When my mother and family were here a few weeks back, we decided to try a tasting menu from a new, but quickly lauded restaurant in Paris a few blocks down from their apartment. Verjus has already been tagged and bagged by the likes of David Lebovitz and Barbra Allen, so it's well-known, but it is well-worth a try if you're keen on a multi-course tasting menu (not a formule) and aren't interested in ponying up upwards of $600 per person on Pierre Gagnaire. The tasting menu at Verjus features eight courses, with a few treats in between, and a sweet, intimate atmosphere for any manner of event.
Because it was a few days before Thanksgiving, the restaurant paid homage to the holiday with a tastefully festive menu. Strangely enough, though, none of the items incorporated turkey! We started with an amuse bouche of rosemary egg nog and a cheddar cracker topped with wild rice and a cinnamon espuma. (My more comprehensive notes on this are lost on my no-longer functioning iPod, but I will try to remember the components as best as I can.)
This two-part bite wasn't exactly coherent together, but definitely got us in the winter spirit. The rosemary nog was served in a carefully cut eggshell, with the cracker balanced on top. It was a mildly sweet hors d'ouevre not unlike something you'd pick up off a tray at a holiday party.
Our next course dabbled into Nordic holiday traditions- smoked Basque salmon in thin shavings with heirloom radishes, pumpkinseed oil, dried olive powder, grapefruit segments, and fennel. The salmon was impeccable- firm and flavorful on its own with a wonderful, subtle smokiness. It gave Nova lox a run for its money! With the earthiness of the oil and bitter olive powder, it made for an intriguing plate. The radishes cut the intensity of the flavors and added a bit of a spice to it. However, the grapefruit and fennel seemed disconnected, as though they'd hopped onto this dish from another. Their acidity clashed with the rest of the items.
We opted not to go for the wine tasting, but requested this bottle of wine in the middle of our salad course. A quiet, tight, young Hermitage with strong, if fleeting notes of black olive and inky cherries.
Following the fish course was a hearty salad of pork belly, Parmesan cheese, porcini mushrooms, and baked grapes with greens. It was a dish that had the potential to have a stupendous balance of flavors. Unfortunately, the distribution and amount of each ingredient caused it to fall somewhat flat. I only found two huge strips of pork belly, perfectly crisped and meaty, and wished they'd been cut up in smaller chunks. The mushrooms, which I ate due to my tasting menu clause (see Wd~50) were paper-thin and melted on the tongue with the cheese, a pleasurable duality. The grapes were the only element I felt were neglected. My dish had three of them at the bottom. They were delightful and jammy, so I was surprised to see them thrown on as an afterthought.
The next two dishes, a pasta and meat course, were executed much more swiftly. The pasta, an intimate preparation of chicken foie gras and prune cappeletti with crispy sesame sweetbreads in a rosemary chicken broth, was comforting and rustic with an international flair. If the chefs at Verjus tire of the restaurant racket, they could surely make a killing selling freshly-made pasta like this one. The prunes, dark and sweet, lent a richness to the dish without weighing it down. This dish made everything- the wine, the atmosphere, and the music (appropriately, AIR) merge together seamlessly, toeing the line so beautifully between the unctuousness of Gallic country ingredients and new American cuisine. My favorite of the evening.
The steak dish was cleverly done, using ingredients that recalled farm-to-table dinners back in the States. For French standards, it was on the interpretive side, using French ingredients- bone marrow, rare steak, and carrots with a few unexpected international treats like almond and cardamom. Everything tasted meaty and simply adorned, with a crisp, tender texture.
Our final savory course was a cheese supplement, featuring cheeses aged by Maitresse Fromagere Madame Hisada. One was a Basque Cantal, a Comte, and an ash-coated chevre, accompanied by house-pickled red currants, olives, and thin, sushi-like shavings of cucumber. All were delicious, but with a little mixing and matching, I found myself spearing cubes of the buttery, grassy Cantal with a currant more than once.
Desserts were served together, starting with a lemon and bergamot curd atop a brown butter crust with soft and crispy meringues. The cookies were mixed on top, so one bite could be a fluffy, sweet puff of a mouthful, another, a crispy exterior yielding to citrine delight inside. Light, effervescent, and not too sweet, although the additional lime zest on top was a bit of a shock to the senses- the curd had an extremely concentrated flavor.
Our final dessert, decidedly more autumnal and reminiscent of the hectic pace of autumn as well. Pumpkin spice cake with Chai ice cream, walnut meringue pieces, carrot jelly, candied yuzu, whipped mascarpone, and salted caramel. For a dish with so much going on, it came together well, although frankly, I preferred to treat it as a fondue, using the dense pumpkin cake as a base for each component rather than tasting them all together. The carrot jelly, pure and unsweetened, was my favorite, along with the almost aggressively salted caramel. The perfect ending to such a seasonal meal.
Verjus is boldly going where no classic French restaurant has gone before- to the boundaries of Modern American cuisine! Its quiet ease and eclecticism causes it to stand above and beyond the stuffy three-course prix fixe menus on either side of the Tuileries. It is definitely somewhere I'd go back to, whether for a tasting menu or just a simple glass of wine.