Why Ask For the Moon When Le Grand Véfour Already Has Three Stars?

After years of neglect and decline, Le Grand Véfour, under chef Guy Martin, reclaims its place as the great restaurant of Paris.

Imagine being handed control of the most sanctified restaurant in Paris, an historic landmark that until recently was run by a chef renowned over his 35-year tenure for the quality of his cooking and the sophistication of his clientele. You, on the other hand, are not yet 35 years old, the native of an Alpine village (population 20), and completely self-taught. How do you attract new customers without alienating older ones?

That was the position of Guy Martin, who in November of 1991 became the executive chef of Le Grand Véfour. Made famous by Raymond Oliver in the decades following World War II as a rarefied writers' hangout and gourmet shrine, Le Grand Véfour has been serving food beneath the arches of the Palais-Royal since before the Revolution. Its decor, which dates from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, is a national monument. Entering such hallowed premises, surely you must tread softly.

I should have known better even before I met Martin, a boyishly handsome man, now 44, with an irrepressibly tousled head of hair above his crisp chef's whites. I should have known just from the spirit of the restaurant—as relaxed and gracious within its starchy outfit as its youthful director. Still, when I ask Martin how many of Oliver's dishes he retained, I'm startled by his response: "One." The pigeon Prince Rainier III—an unabashed wallow in luxury in which a pigeon, deboned, is stuffed with foie gras, black truffles, and veal forcemeat. "But it's not exactly the same recipe. I changed it a little." Didn't he worry that a radical break with the past would put off regulars? On the contrary. "There is much support for the menu," he says.

He smiles slightly at the understatement. The support has been so enthusiastic that the restaurant is typically booked for dinner more than a month in advance. Like the public, the critics are adulatory. In 1997 Patricia Wells wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "It has been a long, long time since I left a restaurant with such excitement over the sheer creativity of a young French chef." The GaultMillau guide named Martin "best chef of the year" in 1999, observing that "with a brilliant and sure hand, Guy Martin today is writing some of the most beautiful pages of the mythical Grand Véfour." The commendation went on to say, "Alongside classic dishes, which testify to the history of the place, Guy Martin has known how to escape towards passionate crossroads, sometimes simple, sometimes dazzling . . . demonstrating that this perfectionist has not finished searching and inventing." Last year, the Michelin Guide awarded Martin its ultimate accolade—a third star.

Serving newfangled food within a traditional space comes naturally to Martin, whose cooking plays off opposites, not only of antiphonal flavors (salty versus sweet, for instance, as with a few grains of fleur de sel in his caramel ice cream) but also of the fancy with the homely. Like a woman who throws a chinchilla coat over rough woolen leggings, his recipes mix the most luxurious ingredients with peasant fare. His signature dish is ravioli stuffed with cubes of duck foie gras and splashed with a froth of truffle-flavored cream. To anchor these rich tastes, in which gushing butter and foaming cream moisten the unctuous, dense pieces of duck liver, he adds a small piece of Savoy cabbage leaf to each ravioli. As with all of Martin's successful combinations, the addition doesn't diffuse the focus. Instead, it somehow sharpens the picture. The foie gras ravioli, along with the pigeon Prince Rainier III, is always featured on the menu, joined by one other perennial: the parmentier de queue de boeuf aux truffes, an opulent interpretation of the workingman's shepherd's pie, in which a disk of oxtail meat is topped by a dollop of truffle-laced potato purée and crowned with slices of black truffle. That I will have to taste on another visit, but it sounds, once again, like an inspired blurring of the line between upstairs and downstairs.

Notwithstanding his flouting of convention, the only quibble I had heard about Martin's cooking centered on his most controversial dish—an artichoke tart. Naturally, I was very curious to taste it, but I would have to wait. The wait, in fact, was the entire point. Critics' objections were directed not at the tart itself but at its placement on the menu. In what would appear to be deliberate provocation, this vegetable dish was being served at the end, as a dessert.

If I wasn't too worried about the artichoke tart, chalk that up partly to the reassuring effect of the dining salon, which combines elegance with durability in the best Gallic fashion. Stepping into this world of archaic refinement, I am reminded of the famous line attributed to Talleyrand: "Those who have not lived before the Revolution cannot know how sweet life is." Two intimate rooms are furnished with red velvet banquettes and simple black-and-gold Directoire chairs. Most of the ceilings and walls have liver-spotted mirrors in gilt frames or delicate glass-covered paintings in the Neoclassical style.

The heritage of these paintings is in itself a story of subtle reflections. Long stems of leaves and flowers twine gracefully, and nymphs sport headdresses overflowing with fruits, vegetables, wild game, and ices—the offerings of the house. Do these paintings derive from the charming wall decorations in Nero's house in Rome, which were unearthed in the early 16th century and reproduced by Raphael and his followers during the Renaissance? Or from the later discoveries at Pompeii, which made Neoclassical decoration the hot ticket in the late 18th century? The decor had multiple historic resonances when it was created, and the passage of time has only added more. At Le Grand Véfour you feel swaddled in layers of refinement.

