Hélène Darroze’s Marsan Supersedes Classic French Gastronomy Standards
I’ve long given up on mastering Paris’ snail—spiralling administrative districts culminating at the fancy 1st arrondissement, the historical heart of Paris. From the bourgeois aspirations of the 7th to the fiercely food dedicated Rue Montorgueil in the 2nd, and then to the 8th arrondissement dripping in luxury—Paris is a hedonist’s dream. And, lest your psyche is impervious to all manners of misfortune and misconduct on the medieval lanes, it is also a city best explored on foot.
Last Tuesday, I stepped off the thundering Rue d’Assas in the bustling 6th arrondissement and fell into the laps of edible luxury in Chef Hélène Darroze’s restaurant Marsan. The modest teal entrance quickly gives way to a plethora of secrets as you’re led past beige and mirrored walls into a narrow corridor flanking an exposed cellar and a roomy private dining area. A quick hike up a spiral staircase, past the “La Table d’Helene”—a chef’s table that offers a sublime vantage point of the kitchen, and you’re escorted to your seat. Tables of two or four, flushed against the combed rose pink walls grant ample space to appreciate the long meal and unprecedented service. The army of staff was cordial and very stealth; their footfall, the hiss of hot dishes, the opening of cloches, all muffled by the grey carpeting.
As the clock ticked past 1 p.m., I spotted an unexpected crowd of French out-of-towners, die-hard fans of Top Chef and fashion mobsters approaching the mind-bending tasting menus with gusto. I was expecting to see more bored executives scarfing down degustation menus, but you will not find an air of dealmaking in Marsan, which was refurbished and renamed in 2019. In an interview between Singaporean-based Nyonya culinary evangelist Violet Oon and Darroze, she revealed that Marsan was designed to feel like guests are entering her home. It features her childhood, roots and the best produce from her home region in Les Landes, South West of France. Think foie gras, truffles, Armagnac and a whole host of ingredients that will leave your appetite giddy with excitement.
The crayfish from Brittany was an absolute showstopper as a first course. Its salt-licked crustacean flesh was marinated with Thai basil and spring onion garnished with daikon pickles. There was a puddle of consommé of crayfish and fond—an ode to Chef Hélène’s frequent trips to Hanoi when she was adopting her first child. Since then, it “felt second nature to cook pho with shellfish instead of chicken,” she said. This was followed by ceps from Bordeaux layered with sea bream gravlax and lardo di Colonnata to resemble a mille-feuille tipped over on its side.
At this point, my perception that Marsan might just be another pompous French dining destination was dissipating. What appears as a light hand in saucing is how Darroze carries the tension that exists between adaptation and tradition. Eschewing the repertoire of sure-fire French sauces, she employs Asian ingredients with intent at conveying her cultural curiosity. Two dishes in, and I was smitten. Up next, her signature Les Landes duck foie gras dish pan-seared till it had a crust like fresh thin ice, which caught the glow of the warm light orbs overhead. Its richness offset by a marmalade of burnt lemon from Menton and a clear broth of smoked eel and dashi. The kind of traditional French offering that had been given a facial reconstruction only to emerge a total stunner at the end.
Darroze proceeded to throw another curveball by poaching the blue lobster in tandoori spiced butter replete with beurre noisette and fresh coriander. Besmirched by a slick poultry and apple cider jus, the dish was a heap of one too many good things. It paled in comparison to the next course of red mullet from the Basco coast—cooked till a near-perfect ten in technicality. It sat patiently next to a folded half-moon of chard leaf which I proceeded to disrobe first. Ah, a kaleidoscope of textures with butternut squash and spelt risotto; crunchy one minute, juicy and yielding the next—a celebration that winter was coming.
Already filled to the brim, I had to psych myself up like a boxer preparing for battle to tackle the final meat course: the A5 Wagyu Beef from Gunma Prefecture. On top of that, I was kicking myself for not sticking to the other choice of farmed pigeon cooked on Darroze’s grandfather’s grill. Given my modest propensity that day, I was grateful to be seated beside a cheerleader who accepted donations of the marbled kind. The 9-course requires an insatiable appetite, after which you might need a quick exit strategy to bed.
Dessert kicked off with salted crackers and quince paste snowed upon by matured cheese pressed from uncooked ewe’s milk originating from Saint Jean de Luz in the French Basque Country. Then we moved on to figs poached in verjus and flanked by speculoos creme and fig leaf sorbet. It was oddly moreish despite my impartiality towards figs.
Earlier, my companion had spotted a certain famed figure opposite us, indulging in a delightfully pleasurable plate of Armagnac, so we requested a swap. The rum baba looked like a commercial-worthy memory-foam pillow before the staff slid a knife through its core, revealing plump, moist interiors already saturated with its primary spirit—rum. This naughty equation was quickly dialled up when assaulted by the speed pourer barricading the Darroze 2000 AOC Bas Armagnac. Cinnamon Chantilly and caramelised apple bathed in a dash of quince vinegar were the closers. The artery-clogging result was delicious and one can see why it had made the ‘secret menu’.
Treat the melange of chocolate desserts as the restaurant’s coup de grâce—a tornado of Vietnamese Mekong 70% chocolate, cumin infused ice cream and Meyer lemon confit pleases even at the boundaries of intemperance. Do not miss out on the tartlet of smoked black tea and hazelnuts nor the gold-flecked bar that when bit into reveals cascades of rich caramel ganache imbued with lemongrass.
It was hard to bid adieu after experiencing such a place of magic, only to find yourself back into the Muggle world. Darroze has, in a space of a chic townhouse tucked away from wandering eyes in the 6th arrondissement, created a “home” that redefines French cuisine with a feminine touch.
Drop your current, predictable reservations in Paris and take the leap. Your mind will be blown. This has been an awakening for the haute cuisine seeker in me.