So how good are the fancier restaurants in Paris? We've already looked at some spots that did cuisine bourgeoise, and my pals and I were more than happy with them. But this trip called for a few visits to restaurants with more upscale ideas, and the pursuit was mostly a worthwhile one.
The first stop began with a hunt. Lazare is at the train station Gare St. Lazare. But we searched all three floors of the station. (Train stations in major European cities are, more and more, also shopping malls.) No luck, no signs. No one was at the information desk. It was a 9.30 reservation on a Saturday night and the station was pretty empty. Finally, we found it. There is no entrance inside the station, from what we found. It's not visible from the street, either, the entrance being between the Concorde-Opera hotel and the actual station.
This is not a restaurant that tries to look like anything else, not a factory or a nightclub or the front parlor of a bordello. Shelves are stacked neatly with plates, much of the kitchen is open and a giant chalkboard carries the recipe for the house's signature dessert. The service was calm and professional and willing to discuss the food with our mangled French. In fact, we found service everywhere good, and wonder how much was due to the time of year. High tourist season was past and folks could relax. it must be likehaving a city full of Cubs fans, every day for weeks on end. We sympathize.
Some great first courses, including a classic quenelle with a lobster sauce run under the broiler to brown and full of shellfishy savor, calimari sauteed with garlic and espelette pepper, and mackerel in red wine with a horseradish sauce, plus a charcuterie plate.
Really interesting mains ranging from beef tartare and sole to partridge and (the only place I believe we saw it) a filet of horsemeat. Salmon was perfectly grilled with some lemon and veal kidneys arrived with a sauce of mustard flavored with violets, quite excellent. And then there was a basket of wonderful shoestring -sized frites, or French fries for the Potato Queen, who announced she was amused. The only miss was a tangle of tagliatelle sauced with a bolognaise sauce with octopus. Good pasta, clearly fresh, but the sauce lacked excitement.
A simple chocolate tart with high-test chocolate, dark and pleasantly close to bitter, with fine pastry was delicious. But it was the Paris-Deauville that intrigued, that recipe that was on the board. To the fork it seemed almost like a cold souffle or flan, but with more texture. Turns out it's a cake baked in a pan that's been prepared with caramelized sugar syrup and then, like flan, allowed to cool and moisten the caramel.
Entrees at Lazare range from 19 Euros (the tagliatelle) to 41 (filet of sole). It's open for three meals and afternoon tea. The website allows you to make a reservation, and sends you an easy-to-understand confirmation. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Eric Frechon, who won three Michelin stars when he was cooking at Le Bristol
Parvis de la Gare Saint-Lazare
01 44 90 80 80
Once in a while you read about a restaurant and it just sticks in your memory. Atelier Maitre Albert did that to me, a rotisserie restaurant from the leading chef Guy Savoy. It's not the big name that did it for me, it was the menu, spit roasting all kinds of things. Attempts to make an online reservation went nowhere; they were, said the reservation service, full. But on our last night in Paris, when we had nothing firm, I said to the helpful folks at the front desk of our small hotel, "Could you call Atelier Maitre Albert and see if they can feed us?" Bingo. (It was early in the week, which probably helped, since this remains a sought-after table.)
It's on a side street on the Left Bank, just off the Seine. I stepped out of the cab, tripped on a cobblestone and nearly landed on a motorcycle leaning on one of those picturesque streetlights. Just beyond was the floodlit Notre Dame. Inside was a mix of modern (gray walls, bright abstract art) and traditional (a 13th Century fireplace). At the far end of the room from the fireplace was the immense rotisserie. Wonderful lentil and leek soup to begin, along with a salad of greens and lightly sauteed chicken livers, and a saute of mushrooms with grilled bread to wipe up the buttery juices.
Roast chicken is The Thing to get here, and it was very worthwhile, lightly smoky from the roasting, very juicy and with some excellent mashed potatoes. More spuds with a slice of rare roast beef, this time a potato gratin, as well as some bearnaise sauce to dream about. The beef was very flavorful, but seemed less tender than might be found in the US. The third entree, slices of veal shank, a far cry from the osso bucco in which we usually see it, was just as unctuous and tender, though. It came with another gratin, this time spinach and mushrooms. Dessert was a cheese platter, served with a slice of raisin bread, as is often the custom here and a terrine of salmon-pink grapefruit with a green tea sorbet.
The restaurant is quiet enough that I could tell we were the only table speaking English; well- dressed folks were mostly finishing their meals as we ate. Service was particularly good, very attentive, very smooth, probably the best we had the entire trip, and when I complimented the apparent manager as we were leaving, her gratittude was downright warm - not that things had been chilly throughout the evening at all, but this was enough to earn me a pat on the arm, amazingly enough. Entrees range from a vegetarian 16 euros to 34 for St. Peter's fish, and a three-course prix fixe, two choices with each course, for 36 Euros. In retrospect, the evening felt stylish and elegant.
1, rue Maitre Albert
01 56 81 30 01
The really big splurge was L'Atelier Joel Robuchon in Saint-Germain. Reservations only available at 6.30 pm; otherwise, it's stand in line and wait, and apparently waiting is pretty much a constant. Little room to hang out – supplicants are often sent to the bar of the hotel who's the apparent landlord. And speaking of supplicants, there are no handles to open the door to the restaurant. It's opened by an employee.
The folks who have made reservations seem only to be seated at a counter that overlooks the kitchen. There's one table for four; otherwise, it's bar stools. Fairly comfortable ones, but still, bar stools, and that's disconcerting at the prices charged.
Robuchon likes the small plates concept, and there are a great number of them, twice as many or more than the main courses that run from 39 to 79 Euros each. Those small plates, in France called entrees (don't be confused) go from 26 to 72 Euros. We took a deep breath and went for the decouverte or discovery menu. 179 Euros. Ten courses. It doesn't include wine, but does, of course, include service.
This is very intellectual food, food one has to think about. The first course was crab meat on a housemade potato chip, topped with strands of daikon radish and seasoned with what seemed to be a few drops of Pernod. Complex and interesting and very good. But over the course of the meal, that could be said about every dish. Shockingly, nothing rose to the level of the sort of food that made that scene in "When Harry Met Sally" so memorable. I wanted food that would make me snack my head and say "Wow!"
What came were things like a potsticker in an Asian broth, intriguing and beautiful. Duck foie gras served with apple and a tart hibiscus dribble. Good, but not amazing. One had one's choice of a sort of main course, lamb chops, quail (more foie gras here) or grilled black angus beef sauced with cardamom and tarragon. All were very good but none were exciting enough.
Two desserts: My favorite was a sort of parfait whose first layer was a scoop of half-frozen custard flavored with passion fruit and just a little banana,the second a scoop of granite of rum, and then a generous dollop of whipped coconut cream with little bits of lime zest in it. The chocolate tentation was chocolate ice cream, a disc of chocolate with gold leaf on it and a half-scoop of chocolate ganache, covered in crushed - oh, wait for it - Oreos.
Service was above adequate but basically cool and professional. A multilingual crowd, including several groups of young Asians. But overall, just not worth the euros for me, and one of my pals was particularly annoyed at the bar stools. He's right, of course, expensive restaurants owe their patrons comfort. After about 20 minutes, view of the ktichen doesn't take away from uneasy seating.
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
5, rue de Montalembert
33 01 42 22 56 56