"Taillevent" was the nom de cuisine of a noted 14th-Century French chef whose real name was Guillaume Tirel. This early gastronomic Mr. T served successively as maitre queux ("master cook") for Philippe de Valois, the Duke of Normandy, and Kings Charles V and VI of France. In 1379, under the former's patronage, he wrote (or at least compiled) a manuscript called "Le Viandier," considered to be the first cookbook in the French language. His coat of arms bore three marmites (cook pots) bordered by six roses.
All of this information is considerably less interesting to the contemporary diner than the fact that Taillevent has much more recently lent his name to a Parisian restaurant that many of its fans consider to be the world's greatest eating place.
Well, now. . . . The trouble with superlatives of any kind is that the institutions (or people, or whatever) to which (or whom) they are applied can never live up to them--or can "live up" to them only by virtue of intense wishful thinking on the part of those who seek to find them so finally exalted.
I feel safe in saying, then, that Taillevent is not the single greatest restaurant in France, much less the world, simply because I don't think such an animal exists. But it is an extraordinary place, one of those rare restaurants where even the first-time visitor can be pretty darned sure that he is going to be exquisitely taken care of.
Consider the following scene, for instance: An American gentleman arrives at Taillevent to meet a French friend for lunch. The American is the first to arrive. He is promptly seated (there is no bar) in a comfortable boxed-in booth before an ample and beautifully set table. After he has been there just long enough to settle in, a waiter appears to offer an aperitif and--what a civilized idea!--a newspaper or magazine to glance at while waiting. With the aperitif comes a small plate of very light gougeres --cheese-flavored puff pastries, perfect to assuage hunger without ruining the meal to come. By the time the Frenchman arrives, a few minutes later, the American is thoroughly pleased with the way the repast has started.
Part of the feeling of well being is surely due to the way the restaurant's furnishings: 17th-Century paintings, 18th-Century tapestries and 19th-Century silver, with lots of dark-wood paneling and deep-blue upholstery. The restaurant is still warm, understated, self-confident rather than showy. Even the tableware is fine without being fragile, handsome without being ornate.
More important than the furnishings, though, is the service: It is simply incredible. Nobody hovers but everybody watches. The waiters seem to have that wondrous and uncommon waiters' instinct that allows them to realize what a customer needs just a few seconds before he does. My favorite example involves a bit of food-sharing a friend of mine and I were engaging in one afternoon here: My companion carefully pased me a spoonful of his soup to taste. At the very moment that I brought the spoon to my mouth, a clean spoon appeared at his place, and as I started to return the used one to him, it was lightly (and politely) lifted from my hand and spirited away.
I must also add that when a patron rises to visit the toilettes , he is unobtrusively guided in the right direction by one of the younger garcons , who then waits by the hallway to guide said patron back. I hardly need add, I trust, that upon one's return to table, a new crisply folded napkin has appeared at one's place.
"Yes, yes, yes," you might well be saying by this time, "but what about the food?" Ah, the food. . . . To begin with, it is important to understand that this is not a chef's restaurant, but rather a restaurateur's restaurant. Few Taillevent regulars could tell you the name of the chef. (For the record, it's Claude Deligne.) All of Paris, and much of the rest of the food-conscious world, however, knows that the establishment's proprietor is Jean-Claude Vrinat, son of Andre Vrinat, who founded the place roughly 40 years ago and had built it up to three-star status by the time of his retirement in the mid-1970s. The younger Vrinat is everywhere in evidence at the restaurant today. He is a working proprietor, ceaselessly roaming the dining room attending to every detail, greeting regulars, making intelligent small-talk even with first-time customers. His presence is perhaps the one great secret of Taillevent's success.