A couple of weeks ago, Maxence and I celebrated our seventh dating anniversary. To mark the occasion, we had decided to treat each other to dinner at a gastronomic restaurant. Our friend Baptiste happens to be a very good source for top-notch dining recommendations, a trait he gets from his father : let it be remembered that he’s the one who introduced us to Le Troyon. He was duly asked for counsel, and his answer was, without so much as the shadow of a hesitation : “Chez Catherine“.
Catherine Guerraz is considered one of the top French women chefs these days, along with Flora Mikula and Hélène Darroze. Her restaurant, off the avenue de Friedland close to the Champs-Elysées, is rumored to have very narrowly missed a Michelin star in the 2003 Guide Rouge.
After much anticipation during the day, we arrived at 8:30 and were led to our table. The restaurant has three rooms, warm and welcoming, with unusual brightly colored paintings on the walls (by an artist named Jean-Noël Duchemin) and red velvet banquettes all around.
While making the reservation, Maxence had asked to be seated in the cosy second room at the back, and upon mentioning Baptiste’s father’s name, had been offered his usual table. It was perfect : in the corner of the room, with a great view onto the open kitchen, it allowed us to be seated at adjacent sides of the table (a very pleasant alternative to face-to-face), both of us sitting on the cushy banquette (which makes up for all the times little me gets the privilege).
We started with a celebratory cup of champagne, and were brought light sesame puff pastry matchsticks, set up lattice-like on a small plate. We nibbled on them while studying the very promising menu.
We ordered our food, and the sommelier, a friendly (if a tad over-giggling) Italian woman, came to present us with the wine menu. We told her that we trusted her judgement and would go for whichever one she chose. Our choice of dishes was very varied, so this was quite a challenge but after a moment’s reflection, she pointed us to a Spanish red wine, a 1996 Penedes Mas d’Aranyo Heredad Segura Viudas.
As an amuse-bouche, the waiter brought us a very tasty Velouté de Champignon, a creamy mushroom soup, in beautiful small bowls made of matte glass.
We were then served our first courses, along with cute little loaves of fresh pain au levain. Maxence had the Pressé de Foie Gras à la Chair de Tourteau, a wonderful terrine of crab meat and foie gras “mi-cuit” (cooked rare), served in a beautiful square plate, with toasted bread. I had the Ravioles de Légumes aux Truffes et Crème de Truffes : in the small hollow of a large soup plate, four raviolis filled with julienned vegetables, cooked al dente, smothered in a truffle cream sauce and topped with large shavings of black truffle. A truly delectable choice, which had me wiping the plate with pieces of bread, as elegantly as humanly possible. Ahem.
As a main dish, Maxence had chosen the Noix de St-Jacques d’Erquy Poêlées, Risotto à l’Encre de Seiche. Five sauteed scallops, arranged with spoonfuls of a beetroot condiment around a small mound of blueish cuttlefish ink risotto, into which a beetroot chip was planted, purple and beautiful with its lighter concentric circles. The scallops were tender and moist, and the risotto had a very distinctive flavor. I went for the Canard Sauvage aux Poires, Rôtie de Pain d’Epice et Foie Gras de Canard. In a large plate, thin slices of duck meat cooked rare (“rosé” is the word for lamb and duck) were arranged fan-like around the tip of the duck’s leg, standing at the center. On the left side, half of a poached pear, a thin toasted slice of pain d’épice (French spice cake) topped with a sliver of foie gras, and a small disk of mashed potatoes. All this was drizzled with a thick brown sauce, sweet and complexly spiced. I happily worked my way through all those different flavors and textures, taking bites of the different elements on their own, then pairing them with the others to explore the possibilities. A moment of pure enjoyement.
The wine selection turned out to be a very good one, a fresh wine that didn’t overpower the subtle tastes, yet had enough character to stand up to the pressure of the stronger flavors.
Cheese fan that he is, Maxence was then tempted by the cheese plate. One of the four waiters taking care of us that night brought a small table next to ours, and laid the plateau on it, pointing to each cheese and telling us what they were. In passing, I learned that roquefort was a sheep’s milk cheese, which I didn’t know, and Maxence made his selection of livarot, reblochon, carré de l’Est (unknown to us) and roquefort, which the waiter sliced using a different knife for each.
Then came the pré-dessert, a Compote de Coing, Gelée de Citron et Sirop de Coing. A pré-dessert is usually something small and fresh to cleanse the palate before moving on to sweeter things. This one was served in a small shot glass : a layer of quince compote and a layer of lemon jelly, topped with quince syrup. The combination of sweet and tart was tastebud-teasing and very pleasant.
Satisfied with his cheese course, Maxence decided to forgo dessert, while I ordered the Feuillantine Chocolat-Noisette, Caramel au Beurre Demi-Sel : off-center on a rectangular plate stood a long and narrow cake, with a slightly flaky praline filling, and covered with a shiny and smooth chocolate frosting. All along the top of the cake were five hazelnuts, between which were planted square pieces of the thinest sesame caramel, decorated with specks of gold leaf. The top-right corner of the plate had been dusted with confectioner’s sugar in a rectangular pattern, and caramel sauce had been deposited in a line of dots of increasing size, parallel to the cake. Intricate presentation, divine dessert.
We ordered coffee, one “déca” one “serré”, which was served with a square plate of mignardises, or sweet nibbles, the end of meal equivalent to amuse-bouche. Usually there is an assortment of them, each kind coming in a set so every diner can have his taste. We each got a little piece of nougat, fresh and soft, a small cube of strawberry pâte de fruit, this dense fruit jelly coated with sugar, and a timbale chocolat pistache, a tiny round cup of chocolate with pistachio cream piped into it and topped with a pistachio. I love mignardises so much so that I’ll admit to ordering coffee in restaurants mainly in the hope of getting them.
All through this fantastic meal, I had my little red notebook on the banquette to my right, discreetely jotting down the names of the dishes in what turned out to be an increasingly sloppy hand, as the Spanish wine and general food-and-conversation-induced elation kicked in.
It was a rather slow night, as most people were away for the holidays that week, making the atmosphere and the service quiet and intimate. We were the last customers to leave, and as we got to the door, there stood Catherine Guerraz, smiling and instantly recognizable with her short red hair and dark square glasses. We chatted for a few minutes with her and the gathered staff, before we parted on holiday well wishes.
This was a memorable dinner as well as a great way to celebrate our seven years of togetherness. And I’ll stay tuned to know if Catherine gets her star in the 2004 Michelin edition!
3, rue Berryer
01 40 76 01 40