Grand Vefour: A Timeless Parisian Treasure
The topic was Paris, and
the conversation had gone from art to fashion to food when someone
mentioned Le Grand Vefour. At that, a friend, who had lived in France
some years ago, fell into a spell of recollection, recounting in
specific and blissful detail the time she had dined at this storied
restaurant. Le Grand Vefour will have such an effect on people.
|Meals can be memorable, restaurants can leave lasting
impressions. Still Le Grand Vefour remains in a class by itself
whose value exceeds even its coveted three star-Michelin rating.
Encompassing more than 200 years of French history, it projects
a quality of timelessness; its servers and sommeliers, its
matire d’ and chef seem to regard themselves as loving
custodians of a treasure temporarily entrusted to their care.
This much is articulated by
Christian David, Le Grand Vefour’s youthful maitre d’, whose
aristocratic bearings and sensitive good looks evoke a member of the
court of Louis XIV. The association is not far off. The Sun King
actually grew up in the adjacent Palais Royale which was completed just
around the time Le Café Chartres opened on the site in 1784.
||The windows still overlook the palace gardens, its colorful
flower beds enclosed by tall hedges. Once a scene of fervent
political activity as debaters spilled into the courtyard beyond
from the many cafes lodged in its colonnaded arcade, now it is a
reposeful site where people sun themselves beside a splashing
disappeared,” Christian David tells us as if he were relating family
history, “but Le Café de Chartres became a luxurious restaurant, and
in the years after the Revolution, it attracted the most illustrious
people: Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine, the king of Napoli who was the
brother in law of Napoleon, Voltaire, Fragonard
-- they all dined there.
“During the Restoration,
the restaurant was bought by Jean Vefour who sold it after only four
years. But he had renamed it for himself, and the name stayed. Through
the Second Empire, the Belle Epoque, into the twentieth century, Le
Grand Vefour was at the center of Parisian society. Then around the time
of the First World War, its importance declined. After the liberation of
Paris, however, it was purchased by the owner of Maxim’s who turned it
over to Raymond Oliver, one of the great chefs, who ran Le Grand Vefour
from 1948 to 1983 and restored it to its former glory. Today it is owned
by the Taittinger family.”
Vefour’s Maitre d’ – Christian David
|Sipping a glass of Taittinger pink champagne on a June
afternoon in the year 2002 and taking in the 18th
century décor of the bustling dining room with mirrored walls,
classical figures painted on glass pillars, bold floral carpets,
and vases abundant with golden gladioli atop gilded Empire
furnishings, the past seemed as real as the present. How easy it
was to imagine fabled Le Grand Vefour regulars down the decades
of two centuries dining among the hundred or so people assembled
There at a table near the
windows is Victor Hugo proclaiming on behalf of Les
Miserables. Up in the
balcony, George Sand reminisces
about her winter in Mallorca with Frederic Chopin. Colette, at her
regular place, is boldly asserting the joys of female sexuality while
Andre Malraux, across the way, is pondering man’s fate. And all the
others: Alexander Dumas, Henri Balzac, Jean Cocteau, Jean Christophe,
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, a virtual legion of legendary
writers, philosophers, artists, and statesmen – whose presence is
memorialized on brass nameplates affixed to the back of red velvet
banquettes. Their spirits seem to be hovering everywhere.
Such reverie was summarily
broken by the appearance of tiny white cups filled with a chilled soup
of goat cheese and lobster, the delicious blend being a swift reminder
of what had brought us to Le Grand Vefour in the first place. And so we
turned to a menu that, resisting the pressures of a global economy, is
solely in French – although the amiable staff, all fluent in English,
stand at the ready to explain and explicate.
