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Diner's Diary

The best 102 Paris restaurants are reviewed in Hungry for Paris. Since the Paris restaurant scene changes constantly, I regularly post new restaurant reviews and information on the city’s best places to eat on this site. I also review selected books with various gastronomic themes and comment on favorite foods, recipes, cookware and appliances. In addition to the reviews and writings here, I'd also invite you to follow me on Twitter @ Aleclobrano. So come to my table hungry and often, and please share your own rants and raves in the Hungry for Paris readers forum.

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Entries in New restaurants in Paris (12)

Saturday
Sep142013

LE MEURICE - Alain Ducasse: New French Haute Cuisine for the 21st Century, A

@Bob Peterson for Hungry for Paris    With its lavish ormolu moldings and grand crystal chandeliers, Le Meurice is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Paris. For all of its rococo splendor, however, the special affection I have for this space runs back to a soft Indian summer morning fourteen years ago when I came to have a tour of the hotel while it was undergoing renovations. I entered through a side door in the construction hoardings, and looking for the woman with whom I had an appointment, I found myself on the edge of the dining room, where a team of men in dusty blue overalls was arguing in Italian. 
   
   “No, no, that’s not the right color. That’s cream, not almond,” an older man said to his colleague as they stared at a tiny piece of stone down on their knees on the mosaic floor they were creating. “The almond is too dark, the cream would be better. This is a corner of the room and the light in Paris is so often gray,” said his colleague.  They changed it back and forth several times, and finally settled on the cream. I’d never seen such a large and elaborate mosaic being created before, and I never enter this room without remembering their pride and their seriousness. 
  
Roasted figs with creme fraiche
   
    So a passionate attention to detail really does underlie the experience of a meal at one of the most legendary dining rooms in Paris, and this is why I was so curious to go to dinner the other night. Chef Yannick Alleno, who presided at Le Meurice for many years and won three stars there, moved on during the winter of 2013, and now the restaurant has joined the stable of tables run by Alain Ducasse, who placed Christophe Saintagne from Restaurant Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, a sister property to Le Meurice, since they’re both part of the Dorchester Group, in the kitchen now that this latter hotel is about to be renovated.
     
   Waiting for Bruno in the street, I couldn’t help but wondering if the impending meal might feel like finding a different bird in the nest another one had built. Then Bruno showed up in his Mini convertible, and it was amusing to watch the top-hatted valet park this nice little car between a Bentley and a Lamborghini. When we went inside and were ushered through the discrete door behind a panel in the lobby, the dining room was not only every bit as magnificent as I remembered but also pleasantly more subdued. Several years ago, designer Philippe Starck had tinkered with the original post-renovation décor, and since I don’t want irony-inflected wit to move the sort of double-barreled grandeur I experience so rarely off-center, I’d never really taken to his tweaks.  
   
    Alain Ducasse is both extremely discreet and a real aesthete in the best sense of this word, so it was fascinating to register the subtle but powerful changes he’d made at the restaurant just a few weeks after it became one of his. The only ornament on our ecru linen dressed table was a plump ripe yellow tomato on a small smooth shake of timber (we later learned it came from one of the many trees felled in the forests of Versailles during a terrible storm several years ago), and it was a pregnant clue as to the visual and gastronomic sensibility of the meal that followed. 
   
   
  The first dish to arrive at the table was a small square sandwich of toasted country bread filled with fleshy pleasantly feral tasting cepes and a veil of smoked country ham. At the same time it appeared a waiter brought the salt and pepper in a series of gray porcelain cubes that briefly grabbed my attention with their stark beauty before I was distracted by the arrival of our first course, a black cast-iron casserole. When the lid was removed, we saw a small pretty still-life of vegetables that had been cooked on a bed of gray sea salt, and the waiter then supplied us with long thin forks to spear them with and dip into a tart green herbed dairy sauce. The vegetables—carrots, potatoes, onions, baby leeks—were homey and satisfying, and the gently astringent sauce cleansed the palate for everything to come. This communal dish also whispered that the pleasures of the table are often best shared. As much as this opener surprised us, we were both transfixed by the plate and the small fragile ramekin the sauce came in. “It must be him,” said Bruno, but we couldn’t gracefully upend anything to check until a few minutes later when we saw Belgian ceramicist Pieter Stockman’s named printed on their bottoms. 
   
