The Good Life

Taillevent, Paris

| From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

In fourteenth-century Paris, a French chef named Guillaume Tirel, nicknamed Taillevent, seasoned his sophisticated recipes with rare, exotic spices. Thanks to his savory efforts, Taillevent was appointed "grand cuysinier du roy de France" to Charles V, making him France's first royal chef.

Today, at 15 rue Lamennais (near the Arc de Triomphe), the legacy of France's original "grand cuysinier" lives on under the direction of Jean-Claude Vrinat, owner of restaurant Taillevent. Occupying an elegant nineteenth-century townhouse built by the Duc of Morny, a half-brother of Napoleon III, Vrinat's robust monument to the glories of French cooking has possessed the coveted three-star rating from France's Michelin Guide since 1973.

Trained by his father, Andre, who founded the restaurant in 1946, Vrinat knows how to pamper his clientele in a regal manner. Clients are seated downstairs in either the Trianon salon or an adjoining wood-paneled room, or up a sweeping flight of stairs to one of two intimate private dining rooms. Like the great restaurateur he is, Vrinat focuses singlemindedly on anticipating--and fulfilling--his guests' every wish: replying to queries about the menu, recommending a special bottle from a cellar containing almost 600,000 bottles of France's greatest vintages (Taillevent has received Wine Spectator's Grand Award for its wine list every year since 1984), or proffering a fine cigar to accompany an after-dinner Cognac or Armagnac.

Taillevent's chef, Philippe Legendre, spins out truly sensational--though resolutely traditional--French haute cuisine. Let the whispery pop of a Champagne cork open the festivities; for a bubbly apéritif, have a flute of Taillevent's own specially blended brut Champagne as you look at the menu. While you sip, a silent waiter will leave a little something at your table to amuse your palate--on the night I dined it was a mousse of eggplant perched atop little rounds of lightly toasted bread.

Mulling over the first course, be sure to consider the Boudin de Homard Bretonne à la Nage--an ethereal but intensely flavored sausage filled with a mousse of fresh Breton lobster flavored with tiny flecks of black truffle. The oceanic delicacy is as light as anything you will ever savor.

The evocative aromas of another appetizer, Chausson Parmentier aux Morilles et aux Asperges, recall a walk in the woods after a heavy rain. The dish features a small crêpe-like pancake--folded into a dainty half-moon shape--stuffed with wild woodland mushrooms just warm from the sauté pan. The half-moon crêpe is crowned with a quiver of six tender baby asparagus shoots. To enhance these two starters, Vrinat proposed a fine white Burgundy, a half bottle of Puligny Montrachet "Champ Canet" 1986, Domaine Etienne Sauzet à Puligny Montrachet. To clear the palate before the next course, Vrinat offered a mystery sorbet. It turned out to be a chilly concoction made from Taillevent's rose Champagne--very cool.

A firm but delicately flavored fresh-water fish called sandre--not farm-raised but caught on the line--was then served, accompanied by a salad. Grilled in olive oil, the fish was accompanied by a tiny ragout of fresh baby vegetables. As a small side dish, a bright green mini-mountain of fresh lettuce, lamb's tongue, arugula, watercress and other more exotic greens was served, bathed gently in an intoxicating truffle-oil dressing.

At Taillevent, wild game, lamb, beef, farm-raised guinea fowl, andouillette (a form of sausage), duck and foie gras are all available as main courses. I heartily recommend Taillevent's take on shepherd's pie--a golden-crusted torte filled with wild game including boar, pheasant, venison and pigeon lightly doused with Armagnac--called Tourte de Gibier de Sologne à l'Armagnac. To complement this dish, Vrinat recommended a sturdy but elegant Burgundy--1985 Pommard, Marquis d'Angerville.

Before cigars and coffee, permit yourself to be seduced by a Taillevent dessert; they're so good you won't feel guilty, be it a Marquise au Chocolat covered in pistachio sauce or a trio of vividly colored fruit sorbets.

After coffee, be sure to ask the captain for the humidor. In it you'll find a full selection of Cuba's best--Partagas, Montecristo, Punch and Cohiba--as well as fresh Davidoffs from the Dominican Republic. Fired up by a long wooden match, my cigar--a Montecristo No. 3--smoked easily, accompanied by a rich Bas Armagnac 1946, Domaine de Lassalle-Maupas à Estang. At that point, asking for the check was almost painless.

-- David Ross

David Ross is the Managing Editor of Market Watch magazine.

Taillevent
15 rue Lamennais
Phone: (33) 1-44-95-15-01; Fax: (33) 1-42-25-95-18
Dinner: $125 to $175 per person without wine

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