Revered chef Alain Senderens has transformed the menu of three Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant Lucas Carton by leading with the wines. His painstaking attention to food and wine matching makes for an unforgettable dining experience, says Fiona Beckett.
At first sight, Alain Senderens looks every inch the traditional French chef. Trim and dapper, with his neat goatee beard, he presides over one of the most traditional (and beautiful) dining rooms in Paris. Yet at 65 – an age when many of his contemporaries have long since left their kitchens – this fiercely passionate and driven man is undertaking a quiet revolution.
Two and a half years ago he transformed the way he wrote the menu at his three Michelin-starred restaurant Lucas Carton, so that it was led not by food but by wine. It was, he says, the logical next step, born of a realisation that the great wines he served would never show at their best unless he worked round them. ‘Wine is more unique than food. You can change the food but you can’t change the wine; if you don’t pay attention to the food you destroy them.’ He calls it cuisine de courtoisie – a courteous cuisine.
This has liberated his cooking, says Senderens, a style which is as eclectic as any you will find in Paris. Right from the start of the meal your palate is bombarded with taste sensations that make you gasp with pleasure. Even the amuse-gueules are matched with a wine. A glass of manzanilla, for example, (a great favourite of Senderens) is offered with roasted oysters with hazelnut butter and Iberio Bellota ham, while the hint of curry in the cucumber sauce that accompanies a sole tempura is the magic touch that brings out the rich opulence of a 2001 Condrieu Les Grandes Chaillées from Domaine du Monteillet.
Senderens is obsessive in the care he takes to find the right match. One of his signature dishes is Canard Apicius rôti au miel et aux épices, a Roman recipe for duck cooked in honey and spices which is matched with two Banyuls: a 1985 Cave de l’Etoile for the breast, which is rare, and a fuller Banyuls Solera ‘Hors d’age’ for the legs. ‘The flesh on the legs is firmer so it needs a different wine,’ he says.
He’s right. It does, but not the Gaja Barbaresco which is also on the table to partner a Mediterranean-style dish of lamb cooked with herbs and olives. I take a sneaky sip, after my mouthful of duck and find it totally annihilates the fruit and distorts the tannins of the Italian wine. ‘I can help a vigneron or destroy him,’ says Senderens. ‘But winemakers bring wines for me to try all the time.’
He conducts his research at lunchtime in one of his private dining rooms. The starting point for new dishes is a wine which has impressed him. The day I was there he was enormously taken by an Ostertag Pinot Gris which he had in mind to match with scallops. The question was how to present them. ‘I will find something even if I have to go through 15 bottles. I look for a central ingredient with the same consistency and texture as the wine. The true reality is the accord between the density of a wine and the texture of the food. The aroma is the window dressing.’
At other times he may be searching for a new wine for a dish already on the menu. The same day he had lined up seven wines to go with a signature dish of langoustines wrapped in crispy vermicelli with a shellfish cream and roasted almonds. He tastes the wines meticulously, carefully making notes on a large chart. ‘Seven Burgundies and only one good one!’ he snorts. ‘These are all great names but these are not all great wines.’
Finally a combination he likes – the Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2000. He then tweaks the dish very slightly, dipping his fingers into small bowls of crushed almonds, hazelnuts and lemon zest to see what the recipe needs to match the wine perfectly, opting for the hazelnuts and a few drops of vinegar to the sauce.
The dish, he explains, will change from season to season. ‘The smallest difference can make an impact. We’ve served this with a Meursault from Comtes Lafon. Two vineyards side by side. One went with almonds, the other with hazelnuts.’
On another occasion I sat with him during a tasting of seven vintages of Dom Pérignon and six different courses of caviar. One was accompanied by an onion cooked in clay and served with hard-boiled egg and some pistachio nuts which Senderens had included because he already knew pistachio went well with the 1993. But he was dissatisfied with the onion. ‘There is too much of it and it’s the wrong kind. I use an oignon de Cévennes in winter but I think that now, in spring, I would use another type of onion.’
His restless desire to get things right doesn’t make him an easy taskmaster. While we are there he metes out an Alex Ferguson-style hairdryer treatment to his sommelier for failing to serve the wines first. He’s right, of course. At the prices he charges (many of the pairings cost over t100) he can’t afford anything less than total perfection. And the 60 seconds it takes to wait for the wine to be poured could diminish the whole experience.
He defends his prices stoutly. The subtle flavours of older vintages can be lost in a couple of hours – there is no question of keeping them for the next service. Indeed he estimates that one in 10 will be already past their best. Then there are the sheer logistics of a situation where one person may well drink four or five different wines during a meal.
Expensive, yes, but if you want to understand what gastronomy really means – what wine can do for food, and food for wine – there is no better place to discover it. Take advantage of the fact that this extraordinary chef has not yet hung up his apron. Senderens is a legend.
Lucas Carton, 9 Place de la Madeleine, Paris.
Tel: +33 1 42 65 22 90. Current menus on www.lucascarton.com
Fiona Beckett is a contributing editor to Decanter.
Written by Fiona Beckett