Thoroughly Modern, Totally Classic

PARIS – Anyone wondering what might have happened to Grand French cuisine should reserve a table at Les Elysees du Vernet, where the talented Eric Briffard has been working his magic since December.

With touches that are both thoroughly modern and totally classic, Briffard’s current menu offers something for everyone. From the plumpest and sweetest scallops to his rosemary-infused grilled lobster and on to the finest duck I have ever eaten anywhere, he somehow covers all bases.

While some chefs let the finest ingredients speak for themselves and others prefer to impose their own personality on the ingredient (often smothering it in the process), Briffard manages to pull off both. There is absolutely no question about the quality of his ingredients, which he treats with utmost respect. But what is amazing is his range of creativity.

Briffard is one of the many talents to come out of Joel Robuchon’s kitchens, and to my mind one of the best. After sampling a series of dishes in a single sitting – one more appealing than the next – one is reminded of watching a top athlete perform. How does she or he do it, one asks. With lots and lots of practice, more than the rest.

The very first dish on the menu is a pure virtuoso performance: Legumes racine du potager du Joel. With all manner of winter root vegetables in a single dish, each is treated as though it was made of gold, not simply plucked from the cold winter ground. Arranged on a square glass plate like a perfect bouquet, we devour bright red radishes, yellow as well as orange carrots, turnips, Japanese artichokes (crosnes), baby onions and leeks, and celery root, potatoes and onions. A shower of the thinnest julienne of fresh truffles perfumes the dish and adds a perfect crunch. The vegetables are escorted by a tiny toasted baguette slathered with a brilliantly flavored horseradish cream that’s dusted with minced fresh truffles and paired with a delicious jelly of pot au feu, offering a perfect contract of textures. .

His food is complex but everything is there for you to see, so it is food that’s easy to understand. My favorite langoustines were treated with the respect they deserve, arriving out of the shell, teamed with paper thin slices of chorizo, a platter or crunchy vegetables and a winning artichoke vinaigrette.

The black truffle season is almost over, so if you want one last hit of this magical mushroom, race over and sample the copious salad of golden sliced charlotte potatoes literally smothered with thick discs of the most perfect and sensual fresh black truffles. Tangled with the warm potatoes are bits of dried tomato and thin slivers of lomo, or faintly smoked pork loin, a Basque region specialty. The slight smokiness is welcome, almost giving the truffles themselves a slight hint of smokiness.

Equally delicious is his beautiful tart of leek and truffles, a retooled version of Robuchon’s famous truffle and bacon tart. Here, Briffard uses the mildly salty ventrèche (France’s version of pancetta) sparingly, letting the leeks and truffles cut into generous slivers play a colorful black and green contrast. Alongside, there’s a slim shot glass full of a frothy sweet onion cream, laced with a bright hit of balsamic vinegar. Brilliant, just brilliant.

My favorite sherry-like vin jaune from the Jura appears in sauce bathing a creative combination of sweet white Saint Pierre and oysters; while a beautifully grilled lobster arrives smoking from the kitchen, the fragrance of rosemary filling the room.

The duck – canette de barbarie au sang – was just the best I ever sampled. Fragrant, rich, rosy, it was the true definition of that fine and often abused poultry. Served with surprising tamarind sauce, turnips and pears poached in spicy wine, it is a fine winter dish if there ever was one.

Desserts are original as well, including a pan-roasted baby pineapple deglazed with cider vinegar and served with a rich vanilla ice cream.

One could make a meal out of their bread assortments, ranging form yard-long slender bread sticks rich with the flavor of top-quality olive oil to a fine version of the Italian slipper bread. The classics – such as olive rolls and whole wheat – are hard to turn down.

The wine list is exhaustive and includes some treasures, such as the dense, intense red 100 % syrah Vinsobres, Civades 2001, from , priced at 50 €.

Now that the hotel – built as a townhouse in 1913 – has the talents of Eric Briffard the best thing they could do is hire a decorator to re-do the dining room. It could be one of the prettiest in town, with its Gustav Eiffel glass ceiling and lovely volume. As it stands, the lighting is all wrong, the décor totally out of date and heavy, even headache inducing. They could at least buy the chef some new plates: The mismatched old and new, square and round, hardly do justice to Briffard’s talents.

Service here is excellent, attentive without being invasive, and relaxed in a modern sort of way.

Les Elysées du Vernet
Hôtel Vernet
25, rue Vernet
Paris 8
Tel: 01 44 31 98 00

Closed Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at lunch. All major credit cards. 45 € lunch menu, includes service and half bottle of wine; 120 € tasting menu at dinner, include service but not wine. A la carte, 110 €, including service but not wine.