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The $20 Master Chef Prix-Fixe Lunch at Philippe

The prix-fixe, or set menu, is a time-honored tradition that originated in France. Pronounced pree-fiks, it's usually a three-course menu with appetizer, entree, and dessert, and the great thing about it is that you can usually get an unbelievable value for the price paid. That's what I discovered when I visited Philippe Restaurant + Lounge last Friday afternoon.

I'd heard about chef Philippe's newly launched "Master Chef Lunch," created after his recent induction into the coveted ranks of the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France, or Master Chef of France, a group comprised of about 200 French Chefs around the world, with just 50 in the United States.

For just $20, you get a choice of soup du jour or appetizer, choice of entree, and choice of dessert. I ordered a classically prepared cream of asparagus soup, a beef short rib ravioli provencale, and a pecan pie with chantilly whip cream. My girlfriend ordered a goat cheese and tomato terrine in lieu of the soup, and the same entree and the same dessert.

If it sounds deliciously decadent, it's because it was. You might expect smaller courses on a set lunch menu, but Philippe doesn't scrimp in the slightest. Our meal started with a simple amuse bouche of cherry tomato and mozzarella with a green pesto and droplets of balsamic reduction. I took the little skewer it came on, smeared it in a bit of the balsamic and plopped it in my mouth, letting the flavors "amuse" my senses, as it was intended to do.

My asparagus soup was served in a large bowl, the portion generous enough to make my eyes bulge. The soup itself was perfection, smooth and creamy, on par with some of the best French vegetable soups I've ever tasted. I had the rest of the afternoon off, so I allowed myself to indulge in a glass of wine.

Sommelier Vanessa Trevino-Boyd was on hand to suggest a Semeli dry white wine from Greece to pair with the notoriously difficult-to-pair asparagus. "It has a slight bitterness on the finish, which will pair well with the asparagus, I think," she said. The white was exactly as she described -- crisp, slightly grassy, with a hint of bitterness on the end -- an excellent pairing for the soup.

The pièce de résistance came next as the ravioli were presented to us in an impressively large, long, oval serving plate. "Wow!" I exclaimed as I eyed the four good-size ravioli, stuffed with braised short ribs and served with fresh peas, tomato confit, olives and garlic and drizzled with garlic sauce. The flavors of the ragout were deep, a melding of heavier strong ragout, with the richness of a good ratatouille-like vegetable flavor, while the ravioli pasta brought the dish some lightness, stopping it just short of being too heavy for lunch. I was close to the limit in terms of being full, but I could not help but clean off the plate.

By the time dessert rolled around, a pecan pie topped with a fluffy dollop of chantilly whip cream and a crispy rectangular tuile that tasted like freshly toasted butterscotch, I was completely satiated. "I can't believe you get all this for $20!" I exclaimed as the chef came by. "We're philanthropists," he replied jokingly, "We're giving our food away." And I would have to agree. $20 for an exquisitely prepared French meal by a Master Chef, in a dining room as gorgeous as Philippe's -- it was almost like he was giving it away.


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