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Passage 53

February 8, 2016

I left most of the decision-making as far as food goes during our trip to Paris to my husband.  He’s always been really good at finding good restaurants that actually serve food that I’m willing to eat, and that’s the tricky part because I’m a bit of a picky eater.  And in the land of gourmet food such as Paris, being a picky food eater doesn’t always bode well.  When you’re surrounded by escargot and foie gras and pate and other items, all of which I’m not adventurous enough to try, it makes dining at nice restaurants a bit more difficult because I don’t always want to go to restaurants that predominantly serve items that I don’t want to eat.  Luckily, my husband is up to the challenge.  So, one day, he came to me with a suggestion for a little hidden gem of a restaurant that he’d read about that he wanted to try.  Admittedly, I’d be going a little bit outside my comfort zone for this restaurant, but I figured that you only live once and I needed to push my personal boundaries a bit because really, how often am I going to find myself in Paris. Three months in advance of our trip, we were finally able to secure a dinner reservation for this restaurant.  This was to be our last meal in Paris, hopefully it would be a memorable one too.

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Passage 53, a truly hidden gem, located in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement is situated inside this very narrow alleyway just off the main street.  The alleyway, called Passage des Panoramas is a little slice of Parisian history, filled with a couple of cafes and restaurants, but also very old stores that harken back to days long gone.  It was almost like stepping back in time a little bit with antique shops, and stamp collection shops, and clock shops, the alleyway had a charm all its own.  The restaurant, so aptly named Passage 53 is located at 53 Passage des Panoramas.  Nothing about the restaurant or its name gives away any hint as to the restaurant hidden behind the glass doors of the storefront.  In fact, you’d never even know that this storefront contained a world class, Michelin-star restaurant unless you were specifically looking for it.  The storefront bears no name or sign that indicates the business that operates behind the curtained windows.  A small discreet menu, which isn’t really a menu at all, is placed to the side of the front door, and that’s the only thing that even indicates that you’ve come to the right place.  When you look up in the alleyway, the open window of the 2nd floor indicates that there might be activity inside the store, and its only when you’re aware that this is a restaurant that you realize that what’s behind those open windows on the 2nd floor is the restaurant’s kitchen.

Only open for lunch and dinner, Passage 53 is small and intimate, seating no more than 20 people per meal, once per day.  There are not multiple sittings offered for each meal, rather one lunch seating and one dinner seating.  When you come for dinner, you wait at the front door until it’s almost dinner time, and at the appointed time, a tuxedoed man opens the door to let the guests in.  When your reservation has been confirmed, you’re seated at one of the 8 tables inside.  There are three service staff members for the 20 guests for each meal sitting, all dressed in formal wear.  This is not like any restaurant experience I’ve ever been a part of.  Before the meal begins, one of the waiters comes to our table to explain to us that what is offered for each guest is the seasonal tasting menu made with fresh products selected by the chef.  The menu changes daily and seasonally, as we are at the tail end of summer, we are still able to get summer products for our tasting menu.  It was explained that the tasting menu starts off with a seafood and vegetable dish, followed by a fish dish, a meat dish and then dessert.  There are no menus and no decisions to be made by the guests, save one.  The one thing you must decide is on an option supplemental dish made with a special ingredient prepared to the chef’s taste.  Generally, this supplemental dish will either feature caviar or foie gras, to be supplemental, it must be decadent and worthy of being something you can choose to add on to your dish.  For our meal, the supplemental dish was caviar.  After a brief description as to how the dish was to be prepared, we were each asked if we were interested in adding the supplemental dish to our tasting menu (no pressure, no upselling at all).  The offering seemed too good for either of us to pass up, so we both agreed to add the supplemental dish.  Once the explanation of how the evening was to be orchestrated was out of the way, it was just time to sit back and enjoy the presentation.

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Our first dish was a true starter, the corn cappuccino.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  Served in a small shot glass, this “drink” was made with corn and who knows what else because it wasn’t explained to us.  The only direction we were given is that we were to sip this drink and enjoy the flavors of it, savor it.  Like a cappuccino, it was frothy and creamy and even had some notes of coffee-flavoring to it.  But the “drink” certainly was all corn.  While the corn cappuccino was smooth, you could still get the texture of some of the corn kernels and you definitely could get the flavor of the corn.  It was sweet and thick and creamy and was almost like a rich corn chowder.  Sipping the drink and savoring it was such a magnificent start to our meal.  I couldn’t wait to see what the next dish would bring.

