Paris, May 27, 2016
Marcel Proust, a Parisienne of another era, built an entire novel around the memories engendered by the smell of a madeleine. Our connection to specific times and places come not only from the scents, but from other subtle clues prodding the edges of our consciousness and teasing out connective memories. When all of the elements are present, voilá; joy, sadness, or terror, but never ennui, floods us. So every year we go back to Le Voltaire for the human male’s hatch day celebration. Some years a day or two early, some years a day or two later, but like the swallows of St. Juan de Capistrano, we always return. Sadly, this year is likely to be the last time.
The stresses of the economy and the damage they had inflicted on Le Voltaire should have been obvious had we but been paying appropriate attention. The delayed response to our inquiry about a reservation, the not so subtle assignment of a 19:30 table (as opposed to the requested 20:30), the recognition as we walked by at lunchtime that there was a female wait-staffer and outdoor bistro-style tables should have awakened our concern. Sadly they did not. When we arrived at the appointed hour and found the restaurant deserted, we were greeted not by the maitre d’hotel but by our waiter of the last 8 years – and he was in what we took to be a surly mood.
We were seated at a lovely table – which in past years always seated a party of four. The little plate of olives, radishes and celery was present, but noticeably smaller. The bread basket and dish of mind-boggling delicious French butter were similarly reduced – good for my waistline but indicative of a belt-tightening induced by economic conditions, not concern for my daily caloric intake. The menu and carte de vin were supplied in due course. The former, which once had the heft of a Russian novel, was streamlined to the single side of a single page – and was mechanically reproduced, not individually scriven. The latter, once filled with pages listing enough regions,domains and chateaux to require a gazetteer and enough vintages to require either an extraordinary memory or a discreet iPhone app, was now largely a list of crossed out offerings with stratospheric prices. I counted only 4 offerings at less than 150 Euros, not one of them a recognizable, let alone familiar name. I commented to the waiter (apparently the sommelier was an early victim of cost-cutting measures) that the list was “Trés chére, n’est-ce pas?” His response was that all the great wines were gone from the cellar and hadn’t been replaced. After a thorough search, we settled on a mediocre Bordeaux from a respectable negociant and an acceptable price.
For the last several years MiLady has consented to share a rack of lamb, and has even learned to enjoy it “à point” in the traditional French style. With the choice of our “main plat” made, we turned to the list of appetizers (or “entrées”). I love snails, and the chef at Le Voltaire has traditionally prepared them with with parsley, butter, cream and a bit of pernod and served in a miniature casserole, or with garlic butter and in their shells. A couple of years ago the Burgundian garlic and butter offering departed the menu, never to return. The alternate preparation has since won my heart, so I chose it. MiLady chose an endive and roquefort salad – simple and elegant. The salad was a delight – a nicely sized, perfectly crisp endive, creamy roquefort and a simple dressing on the side. No matter the cheese was an unsliced square wafer balanced atop the endive – not cutting the wafer into bite-sized tidbits is an acceptable artistic choice by the chef. The snails were tasty, but not the large, firm creatures completely devoid of grit that graced the casserole in previous years. Half a dozen of those left me wishing for more – this time the more than a dozen served was more than sufficient.
The rack of lamb was delicious – but no longer magnificent. Previously the entire rack was presented to the table, then either sliced on a trolley tableside, or if the room was crowded, whisked away, carved and re-presented on a platter garnished with sweet potato puree, white potato puree and parsley. The accompaniments were a fresh green vegetable (usually haricot verts, but sometimes broccoli) and a huge mound of crispy pommes frites. The pureed potatoes were nicely served on a small silver salaver, as were the frites. I seemed to have missed the green vegetable, perhaps it never arrived. The lamb was already carved and individually plated when it arrived at the table. The portion sizes were not the equivalent of half a rack per diner but were only about 1/3 of the rack. The offerings were as tasty as they have ever been, but the lack of culinary esprit was disappointing. For the very first time ever at Le Voltaire, I found myself refilling our wine glasses – something of which I am perfectly capable, but at more than 60 euros for the bottle, not something I should have to do.
We finished out meal as we always have. The specialty of the house is a dark chocolate mousse, richly perfumed, which melts on one’s tongue with the bursting of its tiny bubbles. Past servings appeared in a bowl large enough for a small child to drown in. (Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole. It was, however, actually a small soup tureen.) This year? Well, let’s just say this year the bowl was smaller than the one I use at breakfast for my yogurt, fruit and granola. It was presented with a candle and “Happy Birthday” from the waiter, who by the end of the meal recognized us as oft-repeating customers and had dropped his surly French waiter act. From the first time we dined there, back in September 2009, the sommelier always offered us a complimentary little glass of calvados to finish the evening. Sadly, with the sommelier gone, so was the calvados, and so are we.