   We’d first discovered Stockman’s exquisite ceramics in a boutique in Antwerp, and I’d later seen them at Restaurant Jean-Francois Piege in Paris. What transfixed me, though, was deciphering what these very carefully objects were saying. What I surmised is that in the 21st century, luxury should pure and delicate, or a series of simple evanescent pleasures that are humble and healthy rather than ostentatious and self-indulgent. Clearly Ducasse had decided to make Le Meurice his laboratory for reinventing French haute cuisine for the 21st century.
  
    This extended to the deeply considered casting of the staff in this dining room, where I happily saw more women working than I ever had before in such an exalted restaurant. Among them, the charming and enviously polyglot Spanish woman who explained the haiku-like menu to us, and then the sommelier, Estelle Touzet, whose love and knowledge of wine and eloquent and thought-provoking way of describing it became one of the major threads of pleasure that animated our evening.
  
   
  Bruno loved his sautéed autumn fruit and vegetables served with a deglazed sauce of cooking juices and cider vinegar—a varying palate of acidities and different shades of bitterness is another recurring element of this kitchen, while my pate chaud de pintade au chou came as an elegantly fragile cartridge of pastry filled with chunks of tender guinea hen and Savoy cabbage bound by a baked mousse of liver and gizzards. 
   
 
  The nearly nude way in which our fish courses were prepared further emphasized the angelic intentions of the kitchen. A magnificent lozenge of butter-basted turbot came on an identically sized piece of fine toast lightly spread with tapenade, all that was needed to emphasize its natural flavor with the foil of a little salt and texture. It reminded me of the innocent simplicity with which fish is often cooked in Scandinavia, while John Dory, also cooked on the bone, was presented on laser-fine slices of fig with coin-sized pieces of turnip and a salad of herbs. Here, the fine graininess of the fig seeds flattered the fish, while the gentle bitterness of the turnips punctuated its natural sweetness. 
  
   
  Main courses were even more plain-spoken in an almost Amish sort of way. Bruno’s colvert (wild duck) was cooked rare and garnished with halved black grapes, kernels of corn and a luscious salamis (the bird’s bones pounded to a smooth paste with red wine and stock), while my veal sweetbreads surprised me even after the detailed explanation of this preparation I’d been given at the beginning of the meal. A perfectly round slice of sweetbread was topped with a fine crust of toasted golden bread crumbs and came with a comma-shaped side dish of roasted heirloom tomatoes with a few melted shards of Parmesan. Restraint was the clear intention of this preparation, with the tomatoes intended to provide an acidic foil to the rich creamy flavor and texture of the sweetbreads. Since I love sweetbreads, this was the one moment in the meal when I yearned for a bit more, but in terms of the logic behind my menu, it was impeccable.
   
    
   Ducasse is now producing superb chocolate at an atelier in Paris near the Bastille, and it supplied the raw materials for a stunningly good finale—chocolate ice cream decorated with fine broken panes of caramel on a bed of almonds and an accessorizing cocoa mousse and a pitcher of hot chocolate. Following the waiter’s instructions, I spooned up some of the mousse and ice cream with a nut or two and dribbled it with melted chocolate before experiencing an avalanche of pleasure that was propelled into even higher relief by the deceptively modest tone of the proceeding meal. The glass of ten-year-old Barbeito Bual Old Reserve Madeira, which sommelier Touzet explained she’d chosen for the faint flavor of the salt in the island’s soil expressed through the grapes behind the foreground tastes of caramel, leather and tobacco, added a deeper glow of sensuality to this shudderingly good concoction. Bruno enjoyed his roasted figs, which were served in a fragile bowl of mesmerizingly aromatic dried fig leaves with a granite of red wine atop a hazelnut cream, and we were more relieved than surprised when the traditional trolley of post-prandial sweetmeats was brought tableside and contained freshly made fruit compotes and sorbets instead of the usual mignardaises, candies and pastries. This gentle and planed down proposal was much more in keeping with the prevailing—and even invigorating—theme of restraint that had informed our meal than a selection of sugary little cakes would have been.
   
