'Where's the haggis?' sniffs French diner as Conran opens in Paris

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The Independent Online
"ALCAZAR? It looks more like Alcatraz," said the balding Frenchman at the next table. "No I don't mean it. I'm just trying to adopt an English sense of humour to go with the food. How am I doing?"

The Alcazar, Sir Terence Conran's attempt to out-brasserie the French on their home territory, opened its doors to the public in the heart of the Left Bank of Paris yesterday. Despite a minimalist response by the French press (much less entertained by the idea than the British press), Sir Terence had served all 218 covers for lunch by 1.15pm.

The consensus of opinion among the handful of lunch-goers I spoke to was that the food was "correct" but unexciting; the ambience pleasant but oddly, er, French.

One could see their point. The most surprising thing about Sir Terence Conran's great adventure - bringing his acclaimed London brasserie formula to Paris - is how unsurprising and how unad-venturous it is. Having set out to prove something, the Alcatraz does not seem to have anything much to prove.

It is not so squashed as French bistros; the waiters are younger and more numerous but not as rude or humorous; the menu is shorter and the wine list has (something unheard of in Paris) a few New World wines.

The design is brighter and airier than the older Parisian brasseries, such as La Coupole, but not so different from the newer ones. There is an open kitchen down one side and black chairs and maroon, upholstered benches and brown pebbly tiles. It has a vaguely institutional Thirties, Great Gatsbyish feel, as if one were eating in the first-class dining room of a pre-war ocean liner.

The food (cheaper than in London Conran eateries) looked fresh and wonderful, as if lovingly prepared from photographs rather than recipes. Lunch for two without much wine cost F553 (about pounds 60). I had chicken soup with a poached egg and undetectable truffles followed by monkfish in saffron and pastry. It tasted fine but unexciting. Safe. Even dull. Like French food prepared for an American palate.

Why is there not even one traditional British-type dish? This absence irritated at least one French luncher. "Where can one get decent haggis in Paris, can you tell me please?" he asked plaintively.

I confess that, as a devotee of old-fashioned cooking, from cassoulet to bacon, egg and chips (though I draw the line at haggis), I went along determined to be unimpressed. I succeeded easily enough. My wife, who is much shrewder and always right about such things, thought that Sir Terence had got it just about right: not so un-French as to put off the very conservative French, but sufficiently different to become a trendy place for weekday lunches and weekend brunches.

One sole, elderly male diner, whom I accosted in the gents, said he had been happy enough with his food but not "epate" (astonished). "I came expecting to be either disgusted or delighted. I was neither. I suppose it will succeed well enough."

The food critic of Le Figaro, Francois Simon, said: "It's cooking so careful that it's almost insignificant ... which is quite an art. It's a timorous response to the tastes of the time; we were led to expect something more audacious. But it's well thought out. It's cooking dressed up like a pop song, very professional, and catchy."

Despite having gone to such lengths to fit in, Sir Terence has managed to upset the restaurant cosa nostra of Paris. In an interview in the magazine Elle, he said that service in many Parisian restaurants was "deplorable" and the food often "mediocre". The Alcazar, thus he implied, would be neither.

Such comments were the height of bad manners, retorted Jean-Paul Bucher of the Groupe Flo (which owns traditional brasseries as well as newer ones, of the Conran variety). "When you are invited to someone else's house, you bring a bunch of flowers for madame and you say the food is good, even when it isn't. This [Conran's] is the behaviour of a nerd."

One surprise was that yesterday's opening-day clientele was more elderly than the traditional Conran clientele at his London brasseries such as Quaglino's. There were many people in their fifties; a handful of mums being treated by sons. Overall, the lunchers were oldish, trendyish, Leftish - in other words typical Parisian Left-bankers of the well-heeled 1990s kind, not the bohemian 1950s kind.