Squid as madeleine
Reading the "I foraged with Rene Redzepi" article in the food issue of the New Yorker, I was reminded that I never posted about our last, glorious meal in France. It was at Le Chateaubriand in Paris, a two-year-old restaurant that trails Redzepi’s Noma — generally considered the greatest restaurant in the world — by just six spots on S. Pellegrino’s illustrious list.
I’m not sure how much foraging Le Chateaubriand’s Inaki Aizpitarte does personally (judging from The Selby's documentation of his urbane day-to-day, not much), but the two chefs are similar in their approach to native European ingredients and cuisines. I haven't dined at Noma (YET) but I know that Redzepi's guiding culinary star is Nordic, while for Aizpitarte, it is probably Basque, the region that straddles Spain and France from which he hails.
When I was 13, I spent a month in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of Basque country. It sits between Madrid and San Sebastian. I lived with a well-to-do host family in a high-rise double-apartment. I went to a Catholic school where every class was in Spanish, except English, which I excelled at, and Basque, which I did not. (To date, that remains my only experience with a uniform.) The family had two full-time nannies, one part-time cook, and two little girls, ages six and eight, who were always dressed in immaculate matching clothing from Italy or France. The six-year-old was an eager-to-please treat, the eight-year-old a spoiled terror.
I remember the month as a period of non-stop jaw-dropping taste awakenings, beginning with a four- or maybe six-hour Sunday lunch where my host-father and -mother held court in the back room of a restaurant, ordering dozens of dishes and entertaining a dozen friends who came and went. It was one of the few times I — and, for that matter, my host-sisters — spent much time with the host-parents. Usually we had lunch in the kitchen with the nannies (the small TV tuned to MTV Europe), and a late dinner of torta and other odds and ends in the informal dining room, again with the nannies. (I will forever associate Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” video with Spain.)
Among the unforgettable foods that I first experienced in Vitoria are croquetas, fried balls of silky potato-cheese puree studded with jambon that were so good I stared them down in their place at the center of the table, counting down the minutes until it was no longer impolite to swipe another; morcilla corcida, its thin casing exploding into a fragrant pillow of rice and blood that I had to dare myself to taste for the first time, but not the second and third and tenth time; and the bowl of squid in its own ink that every Sunday the family’s matriarch — the host-mother’s mother — ordered up to her apartment, a grand and lonely place that was separated from ours by a locked door. (Although she skipped the weekly restaurant festivities in favor of solitude, she still donned a trim Chanel suit.)
I was never offered a taste of that squid — I was lucky if I got so much of a dismissive shrug out of the grandmother — but I got a peek and a sniff of them and was not disgusted so much as curious. If blood and rice could taste so good, why not squid and ink?
When the first course was placed before me at Le Chateubriand I was transported instantly to that apartment in the sky. Squid in ink, reimagined with summer squash, fruity tomatoes, and an unknown foraged green — and yet the smell! Yes, that is it, exactly, I thought, and then I said, “I wonder if the chef’s grandmother ate squid in ink on Sundays, too?”
I bet she did.
This is a very long way of saying that our meal at Le Chateubriand was one of those that stimulates the memory as much as it does the taste buds and olfactory glands. It was casual and fun — we waited in a queue for about an hour, making conversation with the drunk Danish chef in front of us, drinking champagne, watching Chef Aizpitarte run in and out of the restaurant like a spaniel on speed, and ogling the obscenely chic crowd dressed for the kick-off of Paris Fashion Week — but it was also very serious.
Aizpitarte offers just one menu every night and he prices it reasonably (less than 60 euro). He puts forth a series of well-thought-out juxtapositions — strawberries and bluefish, ice cream and foraged greens, mushrooms and chocolate, the sudden appearance of the Indian spice mix supari at the end of the meal — and they are, for the most part, exquisite. (He failed to convince me that we ought to start slathering our best dark chocolate on mushrooms, but we can’t win ‘em all.)
I was thrilled by the boldness of the flavors — and sometimes, by their restraint — but I’ve got to admit it was when Aizpitarte cranked up some obscure disco song for a midnight dance break in the kitchen that he really won me over.
M. and I spent the evening with delighted smiles never far from our lips: we felt lucky to be there, closing out such an extraordinary trip with such a wildly inventive and unusual meal, the big, booming fireworks display before they put the circus animals to bed.
Below, the photos I took and the menu descriptions, directly translated from the French with a little help from Google….
I like funky wine, and this had funk to rival the funkiest.
I didn’t take photos of the amuses bouche but this peacock plate with gougères was too pretty to pass up.
The famous squid in ink.
Saint-Jean de Luz bluefish, turnips, radish, strawberries.
Veal, “knife” (the French word is couteau??), cod liver.
Not pictured: Buttermilk, herbs, hazelnut butter.
Mushrooms, Tannea extra-bitter chocolate, Alpine lovage.
Mint ice cream, foraged greens.
After-dinner palette cleanser: strawberries rolled in a supari-inspired spice mixture.