Le Cinq, Four Seasons Hotel George V, 31 avenue George V, 75008 Paris (00 331 49 52 71 54). Meal for two, service and modest wine included: € 600 (£ 520)
There is only one thing worse than having a horrible meal served – having a horrible meal served by serious waiters who have no idea how horrible the things they do to you are. And so, at the flagship three-Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hotel George V in Paris, or the crime scene as I now like to call it. In terms of value for money and expectation, Le Cinq provided by far the worst dining experience I have had in my 18 years in this job. This, it must be said, is a sort of achievement.
It wasn’t meant to be that way. Angered by readers’ complaints about the cost of restaurant meals, I decided to visit a classic Parisian gastro-palate, as a test of reality. I envisioned it less as a review, and more as an observation piece, full of moments of joy and happiness, the kind that only stupid sums can buy. We would all make fun of rich people and then go back to business as usual, a little wiser. I chose Le Cinq, restaurant by Christian Le Squer, named chef of the year by his peers in 2016. I thought it would be whimsical, and perhaps scandalous. I never thought that the shamefully terrible cooking would relax my jaw from the rest of my head.
The dining room, at the back of the hotel, is a vast space of high ceilings and cornices, with thick rugs to muffle screams. It is decorated in various shades of taupe, cookie and fuck you. There is a bit of gilding here and there, to remind us that this is a piece designed for people who are unfamiliar with guilt. He shouts money as much as football fans shout at the referee. There is a stool for the lady’s purse. Well, of course there is.
Menus at the height of Richard Osman are brought. My companion, who has reserved the table, receives one without price. The waiters look baffled when we protest, but replace him. Again, after looking at these prices, I suspect that many people wish they would never see their fellow human beings again. Starters and main courses are roughly the same price, ranging from € 70 to € 140. Currently the exchange rate is 0.86 to 1. So that’s £ 121 for a single plate of food.
It all comes with canapes and appetizers, pre-desserts and bread and a serious attitude. Almost all the nice things we eat come from the pastry section. There is an irresistible puff pastry brioche, to eat with fresh and salted butter. Among the canapes is an extremely thin tart with a filling of whipped poultry liver mousse topped with diced pickles. I could still eat this. At the end there are quite nice chocolates. At these prices there should be some.
Other things are therapy. The couch we have to eat first is a transparent ball on a spoon. It looks like a silicone breast implant the size of a Barbie, and is a “spherification”, a gel globe using a technique developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli some 20 years ago. This one jumps into our mouths to release the stale air with a tinge of ginger. My companion grimaces. “It’s like eating a condom lying around in a dusty grocery store,” she says. Spherifications of all kinds – glowing, glowing, deflating, always misguided – are found on many dishes. It’s their thing, their thing, their big idea. That’s all they have. Another sofa, a tile enclosing the scallop puree, introduces us to the love of the acidity of cooking. No light, low-gloss aromatic acidity of the kind provided by, say, yuzu. It is the blunt acidity of the kind that polishes dull copper coins.
We hit it again in an appetizer that doesn’t make it: a passion fruit cut in half and reloaded, the vicious passion fruit complemented by a watercress purée that tastes only the bitterest tones of the plant. My lips are pursed, like a cat’s ass brushed with nettles.
The cheapest of the starters is the onion au gratin “à la Parisienne”. We’re told it tastes like French onion soup. It makes us crave a bowl of French onion soup. It’s mostly black, like nightmares, and sticky, like the floor of a teenage party. There are onion textures, but what stands out are burnt tones and spherified onion mash scoops jarringly bursting against the roof of the mouth. A dish of raw scallops marinated with sea urchin ice cream is a concentrate of iodine. It is the most innovative dish of the meal, although not very revolutionary. Lit sea urchin ice cream Iron Chef America back to the 90s.
A pigeon hand is requested medium, but served so rosy that it might just fly again with a few volts. It is accompanied by brutally sour Japanese pear and this tasteless watercress purée. A bunch of couscous is extracted with a very small portion of lamb for 95 €. Like watercress puree, it has little taste. It is accompanied by gummy purees, unpleasant spherifications of lamb stock and pasty “merguez” sausages and a note that is not the same. A sad and too reduced sauce coagulates on the plate.
A dessert of frozen chocolate mousse cigars wrapped in a tile is perfect, if you neglect the elastic flap of milk skin draped over it, like something that has fallen from a burn victim. A cheesecake with chunks of frozen parsley powder is not good. I ask the waitress what the green thing is. She said to me and said cheerfully: “It’s not great! No, I say. It is one of the worst things I have ever eaten. It tastes like cut grass. The parsley is bright with the fish. But in cheesecake? They take it off the bill. With our mint tea, we are served a trendy kouign amann, a caramelized puff pastry. It is burnt around the edges.
With this, we each drink a glass of champagne, a glass of white and one of red, chosen for us by the sommelier from a wine list including bottles at € 15,000. The alcohol bill is 170 €. The overall invoice is € 600. Every thing I ate at Skosh Restaurant for one sixth the price was better than this. It’s weird. Not that the older gentlemen with their nieces at the few other busy tables seem to care. The restaurant is never more than half full. The photos of the plates are broken. Notice that I also take pictures, but mine are shot like a methodically working crime scene officer.
I’ve spent money like this on dining experiences before and haven’t regretted it. We each build our best memories in different ways, and some of mine involve expensive restaurants. But they must be good. This one will also leave me with memories. They are dark and disturbing. If I work hard, one day, with luck, I might be able to forget.
Spot the difference
Some readers may notice a difference between my description of the onion dish – “mostly black, like nightmares” – and the image above, which is golden and rather beautiful.
There is a reason for this.
The Five did not let us photograph their food, as we usually do after examining, and insisted that we use press photos. It is extremely unusual. However, I took pictures during the meal, on an iPhone 7 using the available light. And that makes it a little bit clearer, as you can see.
In addition, Le Cinq provided only a very limited selection of food images. However, I photographed most of the meal.
If you want to know more about this you can visit my website jayrayner.co.uk/news/.
- If you want to do something stupidly expensive in Paris but can’t quite manage the three Michelin stars, try the Ritz hotel on Place Vendome. Head to the Hemingway bar at the back, which reopened last year after a four-year hiatus. It’s a little corner of gilded wood, animal skulls and pictures of Papa Hemingway, who lost many afternoons here. The cocktails, from legendary head bartender Colin Peter Field, are fabulous. They are also at 30 € each.
- On April 26, top chefs including Lee Westcott of The Typing Room and Robin Gill of The Dairy will gather in east London with former delinquents to cook for the charity Key4Life, which tackles the causes deep recurrence. Tickets are £ 50. Visit designmynight.com and search for Key4Life.
- Chef Ernst Van Zyl is launching ‘No-Menu Tuesdays’ at his pub, the Hanging Gate in Cheshire. There will be a menu with no choice of dishes that are in development or that Van Zyl just wanted to do that night. It will also seek comments and in return diners can decide how much to pay (thehanginggate.co.uk).
Jay Rayner’s new book, The ten commandments (food), is now available (£ 6, penguin). To order a copy for £ 5.10, go to bookstore.theguardian.com
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ jayrayner1