On the whole I don’t review freebies. Undisclosed hospitality is a disservice to the readers, and it’s part of the engine by which a handful of central London restaurants suck up a disproportionate amount of media coverage.
I understand the arguments for it. In theory a free meal lets the writer experience a wider range of what the kitchen has to offer, and saves cash-strapped publications on expenses.
But eating as an invited guest is different from being a regular paying peon. Better tables, better service, free everything.
After years of patient study of both forms, I’m happy to confirm that not paying for dinner is much better than paying for dinner. Besides, for all but the wealthiest customers, the bill is a large part of the restaurant experience.
Food is about many things, but eating out is a transaction. You get a chair and your tea. They get your money.
If you sense a certain defensiveness here, you are right, because this is all by way of preamble to saying that before Christmas I accepted a whopping free dinner at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Meurice hotel, in Paris. I’m not proud. But I was on my honeymoon, they offered and I’m only human. It’s the kind of place where even oligarchs reach for the phone calculator. For freelance journalists it might as well be on the moon.
It is a ravishing space, a Belle Epoque salon with marble pilasters and gilded friezes and chandeliers that cast a golden glow on everything inside. This is kind of dining room you wouldn’t dare build unless you had already had a revolution. Big white tables were spaced miles apart, with a display of terraria on a table in the centre of the room. Around them flowed the team of young staff. As it was a Tuesday, I wondered if some of them were still being trained up, but they all worked smoothly under the eagle eye of Frederic Rouen, the briskly immaculate maitre d’.
We both ordered the “collection menu”, three courses with cheese and dessert. The food was sensational. I could rhapsodise about the langoustine, or the scallops, or the blue lobster with black garlic and crisp, golden sea potatoes. Or the ceps tortellini, softly encased in a carapace of white truffle shaved generously at the table. Or the blended flavours of my dusky pink veal with smoked eel and more ceps. Or the cheeses, which bravely included a “Stilton, from England”, or a chocolate desert in which it seemed as though the whole concept of chocolate had been pulled apart and brought back together in a heap of dark, rich, cakey, creamy moreishness.
Did the veal, every bite of which I savoured, merit its €135 price? Would the signature chicken dish, which we didn’t order, have earned every cent of its €175 bill? One-hundred and seventy-five euros, for chicken and vegetables. Unless the chicken also drove the Eurostar for you, surely not. But on a Tuesday in December with a strike on, the room is full. For all the better ways this money could be spent, there are many worse ways, too, and what is a price if not what someone is willing to pay? Faced with the excess you can either roll your eyes, or head to the barricades, or reason that you are paying for the best ingredients and cooking but also paying for the two Michelin stars, for the seat opposite the Tuileries gardens in shimmering light, for the masterful staff, for the thrill of being there.
By the time coffee was served, my value compass was spinning like a jetfan. I have no idea what the total damage for our meal would have been, but north of a thousand euros for two, with only one person drinking. It was ludicrous and I loved it, because I would never go myself. I can’t recommend it on your tab, as I couldn’t recommend it on my own. You could have 10 excellent nights out for the same amount. But if the chance arises to have a meal like this, on a company card or a rich aunt or a lottery win, take it.
Could you take your parents? If you did, they would think you were either a triumphant or a spendthrift embarrassment
Would I go back? Under the same circumstances, of course
Should you go? If you can
Alain Ducasse at Le Meurice, 228 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France; +33 1 44 58 10 55; alainducasse-meurice.com