  There was nothing ascetic or puritanical about the moderation that was the rudder of this meal, however. Instead it recognized that many people coming to a restaurant of this caliber today are there to be entertained as much as they are to be fed, and that almost anyone who can afford such an experience probably leads a life of habitual abundance. 
   
  Ultimately, this was a superb and very daring meal, because after making his reputation with an 
exactingly disciplined take on the simple but naturally baroque character of European Mediterranean cooking, Ducasse has completely revised and reinvented his repertoire. What he instinctively understands, you see, is that as the conventional summit of the French culinary experience, haute cuisine has always been a mirror of our aspirations, pleasures, and even fears, and in his stunningly astute reading of these evolving codes in a still emerging new century, he’s come up with an intriguing new recipe for pleasure. Gallic gastronomic luxury should be simple and wholesome.
   
Restaurant Le Meurice - Alain Ducasse, Hotel Le Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, 1st, Tel. 01-44-58-10-55,
Metro: Concorde or Tuileries. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. Closed Saturday and Sunday. 
Average a la carte 235 Euros, Five-course tasting menu 380 Euros. www.lemeurice.com/le-meurice-restaurant
Tuesday
Jun182013

PIERRE SANG BOYER--Superb Contemporary French Cooking, A-

 
 
  The first two times I tried to go to Pierre Sang Boyer's restaurant in the Oberkampf district of the 11th arrondissement, my luck ran dry. Since they don't have a public phone number, we showed up one night to find that the restaurant was 'exceptionally' closed. Then another time, the crowd waiting to be seated at this compact counter-service no-reservations restaurant was so huge that it would have been an optimistic hour's wait before we were seated. So my interest drifted a bit, because this place seemed so hard to get into.
 
  During the year or so since he's been open, however, the amiable South Korean born chef has received glowing reviews from a variety of colleagues whom I respect, and so at the end of a busy day last week when it had stopped raining for a few minutes, Bruno and I decided to roll the dice again and headed to the 11th. Arriving on early on a Friday night, the place was packed, but they promised a half hour wait, so we ordered glasses of white wine and milled around on the sidewalk for twenty minutes before we were ushered inside. Given the throngs waiting to get in, the first thing that impressed me about this place was the exceptionally courteous and well-organized service. Though there was no written waiting list, the very nice young waiters respected the proper rotation of waiting customers and the kitchen even sent out complimentary hors d'oeuvres--thick slices of toasted country bread topped with pale slices of summer truffle that pleasantly tasted like wet leaves.
 
  When we were ushered inside, we sat at the big oak bar on comfortable stools (they're only a couple of tables for two here, unless you book the one larger table down in the basement, which is the only reservation they'll take) in front of a big sack of delicious looking butter and a huge wheel of Laguiole cheese. The chef himself greeted us, and one of the friendly and impressively efficient waiters set us up with slate plate mats and cutlery. Staring at the cheese, I found myself thinking that whatever proceeded this course in the impending small-plate tasting menu, I could very happily make a meal for myself by shamelessly plundering this heart-stoppingly tempting dairy display.
  
 
  Instead our meal kicked off with a delicious little haricot vert topped salad and a chunk of sesame-seed coated tuna with a small salad of fennel garnished with wasabi peas and a pool of mustardy mayonnaise. Both of these nibble-sized dishes were exceptional for their intricate layering of flavor, intriguing contrast of textures and beauty. And what made them even more impressive is that they were cooked at the speed of light in a tiny open kitchen. Open kitchens fascinate me, but I know from friends who are chefs that they impose an additional layer of pressure on a cook, because everything happens in the public eye. So adding this constraint to the mix made these first dishes even more remarkable. 
  
  Every chef has his or her palate, of course, and I immediately liked the way Sang Boyer backstops the umami richness of his cooking with refreshing but subtle tones of acidulated tastes. And for a small, crowded and very busy restaurant, the service was outstanding, at once playful and professional, and the rythm of the meal was flawless. The short wine list had some really interesting bottles to chose from, too, including the velvety, berry rich Saint Chinian we chose.
  
