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Monday, February 11, 2008

Les Magnolias - Michelin Goes Suburbs

There are still some Parisians too snobbish to venture out of the confines of the capital for quality dining. Well, too bad for them, because that snobbishness is costing them a visit to one of the best dining experiences in Ile de France, the Michelin-starred Les Magnolias in Le Perreux-sur-Marne, a mere ten miles east of the city. All it takes is a 25-minute ride on the RER-E from Haussmann-St. Lazaire to Nogent Le Perreux, followed by a five-minute downhill walk to the restaurant. Already popular enough (and justifiably so) to require at least a one-month-in-advance reservation, booking a table has become an even dicier proposition thanks to word of mouth and strong endorsements by top critics. For Mortstiff & Co., such laudatory reviews are old news – we’ve been Les Magnolias regulars for several years. That’s right – we were first.

Our most recent visit a couple weekends ago merely reinforced our deep fondness for the place. It all boils down to the inventive cuisine of owner-chef Jean Chauvel, whose imagination in the kitchen far supercedes my ability to sufficiently describe the various dishes beyond such comments as ‘damn, that was incredible – what was it?’

True, when asked, Mme Nelly Chauvel and her staff take great pains to decipher the largely poetic but incomprehensible menu, but I find that after two or three descriptions, the mind starts to spin. Your best bet is simply to close your eyes and randomly poke your finger around the various sections of the menu to select each course. The three-course menu is priced at 55 euros, a bargain considering the quality. Actually, a better bet is to throw caution to the wind and opt for the menu dégustation at 90 euros, which enables a pretty comprehensive tour of the entire carte. Either route will bring several amuse bouches to the table, which alone are worth the price of admission. Selecting the wine is another matter altogether, but once you get beyond that, it’s all downhill from there. Fortunately, a sommelier is present to provide useful guidance to navigate a wine list of biblical proportions. The list places emphasis on small growers, and the sky’s the limit depending on the thickness of your wallet. Ever budget conscious, during our recent visit, Mortstiff & Co. opted for a lower end Chinon “les Grézeaux” B. Baudry 2005 for 35 euros and found it held up well when pitted against the challenging culinary offerings.

To give you a flavor for some of the Les Magnolias offerings, I offer some representative descriptions from The New York Times and some photos borrowed from the official restaurant web site :

Among the main courses, the ''tango'' of skate was a delectable dish. The skate wing had been boned, then wrapped around a saffron-spiced potato and placed on a scrumptious shellfish and cream-based sauce, the whole studded with tiny shrimp and, for a surprisingly apt sweet note, raisins. ''Tea'' of lamb brought two perfectly cooked noisettes on a bed of diced vegetables and litchi. A delicate pea-green sauce was poured over the top from a heavy Japanese teapot. The dish was all nuance and delicacy.

Among the numerous garnishes, there were utterly unconventional concoctions such as shot glasses filled with chestnut soup, homemade marshmallows and a delicious new take on macaroons -- cookies filled with mustard-spiked vegetables, a charming interplay of flavors and crunchiness.

Oddly-shaped plates that somehow make sense depending upon the preparation of the food, offbeat phraseology on the carte (a vegetable garnish, for example, is entitled inondé (flooded) de legumes en ''revolution.''), and accompaniments that appear in bottles, beakers, glasses, and boxes that look like they were pilfered from a deranged scientist’s laboratory add to the overall Gestalt of the dining experience. Food as art.

Without further adieu, my suggestion is to visit the excellent Les Magnolias web site and to reserve as quickly as possible. We’ve found that although the carte doesn’t change much from one visit to the next, the preparation of the dishes does. Jean Chauvel doesn’t run out of ideas – if you liked the imaginative way the pintade was prepared in February, wait until you see what he does with it in April.

LES MAGNOLIAS - 48, AVENUE DE BRY, 94 LE PERREUX-SUR-MARNE +33 (0) 1 48 72 47 43 contact@lesmagnolias.com

Overall note: 9
Ambience: 8.5 (Comfortable, low on the pretentiousness scale, and roomy enough to not feel as if other patrons are breathing down your neck. Dress nice – the food deserves it.) Food: 9+ (Just take another look at those photos.)
Service: 9 (Professional; always a warm welcome by Mme Chauvel) Price (over, under, average): Are you kidding? Definitely under: Two 55 euro menus plus wine added up to a 145 euro visit. I feel guilty.


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