Ducasse IV: A Mixed Bag Questioning the Classics

PARIS - Alain Ducasse, with a total of six Michelin stars to his name, cannot afford to lose. With the recent unveiling of Spoon Food & Wine - his fourth restaurant in France - it is clear that he is on a roll. The man who has attempted to redefine how a grand French chef behaves (he defies the old rule that a chef's place is behind the stove) and to prove how long his arms can stretch (regular flights between his three-star restaurants in Monaco and Paris, with weekend appearances in his retreat at Moustiers, in Provence) is now redefining the modern concept of world food.

When would one ever pronounce in the same breath the words ''luxurious, refined and audacious'' with ''iceberg lettuce, BLT and pastrami on rye''? But they all apply to his newest effort, a small and smart spot right off the increasingly upmarket Champs-Elysées.

Spoon is perhaps France's first truly international restaurant, dipping into French, British, American, Italian, Chinese and Indian cuisine, with a décor that turns heads and, again, attempts to question classic traditions.

Rather than with tablecloths, tables are dressed with cloths that slip into slots, like elegant table runners. Some 70 magazines from around the world are there for guests to read, and notepads and pencils are set at each table to jot down one's thoughts. Along with knives, forks and of course spoons, each diner receives an elegant pair of Christofle bamboo chopsticks, which I never saw anyone use. Although the restaurant advertises a ''free'' second cup of coffee and warm steamed towels at the end of each meal, we were offered neither.

The menu is not organized in a normal first course, main course, cheese and dessert progression. Each section is divided into three columns, allowing diners to mix and match according to the main dish, the sauce, and rice or vegetable accompaniment. And in this era of something for everyone, the menu is bilingual French-English, with Asian and vegetarian dishes, and everything from pastrami sandwiches to South American cebiche to Chinese steamed ravioli.

Half the wines on the list come from America, with a fine showing from Australia and New Zealand, a true ''happening'' in France. And the cheese course (rather than the classic Brie, Camembert and Roquefort) consists of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Cheddar and Stilton.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and on that front Ducasse has a way to go. Some of it is not his fault. Truth be told, the public is not all that ready for such a reshuffling of the status quo. On a recent evening the well-heeled international crowd appeared downright confused as to how to order and how to eat. After studying the menu, the youthful Spanish couple at my left asked the waiter to order for them. They then asked that their white wine be put into ''a real ice bucket'' instead of the plastic ice-cube-less version. The iceberg lettuce served to them in a tall, elegant glass bowl was instantly transferred to a common plate for more practical eating.


Up-to-Date Methods

Ducasse and his chefs use every method of cooking available - grills to roasts, rotisserie to woks, cooking over a hot stone, modern induction and even vacuum-packing - but the results at the moment are less than brilliant.

On our recent visit, everything that came from the kitchen looked and tasted very dry, and was by and large lukewarm. Even the wok-seared vegetables had that soggy, stewed airline quality about them. And though I am all for choosing what I eat and when, we are not always the best judge of what garnish goes well with each dish. The best finds on that visit included a full-flavored youm koumg soup, full of spice and laced with squid and shellfish, as well as designer macaroni gratin, rich and plump, with plenty of veal cooking juice to pour over it.

Less successful were the very dry, tasteless grilled squid served with a perky sauce of crushed preserved lemon, and a dry roasted veal steak cooked on the rotisserie.

With seating for no more than 70 and tabs that inch toward 500 francs (about $90) with a decent bottle of wine, this is not the sort of cuisine that is going to keep Ducasse at the top. The concept reminds me of a model for a worldwide chain. But I am sure Ducasse has already thought of that.


Spoon Food & Wine, 14 Rue de Marignan, Paris 8. Tel: 01-40-76-34-44; fax: 01-40-76-34-37. Closed Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. A la carte, 200 to 300 francs.