 
  Next up, a rich octopus ragout served on a bed of quinoa with a light vinaigrette and garnishes of chopped yellow tomato and crunchy crystalline iceplant (Ficoïde Glaciale, in French), which was a deeply satisfying dish. If I loved it on a bed of quinoa, I also found myself thinking that it would be delicious with orrechiette or any other small pasta that would catch as much of the sauce as possible. Both this dish and the fascinating saute of pork and white beans in a rich tomato broth garnished with anchovies and finely sliced radish that followed it were suavely cosmopolitan, at once Mediterranean and then sort of winsomely Asian, a style that's very much a reflection of the chef's multicultural culinary roots. He grew up in the rugged Auvergne as the adopted child of a food mad French family, worked at a French restaurant in South Korea, where he'd gone to explore the food ways of his birth country, and has also worked in Lyon and London.
  
  Throughout this meal, there was a terrific atmosphere in this diminutive dining room, too, and if it was mostly generated by the cheerful staff, another part of this glow of well-being came from an intriguing diverse crowd who hailed from all over Paris and points beyond and who had clearly come here to discover one of the city's best and most interesting new chefs. From the snatches of conversation I overheard, everyone else was as impressed by the cooking and the overall experience of this restaurant as I was, too.
  
 
  After a generous serving of the Laguiole cheese I'd been eyeing for an hour and a half--the chef's most overt reference to the region where he grew up, the Auvergne, which was plated with a streak of spiced chestnut puree and more of the same good country bread that we'd wolfed down all during our meal, we finished with an unusual but really good dessert. "This is sort of a riff on riz au lait, but it's not my grandmother's recipe," the chef said puckishly as we tucked into this grand finale, which was made with sticky Japanese rice and eschewed the usual sweet soupy richness of the French version. Instead a rice ball was dressed up with a silky sabayon, slices of nectarine, squash puree, yuzu sorbert, a shard of crispy caramelized biscuit and a dried orange slice to create a sophisticated palate cleansing coda to the medley of gentle acidities that had animated the meal. 
 
  "I come here every other night," said the single man sitting next to Bruno. "Please don't think I've been listening to your conversation all night, but it made me happy to hear people who like this chef's food as much as I do." I told him that since I so often dine on my own when traveling to report on the food in other cities and countries, I was sorry our conversation was so doggedly food-centered instead of offering the entertainment of, oh, I don't know, maybe a bit of squabbling or a spicy anecdote or two. "No need to apologize," he said with a grin. "You talk great food porn." This stumped me for a second, but then I decided to take it as a compliment, and in any event, Pierre Sang Boyer's the kind of place that'll bring out the dirty food talk in anyone.
 
Restaurant Pierre Sang, 55 rue Oberkampf, 11th, No phone, Metro: Oberkampf or Parmentier. Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday and Monday. Average 45 Euros. www.pierresangboyer.com 
Saturday
Feb232013

LA REGALADE CONSERVATOIRE - Another Superb Performance from Chef Bruno Doucet, B+; L'AFFRIOLE - In Top Form After All of These Years, B 

  Ever since he took over the original La Régalade in the 14th arrondissement from founding chef Yves Camdeborde in 2004, Bruno Doucet has continued to delight bistro-loving Parisians with his shrewd and technically impeccable modern French bistro cooking. First he rebooted the menu at La Regalade, making it brighter and more modern than what Camdeborde had originally been doing, and then he opened a branch, La Régalade Saint-Honoré, in the 1st arrondissement.

  For anyone who hated trekking to the outer reaches of the 14th arrondissement--and most people did, this second address was a real blessing, not only for its convenient location, but also because the contemporary bistro cooking served here is so outstanding. Now Doucet's launched a third address, La Régalade Conservatoire in the gorgeous new Hotel de Nell, which opened two weeks ago and has already become one of the hottest boutique hotels in Paris. 

