Verjus – Paris 2016

When you visit Paris, patient the restaurant choices are overwhelming. There are literally thousands of restaurants and they are all good. Or at least as a traveller to the city you think they are all good. Everyone you know who has visited the city will have a different list of about ten restaurants “you HAVE to try” and of course, they are in neighbourhoods that are not remotely close to you or anything you want to see. Then you foolishly think, “Ok. Let me look up restaurants with Michelin stars.” Don’t do that. It is the most futile Google search you will ever perform and you will depress yourself as you don’t have hundreds of euros to spend on lunch to go to somewhere with 1-Michelin star let alone something with 3-stars which the official definition is “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” It is overwhelming, daunting and borderline annoying to plan meals in Paris.

However, one meal that was easy to plan was our dinner at Verjus. I learned about Verjus while watching The Getaway, a show by ESPN that features B-list actors and their favourite weekend getaways. Paris is the city of choice for Aisha Tyler. In the episode she eats at a few wine bars (Frenchie which was unfortunately missed on this trip) but Verjus really stood out for me. It is run by an American couple who are part of a change that is happening in Paris about how people view food and restaurants. It began as a wine bar with tasting plates or petits plats (which sounds so much daintier than tapas or sharing plates) and has expanded into a full-on restaurant with a tasting menu and a second restaurant called Ellsworth.

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To get to Verjus we entered through an alleyway called Passage de Beaujolais. We were early for our reservation so we wandered through the short alley and down the stairs that took us street level to a whole other world. From there we could see that Verjus is located in an old, 3-storey, very typically Parisian building that is across the street from the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. We felt like we were transported back in time to the 18th century. We meandered through the archways of the théâtre and discovered the beautiful gardens of the Palais-Royal with its wild rose bushes and fountains. As dusk began to fall we headed back to the restaurant to enjoy our dinner.

The tasting menu was 10 courses for 76€ with wine pairings for an addition 55€. We decided to go for it with the wine pairing because who knows when you will be back in Paris eating a tasting menu at an amazing restaurant because you won a free trip? And yes, for those of you doing the math, this meal was almost $400 Canadian, making it one of the most expensive meals I have ever had.

We were seated at a small table close to the entrance and the stairway leading upstairs. I was more than ok with this because it allowed us to be surrounded by windows offering views of the streets below and an opportunity to take a peek at upcoming courses as they whipped their way upstairs.

We started with a course featuring three different appetizers that were all served with a sparkling white wine, Catherine & Pierre Breton’s Vouvray Pétillant “La Dilettante”

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Violet asparagus, with sorrel mayo and wood sorrel.

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Fava bean fritter with herb tahini.

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Trout roe, with house yogurt, on a flatbread topped with arugula.

These three petit plats set the tone of the whole meal. The wine was sparkling, with citrus notes that picked up the fresh flavours of spring in each dish.

The asparagus was perfectly in season, tender, but retained a nice crunch to it. The asparagus had floral notes to it that played well with the woodiness of the mushrooms. The clovers served both as a garnish and a pop of flavor, tasting like the were just plucked from a spring meadow or an early budding garden in the center of Paris.

The fava bean fritter was essentially a falafel. In Egypt, falafels are traditionally made with fava beans instead of chick peas, diving into France’s colonial history. The fritter was solid and did not fall apart when cut or bitten into. The outside was crispy and crunchy, keeping the inside moist and tender. The fritter tasted like beans, fresh and green, rather than oil. The herb tahini picked up on the nuttiness in the fritter and adding herbs to this sauce reinforced the freshness and lightness of the dish rather than the heaviness that can come with something that is fried.

The trout roe flatbread was my favourite, although it was hard to tell at the time because my mouth was just so happy. The trout roe was so fresh that is actually smelled like the ocean even though it would have been buried deep within the belly of a fish. It was beautifully orange and transparent, almost glowing like tiny lights on the plate. The house yogurt was tart but sweet, accentuating the natural saltiness in the roe. The flatbread was made in house and was tender but sturdy. I loved that the arugula featured on top was not arugula leaves but rather arugula flowers, reinforcing the imagery and tastes of spring.

Next we had the house sourdough and salted butter.

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Can we just all take a minute and really look at how beautiful this dish is? It is so simple and rustic and yet there is an elegance and complexity to it. The crust of the bread is so thick and crunchy, it has literally cracked under the heat that has escaped while baking. Throughout the evening we saw people carrying in these massive loaves from somewhere outside the alley and they were the size of small beach balls. Although the crust is immense, it was not rock solid and you did not have to force the slice of bread to the back of your mouth to be gnawed at by your molars. The bread was the best bread I have ever had. It did not have that mouth twisting sourness that bread in North America has but rather it was a subtle zing, that tasted of tartness and fermentation; you could taste the various days and various starters that had been used to make the bread as they gradually grew together to create a beautiful loaf of bread.

And if you are going to have bread this good, you need to have butter that is comparable. And this butter was. Look at those beautiful flakes of fleur de sal that are sprinkled on top of the butter, bringing out the already salty quality of the butter. It was the right amount of salt to bring out the salty, briny flavors of the sourdough. My only complaint is that the amount of butter provided is really only enough for one piece of bread. Or maybe we are just decadent and obsessed with butter – that is probably a more accurate statement.

Next we had a salad served with Mas Foulaquier Pic Saint-Loup’s, Oiseau Blanc (2014).

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Young cucumbers, with cherry tomato and celery juice.