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As described by our waiter, the first official dish of the tasting menu was a seafood and vegetable dish.  Presented and served on this beautiful white and elegant plate was a dish of langoustine carpaccio with kombu flakes, kombu cream and kombu jelly with thinly sliced radishes.  Kombu, since I didn’t know what it was before, is an edible kelp generally found out in the open ocean off of Japan and Korea.  Most kombu these days are actually cultivated on the Japanese island of Hokkaido and kombu is widely used in East Asian cooking.  Using the combination of kombu flakes, kombu cream and kombu jelly gave the dish different levels of texture and flavor.  The dry flakes had a nice smoky flavor and the jelly and cream gave the dish a luxurious texture whose rich flavors were tempered by the thinly sliced radish which also added crunch to the dish.  But the star was the langoustine carpaccio which was so incredibly fresh and just literally melted in your mouth.  Langoustine, also known as the Norway lobster, is a shrimp-like crustacean that is actually a small lobster and widely eaten across Europe.  The flavors of the langoustine were amazing and spot on, and in combination with the kombu were perfect.  The dish was tangy and smoky and had just a hit of vinegar or acidity.  This is one of the most refreshing dishes I’ve ever tasted.

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For those in the restaurant that ordered the supplemental dish, this was the next to be brought out to the table.  As I mentioned tonight’s supplement featured caviar.  It was actually French farm sturgeon caviar from the middle of France scooped atop a baked fingerling potato stuffed with potato puree mixed with mascarpone mousse and hazelnuts.  I was originally on the fence about whether or not I wanted the supplement, but when the dish was described to us, I couldn’t resist.  I love potatoes to begin with, and potato puree mixed with mascarpone just sounded incredible.  I expected, however, that when they said that there was caviar on the dish that it would be like a little dollop of caviar.  Boy, was I wrong!  There literally was more caviar piled on top of the potato than there was any other component of the dish, the caviar was completely overflowing out of the potato and it was quite the sight to see.  Beyond the sight though, the flavor was UH-MAY-ZING!  I’ve had caviar before, and I’ve always thought it was ok, but not necessarily something I’d ever go out of my way to order. My husband is the opposite, every time he’s tried caviar, he’s always enjoyed it.  Hands down, this is the most delicious caviar dish I’ve ever had.  You could taste each of the individual flavors of each component of the dish: potato, mascarpone, hazelnut and caviar.  The crunch of the hazelnuts provided texture to counterbalance the creaminess of the potato puree.  The mascarpone really helped create a smooth creamy texture to the puree stuffed inside the potato skin, but it also provided a hint of sweetness to the dish.  The baked potato added some chewiness and difference in texture as it was a terrific serving vessel for the entire dish.  And finally, the caviar added some saltiness to the dish and that special je ne sais quoi.

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If you can believe it, we’re now on to dish number four of the night, and this is still considered part of the starter, or entree, if you’re French.  This dish was chanterelles from France with crispy chicken and egg served with a size of bread.  The bread was used to sop up the rest of the egg and other juices from the mushrooms and it was delicious.  The bread was super crusty on the outside, and doughy and yeasty on the inside.  This was one of those dishes I was concerned about because I don’t generally like mushrooms and usually do whatever I can to avoid them.  But, in a setting like this, I sort of knew I’d be compelled to try things I wouldn’t normally eat, and mushrooms were one of them.  Honestly, I will say that this wasn’t that bad, or not nearly as bad as I thought it could be.  The crispy chicken was delicious and amazingly flavorful.  The mushrooms were very woodsy and added an earthy quality to the dish.  I loved the addition of the egg which added the creaminess and richness to the dish and brought it all together.  The flavors of the dish were just incredible.  And my husband actually said that the bread that was served on the side had the most amazing crust on bread that he’s ever eaten, in fact, even a few dishes later, he was still talking about the amazing crust on the bread.