  Arriving with Bruno, Tina and Francois on a wintry night, we had a drink in the bar with a glass room behind reception, and enjoyed the gorgeous hand-made oak furniture that is a major component of the interior design that brilliant designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte did for the hotel. Here, Wilmotte, black-and-white checkerboard floor, solid oak chairs, and tables with beige runners create an atmosphere that's profoundly Parisian, but modern by teasing the usual nostalgia this term so often implies when used in a decorative context with strong graphics and a rigorous Zen design aesthetic. This is the second restaurant I've recently dined in by Mr. Wilmotte--the last one was Yannick Alleno's Terroir Parisien, and I have to say that he's become one of the best restaurant designers working in Paris today.

   Doucet's menu for this handsome dining room rolled out some terrific new dishes I'd never seen before, too. What I really wanted was the creamy cauliflower, Stilton and bacon soup that Tina had, but since I'm still flogging some of the caloric discipline I learned during a week of low-calorie thalassotherapy in Brittany, i went with the marinated scallops with Granny Smith apples and aged Comte in a fine cubed hash adding texture and a gently acidic bite to the creamy scallops under a thatch of frisee dressed in chive oil. I also loved the quiet daring of pairing cheese with scallops, since according to conventional Gallic kitchen wisdom the only dairy produce appropriate for this shellfish is cream. Instead, the comte deliciously enunciated the natural creaminess (sic) of the scallops.

   After our main courses, a few sticking points registered. When the delightful hotel manager excused himself and went home, service fell off a cliff in the dining room, with the waiters clustering behind the bar like a bunch of crows and almost pointedly ignoring their customers, and this was after they'd failed to present the complimentary terrine that's one of the signatures of a La Regalade meal without being prompted. The bread was also dull, and lighting in this dining room needs to be tweaked, since the built-in ceiling spots cast small short hard beams of light instead of illuminating the room gently and thoroughly. And as good as the food is and as attractive as Wilmotte's dining room may be, this place has very little atmosphere. All of these flaws will doubtless be remedied as the restaurant settles in, however.

  Our main courses were excellent. Francois tucked into a big juicy steak sliced and presented on a mound of stewed beef cheeks and carrots in a red-wine enriched jus; Bruno and loved our griddled half-salted cod with a pistachio crust on a bed of winter vgetables and shellfish (mussels and cockles) in a delicate shellfish bouillon, and Tina wolfed down a grilled breast of veal with winter vegetables.

  Rice pudding with caramel sauce, a classic La Regalade dessert, and pomelo-and-pineapple fruit salad with excellent ginger sorbet concluded this very good meal, which had a particularly festive air for me and Bruno, since this new branch of La Regalade is a very easy walk from our front door.

 

  The following night, after we'd both had non-stop days during which neither of us had time to shop, we decided to meet for dinner somewhere midway between Bruno's office and our apartment. I asked Bruno if he had any ideas. "That's your job," he said. Oh, okay. Well, I left it until the last minute, and then was trying to think of someplace relaxed, pleasant and reasonable on the Left Bank, no small order, when it occurred to me that it had been years since we'd been to L'Affriole, a long-running and very good bistro in the 7th run by chef Thierry Verola, who'd worked with Alain Senderens a longtime ago. So I booked us there, and our first surprise was that the warm honey-and-ochre vaguely provencale dining room of yore had vanished in favor of a good-looking and much hipper decor that referenced various Fifties French classics--the green chairs have the shape and design of those found in public parks like the Jardins du Luxembourg or French classrooms, and the tile walls and factory-style suspension lamps also had an appealing retro look.

   

  The chalkboard menu offered all sorts of appealing choices that night, but both of us started off with the butternut veloute, which was rich and pleasantly garnished with Savoy cabbage, and then Bruno had sea bass with a red wine sauce and winter vegetables en cocotte, and I continued on my cod bender with a perfectly cooked filet in a creamy soubise sauce. Our desserts were excellent as well--ile flottante with creme anglaise for Bruno and apple-and-raisin compote for me. All told, with its warm friendly service and reasonably priced wines, L'Affriole is a very good neighborhood bistro that well deserves its swarming crowd of regulars.

L'Affriolé, 17 Rue Malar, 7th, Lte. 01-44-18-31-33. Metro: Pont de l'Alma Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch prix-fixe two-courses 26 Euros, three-courses 30 Euros; Dinner prix-fixe 36 Euros.

