris, although that would have been a real frolic. I didn’t want some study abroad student’s Paris. That’s just filled with museums and cheap liquor. I didn’t want even want David Sedaris’ Paris. He’s too cynical for me and actually, I find his Paris to be quite bland.
I wanted to discover a Paris filled with old school comfort and simple foods using the best ingredients. To speak frankly and rather vulgarly I wanted to blow my cash load on culinary traditions that didn’t change in any way, only kept on being perfect and timeless. The Michelin star Paris was not important to me. I wanted nice and nostalgic Paris with a little sass, stuffiness, and a whole lot of pride. As the sun went up the scent of baked bread filled the air. I went to a couple of my friend’s establishments who dive and raise fresh oysters. There’s nothing like a French bivalve. The creaminess and merroir are the best hands down. You don’t need any mignonette, cocktail sauce or lemon. You just bite into it three times and gulp it back. I found a pearl in one of mine. I kept it as a sign for good luck.
Thomas made a few calls and hooked me up with a prime 8:30 second seating. I walked past the La Tour d’Argent among all the other restaurants down the Quai de la Tournelle. The large sign was made in cast iron. Its neon lights were burnt out but I thought that that snafu was a good thing. I guess the $15 million dollar restoration the restaurant went through a couple of years ago did not cover the exterior. It used to be one of the premier restaurants in France and all over the world. Chefs who thought and considered they were chefs, would be humbled by the pro’s who worked in Gusteau’s kitchen. It’s because of politics that were out of anyone’s control of why it’s popularity and prestige dwindled, but from what I could tell, none of the press (good or bad) caused this restaurant to simmer one bit.
The doors opened as if they were automatic but the, “Welcome Monsieur Rose,” immediately told me that two attendants opened them. The atrium is mammoth without being overly gaudy. It features a surplus of fine classical art. I’ve been told that many months throughout the year, the walls have been barren because international museum curators tour with Gusteau’s collection. I can only compare Gusteau’s to a Hearst Castle of a restaurant if the Hearst Castle were a restaurant. Orson Well’s would call it Xanadu. In the morning, the restaurant charges people to tour the facility. Like Hélène Darroze’s restaurants, famed restaurant designer India Madhavi handled Gusteau’s renovation. To the naked eye it seemed he didn’t do much, but look a bit closer and his keen eye to small details pops out. There’s the handcrafted heavy silver utensils, the titanium encrusted porcelain plates. Every table and its setting is like a different room of the house. And yet, with all of the restaurant’s grandiose first impressions, it still remains sophisticated, unpretentious, and homey.
When you eat at the restaurant, a tour to your table is free. Adjoining rooms by the kitchen feature a separate brasserie and one designated only for confit. Below Gusteau’s main floor is an intricate tunnel system built prior to the French Revolution. Down a crankshaft elevator or three flights of well-marbled stairs is Gusteau’s wine cellar. This is where you can see every single label that’s on its 300 plus page wine list. That’s over 10,000 different bottles with a total value of 30 million dollars featuring wines from the old and new world. Gusteau’s sommelier questions you as she takes you through. I felt it was like a psychological exam. She asked what I was in the mood to eat based solely on what I was feeling at the moment without even taking a gander at the menu. I said I came here because I wanted some fine dining home cooking that haute cuisine chefs rarely do anymore. She said to always trust your instincts first and then she took out two reasonably priced bottles.
Gusteau’s only features an a la carte menu. Its popular tasting menu went away with the old. Apparently the past chef’s steamed pike, petit filet and shaved Perigord weren’t selling so they brought back the classics. Being a musician, I respect the choice. Yes, as an artist you always want to evolve, but when your fan base expects you to play the song that put you on the map in the first place, it’s your duty to please.
The a la carte menu is the coup de grace that set’s the tone and mood of the entire restaurant. Though you are in a world of grandeur, when one eyes the menu at Gusteau’s, they are not weirded out by any frou-frou fusion cuisine. The first page features something I have not seen on any other menu to a French restaurant, confit.
