In good hands with David Toutain

David Toutain Gnocchi
David Toutain Gnocchi

David Toutain is a cerebral chef. Nothing is accidental and when you enter his brand new 7th arrondissement restaurant you are subject to his rules and his way of thinking. Yet you never feel as though your arm is being twisted. This is not a restaurant for a casual meal, but rather one that is meticulously planned and thought out, and begs for, yes deserves,  your attention. And it’s well worth your time.

Toutain, a farm boy from Normandy, appeared on the Paris scene like lightening a few years back at the wildly experimental Agapé Substance, and then disappeared almost overnight. I am so glad he is back.

The setting of the new restaurant on Rue Surcouf, seems at first somewhat of a contradiction. The sparse, cool space -- flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling glass wall at the front of the restaurant -- feels relaxed, with its light wood and leather furnishings and minimalist décor. Yet the suited and formal service suggests a more serious approach to the dining experience. Immediately, this feels like a restaurant like none other.

As plate after plate arrives from the 68€ carte blanche menu, we are presented with flavors that explode in our mouth but do not overwhelm, as Toutain draws out the essential flavors of each and every ingredient. On the plate, he presents other-worldly creations, but in the mouth, flavors are familiar, calming, and even unusual combinations seem natural and obvious in his care.

Toutain’s ability to see new and interesting potential in ingredients makes him extremely unique – a bouillon of potato skins that smelled like someone walked past you with a dish of freshly baked potatoes, or Jerusalem artichokes transformed with a little sugar into an apple-like dessert. And who on earth would think of combining kiwi fruit with a raw oyster? And who would believe that, on the palate, the pairing would appear perfectly matched, totally sublime.

On one hand, this multi-course excursion can make your brain spin, even give you a headache. The food that comes from the hands of the boyish, mild-mannered Toutain reminds me of many meals I’ve experienced at the table of Pierre Gagnaire: the same cerebral attention, the same wildly experimental flash of genius, the same surprise and pleasure.

There is so much going on – porcelain, glass, cutlery that dazzle and beg for your attention – that a diner might lose sight of what is best about Toutain’s food. Each ingredient is impeccably chosen, each cooked to a perfection that makes me gasp. It’s as though he puts a camera lens on each ingredient and then blows it up, eeking the most honest flavor, texture, pleasure imaginable. He makes any oyster taste like the freshest, most delicious oyster you have ever tasted. He draws a new, welcoming seamless texture from a tiny cube of foie gras, turns what he calls gnocchi into a little pillow that melts in your mouth (photo). The meal is full of “why didn’t I think of that” combinations, like a sprinkling of freshly ground coffee beans at the edge of the plate, for dipping bites of exquisitely roasted pork.

To say that the 68€ menu is a bargain is an understatement. But for my money and time, I could have had a bit less food. And though I am not a huge fan of the no-choice surprise menu, I’ll put myself in Toutain’s hands any day. Service here is friendly and personal, and the wine list offers some real treasures. I loved the sommelier’s two wine recommendations: The Vincent Gaudry aromatic Sancerre was willing to serve as a quiet understudy to Toutain’s food, while Christophe Pichon’s 100% Syrah Saint Joseph was clean, spicy, and forceful. So go, sit back and enjoy, and don’t think too much – David has already done the thinking for you.

RESTAURANT DAVID TOUTAIN, 29 rue Surcouf, Paris 7. Tel: +33 1 45 50 11 10.Métro: Invalides or La Tour Maubourg. Open Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday.davidtoutain.com reservations@davidtoutain.com Lunch & dinner: 68 and 98€ menus (118 & 158€ with wine), 158€ seasonal truffle menu (210€ with wine) Reservations: recommended.