La Régalade Conservatoire, Hôtel de Nell,  7-9 rue du Conservatoire, 9th, Tel. 01-44-83-83-60. Metro: Bonne Nouvelle. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Prix-fixe 35 Euros.

Thursday
Nov152012

LE BISTRO URBAIN--Urban and Urbane in the Old Table-Top District, B

   In the three cities I’ve lived in longest, know best, and have minutely observed during the course of my adult life—New York, London and Paris, I’ve always been fascinated by the way a single restaurant can serve as the catalyst for major urban change. The archetype that immediately comes to mind for me is Ruskays, a long gone restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York City, while the most vivid recent example is Le Bistro Urbain in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. 
 
   At a time in the late seventies when Manhattan north of Lincoln Center seemed increasingly on the skids from Broadway east to Central Park, Ruskays, a candle-lit duplex space with a big picture window façade, offered a vision of a dramatically different Columbus Avenue—in this take, it would be—like the restaurant, fashionable and popular with creative young urbanites. I ate at Ruskays dozens of times but have zero memory of the food—instead, what intrigued me and made me go back was the idea of identifying with and becoming part of the simmering urban glamour in the room.  Also in New York, Raoul’s in Soho did the same thing—although here the food was actually good, while the original Square Trousseau in Paris offered a perfect snap shot of the young chic of the Bastille and the Faubourg Saint Antoine when this turf began its long evolution from being a neighborhood of working-class artisans to Bobo central. Sudden constellations of popular new restaurants have also signaled major changes in London’s Soho and Notting Hill Gate, both quarters being so stylish today that it’s almost impossible to imagine that the former had once been the city’s massage-parlor filled red-light district and the other a rough-and-tumble area with a large population of inhabitants from the Caribbean islands.
     
  Within recent years, the long-standing tradition of urban life in western cities which held that these three cities would be home to a diverse array of different socio-economic groups has been pummeled by huge changes in the global economy. The upshot of these disruptions and dislocations is that the world’s wealthy once again covet the beauty, character and convenience of the historic hearts of these cities, with the result that lower-income people are pushed out to the less-expensive periphery of ever-spreading metropolitan areas.
     
  What this means is full-gallop gentrification in these places, and in this context, a single restaurant can have a huge impact on the popular perception of a neighborhood—Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, for example, being absolutely vital in the accelerating sociological transformation of Harlem. 
   
  In central Paris, the 10th arrondissement has been emerging as a dramatically more up-market neighborhood along the Canal du Saint Martin for at least a decade, but now this is spilling over into the formerly grotty triangle of turf bounded by the Boulevard Magenta, les grands boulevards and the rue du Faubourg Poissoniere that was once the showroom hub of the French table-top industry, and it’s been intriguing to watch the area become hip, a transformation led by a clutch of trendy new restaurants, bar, cafes and wine bars. Many of them, including L’Office, Vivant Table and Abri, have become destination tables in terms of attracting people from outside of the 10th. 
   
   This is why even though I love all three of these tables, I have developed a new gastronomic soft spot for Le Bistro Urbain, which holds up the same hopeful (and perhaps parlous--look what Columbus Avenue eventually became) mirror to the 10th that Ruskays did to the Upper West Side so many years ago. And the similarities between these tables don’t stop there—both share the same sort of effortless and unselfconscious low-key urban chic and take their primary vocation—making sure the locals eat well and have a good time, very seriously.
   

   Coming here with Bruno and our friends Laurent and Carole for a late and impromptu dinner the other night, all of us liked this place the moment we came through the door. Why? There was a nice friendly welcome from the proprietor, the room was well-lit and visually interesting, with an open kitchen that might have inspired Edward Hopper and an interesting wall installation of overlapping white rectangle, and the tables were correctly spaced.  

   Then the good-value chalkboard menu proposed a lot of dishes that were a perfect bull's eye in terms of the type of meal we were gunning for--exalted French comfort food. So three of us had the marinated salmon with an excellent remoulade sauce and a trio of freshly baked miniature rolls, and the third tucked into an excellent warm salad of deboned rabbit with rosemary on salad leaves. Though I had not gone to dinner with my professional food writer's cap on, I couldn't help but noticing that the food was really well sourced, and eventually asked one of the owners if he worked with Terroirs d'Avenir, the ur trendy and excellent super well-sourced provisioner to many of Paris's best young chefs.