There are 20 people in the kitchen and 20 working in the front of the house to serve the fortunate 50 at lunch or dinner. The service is attentive but unobtrusive, correct but not stuffy. For Martin, the service cannot be separated from the cuisine. "The sommelier must serve the right wine with the food, the maître d' must give the clients a choice and make contact with the clientele," he says. "It is a harmony between the two." Harmony is the watchword at this refuge of civilization.

Most civilized of all, perhaps, is the view to be had at lunchtime of the Palais-Royal, through windows that are curtained below for privacy but left bare above. The enfilade of the arcade columns in one direction and the allée of precisely spaced trees in the other suggest that all the world, both man-made and natural, has been ordered for your enjoyment. A Parisian friend, the architect Elisabeth-Gustava de Rothschild, told me that she finds the view particularly agreeable in the winter months. "It is a question of light," she says. "Since the restaurant is facing south, you get a beautiful light in the winter that comes through the upper windows and leaves a gentle halo on the painted walls. In the summer, it is far stronger and less subtle. Also, in summer the gardens are much more crowded and the green does not have the same effect as the grays of winter, of the trees and the stones."

Contributing to the comforting sense of continuity are the almost-palpable ghosts of diners past. Indeed, Le Grand Véfour formally invites their presence. At one meal, I sat on a banquette marked with a plaque bearing the name of Victor Hugo, and at another, that of Colette. The white ceramic ashtrays on the tables represent the hands of George Sand, in a design by Jean Cocteau. All of these writers were regulars. In its early days, the restaurant, which was founded in 1784 as the Café de Chartres, attracted a crowd of Jacobins, political radicals who advocated democracy. Later, the "ultras," a group of even more extreme radicals (many were later guillotined), talked about Roman "virtue" there in surroundings that were an homage to Rome. Napoleon dined here with Josephine. The establishment became famous for its food in the 1820s under the ownership of Jean Véfour, who rechristened it. But in a city that has named as many boulevards after writers as politicians or generals, the restaurant's literary pedigree clinches its status. In the 19th century, Balzac, Turgenev, Lamartine, and Sainte-Beuve all came; and in the 20th, under Raymond Oliver, the patrons included Sartre, Malraux, Aragon—it would be easier to list the successful writers who did not dine here.

However, decor and history will take you only so far. In the 1970s, the restaurant's glory began to dim and Michelin, registering the decline, demoted Véfour to two stars. A slow rot had set in. In 1984, the aging Raymond Oliver sold the restaurant to the Concorde Group, which is controlled by the Taittinger family of Champagne fame. Two days before the deal closed, at Christmastime, a provocateur tossed a bomb into the dining room, requiring a restoration effort that consumed 16,000 hours. The restaurant's reputation continued to stagnate under several chefs until Jean Taittinger— realizing the need for a bold stroke—hired Martin, and a new triumphant era began. No longer an historical institution with a kitchen attached, like Tour d'Argent, and never a hushed and formal temple to food, like Alain Ducasse or Pierre Gagnaire, Véfour is unique among Paris restaurants: an intimate monument. There is no more enjoyable place to eat in the city.

Martin was 18 or 19 when he decided he wanted to cook professionally. Growing up in the Savoie, he had thought he might become a doctor or, like his father, a hydraulic engineer. Instead he became fascinated with cooking and set out to learn the basics. "It is difficult for me to go to school," he says. "I could never sit in a classroom." He bought himself a classic French cookbook, Gastronomie Practique (the so-called Ali Bab, published by Henri Babinsky in 1928), a methodical work that lists recipes alphabetically and provides precise measurements and instructions. With this as his bible Martin learned to cook in alphabetical order: one night pâte brisée, the next, pâte sablée. "I spent every single night with it," he says. "Only one night in six months did I go out." When he had completed his self-imposed course he was ready to start working in small local restaurants—which he did, but not for long. At the age of 24 he was hired for the position of chef de cuisine, the number two man in the kitchen, at the Château de Coudrée, a Relais & Châteaux inn located in the Savoie. Less than three years later he was commanding the kitchen as executive chef at another luxury resort, the Château de Divonne, where he eventually earned two Michelin stars before being lured to Paris.

With the fervor of an autodidact, Martin began his culinary career by collecting old and rare books of recipes. He is remarkably knowledgeable about obscure dishes—the 15th-century Savoie cookery in the court of Amédée VIII, to take just one example—and his own creations were often inspired by his research. "I have a passion for history and for reading," he says. "When you have a book in your head, it is a way of dreaming, of traveling." Although he still loves to read, he has stopped collecting old cookbooks. He tends to create recipes in his mind while he is walking or reading. "All of my recipes are written," he says. "I never make a recipe in the kitchen. I'm thinking, 'Sweet or salty, acidic or bitter.' I take notes on paper. Once I have made a particular dish, I throw away the recipe. I don't want to be cooking from the page."