Use your ID and go to ES: A treat in Paris

2013-10-09 13.03.34.jpg

Years ago, chef Joël Robuchon told me that his trips to Japan greatly influenced his own personal style of cuisine. He felt that the French and the Japanese shared a great sensibility and respect for food, showing special consideration for flavors, colors, textures, presentation. Today in Paris, diners can see how intensely Japanese-born chefs are responding to that shared awareness. Many --- like Akihiro Horihoshi at La Table d’Aki and Shinichi Sato at Passage 53 – have worked in some of the finest kitchens in Europe.  Chef Takayuki Honjo ---with a CV that includes Astrance, Noma, and Le Mugartiz – joins the club with his tiny, quiet, all-white, angelic, monastic dining room, ES, on rue de Grenelle on the Left Bank. The dining room staff includes an Italian, a French, a Japanese, making this an international scene. Taka’s food is beautiful in every sense of the word. I feel as though he has been immensely influenced by Pascal Barbot’s food at Astrance, just across the Seine. But he’s not a copycat. And his flavors are direct and forthright, not a slammer but a gentle tap. One of the best dishes sampled at his table was a roasted guinea fowl (pintade), teamed up with a delicate and colorful green pool of spinach cream, a shower of perfectly cooked autumn girolles (chanterelles), and the tiniest, most flavorful sautéed baby new potatoes, the size of an olive. But the crowning glory came in the way of a soothing hazelnut cream, applied like a palate knife to the plate, a nutty luxury that unified the entire dish. A creation triumphant in its simplicity and clarity of flavors. I would be proud to make and serve his caramelized codfish, and loved the idea of his cream of corn soup, flavored with a jasmine essence. Dessert almost hit the ball out of the park: A delicate, tiny meringue shell was filled a sweet, fruity poached peach, topped with a peach sorbet (too forcefully flavored with almond extract), and set in a pool of soothing, bright pink, peach jelly. Crusty country bread from baker Jean-Luc Poujauran, and wines from a favored winemaker, Simon Bize in Burgundy, all add to the pleasure.  The restaurant name is a translation of the Freudian “ID,” meaning, the component of personality at birth that is the source or our wants, desires, impulses, and drives. So use your “ID” and go to “ES.”

Restaurant ES

Modern French

91, rue de Grenelle,

Paris 7

Tel: +33 1 45 51 25 74

MÉTRO: Solferino.

OPEN: Tuesday to Saturday.

CLOSED: Sunday & Monday.

PRICE: 55€ fixed menu at lunch; 75€ and 105€ fixed menu weekday dinners. 105€ fixed menu Saturday dinner. No à la carte menu.

Good food finds at the Paris fleamarket

Steak La Cocotte 12 30 12

Designer Philippe Starck has finally given we flea market lovers a smart, trendy, easy place to lunch before or after wandering the stalls. I’ve been a regular visitor to the Clignacourt market since 1980, and have furnished many a room with treasures gleaned from long and leisurely Sunday strolls. His Ma Cocotte, right at the parking entrance of the Paul Bert market is conveniently located, and since its opening in October, 2012 has been a surefire hit, especially at lunch on weekends, when no reservations are taken. So go early, and walk off the lunch as you stroll the aisles. The food here is nothing more than “correct” but if you go with that in mind, you’re not likely to be disappointed. The huge open kitchen sports a giant rotisserie, with roasted chicken and beef often on the menu. Simple salads of beets, lamb’s lettuce, and soft-cooked egg arrive fresh and perky, while the first course of smoked salmon is divine. The bread is outrageously delicious, and the wine list – which includes some well-priced Burgundies from Olivier LeFlaive – make the experience all that much more digestible. The restaurant is comfortable and not an “in your face” Starck experience. There is plenty of space for outdoor dining, the all-white bathrooms are a must visit, and service was as the French would say, without a fault.

MA COCOTTE, 106 rue des Rosiers, 93400 Saint Ouen, Tel: +33 1 49 51 70 00, Métro: Porte de Clignancourt

Open: Daily, 8 am-11 pm. No reservations taken at lunch on Saturday or Sunday. www.paulbert-serpette.com

Lunch and dinner: A la carte 28-40€.

