PARIS — Marie-France de Peyronnet is a friend and a Parisian whose family has owned a chateau in the south of France for 500 years. She spends much of the year in Paris, so when she recommends restaurants, it's from personal experience.
We are sitting in a new and popular eating establishment not far from the Place de la Concorde called Carre des Feuillants, a sleekly modern dining room off a small courtyard near the Meurice Hotel.
"There is a return to the classic in French cuisine today," she says. "There are still influences of nouvelle, but we French have found that we like more substantial portions, we like our vegetables a little less al dente, and we like them with butter! What the nouvelle movement has done is to encourage our chefs to be much more creative--more imaginative."
The first course arrived--a warm strudel with green mango, and sardine fillets served between paper-thin, crisp potatoes, accompanied by dollops of sea urchin cream. Next came pieces of farm-fed chicken wrapped around a mousse stuffing of parsley and cepes (mushrooms), and served on a bed of pasta regaled with more of the fresh and flavorful cepes.
The influence of American Southwest cuisine was evident in another main dish--a tenderloin of hind, tender and pink--served on small corn pancakes, with a spicy chocolate sauce. The vegetables--broccoli, baby corn and celeraic--were well-cooked, and, yes, buttered.
Our meal at the Carre came to 300 francs per person (about $50 U.S.), including taxes and service. Chef Alain Dutournier and maitre d' Jean-Guy Loustau came here from the popular Au Trou Gascon. Although open little more than a year, Carre has two Michelin stars.
Also within walking distance of the Place de la Concorde are Michelin three-star restaurants Lucas Carton and Taillevent, the elegant, two-star Espadon in the Ritz Hotel and Maxim's, much maligned in recent years.
"Maxim's lost one of their two stars," De Peyronnet says, "because their service was considered unfriendly. But Parisians still go there for weddings and anniversaries."
The two-star Les Ambassadeurs in the Crillon Hotel, right on the square, offers visitors an evening of truly elegant dining. The Crillon was built as a palace in 1758, and the restaurant reflects the elaborate style of the 18th Century. Twelve kinds of marble in shades of gold and ivory frame the mirrored walls, and crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling.
Array of Cold Mousses
Fresh marinated salmon was served in a sauce with cumin and a bouquet of fresh basil and dill. Next came a tender, roast duckling in a quince sauce, served with potatoes and salsify, a turnip-like vegetable. Dessert was an array of cold mousses--a super-sweet caramel, a hazelnut with a tart strawberry sauce and our favorite, a clean, fresh banana mousse topped with creme Chantilly. Chef Jean-Paul Bonin is in charge of the kitchen here, and the restaurant has an extensive wine list. Prices run 325 to 450 francs per person, not including wine.
Classic French cuisine is found in all its formal glory at Ledoyen, set in a tree-lined park just down the Champs Elysees from the Place de la Concord. The restaurant was established in 1792 by caterer Antoine-Nicolas Doyen, and became a popular meeting spot for such revolutionary leaders as Robespierre and Saint-Just. Today the one-star restaurant is furnished in Louis XV chairs. Heavy gold drapes frame large windows that look out onto the gardens. The service is very proper--during our first course of oysters on the half shell, our waiter unobtrusively cleared the empty shells away as we ate.
The main course was a mignon of veal in a creamy lemon sauce. An assortment of cheese preceded classic crepe Suzette, flamed before our eyes. Tableside preparation is standard here, and the waiters go about their tasks with the grace and precision of a dance troupe. We watched as the maitre d' deftly prepared a dish of veal kidneys with heavy cream, brown sugar, cognac and armagnac. Other specialties include beef stroganoff and tournedos Bordelaise. Restaurant manager Gilbert Lejeune has assembled a wine cellar of more than 300,000 bottles, some extremely rare. Prices run 300-600 francs per person, without wine, and there is a prix fixe luncheon menu for 310 francs.
If all this seems a little too rich--in both francs and cholesterol--there are restaurants in the area that offer lighter fare at reasonable prices. Le Souffle, on Rue Mont Thabor, specializes in just that--souffles of all kinds. Andre Faure started the small, intimate restaurant 25 years ago because "the souffle is the test of a good French chef."