Out of the box chez Ducasse


If you are of the opinion that French haute cuisine is boring and passé, think again. For Christopher Saintagne, chef at the illustrious Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenée, cooks out of the box and certainly proves that today “fine dining” can be anything the chef says it is. There’s not a touch of preciousness in his food, in fact “earthy” is the word I’d apply to many of his dishes. One look at the streamlined, abbreviated menu and you begin to get the message. One dish reads only “langoustines rafraichies, caviar.” Another “turbot, coquillages, blette.” You know this is going to be all about the ingredients.

When did you last have an amuse-bouche like this? The tall, lean, handsome waiter arrives with a hot-off-the-stove sauté pan and places it in the center of the table. Two long-handled seafood forks rest on a mound of spicy, hot, brilliant pink baby shrimp, the bodies sautéed and the cleaned heads deep-fried to a perfect crisp. We ate the entire portion. That could have been lunch.

A first course of giant langoustines cooked every so slightly, then chilled, arrived as a lineup of perfectly dainty bite-sized portions, topped with a dollop of glistening caviar. Dip them into a delicate langoustines sauce, then follow up with a sip of lemongrass and ginger-laced broth. Magnificent.

The golden crayfish bisque arrived topped with a giant shellfish-flavored oeuf à la neige, which is then bathed in a rich, pumpkin-flavored shellfish sauce, making for a stunning dish with myriad textures, flavors, taste sensations. Forceful and brilliant.

Next came the turbot-lover’s dream. (That’s me, the turbot lover.) A giant rectangular portion of alabaster turbot arrives on a mattress of fresh seaweed, gorgeous and fragrant, served with a delicate fish broth and all manner of baby shellfish, strips of Swiss chard and fresh sea weed. A sea festival, completely satisfying.

It’s hard to decide which was the best dish of the day, though the beauty pageant winner is surely the gratin of fresh cèpe mushrooms (photo) served in a clean white bowl and garnished with parsley flowers. I took one look at the dish --- painstakingly layered slices of sautéed mushroom – and asked myself “Why hadn’t I thought of that?” The chef had carefully cubed and sautéeed mushrooms then topped with the thinly sliced portions. It made me realize that whole, cooked cèpes are like meat, but when they're sliced and cooked the mushrooms are pure vegetable. The only ho-hum dish of the meal was the accompanying soup, cubed cèpes floating in a bronze-colored broth, with flavors that were simply nondescript.

And just when I thought I had enough fresh purple figs for the year, the chef insisted I try his autumnal creation, and I am glad I did. He layered a small cocotte with fresh fig leaves and buried them with fresh, whole purple figs. Once cooked, he added sliced, raw figs, then topped it all with a sharp granité of sweet Italian wine. Thank you, October.

Service lead by maître d’ Denis Courtiade is totally down to earth and friendly, while sommelier Laurent Roucayro breaks the mold of the snooty wine waiter. His choice of wines – Pascal Jolivet’s clean and expressive 2009 Pouilly Fumé and Pierre Usseglio’s crisp, full-bodied white Châteaneuf-du-Pape – brought harmony and happiness to a lovely meal.

And prices here as not as bad as they might be. While many palace dining rooms will cost a diner upwards of 350 euros with a sip of wine, one can leave this restaurant totally satisfied for 195 euros per person, not counting beverages. There are so many “extras” served, you don’t need to order more than a starter, a main, a dessert.

ALAIN DUCASSE AU PLAZA ATHENEE, 25, avenue Montaigne, Paris 8. Tel: +33 1 53 67 65 00. Métro: Alma Marceau. Open: Lunch Thursday and Friday only, 12:45 - 2:15pm. Dinner Monday to Friday 7:45 – 10:15pm. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

360 euro menu. A la carte, 195 to 335 euros, not including beverages.