June 16, 2004
[Update: La Table de Lucullus is now closed. Nicolas has plans to open a new one on L'Ile d'Yeu, but I don't have the details yet.]
This past Friday, I took Maxence out to dinner at La Table de Lucullus. The official excuse was to mark a job-related occasion, but in truth, I had wanted to take him to that restaurant for a little while, and was just waiting for an alibi. In fact, it was second on the list when I invited him to Aux Lyonnais for his birthday back in January.
La Table de Lucullus is hidden in the not-so-swanky part of the 17th arrondissement, where kebab hole-in-the-walls are aplenty, and where the existence of a gastronomical restaurant sounds unlikely, to say the least. But still, this is where Nicolas Vagnon, a chef in his late twenties, decided to open his restaurant and serve the kind of food he's passionate about : seafood in all shapes and forms.
The restaurant is rather small, with no more than seven or eight tables, and up on the wall are three gigantic blackboards on which the daily selection is written out, in Nicolas' large, loopy -- and not always entirely decipherable -- handwriting.
It is the chef himself who welcomes the guests and handles the service, announcing the menu in his booming voice (in French or in excellent English), taking the orders and bringing the different dishes ; introducing them, pointing out details and answering your questions, eager to discuss the food with you and genuinely happy -- no, ecstatic -- that you share his enthusiasm.
We decided to go for the Menu Dégustation, the 50 € four-course tasting menu, which is designed to star a different fish daily. On that night, it featured Lotte (monkfish) from l'Ile d'Yeu, an island off the French Atlantic coast, where the fish served at this restaurant often comes from.
We ordered glasses of champagne, but the chef steered us towards a sparkling Chardonnay from the Loire instead, and we sipped on it while we waited for the first course : Amandes de mer infusées à l'anis. Amandes de mer are a type of clam, named Common European Bittersweet in English, deliciously crunchy and iodized. Here they were marinated in aniseed infused olive oil, and served with a bushy little topping of grated beetroot. We were unsure about the aniseed, as we both hate it with a vengeance, but it was very mild, and actually enhanced the other flavors beautifully. We looked at each other, nodding and (discreetly) moaning in unison : this was a mighty good start to the meal.
The second course followed, starring fresh green peas, two ways : Petits pois en brandade, velouté de petits pois, et pain grillé. We were brought a plate of cold and bright green pea soup, refreshing and tasty, and a little coffee cup of cold brandade de lotte (see below), with green peas sprinkled on top. On the rim of the cup were two fingers of thick country bread, rubbed with garlic and olive oil : one was dipping into the cup, the other balanced on both sides of the rim, at an angle with the first.
Brandade is a typical French preparation of fish and potatoes, mashed together with garlic, cream and olive oil. It is traditionally served hot and made with morue (salted cod), but variations have been fashionably appearing on menus here and there, using other kinds of fish, like smoked haddock or, here, monkfish. The idea in any case is to use a very flavorful fish, possibly smoked or salted -- flavorful enough to speak through the potatoes and garlic.
This course was an impressive work of balance : in temperature -- warm (toasts) and cold (everything else) ; in flavor -- mild, tangy and garlicky ; in texture -- liquid (soup), soft (brandade) and crunchy (peas and toasts) ; in color -- green, white and brown. I also particularly enjoyed it because it belongs to what I'd call DIY dishes : you have a plate, a cup, and toasts. You have a fork, a spoon, and your fingers. You can experiment with the different tastes, texture combinations, and eating methods. You can bite into the toast fingers, you can break them up and use them as croutons, you can dip them into the brandade or into the soup. This makes the experience very playful and intense, requiring your attention and stimulating all your senses.
We were then served the main course, which was a Darne de lotte cuite en douceur, algues et herbes -- a bone-in steak of monkfish, cooked gently and served on a bed of seaweed and herbs. The fish was freshness incarnate : incredibly moist, its flesh tightly knit yet tender, with the exact amount of herbs and seasonings to bring out the fish's genuine flavor, without altering or muting it. Simple in appearance, this dish really proved the chef's talent, and his respectful handling of quality ingredients.
We then chose to have the cheese platter, which the chef orders from a M. Gricquel, owner of the Fromagerie des Moines just two blocks from the restaurant. Among the great cheeses in the selection, I would like to note the knock-your-socks-off Banon : Banon is a goat cheese from Haute-Provence, wrapped in chestnut tree leaves and tied in raffia string. This one had been quite dramatically aged, and was so full of strength and complex flavors (reminiscent of sushi in a peculiar way) it almost robbed Maxence of words. And the boy can handle cheese, let me tell you!
After this feast, the idea of dessert was a little overwhelming, but Nicolas had it all covered, and brought a dish that fit the bill perfectly : a rhubarb half-soup (not the official name, just my description : chunkier than a real soup, runnier than a compote), served cold and hardly sweetened at all, with slivers of fresh almonds, thin strips of tender, candied lemon peel, and a topping of roasted and ground almonds. The blend of tastes and textures, again, worked perfectly, and this was as light and refreshing as we could have hoped for. Just as we were eating the last spoonfuls of rhubarb, and as if we hadn't been wowed enough at this point, we were also brought little coffee cups of homemade strawberry sorbet : nice and soft at the edges, of the most beautiful deep pink shade, and shockingly strawberry in taste.
As one might infer from the tale of that evening, this was a truly exceptional meal, full of surprises and small but wondrous finds. Nicolas' cuisine is the hardest kind to achieve : youthfully daring, passionate, but rooted into firm, classical grounds. Simple, but deceptively so. Nothing is left to chance, yet everything looks and feels light, spontaneous and fresh. Throw into the mix the beaming smile of the chef, the humble, hidden location, and you'll have one of my favorite restaurants so far.
La Table de Lucullus
129 rue Legendre
M° La Fourche
01 40 25 02 68
Smoked Herring and Broccoli Parmentier
Monkfish Liver on Toast