Abri: A shelter from the mundane

ABRI daurade carpaccio 11 1 12

Inexpensive, vest-pocket restaurants keep turning up in the most amazing places in Paris, and that’s great for all budget-conscious diners. Worth the detour is Katsuaki Okiyama’s latest venture, a tiny, “hole in the wall” steps from the Poissonière Metro in the 10th arrondissement . Carefully decorated on a budget – simple but pleasant hanging lamps, exposed stone walls, an efficient open kitchen – Abri  indeed shelters us from some of the expensive, mundane fare one might find elsewhere. The Japanese chef, trained with Robuchon and at Taillevent and Agapé Substance – offers simple, carefully prepared food, no surprises but no real disappointments either. Fresh, seasonal fare prepared right in front of you. What more could one ask? The 22-euro lunch menu offers a daily choice of either fish or poultry/meat as the main course,  with a no-choice starter, soup, and dessert. A first-course carpaccio of daurade (sea bream)(photo) was a feathery light, protein-rich starter, showered with paper thin slices of  fennel and radish, alas a bit too salty for even my salt-loving palate. Next, an alabaster soup arrived, almost like an angel, a delicate parsnip soup with a heavenly jasmine mousse, almost more of a dessert, but instantly appealing.  Main courses might include carefully seared and roasted duck breast, meaty and full-flavored, adorned by a light port reduction, garnished with ratte potatoes; or delicate lieu jaune (pollack, in the cod family) in a yellow tomato sauce. The sure star of the meal was the chocolate tart, a delicate layer of pastry topped with a thick and soothing ganache, paired with a light chocolate sorbet. When a simple café or wine-bar meal can easily cost way more than 22 euros, Abri is definitely worth the Métro ride, unless you live in the 9th or 10th, then walk!

ABRI, 92 rue du Faubourg-Poissonière, Paris 10. Tel: +33 1 83 97 00 00. Metro:  Poissonnière, Cadet, or Gare du Nord. Closed Sunday. 22-euro four- course lunch menu. 38.50 euro six-course dinner menu.

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. contact@ladamedepic.fr and www.ladamedepic.fr

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. www.bras.fr. 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.)

La Table d'Aki: A one man show

Table d'Aki Ravioli de Langoustines 2 29 12

Akihiro Horikoshi brings new meaning to the phrase "one man show." His new, 16-seat restaurant has a single employee: Aki. He shops, he creates the menu, he cooks, he takes orders, he serves, he cleans up. And this is the way the Tokyo native wants it. He has been on his own at La Table d’Aki since January 10, having worked under the tutelage of Bernard Pacaud at the Michelin three-star L’Ambroisie since 1991. The spotless, tiny restaurant is bathed in light and white from head to toe, with a few flashes of red from the lamp cables that bring the room together in a quiet, festive way. His food, too – pure, simple, and sensational in an understated way  – is white. A giant. alabaster ravioli filled with sweet, fresh langoustines dotted with herbs arrives with a thin but potent meat sauce that makes the dish look like dessert (photo). A delicate, moist fricassée of chicken with carefully turned potatoes and baby onions tastes as though it was dropped from on high by the angels. The delicate lieu-jaune (Atlantic cod) is offset with the punch of a brunoise of celery root, all those precision-cut cubes, and a nice hit of capers. Dessert, all white again, arrives as silken crème brûlée, paired with an apple baked with a touch of cake inside, a pleasant surprise on the palate. At night, Aki cooks only fish. On the menu now, the freshest scallops from Brittany. The food has the Aki signature, as well as the echo of Pacauad’s sublime perfection. La Table d’Aki is a nice little new star in Paris’s ever-glistening sky.

LA TABLE D’AKI, 49 rue Vaneau, Paris 7. Tel: +33 1 45 44 43 48. Métro: Vaneau. Open: Tuesday-Friday. Closed  Sunday & Monday.

www.latabledaki.com. Lunch & Dinner: A la carte 38-50€

Willi's: Don't forget old friends

WILLI'S WINE BAR TERRINE AU CHOCOLAT 2 2 12

As diners, all too often we only look forward, to the newest address, the chef with biggest current hype,  and we race to keep up with the flavor of the week. Rather, we should stop every now and then and reflect upon great places we seem to have  forgotten in the rush. The solid and classic, dependable, old friends who will always be there once the hyped up spots have been forgotten or closed their doors. I confess it had been years since I visited Mark Williamson’s now landmark wine bar, established in 1980 and still going as strong as ever. My last meal was a revelation: food with character and history, a chef with a classic education at the stove, a wine list that’s hard to beat anywhere in the world, a staff that is clearly well-trained and seem to enjoy being there. I love their attention to detail, food that seems intent on satisfying the customer, a place that is what it is (fabulous!) and not trying overtly to prove anything. The food on that visit was superb: a beautiful plate of Roseval potatoes, warm, bathed in a light and tangy sauce, showered with the freshest grilled walnuts and bits of salty bacon; a flavorful, wintry bed of mixed wild mushrooms topped with a round of fresh pasta. The chef, Francois Yon, there since 1993, understands searing like no one. That evening our moist and perfectly cooked farm-raised breast of veal had a thick, mahogany-toned exterior and a delicately tender interior, all set upon a bed of mixed vegetables, carrots, leeks, potatoes, turnips. The same can be said of his super-seared farm-raised guinea hen (pintade) set on the same soothing bed of vegetables. His chocolate terrine (photo) should go in the record books as one of the best ever, and of course Willi’s wine list will bring any wine lover to his or her knees. The 2005 red Chateauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Marcoux from sisters Sophie and Catherine Armenier is a dream, a balance blend of opulence and refinement, as well as tons of pleasure.

