When 3 stars aren’t sparkling…

…in Paris, a plush Grand Hotel only a stone’s throw from the Elysée Palace whose actual occupant Nicolas Sarkozy is said to be a regular costumer. This honour has caused the Bristol‘s chef Eric Fréchon some damage though. In 2009, when the Michelin guide finally awarded him with the maximum 3-star-listing, the decision was instantly blamed as biased, to say the least. François Simon, France’s most influential food critic, harshly rejected Michelin’s pick, claiming that Fréchon’s cooking wasn’t really where it’s at. “It is ‘palace cuisine’ that dazzles the bourgeois”, Simon said to the “Daily Telegraph” a year ago, “but it’s not tasty: it lacks hips, it lacks flesh, it lacks backside, it lacks life”.

Well, I’ve eaten at Le Bristol yesterday night anyway. And after having spent – within three hours – approximately as much money as the junior waiters in the dining room make in a month, I must say that François Simon is right, unfortunately (and as always). He might be a little bit too harsh. Yet across the board it’s true: Fréchon may be an admirable master of all cooking techniques, he may be an expert engineer of textures – but he’s not a good cook. No angel has ever crossed his path, no divine spark has ever lit up his imagination.

Small island in a sea of jelly: a good start at "Le Bristol".

It all started with a couple of beautiful but meaningless amuse bouches, followed by the appetizer as shown above. At that point, my hopes were still flying high: Fréchon had bedded different mousses made of vegetables and mussels on a flashy green jelly, it was tasteful, complex, interesting. As my entrée (which really doesn’t mean main course, my dear American friends!) I had ordered the “Stuffed Macaroni”. It’s a signature dish, stuffed “with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras, gratinated with mature Parmesan cheese”. Here it comes:

Much ado about nothing: Fréchon's stuffed macaroni.

And here, I began to have slight misgivings: THIS was the chef’s classic? His signature dish? Believe me or not: none of the ingredients was detectable and the overall impression was dull, boring, sans intérêt, as the French say. I was shocked, actually, as was my companion at the table. Still, it could have been an accident, I mean, these things happen, the sous-chef has fallen in love, the sauce guy has a bad day, maybe the next course will wipe all bad impressions out… The next course, my main, was “Saddle of Lamb” served “in a nori seaweed crust, herbs gnocchi, puréed turnip cabbage”, have a look:

Divine gnocchi, silent lamb: a main course à la Fréchon.

Would you consider this an impeccable 3-star dish? I wasn’t sure, I didn’t like the colours, to start with. Fortunately, I tasted the gnocchi first and they were brilliant, pleasing, arousing, a spoon full of summer and of Southern delights, a whole world in a tiny morsel, yes, these gnocchi were, in short, how a 3-star-cuisine should always taste and feel. The lamb? The seaweed on top? The green slime on the left hand side? I don’t know what to say. Sans intérêt, again, and even worse because at that point I started to understand Fréchon’s tragedy.

I assume that he has an idea about his own flaws, I even guess he knows that he’s not a genius. Yet he always wanted the third star, he wanted it desperately, that’s why he was working harder and harder over the years to achieve it – and that’s why he started to play around with stuff like seaweed, and that’s why you can find molecular spheres on his plates or a rabbit “in Tandoori spices”. It’s the attempt to feign creativity. Fréchon pretends to be original but he isn’t and that…is tragic, isn’t it?

Yet he won’t suffer too much. His restaurant was packed yesterday night as it always is, three Michelin stars in Paris are a full-house-guarantee. Fréchon obviously gets well away with his one-star-cuisine for the price of three. For how long? Well, who knows, maybe at least as long Sarkozy stays in office at nearby Elysée Palace. Or not that long. Or even longer. The Michelin testers will tell us. But what they obviously can’t tell is why they think that Le Bristol makes part of the top tier of the world’s finest restaurants. Let me put it this way: If Fréchon’s was 3-star-cuisine, then Yannick Alléno’s at Le Meurice or Bernard Pacaud’s at Ambroisie should get five or six.

I’ll leave you here with some dessert. They called it “Guanaja chocolate cake” with “crispy shortbread biscuit, roasted hazelnuts, ice cream of infused coffee, emulsion of caramel mixed with spices”. It was quite good, no, really, pretty good.

Good, but is it good enough? Chocolate dessert at "Le Bristol".


    • …could well be. And did you know? Eric Fréchon has become a member of the “Légion d’Honneur” in 2008. He was decorated by, guess who?, Nicolas Sarkozy. Honi soit qui mal y pense…

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