Okuda, a new Japanese star in Paris

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Once you watch Japanese master Toru Okuda wield a knife, you’ll never want to touch one again. Precision. Care. Attention. Discipline. Perfection. Okuda – whose stable of Tokyo restaurants include both a Michelin three-star and Michelin two-star – has come to Paris. And we diners are the better for it. His serene, pale-wood, pottery-filled trio of dining rooms (a main floor counter for seven; a downstairs dining room for twelve; and a private room for four diners) transport you directly to Japan, with all the accompanying courtesy and gentleness one expects. There is only a single, multi-course kaiseki menu, and diners are presented with a simple printed list of the offerings as they begin their pleasant journey. I was lucky enough to be seated at the bar, with chef Okuda in front of me, demonstrating his amazing proficiency with a knife. It is hard to choose a favorite of the eight courses, but I guess I would have to say the soothing, delicate flan, rich with fresh crab meat and a perfect foil of warm autumn mushrooms (flan salé au tourteau, sauce épaisse aux champignons). It was course number two, and if I had to stop there, I would have been a happy woman. Brilliantly fresh tuna, paper thin slices of squid from the I’ile de’Yeu, and delicate white flounder (carrelet) arrive as a sashimi selection, seasoned with the most delicious seagreens, including an unforgettably bright-flavored fresh-water nori. Not that the dish needed embellishment, we were instructed to season one bite of the squid with the dollop of caviar set on the plate, and take a second bite paired with fresh wasabi that had been grated only seconds earlier. Mouth in heaven, mouth on fire! It will be a while before I forget his grilled bar – oh so perfectly cooked over a charcoal fire – just lightly smoky, falling easily into chopstick-worthy bites, seasoned with salt and sesame. And who would think to actually fry an avocado, transforming both the texture and flavor, making me think of a freshly harvested butternut squash, cooked to create an autumn-worthy purée. Morsels of charcoal-grilled French Limousin beef fillet from butcher Hugo Desnoyer arrive so tender you can eat them with a chopstick, while just about every dish leaves your palate with a clean, citrusy aftertaste. But the one dish that I will be making at home is Okuda’s spectacular dessert (photo) : It consisted of a peach compote, using no less than three varieties (a white peach, a pêche plate and the rare pêche de vigne) set in a glistening crystal bowl, surrounded by a fragrant and fruity-sweet sparkling peach jelly, and of course a perfect peach sorbet, garnished with pungent leaves of fresh mint.

OKUDA

Traditional Japanese kaiseki

7, rue de la Trémoille

Paris 8

Tel: +33 1 40 70 19 19

MÉTRO: Alma-Marceau

OPEN: Wednesday to Monday

CLOSED: Monday lunch and all day Tuesday

PRICE: 160€ fixed menu at lunch, 200€ fixed priced menu at dinner. No à la carte menu.

RESERVATIONS: Essential

ATMOSPHERE: Smart casual

Lazare, a new star

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The super-talented chef Eric Frechon (of Paris’s Hotel Bristol and the Mini Palais) brings us a modern, up to date brasserie called Lazare, serving, as he likes to say,  “real, authentic food and a return to what’s essential at the table: history, memory, laughs, tears, family meals and a simple dinner tête à tête.” Set at the ground floor entrance of the Gare Saint-Lazare – the train station near the Madeleine that sends travelers to Normandy and points west --- the bright and contemporary brasserie offers good food, fine service, a cheerful setting, and hours that are hard to beat: 7:30 AM to midnight, nonstop. You don’t have to be traveling to love the place, and I can imagine popping in for a quick breakfast or a snack while shopping at the department stores Printemps or Galeries Lafayette nearby. Frechon hopes to bring back the authentic Parisian brasserie, a loud and happy-sounding spot with such classics as mussels in cream, steak tartare, seven-hour leg of lamb, and a green bean salad with artichokes, hazelnuts, and hazelnut oil. The décor is modern --- shelves filled with stacks of white plates and rows of shiny copper pots; a recipe for their Paris-Deauville dessert, handwritten on a huge blackboard; and an industrially exposed ceiling, painted all white. I’d go back again and again for the moist, perfectly cooked lamb, falling off the bone, set on a bed of well-seasoned bulgar, the meat itself flavored with black olives, tomato, thin slices of lemon, and whole pieces of star anise. Yum! Just right for pairing with a glass of Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon. I love as well his rendition of the classic green bean salad, paired with freshly cooked artichokes, whole hazelnuts, and a hazelnut oil dressing (photo). On one visit we feasted on a giant portion of the tiniest girolles (chanterelles), enough for a vegetarian main course! I was less convinced of the roast codfish (cabillaud) served in pleasant green sauce (sauce vierge) and topped with lightly cooked baby spinach. His rhubarb tart is delicious, perfectly tangy with a crisp, not-too-sweet crust. And cheese comes from young cheesemonger Claire Griffon (with a shop at 23, bis avenue de la Motte Piquet in the 7tharrondissement). Do try the young goat cheese – chèvre – marinated in fresh thyme and olive oil.