Not everything works, of course: To cite one failure, he has never been able to conjure up the caramel soup that he imagined as an appetizer. "It was too sweet," he concedes. "A recipe which works is very simple." Instead of tinkering with an idea that misfires, he simply discards it. But his creative horizons are unbounded. In the virtual kitchen of the mind, nothing stops you from reaching for finely ground coffee and cocoa powder to add to the natural juices of a roast rack of lamb (which you have already brushed with mustard seeds and red grape juice to accentuate its flavor). Having enhanced the sweet gaminess of the meat with the slight bitterness of the coffee-cocoa powder, you can continue to play that oppositional game of bitter versus sweet by stuffing an eggplant skin with a roast garlic purée. Finally, in a madcap inspiration, you can add a salad of fennel and snails for textural contrast, and you have one of the most famous (and delicious) of Martin's main courses.

Le Grand Véfour offers a tremendous bargain—a prix fixe lunch of three courses plus cheese (an exceptional array, with many rarities from the Savoie) for 450 francs, or about $60. But even though that choice will provide the pleasure of the room and the service, and notwithstanding the fact that many of the individual dishes on the à la carte menu hover close to that cost, I would still suggest that you either order à la carte or take the chef's tasting menu for 1,207 francs (about $160). Only then will you sample Martin at his most creative.

Ordering from the special lunch menu, I had sampled a thigh of Bresse chicken, cooked in a stew of légumes oubliés, "forgotten vegetables"—heirloom varieties of carrot, sweet potato, and crosne (which is also known as Chinese artichoke), a knobby little white tuber with a delicate nutty flavor. But not until I reencountered the crosne at a later dinner did I fully appreciate how criminal it was for this vegetable to have been forgotten. In its new presentation, it was part of a salad (along with purslane) that accompanied an appetizer of lobster meat—which was additionally flanked by a horseradish-tinged cream and garnished with a flash-fried, faintly bitter black ribbon that I could not have identified in a thousand guesses (squid ink). Like a bass player in a jazz quartet, the seemingly subordinate crosne was calling the tune—incorporating the bitter with the sweet, the tender with the firm.

Martin ardently espouses the cause of his légumes oubliés. "All these vegetables are forgotten in Paris and the big cities, but not in the villages," he says. "There, where food is seasonal, you find rutabaga, crosnes, spelt." He devotes much time to seeking out authentic producers of old-fashioned ingredients. "The carrots come from Didier, who lives in the town of Allones, in the Western Loire Valley," he says. "It's not processed food; the man leads a very simple life. This is not a way to make much money." Once Martin was visited by the farmer from Limousin who provides his veal. "He brought a photo album," the chef recalls. "I thought it was his family. He opened it up. All the pictures were of his cows."

Some of Martin's tastiest dishes owe as much to his persistent foraging as to his ingenuity. I love his sole—green-sauced with an Indian combination of coriander and mint and partnered with a spectacularly intense, deep-fried Provençal tomato stuffed with anchovies, black olives, and blue cheese. A brilliant preparation, but what I remember best is the sole itself, a thick white slice of meaty, bony fish that was caught off the Brittany coast and bore little resemblance to any Dover sole I have encountered. Likewise, I admired the day-boat langoustines, a tad undercooked to my taste but indisputably fantastic creatures. (In another nod to India, a chili-spiked curry sauce counterbalanced their sweetness.) Even the fruit pastes served with the petits-fours suggested, thanks in large part to the purity of the component fruits, that mango-coconut and fig-strawberry are marriages that plant hybridizers should be investigating.

I suspect that we'll all be eating mango-nuts and fig-berries before the artichoke becomes a staple of dessert. When at last it is brought to the table, the artichoke tart is—dare I say it?—a little anticlimactic. Martin insists he doesn't know what all the fuss is about. "I adore vegetables," he says. "Artichokes, peas—all vegetables are naturally sweet. It is not a provocation. One is eating artichokes, but it is not an artichoke, it is dessert. There are no taboos. There are bad things and good things. When potatoes arrived in France, no one ate them. When tomatoes came, no one ate them. Chocolate came; no one ate it. Now, everyone eats potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate." He adds that Catherine de Medicis, the 16th-century Italian-born queen who elevated French cooking to haute cuisine, served candied vegetables as sweet entremets—palate refreshers between courses.

Martin's artichoke tart is an eggy caramelized custard resembling a quiche in which pan-fried pieces of artichoke supply firmness. Candied infant carrots, celery, and fennel, courtesy of Didier, lounge on the side. For me, the starring role belongs to the scoop of bitter-almond sorbet, which draws out the subtle sweetness of the tart. Neither a revelation nor an outrage, the artichoke tart is a tasty finale. However, it's no match for the ruling vegetable dessert of Paris—Alain Passard's tomato confit at Arpège (granted, the tomato is technically a fruit). For that matter, I prefer Martin's own variations on the pomelo, a cousin of the grapefruit, which on one side of the plate he thinly slices, brightens with shredded basil, and tops with a pomelo sorbet, and on the other, reduces into a jam to fill a tender blond génoise cake. If not as scrumptious as the pomelo dessert, the artichoke tart is more characteristic of Martin's playful cooking. It's an emblem of the way in which, with a light hand and a light heart, he has taken a dining room as hallowed as a church and proclaimed, to resounding hosannas, that nothing is sacred.