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Alright, it was finally time to move onto the next course in our tasting menu.  What follows are the seafood courses.  The first seafood dish was blue lobster from Brittany, which is in the south of France, served with lobster sauce, lobster mousse, jerez vinegar, which is a sweet vinegar from the south of Spain, cocoa powder and white grapes.  After having the blue lobster dish at L’epicure, I was so excited to taste this dish.  The flavors of the dish were amazing!  The dish had these huge chunks of blue lobster meat which were sweet and tender and perfectly cooked.  There was incredible lobster flavor in each bite, especially with the lobster sauce and lobster mousse enhancements.  But what was really surprising was the use of cocoa powder and how amazing that brought all the components of the dish together.  I really thought that you wouldn’t be able to taste the cocoa powder and that it put on the dish for visual appeal and as a gimmick, but I was very wrong.  The cocoa powder was incredibly noticeable and added a bit of savoriness and sweetness to the dish at the same time.  It’s hard to explain exactly but the blend in flavor between the rich lobster flavor and the tang of the jerez vinegar and the smoothness of the cocoa powder was just a perfect match.  And that vinegar, it was surprising and refreshing, especially since I’d never connect something such as vinegar and how it would taste when put into a dish with sweet seafood.  Finally, the few white grapes on the dish added a fresh burst of flavor, a little tang and sweetness to the dish.  Just beautiful.

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The second seafood dish was more mushrooms.  The dish was monk fish with porcini mushrooms and porcini sauce.  As this is a seasonal menu, and porcini mushrooms had just come into season the same week we were at Passage 53, the chef chose to use this dish to feature this popular mushroom.  This dish was a bit overwhelming with mushrooms, but again, it tasted much better than I had imagined it would.  The pairing of the monk fish with the porcini was wonderful.  The porcini sauce was sweet, but yet had the earthy woodsy flavor you’d expect from mushrooms.  The monk fish was perfectly cooked and it had such great body that it just soaked up all of the flavor of the porcini sauce.  And the fresh sliced porcini had great body and texture which was just complimentary to the fish.  I’m still not a lover of mushrooms, but this wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

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Before starting the meat portion of the main courses, it was time for a palate cleanser.  Passage 53 served us a green apple sorbet with jelly made with green apple and small slices of green apple and topped with an edible verbena flower.  My husband and I absolutely loved this palate cleanser.  The tartness of the green apple definitely cleansed and refreshed our palates.  But it wasn’t all just tart, there were hints of the sweetness to the dish as well.  Using the combination of jelly and sorbet was perfect because it was chilly and the differences of texture just coated your mouth with this terrific green apple flavor.  The addition of actually slices of green apple added the texture and crunch needed to complete this course.  Ready to move on to the meat courses now.

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The first meat course was tender baby veal with lemon dressing on the side, topped with wildflowers of the season and eggplant with cream for smoky flavor.  While I love meat, veal was one of those meats that I could eat, but didn’t love.  However, after one bite of this dish, I think I’m in love.  The flavors of the sauce with how delicately cooked the veal was made it absolutely perfect.  The combination of the wildflowers and the earthy flavor with the bright tang of the lemon sauce was absolutely insane.  The wildflowers also had a little bit of a licorice or bitter flavor to them that my husband absolutely loved since he’s always been a licorice fan. The crunch and texture of the wildflowers was absolutely amazing, and yet so fresh and beautiful and the eggplant sauce that the veal was sitting on top of was just an amazing combination of flavors and textures.  This dish not only had amazing visual appeal from the beauty of the wildflowers, but it delivered 100% on flavor as well.

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We were served a second meat dish which was beef from the North of Spain, dry aged from 8 – 10 weeks and served with sweet pimento peppers and a caramelized shallot sauce.  First off, the caramelized shallot sauce was absolutely delicious, it was sweet and rich, but at the same time had a little peppery bite.  My husband enjoyed the sweet pimento peppers as they gave the dish a slight bite of flavor.  The beef was cooked a beautiful medium rare and was full of flavor and body.  All the ingredients to the dish seemed quite simple, and yet the preparation of them was so delicate and beautiful that all of the flavors just harmonized with one another.  Spectacular finish to our meal.

