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He Can't Believe He Ate the Whole Thing! Craig Claiborne Flies to Paris for a 33-course, 4½ Hour, $4,000 Dinner

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It was a long way to go for a meal. But then, it was some kind of meal.

The adventure began this summer when New York’s public TV channel held a fund-raising auction (PEOPLE, June 23). American Express generously, but perhaps naively, offered a free meal for two anywhere in the world. “The sky’s the limit,” they said. All kinds of people called in with pledges. Craig Claiborne, food news editor of the New York Times, bid a paltry $300 and forgot about it. He expected someone to pay in the thousands. Amazingly, he won.

Anywhere in the world, they had said. “Chez Denis,” responded the 55-year-old Claiborne. At this point, the executives at American Express presumably came close to cardiac arrest.

Chez Denis is a small but ruinously expensive restaurant tucked away on Paris’s Right Bank. Its clientele includes Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Orson Welles, assorted millionaires, titled heads and government ministers. Denis Lahana, the proprietor, seems to have known them all from birth.

“Can you arrange,” Claiborne wrote, “a wildly expensive dinner for two? The price is no consideration.”

“I will think it over,” replied Denis, in that smooth Parisian way that indicated a kitchenful of white-clad help rushing to their ovens and saucepans.

And so it was that Craig Claiborne and his fellow columnist and gastronome Pierre Franey, chef at New York’s defunct Le Pavilion, flew to the City of Light for a Dinner of Memory.

It started with Beluga caviar, then three soups—wild duck consommé, Germiny and velouté andalou. Then seafood: oysters, lobster and red mullet. Then chicken, partridge and filet de boeuf Oga Palinkás, a dish beloved by Orson Welles. That concluded the first service. (“My secret is small portions,” said Claiborne. “That way you can go on forever.”)

An entr’acte of sherbets—orange, lemon and black currant—followed to calm any stomach fevers. Claiborne and Franey, sequestered at a corner table, signaled their readiness for the second service.

It arrived: tiny grilled birds called ortolans (bobolinks), followed by wild duck, loin of veal with whole truffles, purée of artichoke hearts and pommes de terres Anna. “Have they been cleaned?” asked Claiborne of the ortolans. “Of course not,” said Denis, popping one, head, bones and gizzard, into his mouth. He crunched it with relish. Claiborne passed.

Then came fresh wild duck foie gras, cold woodcock fillets cooked in Chambertin and wild pheasant with nuts, mushrooms and more truffles. The second service ended with iced Charlotte, floating island and pears Alma. At this point Franey arose for a short walk around the room.

They plunged on. The third and, grace à Dieu, final service consisted of an Everest of pastries, candies, preserves and fruits. In all, there were 33 courses in 4½ hours.

“It’s just something to go with the wines,” said Denis of the food. There were nine wines: Champagne Comtesse Marie de France 1966, Château Latour 1918, Montrachet du Baron Cher 1969, Château Mouton Rothschild 1928, Château Lafite Rothschild 1947, Château Petrus 1961, Romanée-Conti 1929, Chateâu D’Yquem 1928, and an 1835 Madeira. In addition, Denis offered an 1865 Calvados and a personal cognac classified as “ageless.”

What did it all cost? “It will be close to $4,000,” said Denis. Nobody mentioned the tip.

That might sound like a lot of money for dinner, especially when first-class air fares to Paris are added on. But, as that great bon vivant Calvin Coolidge once said when asked about the sumptuous White House banquets: “You’ve got to eat somewhere.”