LAZARE

Gare Saint-Lazare (front side, street level)

rue Intérieure

Paris 8

Tel: +33 1 44 90 80 80

Métro: Saint-Lazare

Open daily 7:30AM to midnight.

9€ breakfast menu. 26-79€ à la carte at lunch and dinner.

lazare-paris.fr

resa@lazare-paris.fr

Taillevent, as good as ever

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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€

Out of the box chez Ducasse

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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.

Laurent: Classic and Timeless

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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
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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

A new star at L'Étoile

Peppers Mushrooms, Wasabi Atelier Etoile

Intense, explosive flavors and imaginative fare await diners at Joel Robuchon’s newest addition to the Paris restaurant scene, L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon. Situated in the lower level of the Drugstore Publicis at the Etoile, the bright red and black space is already full of glittery Las Vegas-style drama. But the real scene is what’s on the plate and what happens to your palate with each pleasurable bite.

As we were nearly finished with our multi-course tasting lunch yesterday one of my lunch companions said in disbelief “This must be what it feels like to take LSD! The reds are more red, everything is more focused, more extreme.”  I second that.

The menu offers some welcoming Robuchon classics, many dating back to the 1980’s and the early days of Jamin. But with Japanese chef  Yosuke Suga in charge an entirely new line of Asian-inspired aromas and flavors share the limelight. Suga previously served as head chef at the Atelier branches in New York and Taipei, and is a member of the very tightly knit group of Robuchon chefs who travel the world to make sure each of the 10 Ateliers stay on top of the game.

The lunch served as a case study as to how old dishes can become new again. Once a dish is perfected – as only Robuchon can do – it can live on forever. His classic creation of caviar in lobster jelly, topped with cauliflower cream offers an explosion accompanying every bite, the magical grains of caviar almost suspended in the rich jelly, and the cauliflower cream serving to intensify and smooth out flavors at the same time. Served in tiny glass bowls with a clear glass lid the presentation alone would be sufficient drama.

Another specialty not to be ignored is the penetrating bite of smooth and pungent foie gras set in a dense port jelly, topped with a soothing Parmesan cream. Mouthfilling, intense, unforgettable.

Joel’s classic potato and truffle salad has been turned inside-out, and here appears as a beautiful architectural offering, with smooth curls of foie gras, paper- thin shards of toast, slim discs of truffles, thick slices of potatoes,  shavings of Parmesan and just a few whispers of arugula. The textures and flavors walk arm in arm. I would have loved the dish more if the potatoes had been warm.

Chef Suga’s addition of Les Shishitots – tiny, thin-skinned Japanese peppers  that are slightly sweet and barely spicy – gets a big winter welcome when any touch of greenery on the plate demands applause. It’s hard to pick a best taste of the day here, but the little peppers were pierced with wooden skewers and laced between meaty mushrooms cooked to perfection on their flat plate “plancha.” A tiny dollop of brilliant green, extra-mild wasabi mousse topped it all off. I could have easily gone for a second portion. (Photo)

But then what about the salsify ? Who knew salsify could taste so great! The theme of many of the newer dishes here seems to be a lot of rectangles and squares, and in the case of the much maligned and ignored salsify, the rectangles of the winter root vegetable are lined up side-by-side and topped with golden, crispy salsify chips.

L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon, Publicis Drugstore, 133, avenue des Champs Elysées, Paris 8. Tel : + 33 1 47 23 75 75. www.joel-robuchon.com Open daily. Lunch reservations accepted. Dinner reservations at 6:30 only. Small tastes from 14 to 65 euros. Nine-course tasting menu, 150 euros.