Thursday, December 08, 2016

Le Souffle, Paris

I recently took a very quick trip to Paris to meet with some co-workers.  I had only 3 evenings in Paris, one of which I was stuck in the office working (booo!), one of which I went to a nice Michelin star meal with Ojan at Les Fables de la Fontaine, and one of which I organized a group dinner, for 5 of us.

I struggled with deciding on a location.  I had so many places in Paris that I *wanted* to dine, and virtually no opportunities to do so.  But most didn't seem quite appropriate, they were either Michelin stared, or were no reservations sorts of places that I thought might be difficult with a group of 5, or required dressing up, which I didn't think would fly since we were going straight from the office, or were too far away.  For every place I wanted to go, I had a reason not to.

I actually made a booking at one restaurant, had too many second thoughts so I changed it to another, reconsidered, and then changed it once again.  In the end, I settled on Le Souffle.

Le Souffle is, yup, a restaurant serving mostly soufflé.  It is located a 20 minute walk from our office, seemed like it would be fine with a group of not-so-fancy engineers, and would give us a fairly French experience.  I'll admit, I was a bit worried it was going to be a tourist trap, like "OMG, soufflé!", as I realize a place specializing in soufflé is a rare thing for most, but reviews were so positive I pushed my fears aside.

I should have known better.

Was Le Souffle awful?  No.  But was it good?  Nope.  It was the most mediocre soufflé I've ever had.  The soufflé all looked excellent, but, just failed to deliver any real flavor.  The highlight of the meal for me was the bread and butter.  I felt bad that I led us there, like I had let the others down.  At least the service was good, and the meal actually moved along quite quickly, a bit surprising given that the soufflé had to bake.

Le Souffle opened at 7pm for dinner service, which is exactly when our reservation was.  By 7:15pm the entire restaurant was full.  I guess they really do require reservations and really are popular.

Here is my recommendation: if you want good soufflé, come to San Francisco instead, and go to Cafe Jacqueline.  Now *that* is good soufflé.

Setting

Le Souffle is located in the 8th Arrondissement, down one of many streets with sidewalks too narrow for a group.
Front of Restaurant.
It has some curb appeal with pretty blue woodwork, and a sign featuring a big, fluffy soufflé.
Menus.
The menus, with both French and English, are posted on front, drawing you in for soufflé.  Warning: English signage is not actually a good thing.
Place Setting.
Tables were set with white tableclothes, and fake (!) flowers.

I somehow didn't get an interior shot, but, the place did have a nice feel to it, sorta like grandma's house, with pale yellow walls, a dark brown chair rail, decorative floral plates, and paintings on the wall featuring bottles of wine and soufflé-related ingredients.  The painting were not all hung straight nor lined up properly, which happened to bother one guest in our group.

We were in a small room in front, which made me believe the restaurant was quite small, but when I ventured to the bathroom, I realized there were other rooms in the back as well. 
No Boys Allowed.
I always say I don't review bathrooms unless there is something particularly interesting, and this sign made me laugh.  There were two stalls, one that showed both a man and a woman, and one that had the man crossed out.

Food and Drink

Le Souffle is known for their soufflé, both sweet and savory, but the menu is actually far more extensive than that.

We opted to stick with all soufflé, and our meal progressed very quickly.  Service was generally good, we were brought share plates and spoons for sharing, staff were fine with speaking English to us, etc, but I did feel rather rushed.  On more than one occasion they tried to remove dishes while people were clearly still eating.  I'm sure this is because they pace everything out and you can't exactly hold back a soufflé, so when we were taking too long with our entree soufflé they didn't know what to do since the dessert ones were coming out already, but it was a bit odd how they literally tried to take away a plate with food on it as someone was putting their fork to their mouth still.
Menu.
The black leather skinned menu is a bit to take in.  Unlike my favorite soufflé restaurant, Cafe Jacqueline, it contains far, far more than soufflé.

The first menu page is a reasonable prix fixe, "Le Menu Tout Souffle" for 37€ which includes your choice of 4 starters (all of which include an item and a mini souffle), your choice of 4 main dish souffles, and any dessert.  If you wanted all 3 soufflé soufflé courses, this is quite a deal, as they price out at about 45€ normally.  Reviewers all stress that this is crazy unless you share it with someone, that one person simply cannot eat a starter soufflé, a main soufflé, and a dessert soufflé all on their own.

