Anne-Sophie Pic plays her cards right

Anne-Sophie Pic Pea Soup 9 12

Anne-Sophie Pic's week-old La Dame de Pic near the Louvre is the sensation of the rentrée, a pure and calming all-white space,  with crisp white linen table runners, sturdy modern wooden tables,  her black signature knives from Forge de Laguiole in the Auvergne, all punctuated by a series of vases holding single, long-stemmed pink roses. The restaurant -- whose name translates as queen of spades --  is not a place for compromise. Nor is her herb, spice, and aroma-filled menu. Like the dining room itself,  it offers a balance of elegance and comfort, haute-cuisine and everyday fare, all bearing her unique, ultra-modern signature. She sports her feminine role, but does not flaunt it or play it cute. Ingredients are impeccable, preparations are complicated but not overdone, and the taste theme throughout is one of  softness and smoothness with a required touch of crunch. I would never think of pairing warm oysters with cauliflower, but Anne-Sophie offers a regal, cloud-like presentation of warm Gillardeau oysters bathed in a frank and fragrant cream of cauliflower and jasmine, surprising as well as satisfying. Sardines are paired with some of the best tasting leeks I have witnessed, punctuated by thé matcha, making for an exotic turn on the everyday fresh Mediterranean sardine.

Bresse chicken breast arrives meltingly tender, paired with a blend of cooked and raw spinach and a touch of finely sliced couteaux (razor clams) adding a bit of texture to the soft greens. But for me, the triumph of the meal was the vibrant pea soup (le petit pois de montagne) flavored with a touch of réglisse and galanga, and tasting as though the peas had been picked in palace gardens only seconds before (photo). Her flavored butters are not to be missed -- one anise, another thé matcha -- to be carefully if  not sparingly spread on whole wheat or rye-miso bread. The cheese course consists of three perfectly aged picodon goat's milk cheeses from the Anne-Sophie's home Département of the Drôme --- one young, one slightly aged, one firm and well-aged -- served with a delicate rosemary gelatin and another gelatin of beer and honey. Although I am not a huge fan of baba au rhum (usually too boozy)  hers is a delicate delight: tiny mouthfuls of light baba, paired with a burst-in-your-mouth passion fruit creation.The staff is casually but impeccably dressed in crisp blue jeans and  blue shirts. And they all actually seem to be having a wonderful time serving the guests at La Dame de Pic. A  tiny powerhouse of a woman with endless energy, Anne-Sophie will of course continue running her Michelin three-star restaurant in Valence, south of Lyon. She says she'll probably be in Paris a day or so a week. Most of the youthful chefs -- cooking in a beautiful all plancha and induction open kitchen overlooking the street -- spent the summer working in Valence to learn  the tricks of the trade. They seem to be playing their cards right, as well.

La Dame de Pic, 20 rue du Louvre, Paris 1. Métro: Louvre-Rivoli. Telephone: +33 1 42 60 40 40. 49-euro lunch menu. Other menus at 79, 100 and 120 euros. Open Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. and

Bravo to the Bras boys: Embracing the earth

Bras Cebe, Creme Fraiche, Summer Truffles 9 12

I admit that I had not sampled Michel Bras's fare in decades, a bit put off by photos of the restaurant's ultramodern architecture and the hyped "nature boy" publicity. Now I am glad that I gave him, and son Sébastien, a chance. Perched at 1,200 meters in the open, verdant and rugged Auvergne, the Bras complex is welcoming, open, organized, and completely original. The food is kaeidoscopic and full of  Kodachrome flair, but most of all, tastes are  full-flavored and thoroughly delicious. A vegetable garden and  well-chosen plots of  edible herbs and plants provide a living larder for the chefs. You cannot say the Bras family does not make use of every single herb and vegetable that the earth offers. Their famed  gargouillou -- on our visit a colorful and abundant  vegetable salad mix of yellow and green zucchini, caulifower, paper-thin slices of turnips and beets, nasturium flowers, pimprenelle, garlic flowers and arugula, to name a few of the ingredients -- made me return home to appreciate the "supermarket" of herbs and salads I had in my own garden, and had stupidly ignored over time. But the star of the day was ther onion and summer truffle tartelette (photo), a generous, lively creation: a buttery pastry base, topped with soothing and mild young onions (here cébes de Lézignan), then a festive froth of cream and a generous halo of fresh summer truffles. An accompanying herb salad was reminiscent of Joel Robuchon's trademark salade aux herbes fraiches, a well-measured mix of fresh herbs and mixed salad greens. Even though I am not normally a fan of vegetable desserts (I don't like seeing carrots on my plate at midnight), the Bras dessert of dried, paper thin slices of eggplant paired with tomatoes cooked long and slow with a touch of sugar was beautifully architectural and  rapturous in flavor. Although one might not think of going all the way to the Auvergne to sample great Burgundies (or any other French wines)  Bras is worth the detour for the well-priced wine list alone. All the greats are there, and we sampled two favorites from the Lamy collection: including their white Saint-Aubin La Chaténiere 2009 and the red Saint Aubin Derrière chez Edouard 2009, both at their peak of perfection.