WILLI’S WINE BAR, 13 rue de Petits-Champs, Paris 1; Tel: +33 1 42 61 05 09. Métro: Bourse or Palais-Royal or Pyramides.

Open: Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. www.williswinebar.com (reservations on line). Lunch: 20.50€, 23.40€ and 26.50€ menus.

Dinner: 33€ & 36€ menus.

Le Coq Rico: Poultry has it's day

Le Coq Rico Broth Ravioles 2 7 12

I don’t like restaurants that make me feel guilty. But that’s not the fault of Antoine Westermann, owner of the new and fantastic Le Coq Rico in Montmartre. I’ll first of all say, reserve right away, the place is fantastic and open 7 days a week, so there’s no excuse. How much of a genius do you have to be to come up with a single-ingredient concept restaurant? Poultry, meaning chicken and guinea fowl, duck, and pigeon. And everything it brings to the table. The reason that Le Coq Rico makes me feel guilty is how they use every bit of those tender birds and turn kidneys and hearts and livers and wings into miraculous morsels. And I don’t. I stuff my freezer full of chicken livers for the terrine I never make. I stuff the birds with hearts and gizzards as I roast them, when I should be treating the ingredients with greater honor. But to the reason of Le Coq Rico: the whole bird. Chef  Thierry Lébé and his ultra-professional staff cook with precision and quiet perfection, roasting farm-raised poultry from all parts of France (each comes with a pedigree and the name of the farmer) whole on a rotisserie set in their small but efficient kitchen. Diners can choose to sit at the bar and watch the action, or dine in one of the two small dining rooms. The place is bright, modern, understated. The menu offers something for everyone: from a golden-brown, intense poultry and celery root broth ladled over tender ravioli filled with foie gras (photo), and on to their signature planchette de béatilles: poultry hearts seared, gizzards cooked tenderly in fat, wings lacquered, and little curried balls of herbs deep-fried. I love pigeon but am never 100% satisfied with my efficient use of the bird, yet here it’s roasted perfectly rare and rosy, teamed up with mushrooms and bacon with the tender liver crushed atop a rectangle of toast. A single serving of Challans farm-raised chicken is a wonder of nature, moist, tender, as it should be but not always is. And, well, the fries are about the best ever, deep golden brown, crispy, can’t stop eating them delicious. Even the little green salad here is fresh and attentively dressed. I can’t imagine having room for dessert here, though somehow I did: the l’ile flottante is gorgeous, rich, and flawless, the seasonal salad of pineapple, pineapple sorbet, with a touch of ginger and lime zest add a tonic that takes you bravely into the cold winter air.

LE COQ RICO, 98 rue Lepic, Paris 18. Tel: +33 1 42 59 82 89.Métro: Lamarck-Caulincourt. Open: Daily.www.lecoqrico.com

Lunch & Dinner: A la carte, 35-70€

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 www.taillevent.com Email resa@taillevent.com

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

Ushering in autumn at Vivant

Vivant Polenta, Mushrooms, Smoked Mozzarella, Herbs 10 11

After hitting it big with his wine bar Racines, then taking a year off, Pierre Jancou is back with another winner, the tiny Vivant, in a lively part of the 10th arrondissement. The long, narrow room began its life around 1900 as a shop that sold pet birds, as the lovely ceramic murals attest. As at his former establishment, Jancou is all about ingredients. So we have the incomparable boudin noir from Christian Parra, the moist, meaty duck from Challans in France’s southwest, lovely Italian burrata and equally amazing smoked mozzarella. This is a wintry, meaty sort of place but not necessarily heavy. An autumn meal here linked summer and fall, with an entire burrata (that irresistible mozzarella filled with rich, tangy cream) bathed in a puddle of delicious olive oil, seasoned with coarse salt, pepper, herbs, and a tiny garden of last-of-season cherry tomatoes. We ushered in fall with another hit: crunchy polenta topped with wild pleurote (oyster) mushrooms and a meltingly rich round of smoked mozzarella that humoursly resembled a giant mushroom cap (photo). A main course of Challans duck – moist, tender, meaty – was set upon a golden bed of mashed potatoes with the crunch of coarse salt and thin slices of red onion. An equally succulent cochon de lait was served with an ochre square of polenta, soft and creamy inside, crunchy on the outside. All was escorted by a glass or two of the lively Cotes du Rhone Village red, Pur, and golden crisp baguettes from Le Grenier a Pain nearby.

