Since I identify as something of a foodie, I was naturally excited about all the restaurants I'd be able to eat in during a three-month stay in Paris. From the street food and the ubiquitous cafes, to the bistros and brasseries--from the low-end to the upscale, or at least as upscale as I could "comfortably not afford." (Translation: a restaurant with prices that fell into the sweet spot between a guilty flinch when I signed the credit card receipt and a panic attack that would spiral out of control to the point where I wouldn't eat anything but bread and yogurt for the next week in order to make up for my transgression.)
I'd never eaten at a two-starred Michelin restaurant before, and one restaurant that had been on my radar for many years was the Atelier Joel Robuchon Saint Germain. I'd wanted to eat there on previous trips to Paris, but somehow my plans never quite aligned. This was partly because they don't accept reservations for "normal" dinner times, i.e., 9 p.m.; you can reserve for a 6:30 pm seating, but for later times, you must wait outside and hope you get lucky. As if I needed reminding that this time I'd promised myself I'd go, Joel Robuchon had succumbed to a long bout with cancer just days before I arrived in Paris in August (RIP). As unappetizing as the idea of eating such a fancy dinner so early was to me, I figured the sure thing was the way to go and so I booked it.
(As a side note, the other restaurant I badly wanted to go to while here was Frenchie, Gregory Marchand's super hot spot, but the restaurant refuses to reserve for solo diners and there is zero chance of getting in without a reservation. I'm still disappointed and furious about this blatant discrimination!)
I showed up at the Atelier Joel Robuchon at 6:20 and waited on the sidewalk with the others with a 6:30 reservation until the restaurant opened its door to let us all in. I'd dressed up, of course, but one look at my fellow diners made me feel a bit like I was from the other side of the tracks; their expensive clothes and shoes and jewelry underscored for me what a splurge this was. We were let in separately, the hostess checking our names on her list and then opening an automatic door on either side of the restaurant to admit us into the inner sanctum. Or that's what it felt like as the door sucked gently closed behind me and another hostess approached in the hushed room to indicate which seat I should take.
The setup at the Atelier Joel Robuchon is wonderful for those eating alone: 20 bar stools each are arranged along two large countertops. These countertops are three-sided and look into the kitchen, a bonus attraction. The decor is minimalist, but gleaming and elegant--black with touches of gold and red, dimly lit.
As soon as I'd settled into my chair, a tall young man behind the counter spoke quietly, offering me an aperitif--champagne perhaps? It seemed the thing to do; Veuve Cliquot was flowing all along the counter--alors, pourquoi pas?! Moments later, diners were seated beside me--a party of four French-speakers to my right and a gay couple from New York, both architects, to my left. The New Yorkers and I naturally struck up a conversation soon enough and I felt fortunate to find a couple of kindred souls to make my dinner a bit less lonely. Steven and Dan were envious of my three-month stay in Paris--they can never manage so much time themselves--but then I was envious of them because they own an apartment on the Left Bank for when they do come (which is apparently frequently enough to justify the expense of owning an apartment there).
Then came the menu. If I'd really wanted to dash any hope whatsoever of retiring one day, I would have opted for the 20-course tasting menu at 189 euros. (Everyone around me chose it, so I was able to at least see all the artistic dishes.) I had researched the prices a bit before going, so when I read the menu, I caught my breath rather than gasped. Two Michelin stars! I reminded myself. I decided upon one of the most expensive entrees (appetizer, for Americans) and one of the most expensive plats (entree, for Americans), but before you judge, (1) neither was the most expensive, and (2) when the entrees (appetizers) range in price from roughly 39-59 euros, why quibble over the extra 10 or 20 euros to get the one you really want?
So, foie gras with roasted fig and a drizzle of hibiscus juice to start! To follow, the filet mignon with a poivre sauce and mushrooms! Would I like a glass of wine with that (now that my champagne is gone)? asks the tall, soft-spoken young man behind the counter. Bien sur! He offers two for me to try and I go with the Bordeaux, which had such an amazing nose I had to let Steven and Dan smell it, too. I should have made a note of exactly what wine it was, but what I do remember is that it had a decidedly unFrench name--Chateau Clarke. (A quick Google search reveals that it's a revered house in the Haut Medoc region.) It was, as the French say, facile a boire (easy to drink), which means the one glass led to a second glass...because we can't let the second half of my steak plat feel slighted.
Q: I'm pausing in my narration now to ask you, dear reader, if you've noticed the error I made during this meal? Hint: it's about $$$. Read on...
Regarding the food, the presentation of every dish was, not surprisingly, a work of art. This was haute dining, after all, and a piece of foie gras or steak thrown haphazardly onto a plate is not how Michelin stars are earned. Every dish placed in front of me--and those to my left and right--was stunning. My foie gras was delicious, though unlike my filet mignon, perhaps not the best I've ever eaten. With regard to the steak, it is difficult to imagine in what years of life I may have left that I will ever eat a piece of meat better than that one. Also, it was served with a small dish of what, for sake of ease, I will call mashed potatoes, but were more like sweet pureed butter flavored with potato. Those went down as easily as the wine, and had I been able to, I would have ordered three more dishes of them!
