A Savory Supper with François Payard
ORIGINALLY POSTED 2010
I’ve been a fan of François Payard’s Patisserie and Bistro since the day the acclaimed French pattissier and chef came to town three years ago. Producing fine European pastries, gelatos, crepes and chocolates in large quantities is enough of an achievement, but Payard--who has strong competition in town in that regard--ambitiously added an intimate jewelbox of a restaurant (he calls it a bistro to keep from intimidating) with a kitchen right in the center. Not unheard of, but certainly uncommon in Las Vegas…where, if you haven’t noticed, “intimate” is a less-used adjective than “chaste” (and then, apologetically).
As executed daily by Chef Gregory Gourreau, Payard produced three squares wonderfully from the beginning, taking French classics and spinning them just enough so that you knew they knew, not looking to threaten Savoy or Robuchon, but to produce something with just a little more finesse than Mon Ami Gabi, and a different style to Eiffel Tower Restaurant.
Payard’s problems were never in the execution but in the marketing: getting people to understand that a pastry shop was also a casually romantic restaurant, and then getting them to find the awkwardly placed door. Eventually, enough folk realized that his elegant breakfast was worth five dollars more than the shamelessly bad Augustus Café, and that his lunch was also a worthy alternative. But dinner died early on, and as Payard told me, it’s taken him some time to convince his partners (that would be the landlords, i.e. Harrah’s Entertainment) to bring it back.
Before doing that, they took the judicious step of asking a few local critics and select tastemakers to weigh in (including Max Jacobson of foodwinekitchen.com and Al Mancini of City Life—I’m sure John eatinglv.com Curtas, a fierce Payard fan, was absent only due to his Iron Chef taping). I was humbled to be included.
The dinner started with champagne (naturellement) and a pretty bread basket (ditto), highlighted by a succulent garlic boule.
A sampling of three appetizers that are planned for the three-course prix fixe (everything paired with pleasant wines) followed:
The first was a classic cheese soufflé, delicate in texture and flavor, with cheese sauce poured over at table.
The second was a vegetable tart, market peas, baby carrots, squash, onion, greens and potatoes arranged in a pastry shell. While a very pretty presentation, I thought this one needed some work—the vegetables were not excessively flavorful, the shell was overcooked and bland, the whole dish awkward to eat. It needed some kind of sauce, aspic or gravy to bring it together. IMHO.
The third, which François himself was most audibly excited about, was a Quennelle de Poisson Lyonnaise—searching for something different to serve in a market crowded with fine French cooking, Payard remembered this dish from his home town, a sort of fish soufflé in sauce.
As it happens, the quenelle is a close cousin to Jewish gefilte fish, which is also usually made with ground pike (Payard substituted black cod--and put the mixture through the ice cream machine to make it fluffy). But the comparison ends there, at least as far as most of us have experienced gefilte fish. Gone is the matzoh meal binding and salty jelly, replaced by a featherlight dumpling dressed with mirepoix and submerged in a gloriously rich lobster bisque so pure that if I wasn’t trying to impress my dinner date, I would’ve slurped to its last.
We were then served, in courses, three entrees: the first, black cod, sautéed, served on mashed potatoes with deep fried leek strings on top and another wonderful sauce of onions. Simple, satisfying.
Next came poulet roti, a half-chicken, perfectly roasted, in a rich lemon sauce with potato strings, piquant olives and leeks providing apt contrast in flavor and texture. Suffice to say, nobody knows how to cook a chicken like a Frenchman (or woman), bringing the flavor out of all parts of the bird, juicy but not fatty, skin crisp but not burned.
Lastly were some nicely done braised short ribs, rustic, hearty, fork tender. Everything the dish should be—though that dish has become so ubiquitous in the last two years, that it’s impact is very dulled.
Then came dessert: Billed as a strawberry melba and a chocolate verrine, what came to table were essentially two ostensibly fancy but sloppily executed ice cream sundaes. This was certainly the most disappointing part, if only because of expectation. When you dine with a name like Payard, certainly you look to dessert as the punctuation of the meal. If so, this was a question mark.
A meal at Payard, if you ask me, ought to end with a classic dessert trolley offering the pattissier’s very best. It only seems logical.
Regardless, I have every confidence Mssr. Payard is going to present a fantastic dinner come September, at a fantastic value. I’ll be back to try it again. And so should you.