I feel many different restaurants now, use confit as a verb. Chefs use the word loosely as a cooking style. Gusteau’s still uses the word as a noun. All of their meats are stored under it’s own fat for more than a few days. You can have duck legs, goose, gizzards, kidneys and pork belly, which was the one that I ordered. It was syrupy and smooth. Something that tasted similar to slow cooked brisket and morning bacon. The simplicity continued with two incredibly large and fatty sea scallops under a slice of blood sausage and a couple of dollops of pea puree paired with a solid white Burgundy. The blood sausage seemed to be a wacky ingredient to include in this simple dish but it turned out to marry the two primers as if it where the hamburger meat in between two buns. The ratatouille was brought to the table. Served on its own plate instead of being pushed off to the side. I was told that Gusteau’s used to serve a doppelganger of the dish called confit byaldi, but like the other new age items, that too was gone and the old classic was brought back. The French thick vegetable stew is a rainbow of colors and flavors. It’s a hearty dish without any protein and if I didn’t pace myself and nurse my food, I could have had this dish as the sole thing I ate. I went for the ratatouille instead of the cassoulet. I was a bit envious when I saw other patrons order and eat it. I’m a sucker for pork and beans no matter what country or continent I’m in.
The ice cold, white Burgundy wasn’t done yet, so the fish kept coming. This time, the attendant brought us the Le Grand Aioli. This dish is probably the one that truly showcases why Gusteau’s remains on the radar. When the dish is brought to you, it looks as if the laziest cook put a hodgepodge of left overs and things that didn’t sell from the previous night together. But as you start to unearth all of the dishes contents, you realize that this is a true work of art. It’s a dish that is compiled of vegetables, poached fish, and garlicky mayonnaise and presented in a way that is both fine and complex. The whole cauliflowers and heads of broccoli are carefully blanched and I was thoroughly excited by the choice of fish Gusteau’s used. I’ve seen this dish at other places in the South of France that use cod, but Gusteau’s uses a large slab of salmon. It’s a little spicier which causes a great chemistry between the fish and the aioli.
I felt fancy with Gusteau’s range of caviar. It features the salted roe of sturgeon and the bright orange eggs of salmon. Instead of simple serving the caviar on a little spoon that makes the super rich and indulgent moment only last a mere five seconds, Gusteau’s makes sure that the experience is stretched out as long as possible. The caviar is plated on top of a baked potato as if it where the cherry on top of a sundae. Between the caviar and the potato is a bit of sour cream and separate egg white and egg yolks. After eating caviar this way, I’ll never go back to the archaic form again.
I wanted to try the porcini with parsley and olive oil but though my eyes were saying yes my stomach was saying no. The frog legs tasted like frog. That is actually a good thing. Usually amphibians taste like chicken which is never how amphibians are suppose to taste. If anything ever taste like chicken when it’s not chicken, then it was cooked poorly.
There are many duck options for the main course. I opted for the classic and unfashionable Duck à l’Orang instead of the pressed duck which Gusteau’s also serves. I ordered it because it’s one of the few dishes I haven’t cooked for myself in quite sometime. For their rich and succulent breasts, they use Indian Runners. It’s served rare to perfection and its own natural fat fused with the sherry, red currant jelly, and butter make its sauce strong and fruity.
I used the dessert portion to experience Gusteau’s brasserie. I ordered the peach tartine. It was served on a couple of slices of day’s old bread with a fine goat cheese, Arbequina olive oil, and luscious, perfect-for-jam peaches.
And that was it. I downed the Rioja, my second and last bottle, paid the bill, walked out, and did some immediate reflection. Gusteau’s is a restaurant that makes each bite a celebration. It puts just as much time and effort in the craft of cooking as well as its product. It places its passion in its consistency. I can see why Keller recommended this place to me. It’s old school done perfectly, a graduate level course for the most experienced chef that needs to be reminded and refreshed of why they fell in love with the classics in the first place.
ATMOSPHERE: Well to do, middle-aged, renaissance socialites dressed to the nines gaze in a massive classical art museum type setting.
SERVICE: Speedy, efficient, incredibly knowledgeable. The front of the house has the same passion for the cuisine and the restaurant as the back of the house.
SOUND LEVEL: Medium and comfortable. People’s lips smacking over powers the casual banter and the sounds from the kitchen. There isn’t any live or recorded music playing.
RECOMMENDED: The ratatouille and le grand aioli.
DRINKS AND WINE: An extensive 300 page wine list.
PRICES: In US dollars, horderves range from $20-30 dollars and entrees range from 40-60 dollars.
OPEN: Tuesday thru Saturday from 6-11pm.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Restrooms: Separate men’s and women’s featuring multiple stalls.
Smoking: Outside only