There is much to love about Alain Ducasse’s bold, brave, and dramatic reincarnation of Paris’s Plaza Athénée restaurant. He, along with designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku were courageous to remove the traditional, starched white linen “fine dining” tablecloth and replace it with the most beautiful clean wooden table, an earthy, warm, welcome as one is first seated in the otherwise all-white dining room. Service-wise, I vote the restaurant unlimited stars, for director Denise Courtiade, sommelier Laurent Roucayrol, and their staff are models of their métier, and everyone who wants to know how to greet, serve, make diners feel like royalty, should sign up for a lesson, if one was available.
Ducasse, like other top French chefs, is working seriously and earnestly to create a new language and vision for “fine dining,” and their efforts should not go unnoticed. Quite surprisingly, the new menu at the Plaza focuses solely on three groups of ingredients: vegetables, fish and shellfish, and grains. And Ducasse pledges a new definition of luxurious, attempting to turn every element into a radical, minimal, experience. Again, an idea to be applauded, if it works.
At this point, to this diner and critic, it does not. Watching his 15-minute video on the restaurant’s web site, one could become an instant convert, making friends with the man who meticulously selects Ducasse’s fish and shellfish, the earthy and loveable family that organically farms the grains used in the restaurant, the gardener at Versailles who grows the myriad of vegetables that arrive at the table.
In the video, Ducasse promises a return to “pure taste” (as if there was none before), and to a cooking that is not overworked (again, this is not a totally new and inventive concept.)
We began with a brilliant orange-toned juice, a bright blend of carrots and celery served in a clear glass tumbler, with a designer ice cube. Nice, but I would have preferred a glass of bubbly. Why stuff “healthy” down one’s throat in a grand restaurant if it is not spectacular?
The first bite to arrive: Salsify chips in sorrel sauce. Hmm……not exciting.
However I adored the grilled sardine, served with deep-fried head and bones, a perfect blend of smooth and crunchy, with a delicious scent and flavor of the sea – a huge bravo.
To follow, a memorable chickepea puree with dorade (porgy), but I found the fish superfluous, the grains themselves were enough.
Then the main courses began, and I am sorry, they (mostly) did not work: A giant white bowl of quinoa topped with all manner of vegetables (from Versailles) and wild mushrooms. In his video, Ducasse preaches about not overworking food, but this dish was neither well thought out nor treated with the care he professes. During the same week, dining in various Paris establishments, I had better, brighter, less-tortured vegetables, sampled in modest bistros, newcomer star restaurants, and competing grand tables. As I ate the wild mushrooms from the dish, setting aside the characterless vegetables, I wondered if chef Romain Meder or Ducasse himself actually sat down and finished off an entire bowl of this creation.
The best – and most dramatic dish of the day – was clearly the whole cauliflower encased in brioche dough, a thorough beauty, presented untouched to the table. Once sliced, each all-white and fragrant portion was paired with pillow-like scallops and white truffles – quite understated, yet totally memorable.
The lagoustines and caviar that arrived next with a sip of langoustine broth on the side took me back to grand cuisine dining. What’s there not to like? But this hardly speaks culinary revolution to me.
The most disappointing of all was the main-course turbot, to me the grand king of French fish and French cuisine, and an ingredient that must be treated with wholehearted honor, even a bow. But sadly our giant morsel of turbot just sat there on the plate, pouting, no real soul or purpose, overcooked and rather limp and tasteless. The watercress sauce, baby turnips, et al, did not improve its placement at the table.
However, back to the positive: The wine list is a dream. We relished a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape festival, sampling a 2010 Clos des Papes (well-balanced and finely acidic), a 2012 Les Cailloux (Roussanne-rich, with great minerality ), and 2011 Domaine de Marcoux (fresh, with that Roussanne forwardness). The sommelier offered us a discovery of the season, with a 2011 red Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Celestière, a blockbuster old-vine Grenache worth seeking out. Each found its proper place at the table, offering pleasures impossible to describe.
And for a few more thoughts from the dark side. Much of the cutlery seemed as though it belonged on a summer camp table, teeny tiny knives and forks not meant to be held by adult hands. Most of the serving plates are really bowls, with food so hidden inside that only the diner directly in front can detect what is within. Others cannot enjoy the luxury of the visible pleasures of the table. And this is solely a matter of personal taste, but the “I Dream of Jeannie” all-white décor felt out of context, made me more want to put on a white Corrèges A-line sleeveless dress and white boots and begin singing rather than relax and enjoy a fine dining meal. The PR suggests that the décor is a point of humor, but it did not make me laugh, it felt more like a luxury auto showroom to me, with all that glistening silver and white.
Now that Ducasse is a chocolate master (with his two Le Chocolat - Alain Ducasse shops in Paris) I would also have expected something more spectacular than his beautiful yet dull chocolate cake. Sigh… I want to be a fan. But I need more convincing.
Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée | 25 avenue Montaigne | Paris 8 | Tel: +33 1 53 67 65 00 | Metro: Alma-Marceau | Open lunch Thursday and Friday only. Dinner Monday to Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday | Modern French, Haute Cuisine | À la carte 185 - 410€ at lunch and dinner; menu jardin-marin 380€ (3 half-portion dishes, cheese and dessert) | www.alainducasse.com | firstname.lastname@example.org |