Over the last several years, I have increasingly come to admire the works of Bernard Pacaud, and his restaurant L’Ambroisie in Paris. I had first heard of L’Ambroisie while flipping through the 2006 edition of the Michelin Guide, yet I had never seen any mention of the restaurant in any other publications up to that point. Intrigued, I started to dig for more information. The details were few. Aside from one book in the Robert Laffont series Les Recettes Originales, published in 1989, Bernard Pacaud had not published any other culinary works since. I eventually found a copy of this book in a used bookstore in Sparks, Nevada, which I now consider to be one of the most important cookbooks I own.
L’Ambroisie maintains a certain mystery and lore among the dining public who fancy fine dining. The dining room has a reputation of being inhospitable to foreigners, not only to non French, but to anyone who is not a regular at the restaurant. The menu is Spartan by today’s standards; 5 appetizers, 5 fish dishes, 5 meat dishes, 5 desserts. No tasting menus are offered. The chef avoids the dining room, intent on being in the kitchen daily.
The menu prices are breathtakingly expensive, with individual dishes costing as much (or more) than what you are likely to pay for entire tasting menus in the United States. This is hard to justify until you see that the dishes are decadently proportioned with the finest products that France has to offer. The style of food is minimalist in approach, with no more than two or 3 flavors to any one dish. The combination of high prices and the supposed simplicity of Chef Pacaud’s cooking makes for a high wire act that makes me as a chef quite nervous. Only the very best cooking will work here, for anything less will inevitably render the diner underwhelmed. A dizzyingly high bar is set in consequence to the price. In contrast, a 14 course tasting menu priced at $198 (like mine) gives you 14 opportunities to drive a sense of value home to the guest, and hence you can afford a few misses along the way ( though I'm shooting for batting 1,000). When you charge $198 for one single plate (such as Bernard Pacaud’s Escalopines de Bar), the cooking and product must be nothing short of spectacular. You must be able to deliver big to justify such prices, and deliver on every plate, twice a day, every day.
Out of admiration for this chef, and out of want to prepare a dish with such decided decadence, I decided to run Bernard Pacaud’s Escalopines de Bar at L2o. The dish’s inherent simplicity demands a very high quality product to make the dish successful. We start by sourcing a very high quality wild loup de mer, line caught off of the Mediterranean coast of Spain. We carefully filet the fish, keeping in mind that we must have clean lines on the skin if we are to be successful in attaining the asctetics that we desire for the finished dish. We use a low, semi direct heat style of cooking by utilizing a very low set salamander to coagulate the fish portion, controlling the heat by wiping the bottom of the salamander with a cold cloth ( Bernard Pacaud slices the fish into tranches while raw, then places the pieces into his plate warmer to cook them slowly). We then allow the cooked fish to rest for a few minutes, then carefully slice the portion using a very sharp knife. Any over cooking will make this cut impossible to make cleanly. We turn the fish skeleton and head into a light fumet, which we then reduce by half, and mount with a touch of heavy cream and crème fraiche. We then add the caviar to the sauce, taking care not to let the sauce over heat, as this will cause the caviar to coagulate the sauce (as all eggs will), rendering the sauce into a solid and hence making it useless. We then garnish the top of the fish with a few slices of raw baby artichoke slices, followed by a few fried artichoke slices for a contrast in texture. We pay homage to the original, but adapt a few of our own touches to make it fit into our menu and form.