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But none of those restaurants top the price tag you'll find attached to dinner at Epcot's Monsieur Paul. The new upstairs restaurant in Epcot's France pavilion debuted last December, replacing Bistro de Paris, the three-time Theme Park Insider Award-winner as the world's best theme park restaurant. Could Monsieur Paul live up to that standard?
Monsieur Paul's hefty prices -- topping out at $89 for the four-course "Menu Prestige" -- no doubt made it relatively easy for me to secure an Advance Dining Reservation for my family of four on a busy Spring Break weekday that saw a posted three-and-half hour stand-by wait at the park's Test Track ride. (I used Disney's new dining reservations website to book a 5:45 seating three weeks in advance of our visit. Monsieur Paul is not open for lunch.)
Disney promised a "less stuffy" atmosphere than Bistro de Paris in the new Monsieur Paul, which is named for legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, who founded the original Bistro de Paris as well as Les Chefs de France downstairs. (Bocuse's family continues to manage the restaurants.) Nevertheless, Monsieur Paul retains an elegant atmosphere, setting the stage for your culinary adventure with a grand staircase ascending to the dining room.
You'll find personal photos of Bocuse lining the wall as you walk up to your table.
The white tablecloths are gone, but the dining room remains a refined space...
…with the occasional whimsical touch, such as napkins in the shape of a waiter's jacket.
Our dinner began with an amuse bouche -- complimentary cheese puffs for the table.
A great amuse bouche awakens your senses and prepares your taste buds for an oncoming adventure. These cheese puffs, while tasty, just weren't different enough from a bread course to stand out in that way, though. Still, we devoured them, as we did the baguettes our waitress soon brought to the table.
Baked on site in the France pavilion's new bakery, the French bread couldn't match the taste and texture of of the bread we'd enjoyed last summer in France. Like many U.S.-baked baguettes, it offered a chewier crust and sturdier crumb that the French baguettes, which shattered to reveal an ethereal interior. (Is it the water over here?) But I'll take this bread over any other baguette I've had back here in the U.S.
A bit worried about the check we'd be facing at the end of the meal, my wife and I were relieved to discover that, yes, Monsieur Paul has a children's menu, and yes, they'll let a teenager order from it. My 15-year-old Francophile daughter opted to start with the Ham and Gruyere cake, served with a frisee salad ($6).
Don't be fooled by the title -- this is a savory appetizer, much like a fluffy ham and cheese omelet, with a taste of salad on the side. For the main course, both my daughter and 12-year-old son ordered the Filet mignon with natural jus and mashed potato ($16).
My son had tried in vain to extract himself from the obligation of dining in a French restaurant, declaring he'd find nothing he wanted to eat. A dedicated fan of Chipotle and In-N-Out, he'd insisted on buying himself a bacon cheeseburger at the Electric Umbrella a couple hours before our meal time, since he obviously wouldn't be able to eat anything at this fancy place where we were dragging him for dinner. Yet when this steak hit his placemat, we didn't hear a thing from him from several minutes -- he was too busy eating to talk. When he finished, not one atom of food remained on his plate, and he declared it the best steak he'd ever eaten. He's still not yet willing to concede that he likes French food, but he'll give you that a French chef at Monsieur Paul can cook a pretty tasty steak.
Moving on to the grown-up meals, my wife decided to start hers with a salad, and she chose the Salade au Roquefort: mixed greens with Roquefort cheese, pear and caramelized walnuts ($15).
She reported that the pear balanced the sharpness of the Roquefort really well. There weren't so many pecans that you felt like you had candy in your salad, just enough to lend a sweet taste -- a bright note to the Romaine, which was lightly dressed with a touch of vinaigrette. Yet, like all of the selections at Monsieur Paul, this salad was big -- much larger than one would expect for a starter course from fine restaurant. However, our waitress, to her credit, provided fair warning about the portion sizes. Wanting to try as much as we could for a review even though we aren't big eaters, we ordered it anyway.
For her main course, my wife also opted for steak, selecting the Grilled beef tenderloin with mushroom crust, black truffle-laced mashed potatoes, and Bordelaise sauce ($43).
My wife said that the dish seemed a bit sweet with the mushroom crust. But the amazing black truffles in the potatoes made her forget all about that.
She called the potatoes "elegant -- smooth, with just enough truffle to keep you wanting another bite -- never enough to overwhelm you."
And yet… my wife ordered the steak medium, but it came to the table with less pink that she'd expected -- a shade closer to medium well. Given how well the Monsieur Paul kitchen nailed just about every other element of our meal, seeing it miss the temperature of a steak was like watching Alabama hang half a hundred on LSU in Baton Rouge, only to come home the next week and drop a game to Texas State. (Or winning an Express Pass on The Amazing Race and then forgetting to use it. Oh, wait a minute….)