Michel et Sébastien Bras, route de l'Aubrac, 12210 Laguiole, France. Tel: + 33 (0)5 65 51 18 20. Menus at 120, 145 ,and 191 euros. A la carte, 170 euros. Rooms from 270 t0 580 eur0s. Open early April to end of October. Closed Monday ,  Tuesday lunch, Wednesday lunch (except July and August.)

Taillevent, as good as ever

Taillevent 1 12 risotto epeautre

An American friend spends part of each year in Paris, and when he is there his rule is to lunch at Taillevent each and every Friday. A worthy goal, I say! This was one of the first Michelin 3-star restaurants I ever visited, back in the 1970’s. Over the years, the elegant, understated dining room has been our family’s choice to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, honors. Today, the club-like restaurant is as alive, alert, and up-to-date as any I know. As it always did, it provides the very definition of modern French haute cuisine. Chef Alain Solivérès and his pastry chef Matthieu Bijou make this one of the finest dining spots in the country. They both know how to update classics to modern-day tastes and expectations, working always with the finest of ingredients. Fish, shellfish, game, poultry, and meat are all treated with utmost respect. I have recreated the chef’s gorgeous crab rémoulade, sweet and delicately seasoned crab topped with a crown of colorful and crunchy radish rounds, though I know that I could never duplicate his lobster boudin, an Asian-inspired lobster sausage bathed in a delicate cream with a touch of caviar. On my last visit, he wowed me with flower-like tartare of fresh sea scallops topped with a nice hit of Asian herbs, followed by ultra-tender venison fillets served with a melting, warm touch of foie gras. The accompanying autumn vegetables – beets, turnips, and parsnips – could have been a meal on their own.  In winter months, black truffles reign here, with a creamy risotto of Provencal epeature (spelt) topped with a crown of truffles (PHOTO); a magical lièvre à la royale, fashioned into a rich, fragrant, perfectly seasoned terrine studded with truffles and served with a well-matched saffron-sauced pasta; and an outgrageous portion of smooth and buttery potato mousseline showered with minced truffles and a golden egg yolk. Save plenty of room for Bijou’s dessert creations: I dream of his super-perfect chocolate tart (the thinnest of crusts, the most ethereal chocolate), while his vanilla millefeuille has to be one of the lightest and flakiest in Paris. One cannot dine here without regretting the absence of perhaps the city’s greatest restaurateur of modern times, Jean-Claude Vrinat. We will always miss him.  Jean-Marie Ancher, long Vrinat’s right-hand man, carries on with absolute attention and care, while the extensive wine list remains one of the glories of the establishment.

TAILLEVENT, 15 rue Lamennais, Paris 8  Tel: +33 1 44 95 15 01 Métro: George V or Charles de Gaulle-Étoile

Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday, Sunday, and holidays Email

Lunch: 82€ & 195€ menu. A la carte 120-260€ Dinner: 195€ menu. A la carte 120-260€

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.

Please, no more carrots, no more beets!!

