A surreal element suddenly washes over me. We are seated in a crimson velvet banquette named after Joséphine de Beauharnais. The one beside us belongs to Napoleon Bonaparte. This is where they used to meet and exchange tactics. We clink our glasses of Taittinger Reserve Champagne, twice, once for our wedding anniversary, the other for finally dining at Guy Martin’s Le Grand Véfour.
This is our third attempt at securing a table at this opulent Parisian establishment located adjacent to the gardens of Palais Royal. The restaurant which has a seating capacity around 45 closes on weekends. We were either unsuccessful on previous attempts or I succumbed to a sudden illness and couldn’t eat for 24 hours. This time, it is real.
Le Grand Véfour may have lost a Michelin star since our last booking but the excitement of dining here hasn’t diminished. The establishment with decorative art of the eighteenth century has seen many political, artistic and literary figures for over 200 years. What was once the Café de Chartres is now part of the prestigious Relais et Châteaux group.
The brightly-lit opulent dining room is decorated in 18th century style with deep crimson velvet and elaborate murals. I count eleven wait staff circulating in the middle of the room, each assigned to his own task. But tonight, I am not here to observe, take notes or pull out my camera. And that is exactly the way to enjoy the stellar service and hospitality of Le Grand Véfour.
Chef Guy Martin, a native of the Savoie region in the Alps, is a self taught cook with previous experience at the prestigious Relais & Châteaux. He worked at the Château de Coudrée on Lake Geneva, then at Château de Divonne as chef and manager, before Claude Taittinger offered him the position of chef and manager at Le Grand Véfour in 1991. He was awarded the French Legion of Honour in March 2003.
We start with an unusual amuse bouche of orange biscuit with carrot salad and I am presented with the ladies menu, one that does not display the price, while Mr G studies his and la carte des vins.
What strikes me about the menu at first glance is the marriage of contemporary and traditional. I observe the choice of other diners and note the juxtaposed combination of modern and traditional cuisine and presentation. Coloured glass plates sit side by side with traditional Porcelaine de Limoge dinnerware bearing the restaurant’s logo. I don’t know what to make of this mélange and decide to order according to my taste.
Keeping with my motto of “if foie gras is on the menu, I order it”, I choose les ravioles de foie gras à l’émulsion de crème truffée for an entrée from the classical menu. The foie gras ravioli with truffled cream are thin pillows of pasta filled with a mixture of foie gras, minced cabbage and truffle oil, drizzled with a creamy mousse of truffles. The pasta is very delicate and the foie gras filling melts into my mouth.
Mr G decides to go all out for the occasion. He orders Caviar Osciètre à la cuillère, blinis à la farine de blé noir. The osiatera caviar arrives in its tin on a bed of ice and a spoonful is served on his plate with the accompanying blinis and a side of crème fraiche. The caviar is offered by serving, 10g for each, with the price adjusted accordingly. One tiny taste and he has ascended towards the culinary gods. He gracefully offers me a taste, and I join him in culinary heaven.
After studying the elaborate wine list, we consult with the sommelier and choose Château Cantenac Brown 2001, Grand Cru Classé, a Margaux red from Bordeaux is a great accompaniment to both our dishes. I never tire of observing sommeliers at work, the way they present the prized bottle, uncork it with a dexterous hand, sniff the cork and taste in a glass before it is presented to Mr G.
For the main course, I order Poitrine de volaille de Bresse, foie gras et trompettes-des-morts, guacamole, artichauts et topinambours. The chicken from Bresse is the best in France and my dish arrives served with rolled pieces of chicken, tender and flavoursome, enhanced by the subtle flavour of the foie gras and the trompettes mushrooms.
Mr G is served parmentier de queue de bœuf aux truffes. The morsel of oxtail topped with truffles meat almost disintegrates on contact and releases a burst of flavours. He clearly has chosen the better of the two dishes and for a moment, I wish I have ordered the same.
During the meal, Maître d’hôtel, Christian David, welcomes us personally at the table. Tall, charming and with a manner that is welcoming and relaxed, he recounts the history of Le Grand Véfour, in fluent in English for Mr G’s sake and directs us to the leaflet on the table for more information. I casually slip into the conversation that we are on a 5 week holiday to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary, with the trip culminating in Paris. He smiles and politely says, “Merci de nous avoir choisi.” He thanks us for having chosen Le Grand Véfour then moves on to the next table.
For a palate cleanser, we have a Pommegrenate Lychee sorbet, icy cold and very refreshing with a slight tang.
Next, a selection of cheeses, better known as La table des fromages fermiers de France et de Savoieis wheeled in on a large silver trolley and presented on silver trays. The selection is generous, with at least thirty cheeses ranging from the fresh to the aged. We had a similar experience when we hand lunch at Paul Bocuse in Mont aux Collonges d’Or, where three tables were set up beside ours with an array of cheese. We choose an aged chevre for its piquant flavour and Fourme d’Ambert, leaving enough room for dessert.
Mr G orders la crème brûlée aux artichauts, légumes confits, sorbet amandes amères. This is a crème brûlée unlike anything I have ever seen or tasted. It has a light pastry crust filled with artichokes, a confit of vegetables including carrots, fennel and celery with a side of sorbet of bitter almonds.
My dessert arrives with a small candle which Christian, the Maître d’hôtel, tells us to blow out and make a wish. He asks to take our photo as a memento of our celebration at the restaurant and we happily oblige.
Le palet noisette et chocolat au lait, glace au caramel brun et prise de sel de Guérande is too beautiful to eat but the lure of the hazelnut and chocolate and the salted caramel ice cream is too good to ignore. This is a dessert worthy of an encore, and, as much as I enjoyed the innovation of Mr G’s crème brûlée, I am too pleased with my choice of dessert.
Just when we think we could no longer eat, we are presented with Gateau de Savoie, which our waiter explains that these are obligatory slices of a sugary sponge cake that every customer at Le Grand Véfour must try as they come from Chef Guy Martin’s region. And when you are sitting in Josephine’s banquette, you don’t argue with tradition.
Coffee is accompanied by petit fours that include tiny chocolate tarts with gold leaf, mini macarons, chocolate truffles and sugared gelatin fruit presented on a silver tray. We end the evening with a 1986 Bas Armagnac La Courtoisie.
Christian David returns to our table for a chat ensuring everything to our satisfaction and presents us with a memento – our wedding anniversary photo taken in the banquette of Joséphine de Beauharnais.
Our experience at Le Grand Véfour is one that met all our culinary expectations from an establishment of that calibre. The level of service reminded us of our dinner at La Tour d’Argent, with a multitude of waiters, each with a specific task moving in synchrony while remaining unobtrusive to the enjoyment of the evening. The Maître d’hôtel’s welcoming and attentive nature made the experience more personal. It may have taken us three attempts to dine at Le Grand Véfour but what we took away upon leaving was more than a memorable meal, an unforgettable experience we keep for life.
Le Grand Véfour
17, rue de Beaujolais
Tel: +33 (0)1 42 96 56 27
Métro: Louvre-Palais-Royal or Pyramides
Reservations are required well in advance.
Closed Saturday and Sunday with annual closing dates.
For more suggestions on where to eat in Paris, don’t miss our Paris Restaurant and Bistro Guide.