La Chèvre d’Or, Eze

October 30, 2008

When Linda and I first started to travel to the Côte d’Azur, over thirty years ago, La Chèvre d’Or was a prime attraction. Its romantic, gorgeous setting was unequalled. Its cuisine and its ambience were perfect for tourists. But over the next few years, as we learned what restaurants in France in all categories should be, we concluded that La Chèvre d’Or was a pretentious, overpriced tourist trap. We had not been there for over fifteen years, even though it is only a ten minute drive, plus a ten minute walk, from our house. 

So what changed our mind? We were surprised when the 2000 Michelin Guide awarded La Chèvre d’Or a second star, but we knew other two-star restaurants in the area which we did not consider worthy of the award. The second star was confirmed in 2003 when Philippe Labbé took over as chef. Then we were amazed when the 2008 Michelin Guide designated it as an “espoir,” or promising candidate for a third star. But we still didn’t believe it enough to go. Then, this week the 2009 Gault-Millau, France’s second restaurant guide,  awarded La Chèvre d’Or a rating of 19/20, placing it among the very best restaurants in France. Its rating is higher than Le Louis XV, Le Meurice, Régis Marcon, Pic, Le Cinq, Taillevent, L’Espérence or Georges Blanc. The writeup says that Philippe Labbé is “le chef le plus ensourcelant, le plus imaginatif, le plus scintillant du moment.” That is to say that he is the most enchanting, the most imaginative, the most sparkling current chef. Wow!
So on October 23, 2008, we drove the ten minutes from our house up to the perched village of Eze; we walked up to the old walls and through the narrow stone streets that seemed very romantic in the quiet of the autumn evening. Our welcome was a bit formal. We declined a stop in the piano bar and went up to the dining room where we were seated at a table with a view west along the coast as far as the lights of Antibes. While the view was great, the table had the disadvantage of being near the rumble of the automatic door, which, added to the disco thump of the inappropriate music, made me think that a thunderstorm was arriving. It is not obvious why we, and another diner, were seated near the door as there were only seven diners that evening; five were American.  (They must be seeking a wider clientèle as the website has versions in French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Russian.)
 
The waitress suggested Dom Perignon or Krug Champagne for apéritif at 35€ a glass. The alternatives were almost as pricy so we chose the Krug, which was very nice, of course. One has a choice between the Menu Dégustation, Aux saveurs de la Riviera, at 210€ or à la carte. (There is a 95€ menu at lunch.) We ordered the tasting menu and a bottle of 1995 Domaine Tempier Cabassaou, the same red Bandol we had enjoyed so much at the nearby Hostellerie Jérôme a week before.
 
Three hors d’oeuvres arrived: a thin potato crisp, a piece of salmon sushi with gooey rice and a lot of wasabe and a little cone with lemon and parmesan.

The amuse-gueule was three little chard ravioli with a walnut sauce. They were excellent and very regional.

The first dish from the menu was
LES NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES
En carpaccio de marinade acidulée au parfum de mangue-passion,
alibi pour du caviar en salade relevée de touches de goûts.

Japanese restaurants are very careful about using scallops in their sushi or sashimi. When they do, the scallops are very fresh and have just been opened. Even then, the flavor is subtle and the texture gooey, appreciated by real sushi fans. But this was actually closer to a popular version of raw scallops: ceviche. The lime juice and a modest dose of chili bring out the flavor of the scallops and firm up the meat. Unfortunately the mango-passion fruit vinaigrette did not do the job here and the gooey scallop slices had little flavor. The caviar dabs and the bed of frisée lettuce had flavors, but they had no logical relationship to each other in the absence of participation from the slices of raw scallops.

Second 
LE FOIE GRAS DE CANARD DU SUD-OUEST
Rôti et poché au maïs éclaté en bouillon double goûteux, recouvert d’une barbe à papa.


