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Jean-François Piège, Paris - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 95.
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Extraordinary (96-100)
Outstanding (93-95)
Very good to Excellent (89-92)
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Note: Jean-François Piège has left Thoumieux and will open his own restaurant in Paris called 'Le Grand Restaurant' in September 2015.

What do Christophe Saintagne, Jocelyn Herland and Franck Cerruti have in common, apart from the fact that you may not know who they are? If you do know there names, you will also know the answer to my question: they are three three-starred chefs. No seriously, they are. They are the chefs at the helms of the kitchens at Alain Ducasse's three-star restaurants in Paris, London and Monaco. They are responsible for some of the most expensive and most highly praised food in the world, served in some of the most iconic restaurants on the planet. And yet they are almost anonymous, outside perhaps an inner circle of people who know or are at least interested in the inner workings of the world of the grandest cuisine.

Until almost a decade ago, you could have added the name of Jean-François Piège (b. 1970 in Valence) to the list of these chefs. In 1992, he joined Ducasse in Monaco as sous-chef at the Louix XV and in 1996 he was transferred to Paris. Joël Robuchon went into early retirement and Ducasse was asked to take over the management of the eponymous restaurant at hotel Le Parc. Piège became chef de cuisine there and retained the three stars (the Louis XV lost its third star the year after). In 2004 Piège left Ducasse to become executive chef at restaurant Les Ambassadeurs at the supremely prestigious Hôtel Le Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. It had one star at the time, but Piège almost immediately regained the second star it had lost in 2003. He left Le Crillon in 2009 and that was also the year when I first experienced his cooking; he was one of the foreign chefs present at the Rheingau Gourmet & Wine Festival in Hattenheim (Germany) and together with Marc Fosh he cooked the food for the festival's most prestigious event, the "Weltraritäten-Dinner". The lobster in particular is still a vivid memory.

In 2009 he joined forces with Thierry Costes in Hôtel Thoumieux in the 7th arrondissement. This 15-room establishment (opened in 2011) houses the Brasserie Thoumieux (open since 2009) and the restaurant Jean-François Piège (floated in 2010). Michelin showed its confidence in this seasoned chef and immediately awarded the eponymous restaurant two Michelin stars (2011 guide).

The restaurant Jean-François Piège is open for lunch and dinner Monday till Friday. The restaurant offers a set menu called 'Règle du je(u)', which allows you to chose one or two main courses (referred to as 'les ingrédients d'aujourd'hui) - one 'ingrédient" for €119, two 'ingrédients" set you back €149. I had lunch at Jean-François Piège with my husband on Tuesday 30 April 2013.

With our aperitifs we were served four delicious canapés. From left to right (bottom): Crispy ham sandwich - Croquette with a creamy cod filling - 'crispy veal' with capers, parsley and cream - Parmesan toast with salmon and cream cheese.

This successful departure was followed by five dishes referred to as "hors-d'oeuvres", some more substantial than others. Mustard ice cream with crispy beetroot, beetroot juice, curry powder and coriander cress arrived first. The fantastic, sharp mustard ice cream combined wonderfully with the sweet and clean-tasting beetroot juice. Lovely touch of freshness from the coriander cress and great crunch and flavour from the crispy dried beetroot. The dusting of curry powder delivered lovely extra dimensions of flavour and fragrance. A very elegant dish with clean and precise flavours.

Next we were presented with a golden brown puff pastry pie with a potato filling, which was then cut in half and served with a divine, creamy and airy eel mousse and and intense young garlic sauce, that delivered a great aftertaste and a nice touch of freshness. The eel mousse was extraordinary; it was voluminous, had a feather-light consistency that seemed to defy gravity and was full of flavour. A perfectly executed dish with great rich flavours, balanced out beautifully by the garlic sauce.

Shortly after this, the next dish was served. A nice and pure, green asparagus juice with a foam, delicately flavoured with tarragon and horseradish and sprinkled with buttery croutons. Some shredded green asparagus was served on the inside of the cup. An elegant dish with clean and delicate flavours, the croutons providing a nice touch of warmth.

More warmth and richness followed with the next dish. Two perfectly poached quail's eggs, served with some sublime, juicy and meaty morels, a delicious foamy Vin Jaune sauce, a Cancoilotte cheese crisp and some buttery crumbs. Superb Vin Jaune sauce with a great depth of flavour and the lovely touch of nuttiness so characteristic for Vin Jaune. A great dish with a wonderful balance between richness and intensity and a terrific synergy between the morels and the Vin Jaune sauce. Formidable.

Last hors d'oeuvre before the main course was a gloriously intense crayfish bouillon served with a light duck foie gras mousse, some chopped crayfish and a lovely crayfish foam. An utterly delicious dish with rich but elegant flavours and great textures; the lightness of the mousse was incredible.

My main course was Brittany lobster. Beautifully cooked, tender lobster served with a very elegant and aromatic coconut broth and a pure red pepper puree. The broth was poured over the red pepper puree, so the puree would blend with the broth. Also on the plate were thin and crispy crouton discs and a some fresh coriander. This was a exceptional dish, quite restrained, not too many flavours, with the perfect touch of sharpness and depth from the red pepper puree. But best of all was the delicately balanced sweetness of the lobster and the coconut broth, the latter also providing a lovely buttery finish.

A wonderful selection of cheeses (including some fabulous fromage frais with strawberry puree) was served next. Loved the presentation.

Strawberry and rhubarb were the main ingredients of the first of two desserts. An excellent smooth rhubarb ice cream, chopped fresh strawberries, sandwiched between two beautifully made thin sugary meringue discs, served with some incredibly, intensely flavoured dried strawberry powder. An exquisite dessert with lovely flavour contrasts.

Even better was the second dessert, a Piège classic: Blanc à Manger sucré. A pristine white blanc manger with a fantastic, meltingly soft texture. The blanc manger had a liquid crème Anglaise centre, which was wonderfully creamy and had lovely vanilla flavours. On top of the blanc manger was a perfectly thin pale caramel disc. A outstanding dessert with wonderfully elegant and creamy flavours, but first and foremost a display of true craftsmanship.

A bergamot egg cream (not in the photograph) and banana croustillants were served with our coffees.

Jean-François Piège is clearly a chef of great skill and experience. For more than 15 years he has been at the helm of some of the best restaurants in France and mainly in Paris, always cooking at two or three star level. This man knows a thing or two about fine dining. It shows in the food served in his restaurant: it is harmonious and showcases incredible skill, it is creative and elegant, the dishes are delicately balanced and have a strong sense of purity. This is very fine, contemporary French cuisine from a "grand chef" who has rightfully made a name for himself with a linear, precise style of cooking. What I wasn't too keen on however, was the fact that the restaurant only serves a "menu surprise". I do not mind tasting menus (even though they limit the flexibility of the guest), but it wasn't very clear to me that my lunch with 1 "ingrédient" was effectively going to be a (very well constructed) 9-course tasting menu. It was well-priced (by Parisian standards, anyway) and I enjoyed it very much, but it is useful to know in advance what you are going to get, even if only to enable an informed choice from the wine list.
Leaving these reservations aside, I was very pleased to find that Thierry Costes and Jean-François Piège, together with designer India Mahdavi, have created a charming and characterful restaurant that is informal without being basic, has the atmosphere of a living room and is quite unique on the Paris dining scene.

Posted 15-08-2013


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