A: As I mentioned, I knew two Michelin stars means beaucoup de bucks, but I specifically ordered a la carte and was keeping at least a rough tally in my head. I had even thought ahead to dessert--which I'd noted all cost 20 euros. What I did not account for were the beverages. How could I? I never actually looked at a wine list of any sort; rather, I'd enthusiastically accepted the suggestion of Veuve Cliquot as an aperitif (25 euros) and then went on to drink not one, but two glasses of what turned out to be an expensive Bordeaux (30 euros each!). Not to mention I must have had a whole lot of sparkling water, because that was another 9 euros, and the noisette I drank with my very fancy schmancy, two-part dessert of cold (as in, -200 degrees celsius), crystallized coconut juice and a mango emulsion with fresh lime juice and cassis powder didn't come cheap either. Had I bothered to refer to the wine list, I would have either ordered a less expensive wine or, more likely, limited myself to just one glass of the fabulous Chateau Clarke (for that price, it should have a more luxurious name!). Nor would I have ordered coffee there, when I could have had one just as good for half the price on my way home.
Food and presentation aside, another characteristic of a fine restaurant like this is the high standards of service, and I can absolutely commend the professionalism and the choreography--that's the best word for it, because both the kitchen staff and the servers moved with a well rehearsed flow and rhythm that let you know you could relax, you were in good hands.
Perhaps one of those admirable staff people can speak to my financial advisor. Because there was no more putting off l'addition. I thought I saw the sum clearly enough, but I put my reading glasses on to be doubly sure. On the outside, I think I succeeded in looking cool as a cucumber. It would have been embarrassing not to, but 227 euros for dinner for one! I'm proud of myself for not biting through my lip. Expensive, I expected, and I'd sacrificed a few other things in anticipation of the cost of this meal, but I hadn't calculated more than 100 euros for the beverage portion of the bill. There was nothing to be done. I smiled at the quiet young man and presented my credit card as if this is the kind of thing I do all the time. If he noticed my fingers trembling as I signed, of course he pretended not to notice.
Every aspect of my meal had been wonderful, no doubt about it, and I'm glad I was finally able to eat there after so long a wait, but I can't confidently say it was worth that kind of money--for me. I'm not saying the prices were unfair or inflated; the talent of the chef, the quality of the ingredients (and the wines!), the exceptional staff--these things don't come cheap. What I am saying is, comparing the cost of this meal to other things I might have done, seen, purchased, I learned that maybe this wasn't the best reason for inflicting more significant damage to my credit card.
Putting it into perspective, this dinner cost the same as my entire, full-day tour in Champagne and less than one night in my beloved hotel in Saint Emilion. Instead of three courses and three wines in two hours, I could have had two hour-length massages, a manicure and pedicure. I could have enjoyed a wonderful meal at a nearby bistro and still have enough left over to buy the bottle of Guerlain perfume I've been coveting, but can't allow myself to spend the money on. Back in the States, it's a roundtrip plane ticket between New York and Sarasota.
My meal at the Atelier Joel Robuchon was spectacular--no question--but the remorse remains. Because it's not only about the economic value, but the experiential one, and that's a deeply personal matter. I have earned a reputation for being a little loosey-goosey with my credit card while on trips, because there are things I want to do and I'm big on rationalizing anything with the phrase, I may never be back! I'm a big believer in taking these opportunities when they present themselves, retirement savings be damned, because I really, really, really hate sitting on that airplane on the way home thinking to myself, If this plane crashes, I'm going to be really pissed off that I didn't take that gondola ride in Venice just because it was way too expensive. This is a long way around to ask what I believe to be the most essential question about my Michelin star dinner: Was the experience (not just the food) memorable?
You know, I hope so. But given the test of time, will it loom more memorable than the chicken and preserved lemon tagine I ate at 10:30 pm on a summer sunday night at a local Moroccan restaurant? Could that steak, succulent as it was, stand up to the memory of those scrumptiously moist scrambled eggs at Marriage Freres, or the salted butter caramel mi-cuit I ate one of my first nights in Paris at La Pharmacie, or what about the crepe with raspberry butter at the Breizh Cafe? Even the 12 euro salmon tartare and avocado I devoured one blastedly hot night at a hole-in-the-wall cafe, when the soles of my feet were on fire and the thought of eating had not been particularly appealing until my first forkful of that exquisitely fresh, raw chopped salmon--will the memory of my two-star Michelin meal supersede that?
Which leads me to remember something I've always known, but sometimes forget: not all fabulous memories come with a big price tag.