VIVANT, 43 rue des Petites Ecuries, Paris 10. Tel: +33 1 42 46 43 55. Métro: Bonne Nouvelle. Open: Monday-Friday.  Closed Saturday and Sunday.8-14 euros for starters, 14-24 for mains. Wines from 6 euro a glass. Reservations recommended.

Out of the box chez Ducasse

CEPES DUCASSE 10 11

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.

Akrame: Modern and magical

AKRAME COD WITH SPINACH POWDER 7 11

Akrame Benallal is a chef to watch. When I dine out, I want to be surprised : but not too much. I want the familiar : but not too familiar. I want to be tested : What IS that spice I can’t quite put my finger on ? But most of all, I want to leave satisfied and with my wallet still intact. Benallal – having trained with Pierre Gagnaire and Ferran Adria – understands all of these desires and fufills them. I don’t know many Paris restaurants where you can enjoy a two-course lunch like his for 25 euros, 35 euros if you add dessert. His modern, all-grey dining room seats just 20 or so diners, with an open kitchen and a stool-height table d’hotes. His food is spontaneous, light, and both playful and serious at the same time.He is a fan of  sous vide or cooking ingredients vacuum-sealed in a low-temperature water bath. And he loves to get to the essence of an ingredient, turning it into dried powders that work a special magic. I loved his complex and satisfying first course of a runny, delicious sous vide egg set atop a pungent avocado puree, topped with strips of haddock, a smokey white foam, and a crunchy corn powder, reminscent of corn chips. Sound weird ? It wasn’t. Just great flavors full of surprise. A main course of steamed cod (photo) appeared a bit more mainstream, though the alabster fish was topped with a bright green sprinkling of spinach powder, and accompanied by a cup of flavorful carrot essence that I would have taken for a more forward-flavored butternut squash. Dessert was ethereally light, a blending of essence of vanilla and essence of raspberry, a mysteriously cloudlike creation that was neither a cream nor a mousse but just substantially satisfying. Note that the restaurant is closed in August, so make a note to try it in September.

AKRAME, 16, rue Lauriston, Paris 16. Tel: +33 1 40 67 11 16. Métro: Charles-de-Gaulle Etoile. 25 and 35 euro lunch menu; 45 and 55 euro menus lunch and dinner. Open : Monday to Saturday, Closed Sundays  and August. http://www.akrame.com. contact@akrame.com

Please, no more carrots, no more beets!!

Arpege 7 27 11

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.

My old friend

Girolles, Peas, Egg, Tarragon Cream Vieil Ami 7 11

I confess that when I sit down to examine a restaurant menu and find an avalanche of seasonal vegetables on the list, I want to get up and kiss the chef! Such was the case at a recent lunch at Mon Vieil Ami, where the menu was loaded with fresh, seasonal produce: meaty girolles mushrooms, new carrots and heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes and last-of-season asparagus. Avocados, first-of-season ratatouille, fresh white cocos blancs, zucchini and fennel all starred. I ended up feasting on  a stunning and satisfying all-vegetarian meal, beginning with a giant platter of fresh heirloom tomatoes tossed in a fine vinaigrette, dollops of fragrant pesto and just the right amount of Italian burrata, the cream-filled mozzarella from Italy. Equally appealing was the mountain of fat and golden girolles mushrooms – chanterelles – paired with an equal-sized mountain of fresh peas cooked to al dente perfection, topped with a perfect soft-cooked egg slathered with a pungent tarragon cream (photo). The well-priced Crochet white Sancerre 2009 was right at home with this fare. Other dishes were less exciting, with a bland barigoule of artichokes and fennel, and a ho-hum pea soup topped with a dollop of goat cheese. I loved the idea of the lemony chickpea puree paired with a well-cooked lamb shoulder, but think garlic would have been at home here, and the dish merited a better presentation. The charming, single room restaurant holds just 40 diners, with space for 14 at a homey table d’hôte. We quickly made friends with our neighbors, even passing plates and sharing business cards. Under the direction of Alsatian chef Antoine Westerman this Ile Saint Louis bistro is one to add to your list, for sure. And it’s open Sunday, another big plus.

