Paris a la Mode: Relais Plaza and Le Cristal Room

March 26, 2009

For me, one of the most endearing qualities of the French is their willingness to be contrarian. This same trait has infuriated successive American governments, and is often used by crack-pot Stateside radio commentators to whip up anti-French feeling, but I think it’s very useful. France is often the only country that doesn’t bleatingly go along with American wishes, and this tendency to ride the brake is useful, because it allows for some reflection. Further, the only way to be sure that you’re right is to listen carefully and seriously to an opposing point of view.

Sometimes this contrarian pose is just cantankerousness for pleasure of being contrary, however, which is what I’ve witnessed in Paris during the last week or so as several usually very reliable French food critics have not only rallied to the defense of the new Costes brothers restaurant La Societe in Saint Germain des Pres, but claim they actually like it. Maybe they do, but from the perch of someone who not only passionately loves good food but also has a huge respect for the back-breaking work of running a small independent restaurant, I’d only say that it couldn’t be for the food. Let’s be clear. The Costes brothers run a chain of some two dozen fashion driven restaurants with identikit menus that have made it acceptable to go to a restaurant for reasons that have nothing to do with eating good food. Instead you go to Costes restaurants because Paris nightlife is so wilted and because you like to eat in pretty surroundings served by pretty people. You also go to Costes restaurants as an act of conspicuous consumption, because they’re expensive relative to the quality and effort involved in creating what they serve. You go to Costes restaurants because you’re more interested in “fashion” than you are in food. But you don’t go to to them to have a good or interesting meal.

Fortunately, they’re fashion-oriented restaurants in Paris that actually serve good food. One perfect example is the Relais Plaza, the art-deco brasserie of the Hotel Plaza Athenee on the Avenue Montaigne. It’s a lush golden space that’s been run by Austrian born maitre d’hotel Werner Kuchler with charm and elegance for some thirty-five years. To be sure, you’re not going to find a lounge music soundtrack in this dining room, but what you will find is great people watching (designers, clothes horses, fashion execs and avid shoppers) and, with the introduction of a new 50 Euro menu, a good buy. Or at least a good buy in the context of a very elegant restaurant on one of the world’s great luxury thoroughfares. This new menu, which changes regularly, includes a starter, main course and dessert, and based on lunch last week–an avocado cocktail with Alaska king crab, grilled lamb chops with provencale vegetables, chocolate tart, you get a very good and carefully cooked meal made with first-rate produce for less money than you’re like to spend in any of the Costes restaurants. So if fashion is your passion as much as food, pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and treat yourself to lunch (dinner is quieter) and a slice of la vie en rose at the Relais Plaza.

Another excellent option is Le Cristal Room, the stunningly chic restaurant in the beautiful headquarters building of Baccarat crystal in the 16th arrondissement. If I’ve always loved the Philippe Starck designed dining room of huge crystal chandeliers, mirrors, gorgeous ceiling and wall moldings, and incongruously but shrewdly exposed brick walls (the bare brick creates a perfect foil for all of that opulence), the food had never been better than ordinary and was very expensive. Now, with the arrival of young chef Thomas L’Herisson, who formerly cooked with Thierry Marx, Eric Frechon (the Bristol) and Guy Martin at the Grand Vefour (Martin is now consulting chef for the Cristal Room), it’s also become a wonderful choice for a really good meal. From the Spring menu, they’re two stand-out starters–Breton lobster poached with wasabi and radish leaves and served on a bed of quinoa and tiny peas and fava beans, and cubed Ratte potatoes garnished with a foam spiked with preserved Moroccan style lemon and Aquitaine caviar. Both dishes were impeccable and perfectly announced the style of the kitchen, which to do playful but intelligent riffs on classic French cooking. Next, my veal chop was a perfectly cooked piece of delicious meat and came garnished with pureed peas and tiny cubes of Chorizo sausage and baked Ratte potatoes. My friend Margaret’s plump filet of John Dory was flattered by a smoked tomato sauce and garnished with breaded oysters, salad leaves and bulots (sea snails) poached with lime, an excellent dish. Desserts, including a strawberry tart brilliant spiked with microscopic pieces of candied ginger and bitter chocolate souffle with rhubarb compote and tarragon-chervil mousse, were exquisite, too. Though this place is expensive, it’s worth it for the excellent cooking and magical setting. Note that they also do a very good value 55 Euro lunch menu. Lunch or dinner, Le Cristal Room offers an admirable template for the perfect Paris fashion restaurant, or a place where the food is every bit as good as the atmosphere or the people watching.

Le Cristal Room, 11 Place des Etats Unis, 16th, Tel. 01-40-22-11-10. Metro: Iena or Boissiere

Le Relais Plaza, 21 avenue Montaigne, 8th, Tel. 01-53-67-64-00. Metro: Alma-Marceau