   Like the magician who's afraid that the audience might be on to how he pulled the rabbit out of his hat, he was initially startled by the question, but then answered with a nod and a grin while he scrutinized our table for a clue as to why we might know of this wonderful little company, a cook's secret. Our main courses, by chef William Ransonne, ex-Les Parisiennes, were very good, too.   

Partridge

Onglet

Bruno and Laurent went wild--with partridge and wild dove respectively, for a reasonable supplement to the prix-fixe menu, Carole was happy with her maigre, and I scarfed down a juicy onglet (hanger steak) served with baby potatoes and a creamy sauce of mustard, cream and deglazed meat juices. 

  Desserts were excellent, too--petit pot de crème à la chicorée (chicory flavored custard) and ravioles aux coings sauvages (dessert ravioli stuffed with wild quince), and by the end of our meal, we were in really good spirits. "This was a really good meal," exulted Laurent, adding, "The food was great, but it's also really wonderful see the renewal of the neighborhood bistro by a new generation of talented chefs and restaurateurs." 

  It is indeed.

103 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, 10th, Tel. 01-42-46-32-49, Metro:  Gare de l'Est, Poissonnière & Château d'Eau, www.bistro-urbain.fr  Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday. Lunch menus 14.50-19 €, dinner menu 25-30 €.

Saturday
Mar242012

L'INSTANT D'OR--Despite the Cringe-Inducing Name, Excellent Contemporary French Cooking, B+

   
  I recently had a good chuckle over what was surely one of the crankiest restaurant reviews I think I've ever read. Ten minutes late for his reservation, a certain French critic had received a call from the restaurant he was on his way to review to inform him that his table would be given away if he didn't show up swiftly. Suffice it say, this put him into a furiously foul frame of mind, which meant that he shook the offending restaurant soundly by the shoulders before kicking it in the shins. The reason I mention this is because so many different factors affect the way we perceive of and subsequently like or dislike a restaurant.
  
    So I'll confess that I was in a grouchy mood on my way to meet a friend who was staying across the street at the Four Seasons George V hotel for dinner at the new L'Instant d'Or. It'd been a very busy day, and my appetite wasn't really in the market for 'important' food--I'd have been very happy with a plate of gyoza or some oysters. It also happens that I don't generally like the 8th arrondissement of my adopted city; it's a bit too flashy for me. I rather dreaded the certain unctuous service style I expected here as well, since for me, social posing is a terrible appetite killer. I was, however, looking forward to seeing my friend, a distinguished doctor and my oldest female friend in the world--we went to Kindergarten together. She had asked me to book somewhere "good, special, new and within a very short walk of my hotel."
 
  Within minutes of arriving, though, I was so engrossed by Laura's decision to close her pediatric practice in a suburb of Boston and move to Myanmar to work for a charity there, that I barely even noticed the slightly icy maitre d'hotel. In fact, I didn't really become much aware of the moment, golden or otherwise, until our first courses arrived.
My langoustines with chestnut shavings and girolles on a sublime pumpkin royale (custard) in a Parmesan 'cappucino' were shockingly good--they were cooked nacreous and the pumpkin and chestnut teased their sweetness without being coy. Laura's ravioli filled with duxelles and topped with ribbons of lardo di Colonnata was a similarly suave, sophisticated rendering of rusticity, too--more Breughel than Vermeer, if you'll allow me the fun of a pretentious art-historical reference. 
    
   Though I'd been aware of L'Instant d'Or's chef, Frédéric Duca, who had been formed by two notably tempestuous cooks--Gerard Passedat and Michel del Burgo, and who had most recently been sous-chef at Helene Darroze, this was, of course, the first time I'd sampled his cooking, and I was somehow surprised by its equilibirum. In the kitchen, Duca pulls off an elegant harmony by being sinewy and assertive at the same time that he's reflexively understated and impressively refined. "This is lovely food," observed Laura, "And thanks for trekking across town to meet me." "Well of course I'd come across town to see you, especially after you'd just crossed an ocean." Then Laura's Blackberry, a hateful object if ever there was one, started buzzing on the table like an electronic moth, and she glanced at it. "I'm sorry, I really have to take this. I'll go outside, but remember, Alec, all forms of beauty are needed to prop up civilization."
 