The next menu page is another prix fixe, "Le Menu Degustation", for 46€, with your choice of more substantial starter, a main dish  (non-soufflé), and then any dessert.

Then the a la carte menu begins.  Starters include some classics like french onion soup, smoked salmon, escargot, and foie gras.  Then, "Nos Assiettes Degustation", or, the starters that come with small soufflés on the side, like a foie gras terrine with a small foie gras soufflé, or a scallop tartlet with smoked salmon and a ricotta & basil soufflé.

Next is the "Nos Poissons", or, the seafood selections, including grilled salmon, roasted sea bass, seared scallops, and more, all of which came with assorted sides and sauces.

"Nos Viandes", meats, come next, ranging from beef, to chicken, to duck, again, all with sides and sauces.  This kitchen must be very large to handle so many dishes.

And finally, the full size savory soufflés, "Nos Souffles Sales".  Here you had the most options, some vegetairan, others with meat or seafood.  The descriptions often left out fairly essential elements though, like, well, sauces.  I knew that many came with sauces on the side, but only two of them explicitly said it on the menu.

After a small kids menu comes a full page dessert menu.  Most, as you'd expect, are soufflé.  Again, only two mention that they come with a sauce, but I knew that many would come with a liquor on the side, and I'm pretty sure a couple come with ice cream.  They do offer up a few non-souffles as well, such a tarte tatin, sorbet, and creme brulee.

We decided to stick with souffle, since it is what the restaurant is known for, and, if we wanted some quality fish or meats with sauces, then we could go just about anywhere else in Paris.  We also decided to just share a bunch.  Ojan mentioned that he wanted salad, so we decided to get one of the "Le Menu Tout Souffle", so we could get the starter with the salad on the side, and then a main dish soufflé and a dessert soufflé that we were already planning to get.

For our group of 5, we ordered:
  • 1 starter with small soufflé
  • 3 main dish soufflé
  • 3 dessert soufflé
which we did as one "Le Menu Tout Souffle", plus 2 additional main and 2 additional dessert.  This was more than enough, and we actually didn't finish it all.  That said, I think that was more a reflection on the quality, rather than quantity, of the soufflé.  No one really wanted to finish these, not that they couldn't.

Once we ordered, the meal progressed quickly.  Our wine was brought out and poured, and warm bread was delivered to the table moments later.  2 minutes later, the appetizer soufflé appeared.  Exactly 10 minutes later, the entree soufflés arrived.  And only 22 minutes after that, the desserts.  Looking at the timestamps on my photos, I realize it was no wonder we felt rushed, and no wonder they were doing strange things like taking food away from us.  The kitchen was a little overzealous, and obviously, you can't just leave a soufflé sitting under a heat lamp ...
Domaine de la Creuze Noire Saint-Amour Belle Vue, Beaujolais, France.
I delegated wine ordering to another member of our group, so I could focus on the soufflé.  I suggested a light red, and this was his pick.

It was fine, a decent table wine, inexpensive.
Warm Bread and Butter.
Our meal started with bread and butter, one large roll for each of us, and butter dish on each end of the table.  I'm never one to fill up on bread at a meal, because I usually want so many other things, and bread just rarely wows me.  So I took only a half, when someone else split one in half.  I quickly went back for more.

The bread won points from the start for being served warm.  It was crusty, yet soft and fluffy.  Just a dinner roll, but, really, a good one.

The butter was delicious French butter.  Sigh.  Why can't we have butter like this?  It was rich and creamy, and served on a cute little "Le Souffle" plate.

I genuinely enjoyed this bread.  In fact, it was the highlight of my meal.

NOS SOUFFLÉS SALÉS (Our Savory Soufflés)

For our savory portion of the meal, I wanted a mix of soufflés.  The starter salad and soufflé combo came with a basic cheese soufflé, which I thought would help frame the rest of the richer soufflés.  

I wanted to have one veggie soufflé, and had read many great things about the asparagus soufflé, but, alas, it was off the menu when we visited.  Our veggie choices were: cheese, spinach & goat cheese, mushrooms, or blue cheese & pears.  Since we already had cheese with the starter, and I hate goat cheese and kinda dislike blue cheese, that left us with mushroom.  So, mushroom it was.

