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The house that Jean-Claude built
Taillevent didn't start life here though. Its founder André Vrinat set up the restaurant in 1946 at Hotel Worms, on the rue St.-Georges. The location was unexceptional, the offerings were not. Within two years of its opening, Taillevent had won its first Michelin star. Another couple of years passed before the restaurant moved to its current location in the chic Eighth Arrondissement, not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
Vrinat's early days at Taillevent were spent as a sommelier, and the passion for wine sparked then informed his entire life. But here's the charming bit. Despite its legendary wine list-of more than 1,500 labels and 550,000 bottles-Taillevent offers guests a user-friendly wine card of 300 selections, beginning at € 28 a bottle and € 10 a glass. Those with as much cash as dash have the option of making more magnum choices.
It's not just the owners who make Taillevent a dining glory (Jean-Claude's daughter Valerie Vrinat has been very effectively managing Taillevent's business operations for many years now). The entire staff here is geared to serve, invisibly. Never intrusive, people materialise only when needed. The sommelier arrives just as you're beginning to think about wine, the waiter fills your glass before you've noticed that it's empty. From reservation requests to food crumbs on the crisp tablecloth to a fast-emptying wine glass-everything is attended to with speed and discretion. A friend told me about an incident where head maître d'hôtel Jean-Marie Ancher noticed that she was left handed while she was talking to him, and had the waiter change the table setting before she started her meal. Talk about service with (a) style.
The two dining rooms downstairs share a quiet but warm ambience; the surprise factor being the uber contemporary art on the walls and windowsills. Up the majestic staircase sit the private dining rooms: Guimet, which seats six to 10 persons, and Saturne, which can take 11 to 32.
Its 70-plus years have seen many changes in the restaurant's clientele, and their customs. "Initially, it was mainly local businessmen who would come in, to make and celebrate business deals, often over expensive wines," Jean-Claude told me earlier this winter. "Women were rare here, and if one did come in, people would stare. Now, couples come in all the time. Sometimes a man will come for a business lunch, like our food and ambience, and return with his wife. But, sadly, things are more expensive now, so some people come in just to celebrate special occasions like anniversaries, and birthdays."
The same day, at the restaurant for lunch, I shared a table with Valerie Vrinat. Would her children come into the business too, I asked her. "Most probably; they love it here," she smiled. "Already, they come in on Fridays to spend time with my father and chat about the restaurant."
The conversation turned to shared passions: rose champagne and warm foie gras.
Her father overheard us (the steady intake of champagne having a directly proportionate effect on our sound levels), and voila, the restaurant's trademark foie gras de canard poêlé arrived on the table. Despite several entreaties, Jean-Claude refused to sit with us.
"My father will never sit down at a table with a guest," Valerie finally told me, sotto voce. "He always eats separately."
I wonder now if Alain Solivérès joined him at his table. Solivérès, the sixth of Taillevent's great chefs, has been with the restaurant since 2002 and has brought a brilliant light touch to the table.
His pedigree is faultless, having trained with Jacques Maximin at the Negresco hotel in Nice and the peerless Alain Ducasse in Monaco. At la Bastide de Gordes, in Provence, his first assignment as head chef, he created his famous Epeautre du Pays de Sault en risotto, which finds place on Taillevent's tables too.
In line with what you'd expect from a Jean-Claude operation, the restaurant didn't shut even for a day at his going. Today, Solivérès continues to rule the kitchen, and Jean-Marie Ancher, who has been with Taillevent for more than three decades, the dining room.
Valerie continues to manage the business (along with the family's three wine stores and other restaurant); but it will be a while before Taillevent's tables feel the same again.
After all, you can replicate the quintessential French culinary experience, but how do you replace the quintessential Frenchman?
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