This was another dish that tasted so freshly of spring. The cucumbers were so new and supple, they were so waterlogged it was as if you were drinking rather than eating a cucumber.  I love the simple elegance of have thin strips of cucumber shaved and then rolled into a spiral coil of salad. The tomatoes were a pop of sweetness and colour, breaking up the monochromatic colour scheme of the plate. The celery juice added hints of anise and fennel flavor, tartness that rounded out the sweet, freshness that all ready existed in the dish. The sprig of dill add texture and another pop of fresh spring flavor. It is easy to imagine this salad as a cocktail served with gin over ice and enjoyed on a hot summer day by the Seine.

Our next course was fava beans, raw cream, egg yolk, baby leeks served with Fichet’s Bourgogne Blanc (2013)

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I don’t even really know how to describe what this dish was similar to because it is unlike anything I have ever eaten before. The raw cream was the base of the dish, with everything floating atop of it. The cream was so fresh, thick and warm, as if it had just come out of the cow; which for some people is an off putting experience but to me, it connects you so much more to the food and the source it comes from.

The fava beans were tender and meat, with a sweet almost caramelized taste to them. The egg yolk was exactly what you expect from a country chicken. The yolk was so thick that it moved like molasses when broken into and was almost orange instead of the pale, emaciated yellow yolks you find in grocery stores in candy. The way the yolk and the cream blended made the dish so thick and sweet, it was almost like a crème brûlée at the bottom of the bowl. I loved how the yolk was used in two ways: raw and on its on, and then grated over the whole dish. Grating the egg yolk gave it the texture of a fine cheese, dusted over the whole dish.

Our next dish had potatoes and was served with Xavier Gérard’s Viogner (2013).

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New potatoes, with nettles, sweet peas, and covered in reblochon espuma.

Ok, so this looks absolutely unappetizing and basically just a white blob of something but it was delicious. The new potatoes were tender, earthy and fresh. My potatoes were perfectly cooked but GC’s were a tad raw which was unfortunate. We are not those people to send things back but we probably should have especially for the price we were paying.

But that didn’t matter to me because the best part was the reblochon (all that white blob you see). Reblochon is a soft washed-rind and smear-ripened cheese from the Alpine region of Savoy. Smear-ripened refers to when older cheese are literally smeared on younger, still ripening cheese, to help with the ripening process and transfer bacteria that has already formed. This is about as French and stinky as you can get with cheese. This is why you travel to France – to eat cheeses protected under regulations to maintain they way they have been made for hundreds of years. Espuma is a culinary technique where foam is created through thermo whipping. The cheese is turned into a foam and then melted, changing the typical texture of a melted cheese. It is lighter but still retains that strong and pungent flavor of the cheese.

Next we had our meat course served with our first red wine, Sang Des Caillous’s Vacqueyras Doucinello (2014).

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7 week grass fed beef, with green asparagus in an oxtail jus.

Finally! Our first red wine of the evening. I understand that the wines are paired with the dishes and that when eating in spring, there are more floral flavours in the tender, first vegetables of spring that naturally suit white wine but a little more variety in the pairings would have been nice.

I don’t know if this was beef from a cow that was fed grass for 7 weeks of it’s longer than that life or if this was veal that only lived for 7 weeks of which, it ate grass the whole time. The piece of meat we both received was slightly on the small side, especially compared to our neighbouring table (who we later discovered knew the owner). I think given the price, two pieces of the above size would have been reasonable. The beef was tender, juicy and had a rich, earthy taste to it that was highlighted by the red wine. I loved that the menu featured two different types of asparagus that evening as asparagus is such a quintessential spring vegetable, and should only be eaten when it is local and in season. The green asparagus was tender and tasted green rather than woody.

Next we had our cheese plate with Jaeger-Defaix’s Rully (2014).

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Chaource with sourdough cracker and oignon confit.

Chaource is French cheese made in the village of Chaource in the Champagne-Ardenne region. The cheese is soft, creamy but slightly crumbly. It is eaten young, aged for only two to four weeks. The cheese is so soft that it melts across your tongue, wrapping your entire mouth in its sweet, tanginess.

The sourdough cracker is made from the same “best bread I’ve ever tasted” and is great in cracker form. It is thin, but will hold up substantially to the weight of cheese and still has some of its sourness. The cracker has sesame seeds which gave the cracker some nuttiness that always pairs well with cheese. The oignon confit (or onion jam) is caramelized and smooth, bringing out further sweetness of the cheese.

And lastly we finished with dessert paired with a beautiful Saracco’s Moscato D’Asti (2015).

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Strawberries with strawberry sorbet, rhubarb, and lovage.

Oh my god. This tastes like the early days of summer. The strawberries tasted exactly like those June-farmer’s market strawberries we all long for: the perfect combination of sweetness and tartness. The sorbet had these same flavours in a creamy and icy form. The rhubarb was slightly cooked, but retained its crunch without having any of that awful stringiness that is typical of rhubarb. It was tart but sweet, working with the natural flavours of the strawberries. Lovage is actually an herb with the name coming from “love-ache.” Ache is the medieval name for parsley. But lovage doesn’t have the taste of parsley. It is more often compared to celery and has that slight fennel taste to it. It gave the dessert a bit of pepperiness, accentuating the natural tartiness so the dessert was not overly sweet.

Our meal at Verjus was lovely. Yes, it was pricey but compared to other meals in Paris, it was well priced. On average, our meals were at least 50-60€ not including wine so to spend 152€ on a nice meal is reasonable in my mind. You would be very hard pressed to find a 10-course tasting menu in Paris for less than that for two people.

The atmosphere was comfortable, like being in someone’s home. The staff was professional and knowledge about both the food and wine, and could deftly speak about both in English and French. There were no pretensions about not being able to speak French or not knowing what esoteric ingredients like lovage were. The restaurant was very accessible as someone new to fine dining in Paris If you are in Paris, treat yourself to meal at Verjus. Or a least a glass of wine at the wine bar in the cave-like basement. It is a very French experience.

Happy munching!

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