This dish was presented as a half-sphere of cotton candy crust. The sauce was poured over, somewhat collapsing it, as you can see in the top photo. The bottom photo shows the piece of foie gras swimming in the “tasty bouillon” which washed out any crisp caramelization it might have had. The menu says: “maïs éclaté,” which means popcorn, but the only thing that had popped here was the top of the can from which the corn kernels came. The whole dish was too sweet and cloying.

Third 
LE LOUP DE MEDITERRANEE
Cuisiné sur un teppanyaki en délicate gelée d’endives et truffe, jus truffé.
Etuvée d’endives à la truffe d’automne.


The quality of the Mediterranean sea bass was excellent. The menu says it was cooked on a teppanyaki, which is the kind of flat hot iron grill one finds at Behihana. But, although flattened, it seemed steamed to me, which is a much better way to cook this delicate fish. The two checkerboards of endive and truffle jellies were very pretty, but with the base of diced vegetables and the brown sauce the whole dish was much too complicated for a fine piece of fresh fish. Alongside was a nice braised endive in a foam with a tasteless slice of truffle on top that added an image of luxury.

Fourth 
LE VEAU DE LAIT DE DORDOGNE
Morceaux de côte cubiques rôtis en cromesquis de beurre d’herbes tendres,
au jus de noisettes torréfiées, terrine de champignons des bois.

This piece of milk-fed veal was quite nice. Like the fish, it had been flattened and squared. The wild mushrooms and hazelnuts were appropriate, but submerged in the veal glaze and the general over-complexity of the dish.

Fifth 
NOS FROMAGES FRAIS AFFINES
Choisis pour vous et selon la saison

 
The large cheese tray was excellent with a wide variety that all seemed to be in perfect condition.

Sixth was a predessert that was not on the menu.
BABA AU RHUM


Each plate had two slices of baba on top of a round of braised pineapple. We chose which rum we wanted and a measure was poured on the babas. One then was then topped with crème chantilly and the other with crème chantilly with crème patisserie added. It was too sweet to set up the palate for the dessert.

Seventh 
LA POIRE WILLIAMS
Caramélisée, chocolat, farcie, étuvée dans son jus en feuillantine.


This dessert was three different presentations of pear with chocolate. It was interesting, but too sugary.

 

The Mignardises were
 
a raspberry and an olive oil macaroon and chocolate lollipops. Savory macaroons are very trendy nowadays, but even this olive oil one was very sweet.

One of the mysteries of this menu is why it is called “Les Saveurs du Riviera.” Aside from the fact that “Riviera” is an Italian and English, but not French, word, the only dish based on local cuisine was the excellent amuse-gueule, the chard ravioli with a walnut sauce. As you can tell from my comments above, I thought that all the cuisine was too complicated and fussy. A big trend nowadays in restaurant criticism is whether the chef shows proper “respect for the product,” that is in its procurement and freshness, a recipe that brings out the essence of its flavor and an appetizing presentation which does not hide it. This meal was a failure in that. Only the cheese tray presented the product at its best. So we still feel, as we have for over fifteen years, that La Chèvre d’Or is a pretentious, overpriced tourist trap.

So how can it be that our opinion is so very different from that of the two top restaurant guides in France? I am not a general critic of the Michelin France Guide, which I use a lot. When the guides came under a lot of fire a few years ago after the suicide of Bernard Loiseau, Paul Bocuse calmed things down when he said that without the guides no one would be willing to come and pay the high prices the top chefs have to charge. But there have been extraordinary lapses here. Michelin renewed Jacques Maximin’s two stars after the restaurant had become pitiable. The New York Michelin Guide made itself look ridiculous this year by not including Eleven Madison Park or Aquavit in its stars. The 2009 Gault-Millau ecstatic review of the Chèvre d’Or lists a dozen dishes, none of which were in the tasting menu, so their experience was undoubtedly different from ours. Perhaps the guides’ inspectors at the Chèvre d’Or are afraid of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes when people are willing to spend so much money there. Or perhaps our opinion is just not shared by them. 

 

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