Friday, 7 June 2013

Camélia, Paris (by Badoit)

There are advantages and disadvantages in unshakeable self-belief. The certainty that you are the best in a particular field surely (I wouldn't know, but I'm guessing) gives you the confidence to push further and in more radical directions than others not blessed with such convictions. For chefs, not normally a group of people known for their insecurities, self-belief allows greater levels of experimentation and risk-taking, but crucially also the ability to convince others along for the ride with you, particularly important if you're leading a large kitchen team and can't realise your vision on your own.

But there's often a fine line between confidence and self-delusion. I wonder whether the same drive and determination that allowed Marco Pierre White to win two Michelin stars in a poky restaurant on Wandsworth Common in the mid 90s, also led him to believe that endorsing a mass-market stock cube would be a positive step forward for his career, and not (as it turns out) an embarrassing blot on the CV of a once-great chef. Or whether the ego and energy that comes with the intergalactic talent of some young chefs in London is also the reason they all-too-easily get the hump and abandon ship when they feel their genius isn't adequately rewarded.

Thierry Marx is an extremely talented chef. There's little doubt of that, or of his CV, which glitters with Michelin stars as far back as 1988. He is currently head chef at not one but two restaurants in the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, the 2-star tasting-menu-only Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx and the "more informal" (these things are all relative) Camélia next door, to which I was very kindly invited along with a couple of other bloggers and journalists earlier this week. We were there as the guests of Badoit sparkling water, a brand well-known on the continent but which is just now making tentative inroads into the UK.

Objectively, and I'm not just saying this because they've just bought me lunch in Paris, Badoit is a very nice product. Naturally carbonated (astonishing as it seems, it actually emerges from the ground already fizzy), not as overwhelmingly bubbly as Perrier or as medicinally-mineralised as Vichy Catalan, it has everything you'd want from a table water, and I can see it doing very well over here. What was more interesting however, to me at least, was how Marx was pushing it as an indispensable kitchen ingredient, with magical properties to speed up the cooking of vegetables while retaining flavour and colour. Lunch at Camélia would prove whether he was on to something.

I don't think, in all my years flouncing around posh restaurants at home and abroad, I've ever seen a more exquisitely presented set of dishes than the starters at Camélia. Try, if you can, to look past my useless food photography skills and imagine how much more impressive they would have been up close. There's the crab in daikon wrap, a cylinder of utter geometric precision, topped with spheres and stalks of pickles like an Ascot ladies' hat. There's a fan of salmon tataki, measured so as to match up in a perfect circle, expertly mimicking the Mandarin hotel's logo. There's an oblong of paté de foie gras, edges and corners sharp enough to have been forged from iron, topped and tailed by shocking red gelée of Garriguette strawberries so correctly cut it resembled something from a fine Parisian patisserie. And there was my lobster dish, with vegetables turned and tweaked and arranged on the plate like some magical miniature forest. Gasps and coos spilled around the table as they arrived, each dish more spectacular than the next.

And then we started eating, and silence slowly descended like a yuzu-infused fog. It wasn't that any of the food was inedible, or even particularly unpleasant, it's just that the taste of any of it couldn't hope to live up to the standards set by the presentation even if it had been near perfect, and near-perfect it most definitely wasn't. The vegetables in my lobster dish were fridge-cold, and brought down the extravagantly-poured bisque to their temperature before I'd taken a second bite. The immaculate-looking gelée under the crab, too, was chilly, and infused with that kind of unpleasant jumble of organic odours spent from too long sat absorbing other members of cold storage.

More generally, though, the complaints were about underseasoning. A foie gras could have been less like window putty with just a touch more salt, ditto a sea bream tartar, ditto the crab, ditto a couple of bright green sticks of asparagus. The lobster, I should say, and despite its faults, was seasoned perfectly, and there was elsewhere enough to enjoy not to make the whole course a waste of time, but it's fair to say we expected more.

Mains, interestingly, flashed more frequently with genius despite having generally a much more subdued presentation. My own pigeon and foie gras was, in all regards, a triumph, each element singing in harmony, from the pink bird to the ethereally-light foie to the stalks of charred white asparagus beneath. And a very sloppy-looking turbot dish was even more impressive, a better bit of fish I doubt I've ever had before in my life, offered Japanese-style with the powerfully-flavoured fin-edge meat separately to marvel at.

