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Le 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 fountain.

“The cafes 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.”

Le Grand Vefour’s Maitre d’ – Christian David - click to enlarge
Le Grand 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 this day.

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
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 desserts.

“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.”

Consequently, ravioli, 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. 

Christian David (second from left) flanked by Le Grand Vefour’s sommeliers - click to enlarge
Christian 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 disappoint.

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.”

Le Grand Vefour’s chef extraordinaire: Guy Martin - click to enlarge
Le Grand Vefour’s chef extraordinaire: Guy Martin
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
75001 Paris

Phone: (33) (01) 42 96 56 27

Closed Friday nights, Saturday and Sunday. Reservations must be made a month ahead of time for dinner, three weeks for lunch.

(Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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