Next I wanted a seafood or meat option.  Seafood choices were artichoke and haddock, salmon, ricotta, & basil, or pikefish soufflé with crayfish sauce.  Reviewers said the crayfish sauce was too intense, I don't like artichokes, and I don't generally care for cooked salmon, so, that ruled out all the seafood.  Meat options were beef bourguignon, foie gras & fig jam, ham & cheese, and "Henri VI".  I did somewhat want the foie gras version, since you know how I had a thing for foie gras for a while, but no one else wanted it.  Since ham & cheese had good reviews and seemed like a crowd pleaser, I went for that, plus the signature Henri VI (more on that soon).
Petit soufflé fromage & sa salade verte (part of set menu)
"Small cheese soufflé with green salad."

I have to admit, the mini soufflé really was quite cute.  But that is about all the good I have to say about this.  It was light and fluffy, but not particularly cheesey.  I have no idea what kind of cheese was used, as it wasn't flavorful enough to determine, and the menu always just said "cheese".  Some soufflés mentioned a particular type, like goat cheese or blue cheese, but the rest just said "cheese", and unlike Cafe Jacqueline where it is specified that all soufflé uses gruyere unless they say otherwise, this menu said nothing.

So, "cheese" soufflé it was, light and airy, but pretty flavorless.  We had a hard time finding anyone, out of a group of 5, to even want to finish this mini thing, that is, to take more than two bites.  Things weren't looking particularly good.

The salad was just simple greens in a vinaigrette.  It was for Ojan, and when I asked him for a comment on it, he just shrugged.  At the end of the meal, he concluded that the salad was his favorite part.
Soufflé jambon fromage. 15€.
"Ham & cheese."

The soufflés at Le Souffle really do *look* amazing.  Look at the height!  Compared to the Cafe Jacqueline versions, these rose much, much higher.

The ham and cheese was the only soufflé we ordered, besides the simple cheese, that did not have any additional sauce.  Just like the cheese soufflé though, it just didn't have much cheese.  No cheesy deliciousness here.  The slices of ham were good though.

Overall, yes light and fluffy, but ... just no flavor, except in the bits of ham.  Pretty boring.

While it was much higher than the Cafe Jacqueline soufflés, it was smaller in diameter, and overall, one of these soufflés is much less food than a Cafe Jacqueline soufflé.  The cost is about half too, so, that makes sense, the Jacqueline ones are meant to be shared by at least two people, whereas these are kinda meant for one.
 Soufflé forestier. 16€.
"Mushrooms."

Next up, our veggie option: mushroom.

Again, fluffy and beautiful to look at .  This one did not have a plain base, it actually had little tiny bits of mushroom in it, kinda like it was made from cream of mushroom soup.  I think it had no cheese (the menu didn't mention cheese, and we didn't taste any, but then again, we didn't really taste much in the others either ...).  While it clearly had the mushroom in it, you could see it, and the inside was kinda brown and spotted, again, I just didn't taste much.
Mushroom Souffle and Sauce.
But, the mushroom soufflé did also come with a sauce.  The server brought over the little vessel with mushroom sauce, cut a hole into the top of the soufflé, and spooned some in, leaving the rest with us.

I was really excited about the sauce.  I'm a sauce girl, and I particularly love creamy sauces.  I did a novice move though and slathered my souffle in it.  And then I tasted it.  I hated it.  I can't explain what the taste was exactly, but it had such a strange taste that I just couldn't stand.  I did not like this at all.  My least favorite.  No one finished this one.
Soufflé Henri IV sauce volaille aux champignons. 17€.
"Cheese soufflé with chicken & mushroom sauce."

The Henri IV is the soufflé that they are most famous for, and the one that reviewers all go nuts over.  So, even though I'm totally not one for chicken, I got it for the group.  

The soufflé base was plain cheese, like the starter.  Nothing much to say about that.  Like the mushroom one, the server punched a hole in it, and spooned in some sauce.  The sauce was a cream sauce with chunks of chicken and sliced mushrooms.  I liked the mushrooms, and the cream sauce was inoffensive, but not particularly good.

This was my favorite, but, that isn't saying much.  I really do see the appeal, and love the idea of sauces and soufflé, I mean really, these should be things I love, but, they just failed to deliver here due to complete lack of flavor.

NOS SOUFFLÉS SUCRÉS (Our Dessert Souffles)

As sad as I was about the entree soufflé, I still had hope for dessert.  I'm a sweet tooth, and, well, dessert is what soufflé is normally all about anyway.