MON VIEIL AMI, 69, rue Saint Louis en l’Ile, Paris 4. Tel: +33 1 40 46 01 35.Métro: Pont-Marie. www.mon-vieil-ami.com. Closed Monday and Tuesday.13-euro daily specials at lunch. 41-euro menu. A la carte, about 45 euros, not including wine.

Agapé Substance: Of bold flavors and creativity

Egg with Fresh Almonds, Garlic Cream, Thyme, Lemon Verbena

This is not the last time you will be hearing about David Toutain,  the brilliant, 30-year-old chef at the week-old Agapé Substance on Rue Mazarine in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. Think explosions of concentrated flavors, gorgeous food, pristine ingredients, and toss in a friendly, easy atmosphere for good measure. Toutain has studied with Marc Veyrat as well as Alain Passard, and while he flirts with a mountain of unusual ingredients (when did you last eat a root called benoite urbaine?), loves to play with yuzu and feves de tonka, and creates a pesto of the wild green consoude, there is nothing really unfamiliar about his food. As does chef Jean-Francois Piège at at Règle de Je(u), Toutain presents guests with a list of ingredients --- egg, zucchini, crab for a first course; carrot, cod, monkfish as a second course; pigeon, veal, mushrooms as a third; hazelnuts, chocolate, cherries, for dessert. You pick one from column A, etc. deciding whether you want 3 or 4 courses or just let the chef go wild. Not since my first taste of Pascal Barbot’s food at Astrance many years ago have I been so immediately taken with what an inventive chef is trying to convey. This could oh so easily become just too precious, but it’s not.  In a brilliant starter with the tangy citrus yuzu as the star, he managed to include bitter, sweet, salty, crunchy, velvety in a single dish. A single egg starter (photo) combined fresh almonds and garlic cream, thyme as well as lemon verbena. Forward flavors lead the way in his combination of crab and grapefruit in a shrimp broth that was a home run for me. A mélange of the tastiest of wild mushrooms arrived with a pesto of the wild green consoude (its leaf has an oyster-like flavor) and was topped with a welcoming hazelnut “crumble.” The wine list here is strong on natural wines, and I appreciated the pairing of a 2009 Aligoté´ from Alice and Olivier de Moor, a wine that seemed to simply hold hands with Toutain’s modern, approachable fare. There is room for just 24 guests, mostly as one long shared table, making this a convivial place to discover some of Paris’s newest taste sensation

AGAPE SUBSTANCE, 66 rue Mazarine, Paris 6. Tel: +33 1 43 29 33 83.

Métro: Odéon. Open lunch and dinner  Tuesday through Saturday.

Lunch menus at 39, 51, and 65 euros. Dinner menus at 51, 78, and 99 euros.

www.agapesubstance.com. contact@agapesubstance.com

Palais Royal Greenery

Palais Royal Green Risotto 6 11

Historic settings ultimately create their own ambience and turn into romantic stage sets. Such is the case with the Restaurant du Palais Royal, nestled under the arches of the 17th-century palace originally built for Cardinal Richelieu and overlooking one of the city’s most alluring gardens. During the summer months, I have spent many agreeable evenings seated on the terrace that tumbles out beyond the arches, watching smiling joggers and groups of men play boules, all the while enjoying the simple, light, and sun-drenched cuisine of chef and owner Bruno Hees. In cooler weather (and on rainy days) one must move indoors, where the setting is less romantic, yet the dining room has the feel of an elegant bistro, with crisp ochre linens and mirrors reflecting the arches, metal gates, and garden beyond. If you are in the mood for a simple arugula salad showered with Parmesan, a half dozen briny oysters, or an ultra-fresh scallop tartare, the chef is happy to accommodate.

Likewise, a half portion of his all-green risotto, a mosaic of peas, green beans, snowpeas, and spinach hits a fine spring note, though I wish he would cook the rice a bit more al dente. Hees has a fine touch with fish, and a giant portion of turbot set on a bed of spinach and topped with fresh, full-flavored girolles mushrooms, and whole sea bass cooked à la plancha are both good choices. The brief wine list offers some real bargains, including Roger Sabon’s 2008 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages at 22 euros and Louis Michel’s 2009 Chablis at 36 euros. And when in search of a pleasant private dining room, consider the two upstairs rooms overlooking the gardens, with room for 4 to 15 guests.

