Stars are falling all over Paris, the spiritual home of foie gras, truffles, millefeuille, demi-glace, gleaming cloches, velvet drapes and everything else that makes up the luxury dining experience. A whole new French revolution is in the offing, as France's most gifted and rewarded chefs question the once unchallenged Michelin restaurant guide. The guide's championing of classical French cooking, luxury ingredients and old-fashioned formality is being taken to task by those who claim it is at odds with contemporary life and real gastronomy.
Among the most prominent of its defectors is the great three-starred chef Alain Senderens. "The whole concept of 'fancy' is over," said Senderens, as he transformed his Art-Deco jewel box of a restaurant into a modern "brasserie" with a menu full of Asian and Mediterranean references (see Second Helpings, right).
It could be the end of an era... or the start of a new one. For coming up fast is a new, younger breed of chef still determined to achieve the holy grail of three stars. They are not rejecting the system, but modifying and modernising from within. Which leads me to Yannick Alléno, one of the most talked-about figures in Parisian dining.
When the relatively young (now 37) classically trained chef took over the fabled dining-room of the gloriously grand Hotel Meurice in late 2003, it took him just six months to achieve a two-star rating. Last year, he was awarded the charming title of "espoir", a new Michelin designation for chefs on their way to a third star.
Alléno certainly has the perfect setting for it. Le Meurice positively drips with rococo excess with its crystal chandeliers, marble columns and gilt-edged murals. No corner is left undetailed, no fabric left unflocked, no drape left untasselled. Elegant folding "tabourets" are used as rests for pampered handbags; candles flicker against mirrors; and the scent and drama of huge red flowers hang heavy in the air.
At this point, you might expect a trolley of faffly little pastry curlicues to arrive, but no. Instead, you are offered a small, puffy, cheesy kugelhopf from its own ceramic mould. Simple and rustic, it is the perfect partner to a champagne apéritif.
It doesn't take long for things to swing into Michelin mode, however, and a second amuse gueule is a shimmering, jellied "bouillabaisse" of shellfish set in a perfectly trimmed sea-urchin shell, delicate and bijou. You don't so much eat it, as vandalise it.
More delicate still is a raft of raw, marinated langoustine (€98, around £68), enchantingly topped with black and white "pearls" (oscietra caviar and tapioca) and laid on a bed of creamy tarama. The whole thing is a giggle, like a cool dip in the sea.
While there is nothing unusual about seeing duck foie gras (€66, £45) on a Michelin-starred menu, you rarely see it like this - poached whole in Chambertin and served with a grin of elbow pasta, each stuffed with a green pea and cooked in truffle juice. It's a bizarre combination of familiar foods put together unfamiliarly. The wine list, meanwhile, is a chronicle of family reunions including nine Haut-Brions, seven Mouton Rothschilds and seven Lafites. I put the sommelier on wallet-protection duty and he produces a voluptuous 1999 Domaine Lafon Monthelie-Les Duresse (€110, £76).
Alléno, bless him, has posted "old-fashioned calf's head" (€58, £40) on the menu. How on earth do you match tête de veau to these surroundings? By forming soft, vaguely gelatinous medallions, filling them with moist pink plugs of veal tongue, topping with baby vegetables, and serving them with their own floor show - a fairy ring of little plugs of oyster sabayon with various toppings including egg white, garlic, cornichon and onion that reference the bistro accompaniment of sauce ravigote.
Those looking for a lighter, less rich meal should not order the turbot (€110, £76). Never has fish felt so macho, the two thick tranches, topped with a throw of bone marrow and sauced with a meaty jus. On the side sits a marrow bone, cut in half lengthwise and filled with perfect discs of black truffle and smoked potato, like edible poker chips.
The meal winds down in luxurious style, first with expertly kept cheeses (€18, £12.50), then an exquisite berry-themed, pre-dessert platter made memorable by a miniature macaroon sandwiching prickly little fraises des bois. Then dessert, a balancing act of miraculously creamy caramel ice-cream on a tonka-bean wafer on a roasted heart of pear on pear purée (€24, £17). And finally, tiny, flaky apple napoleons as petits fours prove the pastry chef has as much to give as Alléno himself.
The world is changing, and what we used to know as three-star dining is increasingly irrelevant. What we will come to know as three-star dining, however, may not be. There is something in all of us that responds to the luxury, extravagance and the idea we are experiencing the best of the best. Especially - or should I say, only - when it is as delicious as this. s
17/20 Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Le Meurice Hotel Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, Paris, tel: 00 33 1 44 58 10 50
Lunch served Tuesday to Friday, and dinner served Tuesday to Saturday. Around £350 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More reinvented three-star chefs
Benoit 20 rue St-Martin, Paris, tel: 00 33 1 42 72 25 76 Last year, Alain Ducasse acquired this benchmark Parisian bistro. He changed nothing but the chef, David Rathgeber, who keeps to Benoit tradition with his salade de langouste, sole dieppoise and classic cassoulet.
Senderens 9 place de Madeleine, Paris, tel: 00 33 1 42 65 22 90 What was the three-starred Lucas Carton is now the no-starred (until the next Michelin) Senderens. The great chef claims the stars prevented him from cooking the things he loves - such as Moroccan-style sardines and Javanese curried lamb.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Hotel Pont Royal, 5 rue de Montalembert, Paris, tel: 00 33 1 42 22 56 56 When three-star legend Joel Robuchon came out of premature retirement in 2003, he shocked the world by opening a casual (though chic) diner, with a no-bookings policy and an iconic mackerel tart. They've been queuing ever since.
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