Au Bonheur du Palais
It is not often that I pay four visits to a restaurant before reporting on it, but that is the case with this review of Au Bonheur du Palais. The restaurant has turned out to be something of a favourite with the Bordelais, and I confess that on my first three visits I did not pay. By this I don't mean I managed to avoid the bill by slipping unnoticed out of a bathroom window, but I was hosted there, in two cases by a Bordeaux négociant, in one case by a friend. Every visit gave some moments of joy, but I didn't think it appropriate to report on my visits without being an unknown customer and without paying my own way, rather than as a companion of otherwise regular clientele.
So recently I returned to this unique restaurant, credit card in hand and family in tow, for what I hoped would be another evening of gustatory Szechuan and Cantonese pleasure. The restaurant is located in Bordeaux's city centre, on a narrow and unprepossessing side street not far from the Place de la Victoire, and its facade is, frankly, uninspiring. It looks more cafe than restaurant, and a rather rotund, golden Buddha in the window adds a note of kitsch. Do not be dissuaded though; inside the welcome is warm and genuine, led by proprietor Tommy Shan (pictured below) and his family. And Oriental explosions of flavour await you.
On the visit in question we availed ourselves of one of the set menu options, giving us eight dishes from about twenty-or-so possible selections. At Tommy's suggestion he toned down the spices in some of the dishes; he was thinking of my children, although I have never found the level of heat in any of his dishes to be challenging. Indeed, it is this sensitive use of spices, maintaining an authenticity in the dishes but facilitating their serving alongside the wines of France (including Bordeaux, naturally, but there are interesting selections from many other regions, including wines from the late Didier Dagueneau and Clos Rougeard, for the Loire geeks out there).
I have had too many exciting dishes at Au Bonheur du Palais to recount them all, but have been a sufficient number of times now to develop some favourites. The menu changes regularly, and Tommy makes frequent trips back to China to find new inspiration (often looking to established family recipes), so there is no guarantee that a favourite dish will ever reappear. Nevertheless, on my most recent visit, I was ecstatic to see that his tea-smoked salmon had made a comeback; at its centre the salmon is delicate, moist, pink, whereas the outer surface is black with the tea smoke; I'm not exaggerating when I describe the combination of flavours presented here, and the way the flakes of salmon seem to melt across the palate, as heavenly. In all the dishes, reflecting Tommy's sensitive use of spices, the flavours of ginger, chilli and garlic that run through his menu come through in a pure and balanced fashion; never is it the case that one flavour dominates, nor is the wine ever cast into the shadows by the meal. Having said that, another favourite tasted recently were the king prawns in a fabulous chilli-infused batter, and these were in truth fairly hot, and so the spices do come to the fore now and again. But then they were absolutely delicious, and it isn't long before the heat fades, and a more harmonious marriage of food and wine returns.
A list of criticisms here would be a short one, but if there is one incongruous feature of the meal here it concerns the dessert. The set menu brings a banquet of authentic Szechuan and Cantonese delights, unparalleled in my experience, but the meal finishes with not a bang but a whimper, when a soulless slice of sponge cake - surely the work of some industrial bakery rather than the hands of Monsieur Chan - appears. Happily, weeks and months later, I can attest that it is the memory of the savoury dishes, each one a culinary high note, that will persist, and my thoughts on that slice of cake-shaped disappointment.
Price: For a family of five we paid a very reasonable £215, which gave us eight courses to share out, a slice each of the aforementioned cake, and a very modest bottle of Clos Floridène Blanc, the white Graves from Denis Dubourdieu. (1/3/13)