But a tranche of "Farmer's" chicken breast was underseasoned, and its relative lack of flavour made the strange gel-like substance it was wrapped in that much more challenging to plough through, despite the confit leg meat being very good indeed. And a huge risotto-stuffed squid body was dense and samey and incredibly hard work, presented with a tentacle that was so stubbornly unyielding (overcooked? Undercooked?) it couldn't even be swallowed.

Later that afternoon, Thierry Marx proudly demonstrated how he cooked the vegetable starter using no seasoning other than Badoit's natural mineral salts. Blanched in the sparkling water for half the amount of time (we were told) that it would normally take to do such things, he then spoke about how the spent asparagus water could be used in other dishes and how as little as possible was wasted. "I give each of my chefs just two bottles each to last them all service" he said, pre-empting anyone who was about to wonder out loud if cooking asparagus in premium sparkling mineral water was why they felt they could charge €34 for two sticks of them.

But you know what those asparagus could have done with? A bit more salt. As could many of the dishes we tried at Camélia, and I can't help wondering whether cooking vegetables in Badoit is really the best use of the product, or just the result of a big-name chef with a sponsorship deal letting his imagination run away with him and nobody having the nerve to tell him that actually, salted tapwater might work better. Still, he seemed happy enough with the result so who am I to judge.

Back in Blighty, and the Badoit bandwagon rolls up to Soho Square next Thursday (13th) lunchtime, where as part of the awareness campaign, M. Marx has designed a menu for a "picnic restaurant" called Badoit Express. Fred Sirieix of Galvin @ Windows is arranging the service, so for that reason alone it's bound to be an enjoyable afternoon, and I look forward to tucking into a nice cold glass of Badoit in the Soho sun (fingers crossed). As for the food, perhaps the more informal environs of a picnic will showcase his talents better than the prim, plain and polished demands of a Michelin-gazing Parisian 5-star hotel restaurant, or perhaps even I'll have some kind of conversion to the benefits of Badoir-bathed asparagus. Just in case though, and I mean no offence to anybody, I may smuggle in a salt shaker.


Lunch at Camélia, plus Eurostar there and back, kindly provided by Badoit & We Are Social


Alex C said...

Hi Chris

Love the review but have to take issue with you over Badoit. It is utterly foul. Greasy, slightly salty and tasting slightly of diesel, it shouldn't be allowed anywhere near decent food. Why is it that when a restaurant had Badoit it's the only sparkling water they serve?
It's quite a sad thing to whine about but it's so repellent I usually make some sort of a fuss about it when there isn't an alternative. At least somebody like it - but you'd be the first I've come across though.


Unknown said...

Sorry, I'm going to have to disagree. I love Badoit. There is nothing finer for rehydrating post hangover..

Chris Pople said...

Alex C: Other opinions are always available of course :) but I like it and judging by the reaction on Twitter (a self-selecting sample admittedly) people seem to be split 80/20 like/dislike. If you are in the dislike camp though, in a restaurant I can see why the lack of alternative would be annoying.

As I say, it's a sort of middle-ground between the powerfully carbonated Perrier and the super-salty Vichy style. Don't get the greasy/diesel thing at all.

Donald: I wonder if you could make a Mojito with it...?

Alex C said...

Fair enough - I'd always assumed someone must like it for it to be served so much. Give me Highland Spring (Actually most of the UK brands) or San Pellegrino any day.


Unknown said...

I love Badoit, it's my favourite sparkling mineral water. I'm often disappointed that it's not readily available in restaurants.
Re cooking asparagus in Badoit: I'm a total salt fiend, but felt that the asparagus cooked in Badoit worked very well, and one didn't miss the salt too much.
It certainly retained it's colour and vibrancy.
The rest of the food though, as you say, was exquisitely presented, showing off Thierry's five years in Japan, but had little flavour. I had a ceviche style starter, which looked gorgeous, but it had no lime, no salt, no zing.
A pity.

Henry Jeffreys said...

Badoit is my favourite too. I love the gentle effervescence . It's been available over here for quite some time. Oddbins stocked in when I worked there 99/00; it's long been the water of choice for wine bores. Apparently the version available in the US is carbonated so American sommeliers like to stock up on the European version

Great post. thank you

Douglas said...

I went there a while back. Did you meet Adrian Moore, the concierge at the hotel? (@majormoore) Served Badoit at a dinner party on Friday. No one else wanted it. They walked to the tap in protest.

Douglas said...

PS. You were wrong about the asparagus dish. Unequivocally. Says Ms. M.