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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 Yannick Alleno (3)

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
Thursday
Sep052013

RESTAURANT ENCORE- Cuisine d'Amis--A Pleasant Modern French Bistro, Again (Ou encore?) B-

   
  Walking home from dinner at Restaurant Encore, a new contemporary French bistro with a Japanese chef, the amiable and earnest Yoshi Morie, in the 10th arrondissement last night, I gave a lot of thought to the meal I'd just eaten. Overall, it was pleasant, and I liked the space, a former kosher butcher shop in the rapidly gentrifying rue Richer, and the service, which was really charming, a lot. The impact of the food, however, a suite of tasting plates as part of the 48 Euro prix-fixe dinner meal, was so evanescent that it made only the most fleeting of impressions. To be sure, Morie, who formerly cooked at Le Petit Verdot on the Left Bank, works with impressively pedigreed produce from a prestigious roster of suppliers, including Joel Thiebault (vegetables), Annie Bertin (vegetables and herbs), Terroirs d'Avenir, butcher Hugo Desnoyer, and the Pain des Amis bakery for bread, and several of the dishes we ate were momentarily interesting, but these fragile compositions worked like haiku, offering a brief moment of sudden clarity before rapidly fading away. 
 
  This is the challenge of the Pointilist style of contemporary French bistro cooking that's practiced at so many of the most popular and successful recently opened tables in Paris. For these gastronomic slide shows to work, they have to be vivid--even when they're being gentle, deeply imagined and sort of revelatory in some fleeting way, often by introducing unexpected or unknown ingredients or creating really fascinating contrasts of flavor and texture. When these small plates sequences work, they can be really spectacular, too. Chef David Toutain pulled this style off brilliantly when he was cooking at L'Agape Substance (he's since moved on, taking the magic with him), Bertrand Grebault masters it remarkably well at Septime, too, as does Daniel Rose at Spring and Braden Perkin at Verjus, and other chefs, including Michael Greenwold and Simone Tondo at Roseval, have moments of greatness as well--their smoked potato puree with baby clams was one of the best things I've eaten in several years. But ultimately, unless the chef is seriously gifted, these meals fade like dew. When I replay all of the small plates tasting menus I've had during the last couple of years, only a very few dishes remain in memory. Daniel Rose's sea bass with cold-smoked tomatoes and salicorne in a pool of soothing boullion at a recent lunch was an exquisite dish, and I loved chef Louis Philippe's barbecued pork with a carrot crepe at Le 6 Paul Bert, along with almost everything else I've ever eaten there, because of he's a master of differing tones of acidity, the use of smoke as a seasoning and has a deft touch with herbs and unexpected garnishes.
  
 
  Unfortunately at Encore, our first dish (or was it our second?) set the tone for the meal that followed. A few small cubes of melted brie from Quatrehommes were garnished with borage, which has the wonderfully startling taste of oysters; wood sorrel; and a shred of pickled shallot. It was an unusual little composition but faltered for being void of any real gustatory logic. The cubes of seared tuna with tomato coulis that followed were succulent but most interesting for their appealing garnish of fresh dill, an herb still infrequently used in the French kitchen, but there wasn't any real percusion to this dish.
  
   Made with excellent meat from Hugo Desnoyer, a teaspoon or two of veal tartare was served with mussels, which were too timid to create the terre et mer contrast found in a dish like veal-and-oyster tartare, a modern classic which has often turned up on the menus of contemporary Parisian bistros. This dish was pretty to look at and good enough eating, but small-plates menus come with an implicit promise of amazement, which didn't happen with this dish, or my main course, two small pieces of bavette with rather incoahate garnishes of white currants, black berries and a single grilled shallot similarly underwhelmed. My Kansan dinner date's sauteed cod with baby leeks was similarly timid, and I couldn't help but thinking of something that chef Yannick Alleno said during a recent chat, which is that every meal needs the anchor of generously served main course so that you know you've been fed. Likewise, several Alain Ducasse dictums ricocheted around in my mind--"Fushion leads to confusion," and "More than four ingredients, and a dish is too complicated." 
 
   Maybe this meal would have surprised and delighted me more if I hadn't already eaten in so many other restaurants with small-plates prix-fixe menus. But ultimately I couldn't find any real logic in this succession of culinary cameos, and pleasant enough though they were, they rarely had enough personality to distract us from our conversation. In fact, the only things I'm likely to remember about this place in two week's time are the soulful icon of the smooth old wooden butcher's block incorporated into the bar, the excellent white Gaillac we drank, the exceptionally alert and friendly service, and the pleasure of a long shaggy-dog kind of chat with a good friend. I don't doubt that Yoshi Morie is a sincere and talented chef, but I'd want him to find his own unique culinary signature and dare some livelier music on the plate before I returned for an encore, especially at these prices.
   
  And the last thought I had before I got home was that the pervasiveness of the suppliers I mentioned earlier is having sort of a dulling and homogenizing effect on Paris's gastronomic landscape. All of them supply superb produce, but when it reaches a point that I can identify Terroir d'Avenir produce blind-folded (well, almost), it strikes me that it might be time for some of these young Turks to diversify their order books.
    
