Why does free food always taste better? In college, free food—generally mediocre, cold-upon-arrival pizza—was the required lure to get people to come to any meeting. As a journalist just arrived in New York, I made whole dinners of free food at promotional events and book parties, stalking trays of tuna tartare and stuffed mushrooms until I was full. I was 25 and these were exquisite meals. And even now, for some reason that is neither greed nor stinginess, but has more to do with a feeling of ceremony, a meal tends to taste particularly wonderful when someone treats you.
But there is another free-food ritual that tastes better than even a whole free meal: the amuse-bouche. An amuse-bouche is that complimentary hors d’oeuvre served before the first course, a surprise treat sent out by the chef. It’s allegedly to distract you from the wait before the appetizer, but really to impress you with his ingenuity. It must be something that even in a small quantity makes a memorable impact, that leaves you with a flash of flavor or richness in just one swallow. It’s a free thrill—always the best kind!
The amuse-bouche is typical especially in French restaurants, and required ritual at any Michelin-starred establishment, where these small bites are presented in a deliciously overwrought pageantry. At the kind of place that has a few stars in the red bible, a white-coated waiter appears at the table unexpectedly, holding immense plates upon which rest miniscule portions of something as yet unrevealed. He bends forward obsequiously, and whispers a complex description of this bite-size miracle, as though letting you in on the secret of your own VIP-ness with this tribute the chef has prepared—it would seem—exclusively for you.
There is one amuse-bouche experience in particular that I will never forget. I had it over ten years ago at L’Arpège, the extraordinary Paris restaurant of Alain Passard, the most experimental of France’s celebrity chefs. It’s on the Rue de Varenne, in a grandiose Left Bank neighborhood of ministries and embassies. The lunchtime crowd in the plush, art deco dining room was all businessmen and deputies, the French government elite who, after lunch, would go back to their offices and continue to run the country. When the waiter deposited the brown-shelled egg in its simple white stand, he described it as a chaud-froid d’oeuf fermier, a cooked then chilled farm fresh egg. It didn’t sound very impressive. It looked like breakfast. He continued: in the eggshell was a warm coddled egg yolk, topped with a dollop of cool whipped cream, a sprinkling of sea salt and chives—and a drizzle of maple syrup.
I couldn’t imagine what it tasted like, and most of all, I couldn’t imagine these elitist technocrats around us starting off their expensed lunch with maple syrup—something that barely exists in France, and that the French tend to associate with the crass American appetite for the cloying and caloric. But the taste was unforgettable: the yellow liquid of the ruptured yolk, blending with the salted airiness of the cream, and cut by the sweetness of the maple syrup, hit three exquisitely high notes. I cleaned out the egg and never forgot it.
It turns out that many others who’ve tasted the chaud-froid d’oeuf haven’t forgotten either. I discovered a whole subculture of chaud-froid worship on the Web, with websites in English, Dutch, French and Spanish describing the ecstatic experience—and sometimes trying to recreate it. Here is a link to one of these recipes.
Of course, it may not taste as good as the one in the art-deco dining room, but that’s just because it won’t be free.
EGGCELLENT Pictured above, a version of Alain Passard's famous egg served at Manresa in Los Gatos, California (photo by The Ulterior Epicure, who has also documented a phenomenal 19-course amuse bouche menu served at Germany's Restaurant Dieter Müller).