What about my dinner? In case you're wondering, no, we didn't come to Monsieur Paul and fail to the order the Big One. Let's get to my choice -- the Menu Prestige ($89). I started with the designated appetizer: Saumon mi-cuit marine -- a lightly cooked marinated salmon, with blinis and cucumber salad ($17 if ordered a la carte).
Seared on the exterior, the salmon was warmed just enough to firm the texture and create a flavor contrast with the silky interior. Tasting such a expertly prepared cut reminds you of the rich salmon flavor that you lose with overcooked fish. And the thinly-sliced cucumber offered a refreshing bright flavor that balanced the richness of the salmon.
If Paul Bocuse is known for a single dish, it'd be his truffle soup, the Soupe aux truffes V.G.E.. Named for Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (the VGE in the title), the French President in the mid-1970s when Bocuse created the dish, the soup offers beef broth and finely diced oxtail, carrots, onions and celery, with a larger dice of mushroom pate, flavored with generous slices of black winter truffle and crowned with puff pastry ($29 a la carte).
Yes, it's an ostentatious dish. I removed the pastry toque for my first few spoonfuls of soup, then tore off and then dropped pieces of the pastry back into the broth, to absorb the truffle flavor, as I finished the bowl.
If you love the earthy umami taste of mushrooms, put Bocuse's truffle soup on your bucket list. Truffles are mushrooms elevated -- forget the tasteless fungus of grocery-store button mushrooms, these winter black truffles will awaken taste buds you didn't even know you had. It's the flavor essence of a rich, almost funky, steak, absent the heaviness and fat of the meat. Monsieur Paul's truffle soup does not skimp on truffles, offering dime-sized slices of truffle throughout -- not the mere wisps one typically finds in "truffle" dishes at fine restaurants.
With my taste buds leaving me in a bit of a mental daze after the soup, our waitress brought the main course: Herb crusted rack of Colorado lamb, presented with a Nicoise-style tart with goat cheese, onions and asparagus and served with a cassolet of flageolet beans and sausage on the side. (Neither the lamb nor the other Menu Prestige main course option, a roasted bone-in ribeye, is available a la carte.)
I left the decision on temperature to the chef's discretion, and the kitchen delivered three lamb chops cooked to a perfect medium rare. But what's this fourth one, hidden in there? The end cut, sliced thinly and charred to an almost-inedible well-done.
Why bother? Three chops for the main course were more than enough in a four-course meal. Why include this burnt end? Between this and my wife's steak, I wondered if Monsieur Paul had done away with a final check of all dishes as they left the kitchen, along with the white tablecloths. If the kitchen must make a choice, I'd wish it opt for limiting expenses with more reasonable portion sizes than settling for anything less than obsessive quality control. Not every American theme park visitor is a glutton, and a place like Monsieur Paul never will win that crowd.
I chose to ignore the extra chop (which I probably wouldn't have had room to finish anyway) and enjoy the other three cuts of lamb instead. Accented with a minty herbs, each piece offered the textbook, unique taste of lamb -- a touch gamier than beef, yet lighter at the same time -- engaging your taste buds with flavor without weighing them down with fat.
Monsieur Paul's wait staff mercifully allows you time between each course, allowing your appetite to recover enough to take on more food. For Americans used to waiters trying to turn tables, the service might appear slow. French cuisine finds its flavor not in spices added to its meals, but in the inherent tastes of select herbs, vegetables and meats. But to appreciate best those flavors, you sometimes need a few moments between courses. I was thankful for Monsieur Paul's staff for providing them.
The Menu Prestige did not offer its own dessert, instead allowing you to chose one from the regular dessert selections. I chose the Creme caramel, with sea salt caramel ice cream and a caramel macaron. (All desserts are $13, when ordered separately.)
My wife and daughter opted for the Warm chocolate almond cake, with praline ice cream.
My son selected the Three chocolate cake, with chocolate ice cream.
Sneaking a taste of each, I'd opt for the delightful chocolate cake, if given the choice again. The typical challenge for desserts is that they strike a single note at the end of a symphony of a meal. While you want to end a dining experience with clarity instead of confusion, you don't want to bore your taste buds with anything terribly simplistic at the end, either. My tour de caramel failed that test for me -- it was just too much caramel for me, though it was delicious. Maybe I'm just not that into caramel, after all.
But the chocolate cake offered several variations on a chocolate theme -- enough diversity in taste and texture to entertain your taste buds to the very end, while providing a deliciously coherent end to the meal by staying within the family of chocolate. The almond cake with a molten chocolate center finished a close second among the desserts for me, and perhaps could have beaten the cake had it not overwhelmed me with so much molten chocolate. Again, sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much.
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