We had many options for sweet soufflé.  There were several with chocolate, and we opted for one of them.  Several with fruits, like apple, lemon, pears, red fruits, and grapes.  None of those were particularly excited fruit options though, so we skipped them.  Next were a couple vanilla options, one of which I picked.  Finally, some crowd pleasers like Grand Marnier, caramel, and hazelnut, plus the more unique chestnut, which we opted for.

We had to order the dessert soufflés at the start of the meal, which I didn't really like.  How would we know how full we'd be?  Did we want 2 soufflés, 3, or even 4?  We went for 3.

We also opted not to get any of the other traditional french desserts, but we could have ordered sorbet, tart tatin, or creme brulee.  I love creme brulee, but, it seemed like a silly move at a souffle restaurant.

Our dessert soufflés hit the table 22 minutes after our first entree soufflé.  As I mentioned, they really rushed us to remove the savory dishes, clearly because these were on their way.  When the soufflés arrived, we did not yet have new plates nor utensils.  We had to sit waiting for a while to receive them, just staring at our soufflés.

The dessert soufflés had slightly more flavor, but weren't as tall and lofty as the savory soufflés, and, still, just weren't great.
Soufflé marquise. 12€.
"Chocolate with cream & rum."

I'm never one for chocolate desserts in the evening, but most others are, so they wanted a chocolate soufflé.  There were other options with chocolate sauce, but they went for the "marquise", with cream and rum.

The soufflé, while not loftly like the savories, was still quite light.  It had a decent chocolate flavor, and some little chocolate chips in the center.  There was not any cream nor rum actually in the soufflé though, and I think all the chocolate soufflé used the same base, and just had different sauces to pour in.
Soufflé marquise - with sauce.
Like the mushroom and Henri IV souffles, our server punched a hole in the center, and poured in some sauce, in this case, the cream and rum sauce.

I like cream, I like rum, and I like sauce, but, this sauce was just way too boozy.  It just wasn't good to have that much in your face rum.

I of course loaded my soufflé with the cream sauce, expecting to love it, so, just like the mushroom soufflé, I sorta ruined it.

Without the sauce, the soufflé was better, but, still, just a mediocre chocolate soufflé.
 Soufflé Rothschild. 12€.
"Vanilla, candied fruits & kirsch."

This soufflé was my pick, sorta a consolation prize.  The recent reviews I read all raved about a creme brulee souffle stuffed with white chocolate sauce.  Literally, every person who tried it declared it the best thing ever.  And ... no longer offered.  This one jumped out as at least interesting.

It came with a bottle of kirsch on the side, which of course our server poured into the center, and then left the bottle on the table for us to continue soaking our soufflé in, if we choose.  I didn't really choose, I didn't like the harsh alcohol flavors dominating everything, not that the soufflé had a lot of flavor to give on its own anyway.

The base soufflé was vanilla I guess, but tasted quite plain.  In the center was little bits of candied fruit cubes.  They were very crunchy, but, you guessed it, not very flavorful.  Maybe one of the real fruit versions would have been better.
Soufflé Rothschild: Inside.
Those of us who took the first couple servings thought the soufflé was plain, sans the few bits of fruit in the middle on top, but, it turned out, there was a ton more of the bits of fruit in the bottom.  They still weren't great, and no one wanted to finish this soufflé.  I tried a few more bites willing myself to like it, because the candied fruits looked like they should be good, but alas, were not.
Soufflé châtaigne. 12€.
"Chestnut."

Our final option, chestnut, mostly because it just sounded the most interesting.  It too was served with a bottle of booze, a chestnut liquor that our server doused the souffle in before we had a chance to stop him.  We wanted to stop him since Ojan can't have alchol, and now all three dessert soufflés were soaked in it.  He tried a bite of each, but, since none were actually very good, he didn't bother trying to get any without booze, and just passed on dessert.  At a soufflé place.  Sadness.

Anyway, the chestnut version.  It had a decent chestnut flavor, and a large roasted chestnut in the middle, which I quickly claimed.  Besides the bread and butter, the chestnut from the center of this was really the only other thing I actually liked in this meal.

I did almost enjoy a few bites of the top too, where it was a bit crispy, and slightly sugary from being sprinkled with sugar.  If only it hadn't been overwhelmed with booze.

This was my favorite, but, just barely.
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