RESTAURANT DU PALAIS ROYAL, 110, galerie de Valois, Paris 1. Tel: +33 1 40 20 00 27.Métro: Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre or Bourse. Closed Sunday. A la carte, 45 to 65 euros, not including wine. Garden terrace. Private dining room for 4 to 15. www.restaurantdupalaisroyal.com; palaisrest@aol.com

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. www.le-laurent.com

Mini Palais: A Grand Slam

MiniPalais Tomato Trio
More...
More...

Consider this: a Paris restaurant with a welcoming outdoor terrace, open non-stop seven days a week from 10 am to midnight, service that’s polite (if a bit slow) and food that is utterly modern, fresh and seasonal. I’d call it Grand Slam, and though the restaurant’s true name is MiniPalais, located in the historic Grand Palais Museum. While the alluring, vast black and grey indoor dining room is designed to invoke an artist’s atelier, the outdoor terrace is one of the city’s most inviting dining spaces. Outfitted with sturdy wicker-style chairs and banquettes, colorful mosaics on the floor and walls , giant stone columns,  potted palms, pale linens, and pure white Bernadaud china, this has become one of my favorite spots for enjoying the city’s elegance and infrequent sunshine.

Consultant Eric Fréchon (Michelin three-star chef of le Bristol) put in place Stéphane d’Aboville who seems to be doing a fine job of creating a menu that’s up to date, original and appealing (though I did want to run into the kitchen and take the salt mill from his hands.) I adored, and can’t wait to copy his tomato trio: a colorful green tomato tartare topped with a red tomato sorbet, and set in a pool of yellow tomato broth (photo). This dish was seasoned perfectly, and embellished with a paper-thin slice of toast topped with slivers of fresh garlic and pungent fresh thyme. Another fine starter that I’ll make again and again is his thin strips of creamy burrata cheese topped with thin slices of ham,  showered with fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, and sun-dried tomatoes. Line-caught merlan, or whiting,  was topped with a thick, brilliant coating of toasted, ground almonds, but a piece of Saint Pierre, or John Dory set on a bed of delicious eggplant puree was almost inedibly salty.. The meal began with a gigantic, and delicious gougeres made with aged Comté cheese,  accompanied by sips of Olivier Merlin’s magical Chardonnay, a wine that’s intense and mineral-rich. The most popular dish here seems to be the gorgeous steak tartare, paired with golden fries peeking out of a crisp white cup.  I’ll be sure to sample that on my next visit. Take a look at their web site for the schedule of live musical concerts, mostly jazz piano, many evenings at 8 pm.

MiniPalais, Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 8. Telephone +33 1 42 56 42 42. Open daily 10 am to midnight. 28-euro lunch menu, dinner a la carte, 45 euros. Snack menus for morning, afternoon, late night. www.minipalais.comresa@minipalais.com

Les Tablettes: try again

Les Tablettes 3 25 11

A recent visit to Jean-Louis Nomicos’s new Les Tablettes left me feeling sated but not satisfied. In the space that formerly housed Joel Robuchon’s La Table du Robuchon, the completely redecorated room – designed to make you feel as though you are in a woven market basket – a lot is left to be desired. The 58-euro lunch menu, which includes wine, is not badly priced and I would have felt it was a bargain if the food had sparkled. It didn’t. A daurade tartare paired with shiso and mango seemed to have no point and was simply bland. A langoustine broth with a tiny mound of minced langoustines seemed a waste. The greatest pleasure in these delectable sea creatures is in the airy texture, totally lost here. I did love the gorgeous lamb shoulder, which cut like butter and was bathed in a sparkling sauce laced with spice (photo).  A cheese course of fresh goat cheese, Parmesan and apple just made no sense, and a dessert of apple compote is not my idea of dessert. I think the chef is not aware of what incredible competition he has these days in Paris. Time to go back to the drawing board.

LES TABLETTES, 16, rue Bugeaud, Paris  16. Tel: +33 (0)1  56 28 16 16. Métro: Victor Hugo. 58-euro lunch menu. Other menus at 80, 120, and 150 euros.  Open daily. www.lestablettesjeanlouisnomicos.com