1st Visit: Lunch Saturday 27th May 2017
(18 / 20) A fortress of French fine dining left happily unscathed by a widely shared and very silly review from a critic who should have known better. There are certainly things that one can find to criticise about Le Cinq, but the food is good, often great, and to my mind it gets the balance mostly right between respecting classic tradition and embracing modern techniques. The wonderful service here is the real star; It is attentive, warm and sincere, and that as much as anything else will bring us back.
(Click on the score to see the rating system and what the point is of writing reviews)
€€€€€ 4 course lunch €145 / 9 course dinner €310
3 Michelin stars since 2004
OAD Best European Restaurants No. 36
I’m not a professional food critic. Indeed my work life couldn’t be more different from my hobby, and that’s rather the point; Food for me is an escape. But as an amateur cook with more than a passing interest in fine dining its hard not to develop some appreciation of what makes good food sometimes great, and moreover quite how much effort achieving that greatness can entail. Indeed the attention to minute detail and very long, often highly pressurised hours that pervades my own industry is actually quite similar (I imagine) to being in a professional kitchen, or at the very least far more similar than sitting as I do as a customer in the serene surroundings of the dining room.
Unlike the motivations of professional critics, whose reviews are fundamentally predicated on the desire to sell advertising, my reasons for writing about the restaurants we visit are rather different. In essence, for me it’s about respect. I touched on this reasoning in a short essay I published when I started the blog:
“If we consider how much effort went into creating each dish; The artistic process, the continual refinement, checking the economics, sourcing, ensuring consistency… its staggering. And all just to be consumed in 5 mins never to be seen again…to be forgotten or at best survive as a vague memory. So the great motivation for the reviews is one of respect; Respect for the effort, for the art of the restaurant, and also out of respect for our own experience and our own cherished memories as diners.”
Of course showing respect is also about telling the truth. It is about paying for my meals, not accepting freebies, and not succumbing to the current disease of the Instasham food-blogger – those who carefully curate a gallery of pretense in which every single experience is purported to be flawless. This is just marketing; It is not real, it’s certainly not true, and it’s simply not respectful to the extraordinary effort that goes into running a top-end restaurant. If something is bad, I will say so. Not because I get paid to sell newspapers, but because to do otherwise is an insult to the entire point of fine restaurants – which is in its very essence to constantly strive to be better. That to my mind is a noble aspiration for us all, whatever our own pursuits happen to be.
But whilst the actual process of writing is a deeply personal and usually solitary act, reviews are written to be read, and hopefully to be enjoyed. Good writers let their readers also share with them the emotions of the experience being described, and, whilst I can’t personally purport to being any great author, to me the use of a little exaggeration is simply an honest way of reflecting the heightened emotional responses delivered by fine dining.
“The spotlight, both figuratively and often literally is on the food, and the process of eating becomes sacramental… This lightly hyperbolic style I write with, for me, better represents the experience of dining than a meal viewed totally through a cold objective lens. We eat to feel more alive, not less.”
In April this year the generally well-respected British food critic Jay Rayner wrote a withering take down of Le Cinq which was so bitter, so shockingly acrimonious, that it instantly went viral. And of course that was the plan. This wasn’t an attempt to be cruel to be kind nor was the hyperbole the light exaggeration that punctuates any decent review. It was more the pointed diatribe of a pantomime villain. It had nothing to do with serious, respectful and accurate journalism, and everything to do with petty attention-seeking trolling. I can say this with great certainty because just after I read the review I asked a few of the more serious people I know who had recently eaten at Le Cinq, and then I booked us a table for lunch. We ate the same menu just a month after Rayner had experienced it, and had branded it, “by far the worst restaurant experience I have endured in my 18 years in this job.”
Notwithstanding that it was relatively clear from the tone of the article that the real experience at Le Cinq would likely bear little resemblance to this review, its hard not to be swayed in some small way by this kind of writing. I should admit that I too have often sighed at the prospect of a business trip to Paris, such is the pervasive stereotype of the rude Parisien and the snooty French waiter. Indeed I’ve also let this prejudice keep me away from anything other than a superficial investigation of the dining scene there. So, yes I was still half expecting it to be challenging.
Thankfully the reality could not have been further from the truth. I can hand-on-my-heart say that this was one of the most welcoming and sincerely charming services we have experienced in a very long time. And only more so for the warmth, common sense and kindness shown to Sophia. All this in a town in which a number of 3 stars refused to even let her in the dining room.
The amuses came out. At this juncture I can say that there are certainly some elements of Rayner’s review which agree with, if perhaps not with quite so much vitriol. For me the gingery Campari sphere on a spoon was not pleasant, either in texture (the casing was entirely too thick), or in flavour (more indistinct than subtle). But that was the only really dubious offering of the whole meal. The similarly spherified cherry amuse was encased in a gossamer-thin and far more successful crisp outer layer that delivered a delightful pop of an intensely flavoured liquid centre when placed on the tongue. The tart of foie gras had been cleverly garnished with cornichon for acidity and texture, whilst the truffled fougasse was simply splendid.