  In her absence, I wondered at the source of the gentle veil of melancholia that had settled over me, and tried not to listen to the loud and entitled quartet at the table next to me debate the merits of Bali or Miami Beach for their month-long August holiday. It must have been the reference to Florida that brought on the next skein of thoughts, but I was surprised to find myself musing on a walk I'd taken on longtime ago on a hard flat Florida beach with my late father. I'd come down from a working trip to New York to spend a week with him for his 70th birthday. It was my treat, and he chose Amelia Island near Jacksonville. It was curious shading to quite odd for the two of us to be alone together after so many years--we were normally bracketed by some quorum of our family of six, so I was gnattering on a bit about the job I'd just been offered to me as European Correspondent for GOURMET Magazine. Then Dad glanced sideways at me and said, 'When did you suddenly go and get so interested in food of all things?"
  
  
   
 
  "So sorry," said Laura, returning just seconds before we were served our main courses. Without noticing, I managed to construct an almost all-crustacean meal, since I had roasted lobster on freshly made squid's ink linguine with a delicious lemon foam. Here, too, I was impressed by the humbleness of Duka's technical skills--he's a remarkably good cook but he doesn't show off. Instead, he let's his produce star. Laura's scallops were superb, too--griddled to give them browned edges and topped with delicate hazelnut waters they were accompanied by a few fine pieces of jamon and a warm salad of Jerusalem artichokes in a hazelnut oil froth. She laughed out loud after she tasted them.
   
  "Since you live here, you probably forget how remarkable French cooking really is. I mean we have some great places in Boston now, too, but at its best there's still something so uniquely regal and deliciously superior about great French food." Her scallops were good, and in the back of my mind, I was working out that even though it's far from being cheap, L'Instant d'Or is actually a very good buy. Why? You're getting intelligently original smodern French haute cuisine for half the price of what you'd spend elsewhere in the neighborhood, and the tongue-in-cheek art-gallery decors of the three very differently decorated dining room proposed very different settings as well. To wit, you can hide away in the back rooms or show off by sitting up front (not sure why the maitre d'hotel decided that Laura in ancient Laura Ashley and me in the same brown L.L. Bean corduroy trousers I've been wearing all winter were appropriate for the vitrine dining room but whatever).
  
 
   
  Very talented Japanese pastry chef Kiriko Nakamura provided a festive and very beautiful finale to our evening, too. Her mandarin-orange themed dessert wore a jaunty citrus fascinator, road a beautifully made pillow of sponge and was accompanied by a neat slush of tart citrus ice. This was a bull's eye adult dessert for the hedonistic calorie counter, and it was perfect at the end of my crustacean feast. Laura was quite happy with her tropical fruit themed dessert, which also sported a fascinator, this one burnt sugar.
   
  As the meal had quietly swollen to be rather momentous is so many ways, we dawdled over espresso (me) and a chamomile tea (Laura) and startled each other by making small talk. This persiflage made all of the elephants in the room restless, however, so I walked her across the street to her hotel to say good-bye. 
   
  Emotionally espaliered as children both of us, we've long ago mastered the hasty hug and mumbled farewell, but instead we shared a rib-crunching embrace. "Thank you for this great send off. It would never have been so moving or memorable without such good food, Alec," said Laura. I wished her well and told her I'd always be there if she needed me. Then when I turned around to walk away, she snatched the back of my jacket. "I'm so proud of you," she said. 
 
  In the morning, the first two thoughts that I had after turning of the alarm were that they're very few people who'd have had the affectionate tenacity to seek me out in the middle of my maze, and also that L'Instant d'Or is a very, very good restaurant indeed. Seriously.
  
    36 avenue Georges V, 8th, Tel. 01-47-23-46-78. Metro: Alma Marceau or George V.
Menus: 49 Euros (lunch), 98 Euros (dinner), a la carte 150 Euros