Parisian Dining: A Study in Contrasts

PARIS – Last week’s dining offered a supreme study in contrasts in Paris dining. First there’s Wadja, an old faithful Left Bank Montparnasse bistrot, comfortable as one’s favorite pair of shoes. Then one settles into the restaurant of the moment, Baccarat crystal’s sumptuous and other worldly Cristal Room in the private mansion in the well-bred 16th arrondissement.

I don’t think it would be possible to have a bad time at Wadja, where the welcome, the daily menu, the wine list and the jovial wait staff all make it all so easy to let down your hair, rest your elbows on the table, and dig into a good evening’s fun.

Old bistro classics – such as the heart-warming leg of lamb that’s cooked for a full seven hours --- gigot à sept heures – is almost always on the menu here, and when it is, do order this moist lamb dish, washed down with one of their bargain wines. We adored the meaty red Côtes du Rhône, the Domaine la Montagnette, from one of the region’s top wine cooperatives, Cave Estezargues, priced at 30 €. Daily specialties might include the freshest of Brittany’s scallops – coquilles saint Jacques -- simply seared, or a soothing starter of artichokes cooked à la barigoule – braised in white wine and herbs – served with shavings of Parmesan. Ask for a large bottle of water and the waiter playfully replies: water comes in half bottles, wine in full bottles.

Barracat’s Cristal Room is the kind of place about which no one can be blasé. The famed French crystal manufacturer has closed its doors on the famed Rue Paradis in the city’s 10th arrondissement and grouped together a show room, a museum and restaurant in one of the city’s grandest private homes, one might even say it’s a palace. Everything about this ultra-modern place glistens, shines, reflects, reverberates. And just about everything about this totally re-focused 1880’s mansion makes you gasp and even giggle, for everywhere your eye falls, the visual contrasts and surprises make you take notice, reflect.

It’s clear that the ubiquitous designer Philippe Starck had his hand in all of this, and the results are both good and bad. On the good side, I love that modern design can have a sense of humor, make us laugh. Most of all it makes us reflect on styles, the whys and hows. In the main dining room, the walls have been taken down to bare red brick and framed in gilt mirrors. All the while trappings of elegance, from the giant crystal chandeliers to the vast marble fireplace mantles, remind us that this house has serious bones. Crystal, of course is everywhere, in the form of chandeliers, candelabras, wine glasses, water glasses, carafes, carafes, carafes.

The dining room may glisten, but it sure lacks comfort. The banquettes are totally impossible: Posture is not even an issue, you just can’t sit comfortably or elegantly perched at the edge of a sofa. And the dainty, gilt, party-rental chairs are simply too tiny for most male bottoms. Now Baccarat will want to tar and feather me for this, but their wine glasses are simply inadequate for any wine appreciation or enjoyment. The footed, faceted crystal ware may be classic and pretty, but the bowl is too small to swirl or stick your nose into, and the thickness of the crystal gives you the impression that you’re drinking out of a jelly jar.

But on to the food and service, both of which merit at least a visit. I expected the food to be an after thought, and though it bends over backwards to be the chicest of chic – and awkwardly so – the food does have merit, despite the fact there seems to be a certain smug dismissiveness of the real pleasures of gastronomy. An amuse bouche of frothy langoustine cappuccino topped with the thinnest sliver of fresh black truffles was delicious --- redolent of the sea, warm, soothing, with a nice long finish. I can’t imagine any foie gras lover not wanting to go back for the foie gras crème brulée, truly a gratin dish filled with shimmering foie gras topped with a sugary crust. The contrast of the rich and fatty duck liver and the gentle sugar sweetness was truly brilliant. I didn’t quite get the point of what they called “ephemeral oyster ravioli” -- a single plump oyster from Prat ar Coum in Brittany – surrounded by a touch of jelly and bathed in cream. But what there was of it, was delicious. Their already famed club sandwich – a mile-high classic of chicken, bacon, mayo and plenty of toasted pain de mie – is indeed quite something, but I for one have never figured out how one is supposed to attack a club sandwich without disfiguring it as you dismantle and devour. The grilled dorade – served whole and cooked to perfection – would be hard to improve on and the thick veal chops was equally fine. A cheese course of the creamy, fragrant seasonal cow’s milk Mont d’Or from the Jura was indeed delicious but the accompanying “poire à croquer” was just that, to crunch with vigor. It was rock hard. The wine list offered some good buys but they were out of most of them that night. We loved what they did have in stock, an always reliable red Faugères from the Languedoc, well-priced at 25 € a bottle. (But do watch the prices: We were charged 25 € for a bottle of Faugeres, but then 54 € for three glasses of a less interesting Savigny les Beaune, offered by the glass!). The bread needs improvement and chocolate chip cookies at the end are simply silly. Reservations are among the most precious in town. My hairdresser told me friends paid a bribe to get in.

10 rue de la Grand Chaumière
Paris 6 Telephone 01 46 33 02 02

Closed Sunday and Monday at lunch. Credit card: Visa. A la carte, 35 € per person, including service but not wine.

Cristal Room
11, place des États Unis
75116 Paris
Telephone : 01 40 22 11 10
Fax : 01 40 22 11 99

Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. 25 to 86 € per person, including service but not wine.