Supreme cuisine

A pilgrimage to a new gastronomic temple in Paris

Keith Botsford
Friday 06 September 1996 23:02

On August 19, M Alain Ducasse, whose home fief is the "Louis XV" in the Principality of Monaco, opened the restaurant which bears his name in the elegant XVIeme in Paris. He was taking over the premises occupied with great distinction by Joel Rebuchon (he of the divine potatoes and the recent retirement), and what we are talking about here - make no mistake - is the very top rung of French cuisine.

Alain Ducasse, the restaurant not the man, is on two floors and consists of a series of elegant. rooms with six to eight tables in each. From the moment you walk in the door the underlying note is discreet luxury. The ratio of personnel to customers I would guess to be about one to three. The result is trouble-free and extremely amiable service.

My advice to the uninitiated - as to the connoisseur - is to tell the Maitre d' what it is you'd like and let him get on with it. My instructions were as succinct as my mother taught me to be. I said, in effect: "I've been at the seaside for three months, so I don't want to eat fish. What I've missed is rich food, something dark and pungent. Kindly feed me well and surprise me, too.To the sommelier, I said: "l plan to eat on one bottle, so meet with the Maitre and pick for me. I have to eat again tonight so I don't want a too-grand wine."

To the menu now, I think. Alain Ducasse runs a seasonal table, and thus three limited menus: a rich and classic one (Brillat-Savarin); a more modern "Menu fraicheur d'ete" (sole or milk-fed veal); and "Arcimboldo", a vegetarian menu. I ate from the first (and will discuss it in further detail later), as follows:

Legumes des Jardins de Provence: this was a slowly stewed assortment of vegetables, including a lovely fennel, flavoured with crushed black truffle, a touch of Ligurian oil, old vinegar and grey coarse salt. Pates mi-secheees: the idea of half-drying freshly-made pasta is an interesting one; to make its sauce out of cream, sweetbreads, cockscombs and kidneys is indeed ingenious. Caneton: duckling roasted in fig-leaves, with figs and baby turnips. Cheeses: a noble board of a dozen or so cheeses specially made to order. Rhubarb, Peaches and Strawberries: served with glazed wafers and vanilla cream. Wine: a Chapoutier Chateauneuf du Pape "Barbe-Rac" 1993, which is exclusive to the restaurant and was very fine indeed.

Basically, this is a simple meal and the most obvious quality in the food was Ducasse's fascination with individual flavours, some of them quite exotic. My duckling, for instance, included among its flavours some quite rare peppers from China; roasted in fig-leaves obviously keeps the meat from drying, but they also impart their own flavour, sweetish and carbonized. I was enamoured of my pasta dish's sauce, almost frivolously creamy and delicate, but less so of the pasta itself.

Similarly, I found the touch of vanilla in both dishes stayed with me too long: indeed, right through to a fantastic chocolate pie with which I concluded. This may be simply that I am ultra-sensitive to both salt and vanilla.

The reader should be aware that such small criticisms are part of the game. In haute cuisine, one is reaching for the supreme; no two supremes are alike, nor are any two diners. My criticisms are infinitesimal when measured against the overall quality of the meal, which was of the highest order.

So hold on there! Let me be dead simple. It is an extraordinary pleasure to be served a very good meal without having to make even the effort of choosing it; to be served with grace, calm and no snot of any sort by people who know their business inside out; to eat elegantly, quietly and at one's own pace; to be introduced to new flavours and combination of flavours at the hands of a first-class chef. And it is a pleasure that is increasingly rare, for a good restaurant also requires knowledgeable, appreciative and suitably modest eaters. M Rebuchon will be missed; M Ducasse, a grizzled, bearded, passionate cook will fill the gap most excellently

Restaurant Alain Ducasse 59 Ave Raymond Poincare, Paris (00331 47 27 12 27). Reservations should be made well in advance, and can only be made Mon-Fri between 9am and 11. They must also be confirmed. Keith Botsford's bill came to just over f2,000 (pounds 250) with the wine making up one-third of that. Menus (at lunch) are available at f450, f800 and f875, not including wine. Closed at weekends

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