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Friday, September 2, 2011

Kei - Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Formerly the table of Gerard Besson, now home to the precise, elegant haute cuisine of Ducasse-trained Kei Kobayashi, albeit in a funereal setting.

Thus reads le Fooding's English introduction to Kei restaurant, a short walk from Les Halles in the center of Paris, and a rather early toast to the fading summer nights and re-entry into real Parisian life, because you know we are all zombies during the summer. My tan is fading! So Co. and I decided to start off with a bang by hitting the Japanese fusion spot of the moment, still somewhat under the radar - not discovered yet by the New York Times even, so the place was filled with real-life Parisians during our Friday evening visit. Funereal is one way to put it, sterile and austere is perhaps a more polite way of describing the rather cold white room, bereft of any wall adornments or musical accompaniment. Rather roomy given the spacey separation of tables, which I would estimate, comfortably sits about 30. Wrapped scroll-like on the table was a sheet of paper that when unfolded did not, much to my chagrin, hint at what was to come, simply informing the diner of two choices: composition 1 (85€) or composition 2 (95€) with 'viandes au choix' (your choice of meats). What is a person to do with all this information?!

Well, as it were, I did some research before setting out and quickly learned nothing about what dishes to expect, only that the difference between the two fixed menus was six or eight courses. When you're already starting off at 85€ per person not including wine, it's a no-brainer to ante in another 10€ for the two additional plates, which is precisely what we chose. Now the way I look at it, when I'm spending that kind of money, I would like to know how the meal is going to unfold, but Kei is one of those places that assumes we are all 8 years old and love surprises!! So nothing was forecast, only revealed, one by one. Kei also is one of those places where the waiter brings the plate and then mumbles as quickly as possible what it consists of and then leaves. For yours truly, who always must do a fine balancing act between gulping wine, understanding the French-speaking waiter, and trying to remember so I can write about it later, I found myself particularly challenged at Kei. I gamely tried to hear again what that Japanese tidbit was topping the sorbet and crab amuse bouche #2 (the first photo below), so I inquired one of the young staff who brought our water. He said he'd find out. Whoops, not a good thing. For a restaurant with high ambitions like Kei, shouldn't we expect each waitperson to be fully informed of the evening's repast? A little pre-game huddle with chef Kei Kobayashi before the opening whistle? Yes, I think.

So finding myself immensely overmatched, I just sat back and enjoyed the meal and let the photos speak for themselves. Let me just say Chef Kobayashi is an artiste, as the composition of each course surely attests, with the subtle application of perfumes and spices, foam, and flowers, the latter echoing the Nordic influence of chez Noma et al. We opted for a Corsican red at 43€, an Orenga di Gaffory 2004.

So the lowdown. I can't get rid of a distinct feeling of letdown by the Kei experience. I kept thinking, such beautifully presented food should knock me out. I'll be savoring the memory of each dish for decades to come! But alas, I would have to say that there was not a single dish that really scored among the eight dishes, two amuse bouches, and a throw-in third desert. Well, I take that back, I had a pretty lusty interaction with that throw-in dessert, especially the rich, rich, buttery caramel (the last photo below). But I think Chef Kobayashi was aspiring to something a lot higher than that. True, the pigeon (in lieu of the lamb) was delicate and very tasty, and the fish had a nicely croustillant skin and succulent meat. The blue lobster was meaty and tasty. All very nice, but nothing super fantastic. For a bill that totaled 239€ for the two 8-course menus, bottle of wine (43€), and bottle of water (6€) (no post-meal cafes this time), I expect way more bang for my buck (or euro). Hell, throw in another 100€ and you've got a brand new ASUS Transformer tablet PC (I can't wait for it to arrive!). I appreciated KK taking the time to come out of his kitchen to chat with us as we were leaving, asking what we liked, etc. That says something.

So here you go - my photos in the order in which the dishes were served, and sorry for the blurry ones. Check out the photos at Kei's website and you'll see what I mean about KK the artiste.

5, rue Coq Heron
75001 Paris
tel.: 01 42 33 14 74
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