Friday, June 4, 2010 at 09:42
If I lunched there several times a few weeks ago, and generally found the food to be much better than expected (with the exception of the worst frites I've ever eaten in France), it took a trip to New York to really put Ralph's, the new restaurant in Ralph Lauren's new Saint-Germain-des-Pres boutique, into perspective. To wit, I think it's sort of too bad the powers that be didn't decide to do a modern American bistro in the idiom of the very pleasant Cookshop in New York City's Chelsea district instead of a pricey slice of up-market Betty Crocker vintage Americana.
Ralph's Restaurant in Saint Germain des Pres @ Nicolas Buisson
To be sure, Ralph's is destined to be a big hit this summer, because the interior courtyard is an ideal urban bower for warm-weather dining, it has one of the best locations in Paris bang in the heart of Saint Germain des Pres and the food's much better than I expected it would be (I'm not only not a big fan of in-shop dining, but perhaps unfairly doubted the designer would be able to pull off an "American" restaurant in Paris). All of this being said, it's still too bad that such a highly visible showcase of red-white-and-blue gastronomy should be so static in creative terms.
Ralph's Lauren's style is often about a very subtlely off-center classicism, but this does not translate to the menu of Ralph's, which is as traditional as anything you might have found in a country-club dining room on the Eastern seaboard in the 1950s. I started with a "Maryland style lump crab cake," which was a nicely made and seasoned mound of crabmeat rolled in angel's hair vermicelli, fried golden, and garnished with a pleasant yellow-pepper-and-citrus sauce, and my friend Alice ordered the lobster salad, which was well presented and generously served, and well it should have been for 35 Euros.
In fact all of the the prices at Ralph's are similarly eye-popping, from 27 Euros for the very good cheeseburger I had as my main course, to 36 euros for the nicely grilled salmon on a bed of spring vegetables that Alice had for hers. Yes, 10 Euros for a side dish of wilted spinach may strike you as outrageous, but it also forces one to remember that Saint-Germain-des-Pres has now been thoroughly rebooted from blowsy bohemian hangout into a world-class luxury-shopping district. After all, why would Ralph Laurent have chosen to set up shop here?
So would I go again? Definitely if you were picking up the tab and I had a hankering for a really good cheese burger, but even though the food's pretty good, it's not very likely otherwise--the prices are just too vertiginous for my thin wallet.
A week later, I went to meet a dear old friend for dinner at Cookshop, a terrific looking bistro on Tenth Avenue in New York City, and sipping a surprisingly good glass of Finger Lakes Riesling (dim-witted of me perhaps, but I still associate Upstate New York wines with the scary jugged stuff I drank in college) at the bar before Tom showed up, I couldn't help but thinking of Ralph's and all the fun one might have had creating a market-driven menu that channels the best of contemporary American bistro cooking working with first-rate French produce in Paris.
Chef Marc Meyer has created a swell little neighborhood restaurant that was one of the NYC pioneers of the locavore eating trend, and on a warm May night, the dining room was filled with a wonderful mix of stylish and arty locals, including dating couples of all stripes, boys out on the town, girls out on the town, and a pleasant scattering of tourists who were probably staying at one of the glamorous new hotels--the Standard, the Soho House, the Hotel Gansevoort--that have opened nearby.
Good looking waiters in tight plaid shirts animated the room, and as soon as we were seated and I eye-balled the menu, I suspected were going to have a very good meal. And so we did. Tom loved his seared bluefish pate, and my Montauk squid with chick peas and a pleasantly spicy Moroccan sauce was perfectly cooked so that it was creamy and tender and absolutely delicious. Next, an epic New York strip steak for me and slow-braised porchetta for Tom. Both dishes were impeccably cooked and imaginatively garnished--my steak was brightened by a fine aioli and came with baby artichokes, fingerling potatoes and cured olives, while Tom's stone-oven bake pork was beautifully accented by dried fruit and salsa verde and beans with applewood smoked bacon.
Desserts looked dauntingly sweet, so we finished up our excellent Burgenland red, a Kollwentz Zweigelt, with a portion of Crater Lake Blue, a raw cow's milk cheese from Oregon. All told, an excellent modern American meal, and a cooking style I would dearly love to have available to me in Paris for those occasions when I want to show French or other foreign friends that the United States is quite far from being the gastronomic wasteland of their received ideas.
Ralph's, 173 boulevard Saint Germain, 6th arrondissement, Tel. 01-44-77-76-00. Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Open daily. Average 65 Euros.
Cookshop, 156 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011, Tel. 212-924-4440. Average dinner $70.