Indeed the bread in general at Le Cinq was a triumph. And from the possibilities of four or five exquisite specimens offered from the basket, I opted for a perfectly judged little baguette, which was everything this format of bread should be; Crisp on the outside giving way to a light, fluffy, and still slightly steaming interior. It was served with well-salted butter of an appropriate temperature and a further amuse of textures of St. George mushroom and dill, which was rich, earthy and delicious.
Nadya and I shared the same next dish which was a playful riff on white asparagus. A delicious glossy asparagus ice cream sat besides some lightly sautéed tips covered by a blanket of an asparagus gel. This gel I could have done without in all honesty – it didn’t add much in terms of flavour although in fairness probably added some intrigue to the aesthetic of the dish. Underneath some capers (maybe too many) added a pleasant astringency which was delicious when eaten with the ice cream but very overpowering when not.
Next up, again for both of us, the dish of reworked french onion soup which was so pilloried by Rayner. As you can see from my photo it looks pretty much exactly like the house shots and rather less like the dark mess which was published on his website. That presumably says more about lighting and a decent camera than the consistency of the plating at Le Cinq.
To eat is was also pretty decent, with lots of deep, savoury onion flavour and big kick of umami from the parmesan. It also benefitted from an interest mix of textural contrast. The tiny but powerful dots of herb emulsion really brought needed vibrance and freshness, and whilst I wasn’t totally sold either on the presentation, the dish was in general delicious. A delicious innovation which successfully captured the essence of the classic, also allowing the diner to happily reconsider precisely what it is about the original soup that makes it so timeless.
Sophia was meanwhile plowing through a bowl of penne. I can not begin to express the joy of being allowed to eat at a 3 star in Paris in which they were so sensible towards the eating preferences of a fussy 5 year old. It is so depressingly common that when we ask for something as simple as possible for her, that instead some ludicrously complex piece de Resistance appears from the kitchen, paying very little attention to what we had actually asked for, and instead presumably trying to justify some hyper-inflated price tag. Not so at Le Cinq, where they were kind, attentive, and gave her something she actually wanted to eat. This delivered with zero fuss and zero condescension.
For the next and final savoury course again we were allowed to share the same dish which is really a joy when, so often because of our different views on eating meat, we can’t. If anything is a signature of the chef and now the restaurant, this is it – a spaghetti timbale filled with black truffle, morels and ham, served with a light coffee sauce. Cutting through the pasta battlements, glued together with a Parmesan emulsion, the semi-liquid inside flowed out gloriously onto the plate – a hugely rich triumph of some of the finest ingredients available. As perfect a tribute as possible to the glorious past of the excessive dishes of classical French fine dining; Wonderfully fitting also for this Parisian institution which now s successfully reinventing itself for the modern diner whilst not losing sight of what made it great to start with. We ate here two weeks ago and Nadya has not stopped talking about this dish.
As we moved towards desserts a few teasers were thrown into the mix; First a fabulous concoction of pistachio creme with honeycomb and cherry, and second a selection of light and fruity friandises-like bites. Again the pastry was faultless.
For my plate I enjoyed a deceptively simple dish of strawberries and cream. The lightly macerated fruit was joined by some dollops of Chantilly cream and a nice crunch from a strawberry tuille perched on the top. This classic combination was further lifted with a clever granita of vinegar that provided contrast of texture, temperature and acidity, and which brought a new and unexpected dimension to the dish without overpowering the basic characteristics of a much-loved combination. The second dish was equally successful, an interesting combination of a kind of coffee set-cream-come-rock deliciously counterbalanced with blackberries, plus more honeycomb for sweetness and crunch.
Much to the delight of Sophia, the petit-fours trolley, which had for the entirety of the meal been teasingly parked just by our table, was now ready to be brought forward. Sophia was welcomed to make a selection. She opted for chocolates, I for the nougat and Nadya for a rest.
Prior to coffees, we were delighted with the attention to detail of a glass of water from Brittany to cleanse the palate before even further excruciatingly delicious pastries appeared. And as the last bites were taken the Maitre D’ appeared to take Sophia into the kitchen, gave her a chef’s hat and took her photo with the brigade.
We had had our fill, and wandered satisfied into the warm Parisien afternoon to show Sophia the Arc de Triomphe.
I can not sincerely say that lunch at Le Cinq was a mind-blowing experience in terms of food. But then it’s not that kind of restaurant. You eat here to experience, in all its glory the noble tradition of high French gastronomy, which is subtly and respectfully updated by a few modernist techniques. This is not groundbreaking food and nor is it trying to be, but by god is it delicious and by god is it a memorable dining experience. The truffled timbale, not the mention the exquisite bread, I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life. But at these Parisian palaces of gastronomy the experience of the glorious dining room and the faultless service is like nowhere else. And after all, these are also both crucial elements of proper fine dining. To say the service was faultless is no exaggeration. It was one of the warmest, most sincerely kind groups of waiters we have come across. Next to us, a gentleman was quietly enjoying lunch on his own. When he had finished, two members of staff stayed at the entrance to the restaurant with him, engaged in convivial conversation for over half an hour. This kind of consideration is what you really pay for here, the feeling of being special. When mixed with excellent food the combination is almost overpowering.
Four Seasons George V,
31 Avenue George V, 75008 Paris,
+33 (1) 49 52 71 54