Crisis What Crisis Try A €1200 Curnonsky Menu
Until his death in 1956 Curnonsky known as the ‘Prince of Gastronomes,’ was hailed with reverence and awe by the best restaurants in Paris , 80 of which held a table every night in case he showed up.
Now the Taillevent restaurant in Paris (Michelin, two-stars) – named for the 14th century chef who at King Charles V’s behest wrote France’s first cookery book, Le Viandier – is honouring his prowess, good taste and reputation in a way likely to have brought the master of la table himself much pleasure.
Taillevent is serving what it discreetly describes as the most select (meaning most expensive) 5-course menu in Europe — this was after all long a favourite fine-dining haunt for former French president Jacques Chirac as it was also for his Russian counterpart Mikhaïl Gorbatchev.
La Doloreuse for this extravaganza? A mere 1,200 euros per person BUT for the full dining experience — all the wines and their consorts, the five courses, you need — Curnonsky–style — to be accompanied by nine stout gourmet companions. This requirement somewhat raises the stakes to an impressive 12,000 euros for an evening of culinary debauchery … that of course before cigars, café and digestives. Unsurprisingly reservations are not just taken over the phone, would-be Curnonsky homageurs need to apply in writing to make the appropriate arrangements and to do so well in advance of their planned evening.
According to Nicolas de Rabaudy writing in the French edition of Slate magazine the Taillevent has designed its gourmet tribute menu around the five white wines that had earned the highest praise from Curnonsky.
So who was Curnonsky? This was the pen name of Maurice Edmond Sailland (1872-1956), the French writer, novelist, biographer, and gastronome who in a public referendum in 1927 earned the title ‘Prince of Gastronomes’ basically by gently over-indulging and in grande style over a very long time. It turns out this award was a unique honour as no-one else has ever been recognised in the same way since. According to legend Curnonsky, who adopted the pen name because it sounded vaguely Russian and mysterious, was so heavy in his later years that he was he was unable to walk and was thus carried to his food assignations by six stout fellow gourmets. He died in July 1956 aged 84, allegedly after falling from his apartment window…!
Among Curnonsky’s many works is the gourmet’s reference bible, La France gastronomique serialised in 28 parts (CURNONSKY & ROUFF Marcel, Rallic (HEMARD Joseph)). It was Curnonsky who in 1930 first attracted wealthy wine hedonists to what he considered to be the top five-ranked whites of France namely: Château d’Yquem, which he called an “exceptional Sauternes vintage”, Montrachet, “the most beautiful white from Burgundy, Coulée-de-Serrant the “noble Anjou Savennières”, Château Grillet, the “Condrieu AOC from the Rhône valley” and Château Chalon, the “savagnin-based eternal yellow” of the Jura.
Curnonsky’s selection reflected one of the gastronome’s principal interests – promoting the preferred wines — the terroirs — of the man who went on in 1930 to found the Académie des Gastronomes. Curnonsky followed this triumph by going on to become a great defender of the œnological wine wealth of the French provinces. Defender that is with one exception. For champagne apparently was said not to be to Curnonsky’s palate or liking at all. Nevertheless the famous bubbly did not appear to need Curnonsky’s endorsement, for ever since the end of World War II it has enjoyed soaring sales, some 330 million bottles in 2013 alone.
So it is that today Taillevent has added a quintet of other French wine jewels to Curnonsky’s all time greats — Haut-Brion white; late harvest Alsatian whites; Chave Hermitage white – and, Curnonsky notwithstanding, — great Dom Pérignon-style champagne vintages, including Cristal Roederer, Krug Grande Cuvée or Grand Siècle.
Despite this embellished grace note, the founding principle of the memorable menu now proposed by Taillevent is to set the five great white Curnonsky wines alongside a superb haute cuisine experience all bearing the signature of Alain Solivérès, the sixth head chef at the restaurant, established by André Vrinat in 1946. It was taken over in 2011 by Laurent and Thierry, the Gardinier brothers who also own Crayères the famous two-star Relais & Châteaux restaurant in Reims.
Creating this “unique meal in the annals of the art of eating in France” — and even the great Curnonsky would doubtless forgive the restaurant its hyperbole — Taillevent, thanks to its own formidable cellar (400,000 bottles), proudly proclaims it is reinforcing the image of Curnonsky’s all time “Great Wines”. This cellar is home to a long list of the most carefully selected wines available. On the menu they sell for between 30 and 500 euros a time, indeed restaurant critics and oenophiles seem unanimous in praising Taillevent over other well-garnished Parisian tables because of the strength of this cellar. It, notes one writer, offers wines at “reasonable and decent”, rather than “grotesque and deterring” prices, (a Puligny Montrachet 2006 for instance is listed at 120 euros).
Serving Curnonsky white wines at this distance in time from when the “prince” with his critical eye was holding court and treating dining companions to the unerring match of the right wine with each course, is, the restaurant admits, “a perilous exercise”. For in keeping with the “prince’s” dictum each wine requires the respect and embellishment of the plate it is accompanying.
Here then are the wines and menu à la Curnonsky prepared by Alain Solivérès and Jean-Marie Ancher, director of the dining room, along with sommelier Stéphane Jan.
The house champagne (Deutz) opens the fabulous meal.
The homard bleu à la cardinale gratiné, lesté d’un sabayon et de truffes noires, (lobster cardinal gratin with sabayon and black truffles) welcomes a Château Grillet 2005, a complete wine offering beautiful depth in the mouth.
The saint-pierre aux algues pris dans une pâte de sel, pommes boulangère et coques, sauce au vin blanc, (John Dory in a salt pate, baking apples, white wine sauce) accompany Coulée de Serrant 2004, a complex, aromatic wine, reflecting its vineyard which was planted in 1130 by Cistercian monks.
The poularde de Bresse à la Reine, désossée, dressée en pâte feuilletée avec des bouchées à la reine et truffes, (deboned Bresse chicken à la Reine, dressed in puff pastry with patties and truffles), is embellished by Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 2002 at its peak, well rounded the quintessence of a chardonnay, with elegance and length, even if it is not the unequalled Montrachet de la Romanée Conti.
The vieux comté millésimé (old vintage comté cheese) from Alsace cheesemaker Bernard Anthony with the Chateau Chalon 2005 from the Macle domaine, an admirable white Jura wine, spicy generous and of tremendous length.
The omelette norvégienne aux fruits exotiques, flambée et découpée en salle, Norwegian omelette exotic, flambée and sliced at table , escorts the Château d’Yquem 2003 mellowed by time with amazing aromas of honey, honeysuckle, candied apricots: a masterpiece and a set of rare flavours enhanced by this prodigiously rich dessert capable of complementing the sensual magic of Yquem, which itself resembles the “drinking of a ray of light, ” according to French writer Frédéric Dard.
As noted earlier, this festival of the taste buds is only available to parties of ten, for whom the five handpicked bottles that inspire the menu are the raison d’être of the experience.
So far in three months Taillevent has served twenty parties with this extravagant epicurean expedition. Two Swiss citizens have made an application for a table and eight other candidates for this homage a Curnonsky are currently lined up.
(For those baffled by the wonderfully flowery menu descriptions for which French restaurants are renowned we recommend Bon Appétit, French English dictionary of gastronomic terms by Robert West available here at 4.99 euros. Robert West wrote the guides after too many encounters with the howlers that Google translated menus tend to provide.)
Story Ken Pottinger
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