PARIS – It is the only restaurant where French singer Serge Gainsbourg actually agreed to wear a tie -- even if the knot was loosely tied down the middle of his chest.
Today, you don’t need a tie to get a table, but a jacket is mandatory, even for Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. When Vladimir Putin was invited to lunch late last year by former French Prime Minister François Fillon, he asked to eat in a “typical French restaurant.” He was naturally taken to Taillevent, where he had a fillet of sole with a side of cauliflower mousseline (a light puree) and drank a Coche-Dury Meursault wine from Burgundy.
Taillevent embodies the famous French service – an endangered species. This is the restaurant that inspired the movie Ratatouille. Pixar’s scriptwriters reproduced the restaurant in all its details, going as far to ask Jean-Marie Ancher – the restaurant’s director since 1975 – to lend his voice. With his French accent of course!
The restaurant is located in the former Parisian town house of the Duke of Morny, Napoleon III’s half-brother, near the Champs Elysees. Along with Lasserre, La Tour d’Argent, Laurent and Ledoyen, Taillevent is one of the last authentic “restaurateur houses.” You don’t come here for the chef, who is just one of the many players, but for the whole gastronomy experience: the service, the decor, the atmosphere and the art of being a good host, which needs to be refined and subtle, something that makes eating in a restaurant a pleasure and not an ordeal. The ballet of the restaurant’s swallow-tailed waiters is quite a sight.
“Over the last 20 years, the art of service has almost disappeared in most restaurants,” explains Jean-Marie Ancher.
“It’s hard to find qualified staff and the chefs want to control their dishes from A to Z," Ancher continues. "Up on their pedestal, they have taken away from the maitres d’, what used to be part of their job: carving the poultry, preparing the sauces, flambeing the crepes suzette, setting the plates, decanting the wine, presenting the cheese cart… Everything that made a restaurant into a theatrical performance.”
Dexterity and skill for a carefully choreographed spectacle
To carve poultry in front of the client requires experience, practice on dozens of ducks, chicks and other birds. “The trick,” says Franck Bruneau, a new recruit from Lasserre, “is to find the nerve at the juncture of the thigh and to elegantly sever it, without any bits flying out. Flambeing a crepe suzette is also a ritual that requires dexterity. You need to pour exactly the right amounts of cognac, Grand Marnier, orange juice and melted butter while keeping the flame under control… an accident can happen very quickly!”
Taillevent’s 23 waiters and 18 cooks perform a new show every day, sticking to a precise script, but where there is still a little room for improvisation. According to Alain Soliveres, the kitchen head, few restaurants are able to pull off such a performance: “there needs to be a complete trust between the dining room and the kitchen staff. There can be no cheating: we show the products as they are, in their original beauty, like the semi-wild duck roasted in spices or the blue lobster in a pastry-sealed casserole dish.”
The cuisine of this discreet chef from the Languedoc region in southwest France, is a “cook’s cuisine,” tasty and elevating, deceptively classic. Alain Soliveres is ever present. He keeps an eye on every dish and doesn’t just wipe a quick dishcloth on the rim of the plate. “I like strong flavors, spit-roasted meat, braising, frying, game meat, morel mushrooms, asparagus...”
Taillevent is also known for its love of wine. Andre Vrinat, who founded the restaurant in 1946 and his son Jean-Claude (who died in 2008) were the first restaurateurs in Paris to offer other wine regions than the classics from Bordeaux – notably wines from Burgundy. It has about 3,000 different wines in its cellar, under the responsibility of two passionate sommeliers: Pierre Berot and Stephane Jan.
Aside from the most prestigious wines – Chateau Latour, Patrus, Romanae-Conti – and the impossible to obtain –Coche-Dury, Raveneau, Grange des Peres – you can also find less known wines, which are sure to become tomorrow’s favorites, like the Domaine Guiberteau, Maxime Graillot, Cecile Tremblay or Jo Sergi.