Restaurant Le Cinq – Paris

What’s the most enjoyable AND irresponsible thing we’ve done without going to jail? 

Or:

Food! We “need it” to “keep living”, but how seriously should that stuff really be taken?

Backstory

I found these unreasonably cheap tickets to Paris from Seattle – cheaper than I’d ever seen before. And by lucky coincidence the dates of travel fell across Nura’s birthday! I immediately bought them without consulting her, which was…questionable. So to cover my ass this became a “surprise” trip to Paris. Because I’m so thoughtful.

Logistically it wasn’t all that difficult; Nura’s COO is in my morning yoga class and he did me a real solid by coordinating her PTO and coverage for the dates she was to be out. We love traveling without a heavy itinerary, so planning was straightforward; I just looked for a centrally located hotel, and maybe a nice dinner reservation for her birthday evening.

However, to me at any rate, the best part of trips like these has almost nothing at all to do with actually traveling. It’s the anticipation of the adventure – having something to look forward to whenever my mind begins to wander; it’s a bright light at the end of a long tunnel (that isn’t a train). And actually, even better than that is sharing the anticipation with someone else.

I found myself stalling on planning the details until I could tell Nura what was happening. Also, she’s got a much better sense for these things than I do, and I really wanted the help. I told her Christmas morning, but we still didn’t make the dinner reservations from home. The idea became to walk around and “know it when we see it”.

Which is exactly what we did. After a good long walk one day, and finding ourselves outside a restaurant we have some odd history with, it seemed only reasonable to ask (again) if they had an opening on short notice. Just like last time, they did. Only this time we didn’t ruin anybody’s evening. Score. It’s great then that we could come full circle with this spot, and a real bonus that the reservation was actually for the evening of Nura’s birthday.

Where on earth to begin:

Fear. You know those terrible commercials where a “foodie” is caught enjoying Chicken McNuggets or some shit after thinking they’re at a fancy restaurant? I was afraid I was going to be the punchline of a cruel joke.

Unfounded! It’s like this; a smart person can explain a really complex concept to another smart person, but struggles when talking to a layman. A genius can explain those same concepts to children without misrepresenting the core ideas.

In this case, we were the children, the genius was the chef with his own Wiki page, and the concept was celebrating what makes French cuisine special; the variety of ingredients, the sophisticated techniques, and the feelings those things together can conjure.

Another concern I had was how super apparent it would be that we “didn’t belong” in that world, and just being there would ruin the evening for other patrons more “qualified” than we. Groucho Marx once said “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”, and that kept echoing through my head as our reservation date approached.

And while in fact I did not meet the dress code (I didn’t bring a dinner jacket to Paris), they lent me one that looked great (and according to Nura, I was not the only guy in the restaurant to be issued one).

Also, turns out that a customer is a customer. At least one other table had their phones out, taking selfies and snaps of every dish. Animals.

What did we eat?

In the days leading up to the reservation, Nura and I debated what we should order. We saw the menu with all the appetizers, mains, deserts, etc. that sounded interesting, but we didn’t want to go all that way just to order the “wrong thing”. In the end we both chose the Tasting Menu and let the chef share a full and coherent story with us.

This was absolutely the right choice, but for a reason that I didn’t anticipate: By getting the same thing we shared an experience – something that’s normally delightful yet unnecessary – but in this case was actually important. Since so much of what we were tasting was completely unfamiliar, only by having the same thing would we be able to relate to one another’s experience.

Put another way, each of the nine courses were so novel to us that only by having the same thing could we even talk about what just happened.

Well, I say nine courses because THEY said nine courses. They’re liars. The desert “course” was actually four different dishes, (including a bonus thing because it was Nura’s birthday), and they started us with an amuse-bouche that wasn’t on the menu. I think I counted 13 plates to cross our table, not including the variety of unbelievably delicious dinner breads, and the boxes of chocolates they sent us home with.

That somewhat brings me to another concern I had going into this meal – that all the courses would be so dainty that we’d leave broke AND hungry.

Partially unfounded. The dishes were in fact quite small, but that’s because the flavors were so intense. We both agreed that any more of a given plate would have been too much, that the story of each was fully told in the portions provided. And there were so many courses that we struggled to finish the last few, though the desire burned.

So, a tremendous variety of things came across the table. Each being the very best of that thing I ever had. The most delicious meat, cheese, fish, prawn, scallop, mushroom, chocolate, etc. I could never have imagined eating. 

One of the commonalities of each course were the contrasts that held each dish together. If the fish was soft and flakey, there was something crunchy in every bite. If the scallops were served warm, there was a chilled condiment on top. The lamb was hearty, so there was an emulsified horseradish sauce to cut into the meat. And actually, that dish came with goji berries and actual charcoal to add a variety of tastes and textures. There was always so much happening in very bite.

Another commonality was how visually appealing everything was. Each plate was given as much thought to its arrangement as was given to the flavor. Each plate was, by itself, more of an art than I’ll ever be able to make.

How about the service?

The evening was equal parts food and atmosphere, which included the best most orchestrated service we’ve ever had. There were no fewer than six people assigned to the two of us; six professional servers anticipating our every move. Here’s how that roster shook out:

  • Head waiter (for Nura)
  • Second waiter (for me)
  • Sommelier
  • Water
  • Bread
  • Food runner

For every course that our runner brought out, the servers would simultaneously lay the plates down (always serving from the right side), and on some silent cue remove the bells from our dishes. After every course, the servers would simultaneously reach in to remove the plates and all silverware on the table. The plates would be put on a tray near-ish to us, and our runner would come back out to take away the tray while the Second would clear away any crumbs left behind. Then the silverware would be reset, specifically for the next dish, and always on a perfectly neat and clean table.

The courses were served serially, so if we were too busy giggling at how good everything was, or taking pictures of all the stuff, or when our head server escorted Nura to the bathroom, the kitchen would slow down on our course preparation. Timing was never less than perfect. 

Our team of servers would pause when approaching us if we were mid-conversation. They would wait patiently with their backs to us (so not to hurry us along) until they heard a lull. Then they would swoop in to do whatever we were blocking then from doing – refilling water, bread, dropping off the next course, etc.

Imagining Downton Abbey (before that whole war thing) or Titanic (before that whole iceberg thing) will give a startlingly accurate rendering of what we experienced for three hours from our 8:00 dinner reservation.

Here’s something I didn’t see coming: Everybody, in addition to being stellar servers, were also really funny – really entertaining. We had such a great time talking to everyone there, and I never got the sense that we were being patronized.

Was it worth it?

Easy answer – very much yes! It would be reasonable (not the right word), or at least understandable, for a whole vacation to be planned around that evening. Flights, hotels, everything all rolled together, including the final bill, was absolutely worth the experience.

But it’s just as easily said that it was completely unnecessary. It didn’t add a much needed perspective to my life, it didn’t reorient my goals, I’m certainly not a different person because of it.

What it did do was allow us to experience first hand how a genius thinks and feels, and we saw what pursuing a profession to a terminal degree looks like. For those things I really am grateful.

Something else it did was to set an unusual precedent for what we’re willing to spend on a meal. It also unlocked a further echelon of experience to be aware of. If in our lives we continue to be very fortunate, someday I could see a trip planned specifically to visit another restaurant of this caliber; wouldn’t it be amazing to fly to Monaco or Macau, Spain or San Francisco, and experience a different vision of that thing we keep doing everyday to not die.

One of the pictures our server took of “us”

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