Encore, 43 rue Richer, 9th, Tel. 01-72-60-97-72. Metro: Le Peletier, Grands Boulevards or Cadet. Lunch menus 25 Euros, 30 Euros; Dinner menus 48 Euros, 76 Euros. Open for lunch from Tuesday to Friday. Dinner from Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Tuesday
Mar132012

TERROIR PARISIEN--Chef Yannick Alleno's Great Locavore Bistro, B+


Superb charcuterie by Gilles Verot
  About three years ago, a surprising conversation with Yannick Alleno, the three-star honcho of Le Meurice, made me aware that Paris is a sadly deprived city for having been shorn of its immediate agricultural hinterland. To wit, before World War II much of the produce that Parisians ate was grown on small farms in the surrounding Ile de France countryside, and this is why some of the great dishes of the French kitchen take their names from villages like Crécy, which once grew the carrots and onions used in a classic sauce Crécy. If galloping urbanization after the war induced a precipitous decline in local farming, the rise of supermarkets, which will happily buy carrots from Poland or Paraguay if they're .001 centimes cheaper, and the catastrophic transfer of Paris's main market to Rungis in 1969 further sounded the death knell of local farming (For a fascinating account of how intensely Paris used to be to connected to the rural countryside that fed it, Emile Zola's novel "The Belly of Paris," recently restranslated by Mark Kurlansky, is highly recommended; see more about this brilliant book if you're interested in my Amazon store).
 
photo @ jean-francois mallet  Anyway, Alleno, a native of the Ile de France, got the idea to revive classical Parisian cooking with local produce and introduced a Terroir Parisien menu at the Hotel Meurice that was terrific. Subsequently, he produced a book on the subject Terroir Parisien, and now he's gone a step further and opened Terroir Parisien, a beautiful new bistro in the Maison de la Mutualite in the Latin Quarter, to showcase traditional Parisian and Ile de France recipes made with local produce whenever possible. It's a brilliant initiative, and I think it could give a really welcome push to the accelerating locavore movement in the city. 
 
  Alleno eventually plans to have his own farm, but in the meantime he's assiduously sought out a variety of small producers for pears, carrots, potatoes, herbs and other produce, and also intends to revive production of la poule de Houdan, in the Yvelines town of the same name. 
"La poule de Houdan was more famous in Europe than the poulet de Bresse," Alleno explained to me several years ago. "What changed everything was the Great Depression, when the government encouraged Paris chefs to use produce from all over the country as a way of helping struggling regions, and then the suburbanization of the Ile de France."
 
  The handsome dining room of Terroir Parisien, which will be open seven days a week, was designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and includes appetizing displays of the local produce currently available to the kitchen, including cabbages, carrots, leeks and potatoes.
 
  
   
  On a cool Spring night, it was terrific to see such a great choice of soups on the menu, including potato-and-leek with smoked eel; onion; Saint-Germain; and a Billy-By made with saffron from the Gatinais, but we happily tucked into an excellent salad of frisee and watercress with a soft-boiled egg and lardons and a succulent pate Patin (veal and pork pate en croute) served with a salad of hearts of baby lettuce in a mustardy vinaigrette. Both dishes were homey, generously served, and delicious.
 
  Though very tempted by the matelote (fresh water fish and eel stew) "Bougival," a direct reference to the place locally caught fresh-water fish once occupied in the Parisian diet, since Bougival is a riverside Parisian suburb, I couldn't resist the "Navarin printanier d'agneau de chez Morisseau," which the waitress explained was made with lamb from a race native to the Ile de France raised by the Morisseau family in Aufferville. It was superb, with vividly fresh al dente baby vegetables garnishing the lush but light brown sauce that napped the tender, flavorful meat.
  
   
  Bruno loved his piece de boeuf in a sauce Bercy (white wine, shallots, bouillon, parsley), a reference to the days that the Bercy district was the center of the wine trade in Paris, and neither of us could keep away from the rich potato puree made with Belle de Fontenay potatoes or the spinach from Montfermeil that we ordered as side dishes.
 
  I finished up with a slice of perfectly ripened Brie de Meaux, while Bruno was very happy with a poached pear drizzled with wonderfully poetic Miel Béton (Cement Honey, a reference to the fact that the bee hives are located in the heavily built-up northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis). All told, this is a fun and thought-provoking restaurant, since it set me to musing on how much Parisian cooking has been affected by the multi-facted spell the Mediterranean cast on France after World War II. Olive oil, aubergines, courgettes, etc., rarely got a look in from most serious Paris chefs in the past, and for a fascinating peep hole on to what Paris ate before the rise of the South, I highly recommend Paris Dans Votre Assiette: Recettes Capitales (Editions Chene), a superb new cookbook by Anne Martinetti.
  
Terroir Parisien, 20 rue Saint Victor, 5th, Tel. 01-44-31-54-54. Metro: Maubert-Mutualité. Open daily. Average 35 Euros.