Lottery-winning, fish-eating vegetarians will be clapping their hands because this is one restaurant where the meat-free diet is celebrated. Scratch that. Worshipped.
Alain Ducasse sent shock waves throughout the culinary world when he announced he’d be giving his Michelin three star restaurant, in the Hotel Plaza Athénée, a makeover. Out went the meat, in came seafood, grains, vegetables and a largely organic offering. It opened in September last year, after being excluded from the Michelin guide during refurbishment. It took a one-star hit on re-opening.
It wasn’t only the menu that got ripped apart at this Parisian institution, the dining room and bar was totally transformed too.
I hopped on the Eurostar at St Pancras to have lunch and a wander around the streets of one of my favourite cities in the world.
The Plaza likes red and there’s plenty of it, from the outside terrace, to the window boxes spilling out poker-red geraniums and trailing ivy from the Art Nouveau balconies.
You don’t visit Alain Ducasse’s restaurant if you want plain and simple. For many, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime meal, simply because of the price tag, but it’s an opportunity to try the best food and drink the world has to offer. The decor is other-wordly from the Murano chandeliers to the polished cloche banquettes (each took 500 hours to make).
All tables are left bare to show their beautiful wooden grain. There are no flowers, on strict instructions of Mr Ducasse, any scent would destroy the palate. Mais bien sûr. Everything has been thought about from the folding stool for my Hermes Birkin bag (if I owned one), to the ‘mushroom’ shaped table lamps that glow during dinner service.
The meal starts with a bright green juice, which tastes way to healthy for my liking, plenty of iron-rich vegetables and a large globe of ice.
Bread is seed-rich, one a galette of nuts and grains, the others traditional French and a treacle-rich brown, all made on site.
Ewe’s Milk and crispy grains come with a mild ‘dipping’ radish.
A beautifully pink ceviche followed, topped with minimal, yet effective lime peel.
Then came a deep-fried sardine, the whole fish ready to be slipped down the throat, bones included. The baby gem lettuce was sublime, crunchy and chargrilled, I chickened-out and left the bones and head but the fish was so tasty.
A brightly-coloured stack of vegetables from the Garden of Versailles with a mustard jus will set you back (€85). Know that Marie Antoinette’s perfumed livestock were fertilising the earth and that these are some of the best vegetables you’ll ever taste.
The Lentils Vert’s du Puy et Caviar, Delicate Gelee (€165) came with creme fraiche and a glorious stack of buckwheat pancakes. The poor man’s lentils and the rich man’s caviar served in a silver dish with the most fragrant, smoked jelly. Then ensued a delicate balancing act stacking the various ingredients on the pancake topped by the thick cream without it making a mess on the deep-pile wool carpet.
Black rice with scallops and samphire was prepared at the table and was nutty, fishy and moreish.
Bright pink Homard blue du Contentin was plated with THE best potatoes ever – Pommes de Mer (€130). These earthy babies are the La Bonnotte variety, known as the caviar of the potato world and grown on the Island of Noirmoutier, where they add seaweed to the tuber’s soil.
The Bar de l”Atlantique was a meaty steak of dense white fish, cooked perfectly. Confit clementines brought a sharp but perfect balance of sweetness and acidity along with a tender white asparagus. A citrus jus brought everything together.
The French like to serve their desserts after the cheese course, alien to us, and something I still find difficulty with … but when in Paris.
The cheese trolley had an unrivalled selection dominated by French producers from all corners of the country, except for one of my favourites from the Stichelton Dairy in the UK. Alongside it there was a Normandy Camembert, a 3 year aged Comte, stinky Munster from Lorraine and 5 great Goats cheeses from the centre to the south of France.
The desserts are as spectacular as the main courses. My favourite was the citron nicoise with a tarragon pesto. Candied lemon was studded in the sharpest lemon sorbet, at its base a herb-infused jus.
A split cocoa pod was the vessel for the chocolate dish, lined with praline, chocolate and topped off with buckwheat ice cream.
Beautiful seasonal Carpentras strawberries were served with a yogurt cream.
And a chocolate slice to die-for, with chocolate from the Ducasse factory.
A Rum Baba ends a fantastic meal, complimentary but a dish too far for me. Beautifully light sponge has just the right amount of alcohol, topped off with a lightly whipped, vanilla-studded creme fraiche.
The service is exemplary, still relatively formal but not overbearing.
A quick tour of the kitchen at the end of the meal finds an army of chefs scrubbing down, I spy a Chef’s Table and get a little excited, but that is quickly capped. It’s a personal invite only, so there’s no chance of me ever sitting here but it looks comfy all the same.
Mr Ducasse has created something very exciting here with his trilogy ingredients and if the locals and critics are unhappy be buoyed by the fact that punters are lapping it up. When I visit the restaurant is full-to-bursting for lunch and I’m told dinner service, with tables booked up months in advance. If you can book, go sooner than later. If I were a Michelin judge I’d definitely return the third star where it belongs.
Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée
25, avenue Montaigne (8th)
Tél: 01 53 67 65 00