Story and most photos by Manos Angelakis
Additional photos by the restaurants.
Set within a stately pavilion in the pastoral setting of the Bois de Boulogne, on the edge of Paris, Le Pré Catelan has held three Michelin-stars for many years.
It has been the domain of Gaston Lenôtre, with chef Frédéric Anton currently at the helm of the kitchen; it serves inventive haute gastronomie, and is one of the eating establishments that defined modern restaurant cuisine together with El Bulli of Ferran Adria, in Spain, and Combal dot Zero of Davide Sciabin, in Italy.
These restaurants exemplify great cooking at its best. The chefs love to experiment with unexpected combinations of prime ingredients and spectacular presentations. Add to those three a fourth, El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona near Barcelona, and a fifth, Redzepi’s Noma, in Copenhagen and you have the apex of creative gastronomy in Europe with originality and inspiration in presentation.
With the exception of El Bulli, which closed in 2011, I have been lucky enough to have eaten in the four others.
Le Pré Catelan was the very first creative restaurant I experienced and that was in the early ‘60s. The restaurant has been one of the city's top venues since 1856, renowned for its grand cuisine and extravagant setting offering à la carte menus with dishes staggering in their complexity and elegance. When I lived in Paris studying at the École des Arts Décoratifs, Le Pré Catelan was definitely out of the league and pocketbook of an aspiring artist, so when I was invited to dine there by a very affluent girlfriend it was with great trepidation that I accepted; I have to admit that I was utterly surprised by the quality of that dining experience.
It is one of the experiences that prompted me, after I retired from my career as advertising photographer, video producer/director and running a marketing company, to start eating in great restaurants whenever I can, and can afford.
Fast forward to 2005, and I was invited to a press trip to Turin (Torino). Barbara and I joined a group of US journalists to explore the city preparing for hosting the 2006 Olympics.
During that trip, we were lucky enough to meet Davide Sciabin at his restaurant Combal dot Zero. We spent 4 hours dining on unexpected dishes from his menus – at the time he offered three tasting menus and we tried dishes from both the classic menu and the territorial menu. The most memorable was the “cyber egg.” i.e. egg yolk with caviar and vodka served in a cellophane shell that diners slice with an exacto knife; and the mixture exploded in your mouth. Another memorable dish was the veal kidney, which had been slow cooked at a low temperature, served with cucumber, red onion and a sauce of champagne and gin.
Dining at El Celler de Can Roca was another long (about 5 hours) affair with unexpected dishes, but in this case the wines accompanying the meal were the stars. Every time I was invited by Wines of Catalonia to visit some of the best Catalan wineries, we ended up with a farewell dinner at the restaurant of the Roca brothers.
The restaurant has one of the best and most interesting cellars in Europe and, usually, they would set up for us and our hosts a table in the middle of the cellar and the top winemakers of Catalonia, who were our hosts, would bring gems from their personal wine collections to supplement the top wines that Josep Roca, who is in charge of the front of the house and also the “wine waiter”, would pair with the dishes that Joan Roca, the top toque, would dream up. Absolutely exceptional dishes paired with these wines. At those diners, I began to realize that the best pairings of food and wine are dishes created by a top chef (in this case, Joan Roca, a 3 Michelin-star chef) with the best wines of the same region. You can’t beat that combination!
Unfortunately, I have lost my pictures and notes from the Noma visit. As soon as I can return, I will be writing more about my experience there.
Since then I have eaten in numerous other Michelin-starred restaurants in the US, Europe and Asia but, the above formed my understanding of “creative” gastronomy by top and very imaginative chefs de cuisine. Some, like Rene Redzepi and Davide Sciabin, create dishes that are really “out there!” Others, like Joan Roca, Eneko Atxa and Dani Garcìa, take local cuisine and make masterpieces from those dishes. And the classics of French cuisine, like a great cassoulet, warm the heart as well as filling the stomach!
To your health!
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