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Time for dessert!  Or actually, as our waiter told us, the next course was the pre-dessert, the dessert before the dessert.  This dish was everything lemon featuring lemon cream with crumble, lemon sorbet, lemon juice and lemon chips.  Wow, this dessert was both sweet and tart at the same time and intense.  My husband loved this pre-dessert because the flavors were right up his alley.  This almost felt like eating a completely deconstructed lemon meringue pie with all the components, but about a million times better.  It certainly was lemon everything, as every component of the dish had lemon incorporated into it, but what was amazing was all the different forms of lemon in the dish that created not only amazing flavor, but spectacular textures.  The sorbet was probably the most tart component of his pre-dessert, but it was so smooth and creamy and so cool and refreshing.  The lemon cream was sinfully delicious and not too sweet and not too tart.  The play of the different textures, especially with the crumble, was fantastic.

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The actually dessert itself, which was our last course, was composed of three mini desserts.  The first was a creme brulee flavored with elder flower.  The creme brulee sat atop an acacia flower ice cream and atop the brulee was honey sorbet.  To really experience this dessert, you needed to taste everything together, a spoonful of the ice cream with the creme brulee with the sorbet.  It’s such a delicious combination because you get the floral notes from the ice cream which bring together the earthy note of the creme brulee and the honey sorbet rounds it all out with a bit of sweetness, but the combination of the floral notes and the honey together are just perfect.  Combining everything also gives you the textural contrast of the creamy ice cream, the rich custard and the silky sorbet all in one bite.  This dessert had just the right balance of flavors with just a little bit of sweet.

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The second mini dessert was apricots with vanilla rice pudding and buckwheat ice cream.  This was so interesting as I’d never heard of buckwheat ice cream before.  In fact, I’d never have thought of taking buckwheat and turning it into an ice cream flavoring.  But the combination of the slightly savory slightly doughy ice cream worked really well with the sweetness of the vanilla rice pudding.  Nothing was too sweet in the dessert as even the sweetness of the apricots was mellowed by the rice pudding.  Again, this dessert was all about the combination of the textures and the flavors coming together and how everything just paired so beautifully together.  Each dessert was like a work of art, but one that tasted just as good as it looked.

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Our final mini dessert was the house special dessert which is always served, a small slice of chocolate pie.  In fact, it’s actually more like a small slice from a chocolate tart rather than a chocolate pie.  It was light and delicate.  The dark chocolate was perfect as it was sweet and bitter, but the portion was small enough that the sweetness of the chocolate wasn’t overwhelming.  The mousse in the pie was so creamy and thick and rich, it was like a perfect bite of chocolate in each spoonful of pie.  I’m glad that this was a mini dessert and not a full sliced chocolate pie as I was so stuffed after so many courses.

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To end the meal, in a traditional French way, we were offered coffee, espresso, cappuccino, tea or any other after dinner drink we wanted.  I had to go with a latte, foamy steamed milk over a shot of espresso is just perfect.  Served alongside some cubed pure cane sugar for sweetness, a good cup of coffee is always a nice way to end any meal.

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And to our surprise, our after dinner drink came with our last goody of the evening, some home made mini madeleines.  So buttery and rich, and baked to a golden brown outside and a nice fluffy inside.  These little mini madeleines were a perfect ending to an incredible 12 course meal.

Hands down, for me, this was the most amazing restaurant experience I’ve ever been a part of.  Of all the meals that we had pre-planned for our trip to Paris, this was the one I was most nervous about.  A true chef’s tasting menu at a restaurant where menus are not handed out at all and you just are supposed to enjoy whatever is in season and at the chef’s whim to create.  That was my worse nightmare, because even though I enjoy fine dining, when it comes down to it, I’m a picky eater.  So, I was quite concerned that there were going to be multiple courses of food served that I either couldn’t eat or wouldn’t enjoy, and what we were actually served was quite the opposite.  Each and every single course of food presented to us at Passage 53 built upon the previous course, each course was more creative, more flavorful and more enjoyable than the next course.  The service at the restaurant was also immaculate.  Every course was beautifully presented with a full description of what we were about to enjoy and how it was created.  The waiters were friendly and nice and we had a good time talking to them.  But the star of the restaurant was the food.  Passage 53 deserves its amazing reputation and its easy to see why this is a 2-Michelin star restaurant.  While my husband enjoyed our experience at L’epicure better, and with good reason, Passage 53 still ranks up there in the top 5 restaurants of all time in his book.  For me, it is my #1 best restaurant experience ever and I’d have no hesitation recommending it to anyone who finds themselves in Paris.

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