When you are a world-class chef with grand restaurants on several continents, you might be tempted to sit back and enjoy the praise and showers of Michelin stars. But not Alain Ducasse. His imagination never rests, constantly searching for new ways to improve, explore, and delight his customers.
Two years ago, after a decade within the elegant Hotel Plaza-Athenée, Ducasse boldly reassessed every aspect of his restaurant, from decor and balletic service to the superb cooking which marks a worthy holder of three Michelin stars. Dismayed by much modern cookery with its emphasis on gimmicky techniques, Ducasse returned to basics, the real taste of food, artlessly simple in presentation and pure in flavour. He banished unnecessary decoration and pompous luxury. Instead, there is now a radical approach that presents the finest ingredients in an austere, honest setting on the plate.
Great care has been taken to source small producers who live up to the chef’s high standard, and he has an impressive network of contacts: the best fish, meat and game from across France; cream from Normandy; scallops from the rich shallow waters of the Seine estuary; hare from Picardy; poultry from Bresse; citrus fruits from orchards at the foot of the Pyrenées; bread from the finest small bakery in Paris; and a wide range of cheeses in top condition.
As you take your seat, the table looks surprisingly bare – no flowers, ornament or even cutlery, just a minimalist plate in an architectural curve. To start, small rustic dishes arrive at the table: a metal dish of sautéed prawns eaten with titanium chopsticks, and small croûtes wrapped in humble greaseproof paper. Then, to up the tempo, choose a rich shellfish bisque or tiny swirls of langoustine topped with caviar and served with a conical glass of pure consommé. The menu sounds very stark – sole meunière, cèpes; canette, navets; ris de veau, carottes – but this is exceptional cooking, confident in its simple perfection. A fine piece of sole is accompanied by rich mushrooms; a tranche of perfectly cooked poulet de Bresse is coated with a sauce enhanced with foie gras. Gradually, as the meal develops, the tableware evolves, building up to luxurious silver-gilt cutlery and crystal sundae dishes for dessert. Not surprisingly, the long wine list is predominantly French and there is a section honouring female wine makers and vineyard owners.
The dining room just off the main lobby of the hotel has been reinterpreted and is now a fairyland of brilliant surfaces and rich textures, an enchanted setting for the reborn menu. There are shimmering crystal chandeliers and screens with spectacular embroidery of satin, leather, beads, sequins and jewels – decor as haute couture. Luxe, calme et volupté.
Meanwhile, in the lowlier second arrondissement, sits Aux Lyonnais, an authentic, cosy bistro that has been dedicated to the cuisine of Lyon for well over a century. In 2003 it was brought into the Alain Ducasse Paris fold – Ducasse’s love of regional cooking sits alongside his reputation as one of the world’s finest chefs, and revived. He has kept it alive and enhanced its reputation.
The menu of Aux Lyonnais is a tribute to the great chefs, domestic cooks and produce of the area, featuring local charcuterie, beef and wild boar, frogs’ legs, fresh water perch, pike (for classic quenelles Nantua) and crayfish, cheeses and wines from South Macon to the North Rhone. Portions are large, flavours are robust and the enthusiastic clientele is predominantly male. The bistro’s interior is full of charm with lace curtains at the windows, a mosaic floor and bentwood chairs with leather seats. It is cluttered with ornate cornices, decorative tiles, mirrors and old photographs. Towards the rear there’s a zinc bar and stainless steel kitchen beyond, while upstairs there is a lounge with comfortable brown leather chairs and a private room.
Alain Ducasse at Hotel Plaza-Athénée, 25 Avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris, France
+33 (0)1 5367 6500; alain-ducasse.com
Aux Lyonnais, 32 rue Saint Marc, 75002 Paris, France
+33 (0)1 4296 6504; alain-ducasse.com