Among the many misconceptions about the life of a food writer is that members of this tribe of scribes are impossibly fussy and turn up their noses at anything that isn’t dripping with caviar or truffles. The fact of the matter is, anyone who really loves good food loves it at all levels of the food chain, from really good bread and butter with a bowl of great onion soup in a café to the much rarer occasion of a poulet de Bresse en demi-deuil (in half mourning, or with discs of black truffle slid under its skin before it’s roasted). And, as far as I’m concerned, as much as I admire haute cuisine, my truest passion in the canon of Gallic gastronomy will always be the country’s great bistro dishes, whether they’re homely and rustic, as found in country auberges, or dressed up for town as la cuisine bourgeoise.
Just like everyone else, I’ve also had occasion to eat at a tourist trap or two, because I’d made a luck-of-the-draw choice when I was hungry and cutting it close to the end of serving hours, or because I often accompany friends visiting Paris to restaurants they want to try. After all, there’s nothing drearier than the relentless expert, so when pals from Hong Kong came to town recently and invited me to join them for dinner on Don Juan II, an elegant yacht that does a dinner cruise on the Seine, I went along with curiosity, but modest expectations, since it seemed unlikely that we’d actually have a good meal there. Why? Well, for lots of reasons – not the least of them being that no live-flame cooking can be done aboard for fire reasons, and that the small size of any ship galley limits things as well, which means that a lot of what you eat will have been prepared in a prep kitchen on shore before you and your dinner embark.
Whether or not the journey led to exalted gastronomic pleasure, however, you’d have to be a real pill not to enjoy a night-time cruise on the Seine, since the river remains Paris’s most historic boulevard and offers some of the most exquisite urban scenery to be seen anywhere in the world. And so I boarded at Port Henri IV and met my sleepy friends (they’d just arrived in Paris). We were immediately brightened up a bit by a glass of champagne before being ushered to our table in the sleekly decorated dining room with fitted anthracite-and-blue carpet with an Art Deco motif and leather tub chairs set at white linen dressed tables decorated with potted orchids next to the ship’s picture windows.
We were so engrossed in catching up and the beauty of Paris by night that it took a lot for my attention to be brought to heel by our meal, but this happened as soon as our amuse-bouche was served, a charming quenelle of dressed crabmeat with mango tartare and puffed quinoa. The crab was perfectly picked and flavoured, and the quinoa garnish served warning that this meal would not be a wedding-lunch-in-the-provinces type of event, since it was such a knowing wink at current urban food trends towards healthy eating. Next up? An elegant starter of Canadian lobster medallions with daikon and mushroom milk. This dish was a conversation stopper, too.
“Very nice, isn’t it?” said my friend Victoria, with an undertone of surprise that matched mine. “You know, we’ve never done a cruise on the Seine, and this looked more intimate and comfortable than the other ones we considered,” she explained, adding, “So we went ahead and booked, even though we didn’t have particularly high expectations of the meal. But so far this is delicious.”
And so it went on, with an exquisitely roasted chicken served in two courses, the first with chestnuts and parsnips, the second with sautéed foie gras. An exceptionally good Ossau-Iraty came to table as the cheese course, and dessert was an elegant and darkly delicious chocolate Eiffel Tower filled with blackcurrant gelée, served with perfect timing, since the famous tower started shimmering, as it does on the hour, just as we pulled abreast of it.
Dom Pérignon Vintage 2009 was generously poured throughout the meal, and a lush Domaine Pouderoux 2015 Maury paired perfectly with dessert. At €190 per person, this meal falls squarely in the special-occasion category but, given the superb setting, service, and scenery, along with the surprisingly excellent cooking, this actually worked out as good value for money – sort of like dinner and a play rolled into one – and a lovely night out all round.