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This was not the first time I was disappointed by Alain Passard. Decades ago I had to be dragged into his restaurant on Rue Varenne by enthusiastic acolytes. I wasn’t impressed. I kept going back and over the years a few dishes impressed : He was the first to introduce me to mustard ice cream and I have made it ever since. I have also been taken by his slow-cooked, top of the stove method of cooking meats, fish, poultry.  But anyone who serves langoustine carpaccio should be shot, for the essence of this voluptuous shellfish is in its cloudlike texture that emerges when cooked ever so slightly. I was a little skeptical when Passard went into veggie mode in 2001, for something about it did not seem quite sincere. But I am always willing to give a chef another try, and did so the other day. A big disappointment, once again. We sampled the 120 euro garden luncheon, and Passard turns out to be a real Johnny one note in the potager. I am known as the vegetable girl, so this should have been an easy win for him. In Provence, I grow everything he professes to love, and don't always succeed, but much of the time I do.  It is almost August and granted, not the best year in the vegetable garden, but at the lunch at Arpege course after monotonous, unimaginative course turned out a little more than I could bear of carrots, beets, turnips, onions. Dish after dish I kept waiting for Passard to finish the sentence. But he never did. I might have been in the hospital cafeteria or in a vegetarian cult restaurant of the 1970’s. Vegetables are the soul of the kitchen, but you need to be creative, add a touch of fat, protein, carbs like beans or rice as balance and to satisfy.   Wait ! Where are the tomatoes, basil, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tarragon, thyme, summer savory, sorrel, baby onions, all advertised on his web site ? They DO grown this time of year ! Tomatoes took a huge back seat, arriving as a bit of tomato water as a bath for vegetable ravioles, and as a dessert that tasted like Christmas, a whole sugary tomato stuffed with all manner of sweet, honey-like bits. Something has never rung true here, from the somewhat condescending service to the rather cold surroundings. I won’t be back. There are too many wonderful places in Paris to spend your money and have a fabulous time.

Arpege, 84, rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. Tel: 01 47 05 09 06.

Laurent: Classic and Timeless

Crispy Waffle Filled with Almond Milk Cream, Wild Strawberries Laurent 6 11

Restaurant Laurent is one of a kind, both classic and timeless. This historic, pastel-pink 19th-century former hunting lodge set in the garden of the Champs-Elysées is the sort of rare restaurant that makes Paris Paris. Its tidy garden terrace set beneath giant chestnut trees sets the stage for romance. And under the guidance of the ultra-professional director, Philippe Bourgignon and talented chef Alain Pégouret, Laurent is a sure win. Pricey, yes, though the 85 euro lunch menu is hard to beat in terms of value and pure pleasure.

If you love wine, then the restaurant should be added to your to-try list, for Bourgignon and trusted sommelier Patrick Laer appear to intimately know, love, and respect every offering in their 30,000 bottle cellar. A recent lunch highlighted the chef’s ability to combine upgraded classic French dishes with items rarely found on luxury menus. Fresh meaty morels in a foam of sauce poulette; the tenderest cod cheeks paired with artichokes and mushrooms; beautifully braised veal flank teamed up with juicy swiss chard ribs; and the restaurant’s classic spider crab bound in lobster jelly and topped with fennel cream are all dishes made in heaven. A few sips of the fragrant white 2008 Puligny-Montrachet Clos de la Mouchere from winemaker Henri Boillot, and the pleasure trip is complete. Add the perfectly executed crispy “waffle” filled with almond milk cream and wild strawberries (photo) and you’re on your way!

LAURENT, 41, Avenue Gabriel, Paris 8. Tel: +33 1 42 25 00 39. Menus at 85 euro (lunch) and 185 euro.  Métro: Champs-Elysées-Clémenceau. Open Monday through Saturday, closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday.

A lemon lover's dream

Astrance Sablet au Citron Meringue 3 11

Pascal Barbot is in top form, offering us food that is light, laced with herbs and spices, and an avalanche of varied citrus flavors. I left his 12-course lunch with pep in my step and a palate coated with extraordinary taste memories. How to decide best bite of the meal? The demitasse-sized condiment of spinach and pequillo peppers? The baby ravioli filled with a tangy bite of cedrat or citron? The chili pepper sorbet brilliantly paired with lemongrass and ginger? Or the almost too pretty to eat lemon meringue sablé? (photo). Then there is the warm and golden  brioche spread with a fragrant, salty butter of rosemary and lemon. And of course the chestnut honey madeleines. For grand dining, the 110 euro lunch menu is one the city’s best buys. Pascal Barbot and partner Christophe Rohat have always done it their way, discreetly, professionally, with a smile. And if lucky enough to secure a table in this tiny restaurant, we are the lucky recipients of their talents.

L’ASTRANCE , 4, rue Beethoven, Paris 16. Tel: +33 1 40 50 84 40.Métro: Passy. Open Tuesday through Friday. Closed Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.