An amuse bouche: chilled soup of lobster and
goat cheese - click to enlarge
|If moments before we were lost in the past, we were now
suddenly thrust into the future contemplating such cutting-edge
combinations as vanilla with endives; lamb with juice of
coffee-chocolate, aromatic oil, and goat cheese; veal and
artichokes with olives in orange blossom water, vegetable-based
“The basis of cooking
remains the same; the conception will never change. But lifestyles have
changed leading us to a different way of thinking and a different way of
making,” Christian David told us. “As cooking has become much
lighter, the combination of flavors has become more important than
before. We have rediscovered spices. We have never eaten so well in
France. It is much healthier.”
topped with truffles and filled with fresh foie gras, had been lightly
poached in a white emulsion
with no fat added to the sauce of this richly flavorful dish, a
specialty of Le Grand Vefour’s. An appetizer portion of lobster mated
with a single shrimp tempura and accompanied by a colorful mélange of
tomatoes, onions, radishes, and cucumbers was uniquely flavored with
fresh ginger. A spoonful of Osetra caviar came with a feather-light
farina and corn blini.
Tender and succulent lobster roasted and stuffed with yellow peppers
was served out of the shell along with a delicate risotto whose piquancy
came from grapefruit slices and a hot balsamic sauce.
||Turbot was roasted with lemon; langoustine came with slivers
of radishes, mushrooms, zucchini, and eggplant in a crust, a
delightful contrast in textures. Not only was each dish
delectable, it was beautiful to behold, artistically arranged
with an eye to color and form on a square platter of frosted
glass or a plate of creamy Limoges porcelain.
“People come to France,
they want French wines,” one of the three friendly and informed
sommeliers told us as he presented Le Grand Vefour’s very extensive
wine list. True, we thought, rapidly skimming over the limited selection
of Californians et al. Still, the choice was staggering. Regions all
over France were represented with a preponderance of Bordeaux and Burgundies.
David (second from left) flanked by Le
Grand Vefour’s sommeliers
|Overwhelmed, we turned to the expert, and were rewarded with
an exquisite 1999 white Burgundy from the Domaine Borgeot of
Santenay. Having been aged in oak for one year, this light and
dry Chardonnay, distinctive for being a white Grand Cru, had a
lovely aroma that combined the floral and fruity and was a
perfect accompaniment to our fish courses.
The cheese trolley bore two
silver trays with well ordered and manifold choices, some -- like the
muenster -- familiar, others -- like a sheep cheese from Corsica -- new.
Again, we submitted to a Le Grand Vefour professional who did not
Which gave us the courage
to forego the traditional desserts we adore in favor of those that push
the envelope like the artichoke tart – actually a crème
brulee whose crust covered a pan- fried artichoke and glazed carrots,
fennel, and celery that had the consistency of spun sugar. Served
with a milk almond sorbet, this combination of unexpected flavors with
contrasting smooth and crunchy textures was one superlative dessert as
was a chocolate mousse on a hazelnut pastry that came with caramel ice
cream seasoned with sea salt, and a white cheese cake made with
coriander and mangoes.
“How do you invent such
things?” we asked Guy Martin.
“I try,” he says, his
modest demeanor belying a reputation as one of Paris’ most popular and
talked about chefs. “We use the best products from all over France.
Good healthful products. Good for the heart, good for the mind. And
cooking is evolving more and more. It keeps changing every day.”
Vefour’s chef extraordinaire:
|Guy Martin, who was born near Mont Blanc, came to Le Grand
Vefour eleven years ago, only two days before the Paris-born
Christian David arrived. “The restaurant had two stars at that
time,” Christian David says. “We wanted to bring it up to
the three star level it had when Raymond Oliver was here.
“Guy Martin and I had the
same vision, the same imagery. For one thing, we wanted a changed
attitude, one that was welcoming, that made people comfortable. For
another, we realized that cooking has become more complicated, more
challenging, and we prepared ourselves for the challenge.
“We have come back to
three stars,” he added with a conspiratorial wink, “and now we are
working for the next one.”
Le Grand Vefour
17, Rue Beaujolais
Phone: (33) (01) 42 96 56
Closed Friday nights,
Saturday and Sunday. Reservations must be made a month ahead of time for
dinner, three weeks for lunch.
(Photos by Harvey
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About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights