When Jean-Claude Vrinat, celebrated host at Taillevent in Paris—which its partisans have long considered the best-run restaurant in the world—died of lung cancer early this year at the age of 71, many of his customers wondered if Taillevent was dead too. Vrinat had, since he inherited the place from his father in 1973 (the same year it won its coveted third Michelin star), paid such close attention to every detail of its food, wine, service, and décor, and his spirit infused the place so thoroughly, that it was difficult to imagine Taillevent without him.
“Taillevent,” literally “wind-cutter,” was the nom de plume (and de cuisine), of Guillaume Tirel, the 14th-century chef to several French kings who wrote what was is commonly considered to have been the first French cookbook, Le Viandier. When André Vrinat opened his restaurant in 1946, in a Paris just beginning to recover from war and occupation, his choice to name it Taillevent signaled to diners that the place would respect culinary tradition. But despite the implications of its name, it was never a chef’s restaurant: It was a restaurateur’s, first André’s and then his son’s. The chef has always been first-rate—only six men have held the position in the last 62 years—but probably not one diner in 20 would know his name. People came for the proprietor, and for the environment of quiet perfection he oversaw. The food was never groundbreaking at Taillevent, but it was always correct. The wine list was exquisite and very fairly priced (the younger Vrinat claimed to have personally chosen every one of the 1,500 or so offerings). The service was impeccable, and sometimes almost eerily prescient. (Lunching with a close friend one day years ago, I borrowed his spoon to have a taste of his soup. As I was passing it back, a waiter’s hand came from nowhere, lightly lifting it away, while another waiter set a clean spoon down at my friend’s place; it was all done so quickly, quietly, and elegantly that I wondered for a moment if I had imagined the whole transaction.) Was all this to be lost?
Not long ago, I had dinner at the restaurant for the first time since Vrinat’s death, not long ago, and can report that dire predictions seem unwarranted. Vrinat’s daughter Valérie Vrinat d’Indy, who worked with her father for the last 20 years of his life, is now in charge of the restaurant and its related businesses (which include a more casual restaurant nearby called L’Angle du Faubourg and the Caves Taillevent wine shop), and maître d’hôtel Jean-Marie Ancher, a 30-year Taillevent veteran, is still very much in charge of the dining room.
The place looks the same. The wine list is still spectacular and comparatively affordable (comparatively; this is, after all, a restaurant where dinner for two will cost $600 and up), and the service is still great—though it did seem perhaps a little less formal, a little more playful, than it ever had been under the always-correct M. Vrinat. And chef Alain Solivérès, who has been in the kitchen since 2002, was serving food that may have had a few more playful touches, too—not just the dill-scented crabmeat bound with lemon cream and topped with translucent slices of radish, or the sweetbreads meunière with girolles, green almonds, and baby lettuce, but also the mosaic of smoked eel and beets with a sweet-and-sour glaze based on yuzu and apples; the big, juicy langoustines, fried in an airy batter with a marmalade of oranges and green tea; or the pastilla of baby pigeon with cumin-scented carrots. It was all pretty darned good, though playfulness did descend into silliness with a faux-Adrià construction called “petits pois virtuels,” which graced peas with gelées of onion, bacon, and mint, to unpleasant effect.
Was Vrinat’s presence missed? Absolutely. But in general I thought the place was running so efficiently and staying so true to its past that he almost could have just been taking a night off. Except that he never took a night off.