Modern Elegance at the Meurice

PARIS --- Yannick Alléno is one Parisian chef that is more than content.

‘’Complet, Complet, c’est genial!” he says with satisfaction at the thought that, since he arrived on September 1st, the Meurice Hôtel’s dining room has been playing to a full house at lunch and dinner.

This lean, muscular, 35-year-old chef seems more than at home and at ease in this grand hotel, where he oversees no less than 72 chefs in a series of three kitchens spread side by side in the hotel’s vast underground workshops.

But it is clear that his focus and his pride shines upon the 50-seat dining room, a gracious and elegant room filled with shimmering crystal chandeliers and antique beveled mirrors that reflect large bay windows framed in rare marble. Here, the youthful staff dressed to the nines in mourning coats, with hair slicked back and with the posture of ballet stars, whirl about as if they are part of the show, and they are.

For me, the Meurice – long the hotel of the aristocratic, where you are encouraged to accept luxury as a birthright – is the jewel in the collection of the city’s grand hotels. And here, a special meal orchestrated by Alléno (who was awarded two Michelin stars in 2002 while chef at the restaurant Les Muses in the Hôtel Scribe) and his staff can appear magical.

While not known for its bargains, the Meurice dining room’s 55 € lunch menu is a good place to cut your teeth: Here, the choice is vast but not overwhelming, and offers a good look at Alleno’s fare, which I find a surprising jig saw puzzle, served with grand elegance and a distinctly modern sensibility.

As soon as Alléno arrived at the Meurice he completely overhauled the kitchens, adding state of the art ovens and a rotisserie that flatters his top quality ingredients, including a gorgeous, moist roasted duck that is paired with wild cepe mushrooms and baby turnips infused with the wintry flavors of juniper berries.

His food has style (lots of rounds upon rounds, squares upon squares), and while flavors are generally soft in texture, there is always a touch of crunch at the end, filling our natural desires for a bit of snap, crackle and pop on the palate.

Luncheon specialties may range for the purely simple – a superb mound of tiny girolles mushrooms cooked in the sherry-like vin jaune from the Jura – to a wintry fricassee of suckling pig, anointed with sage butter and a fresh artichoke mousseline.

I spent a morning with Alléno in his kitchen, and snapped up some home-style recipes that have already been incorporated into my own repertoire, including a winning gratin of Swiss chard stems: Poach match-stick sized stems in chicken stock, layer in a gratin dish with sprinklings of grated Parmesan, heat beneath a broiler, then finish it all with miniature cubes of Parmesan, tiny bits of celery leaf and bay leaf and a shower of well-toasted pine nuts.

No matter the menu, his food combinations are always out of the ordinary, but never go over the edge toward wackiness. For instance, thin slices of abalone – ormeaux – cooked in salted butter seem right at home with the earthy nature of fresh white shell beans and wild cepe mushrooms.

A favorite at a recent dinner was his rotisserie saddle of lamb from small farmers in the Languedoc paired with the classic white shell beans, here slow-roasted in the oven in stock, with a touch of garlic, sherry vinegar, parsley, tomatoes and the almost-smoky, just-right-spicy red pepper from Espelette in France’s Basque country.

The wine list can get pricy, but sommelier David Retif assures a small selection of wines priced from 34 to 49 euros, also available by the glass. Selections might include the Marsanne-grape based white Saint-Péray from the Voge vineyards, or a Loire Valley red from Château Fosse Seche.

Le Meurice
228 rue du Rivoli
Paris 1
Telephone: 01 44 58 10 10
Fax: 01 44 58 10 15

Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. 55 € lunch menu. A la carte, 100 to 155 €, including service but not wine.