Smart Moves in the Silly Season: La Maison de l’Amerique Latine and La Cour Jardin

June 5, 2009

The allure of being in a secret garden makes many a Parisian less gastronomically exigent as summer arrives. Arriving on the white gravel terrace on the edge of the magnificent gardens that are hidden behind La Maison d’Amerique Latine in the Faubourg Saint Germain (7th arrondissement) the other night reminded me of how I’d first been seduced by Gallic elegance as a thirteen-year-old boy. The lush green lawn was perfectly mown and edged, unfurled like a carpet a few feet from our table, and rolled to the bottom of the garden where stone cherubim coyly peered from banks of rhododendron. On a summer night, the sky was pearled pink and almost irridescent behind a poplar tree that had been pollarded to resemble a vegetal version of one of the giant stone heads of Easter island. The delicious effect of this exquisite mis en scene was to be briefly transported beyond time and care, a wonderful escape that only became better as dusk fell and the garden more and more resembled a Magritte painting.

On the way to this beautiful bower, I mentioned to Devreaux, the friend who was joining me, that she shouldn’t be packing heightened gastronomic expectations. With any luck, the food would be fine, but the reason one craved a meal here was the setting. Our meal began inauspiciously with over-cooked snippets of foie gras as an unnecessary and unwanted amuse bouche, and then debuted with langoustines prepared three different ways for Devreaux and terrine de foie gras de canard for me. While my foie gras was good, the langoustines were sadly tasteless, especially as part of a 79 Euro meal. Next, I had delicious turbans of sole stuffed with a mushroom flecked fish mousse and Devreaux came up short again with a tough and curiously tastely veal filet. A surprisingly awful goat cheese from Quatrehommes followed, and dessert was truly forgettable. Still, we left the garden with dread and melancholy, since it had been a longtime that I’d enjoyed a meal so much.

So weighing the fact that the setting is exquisite but the food expensive and uneven, what I’d do next time is book at 8.00pm to enjoy the best light in the garden and order the 55 Euro prix-fixe dinner menu with a bottle of the inexpensive but very pleasant Mexican rose to keep a lid on the bill. And overall, you’ll do better here if you order the simpler dishes like cod sauteed with peppers and onions or grilled filet of beef with baby vegetables.

Another lovely setting for an alfresco meal is the ivy covered interior courtyard of the Hotel Plaza Athenee where the seasonal restaurant La Cour Jardin sets up for the summer. Run under the auspices of Alain Ducasse this restaurant is offering a truly interesting and delicious menu this season. Throwing the usual summer cliches out the window, this menu focuses on vegetables and grains. Lunching here with Bruno, we had a truly excellent meal that began with a vegetarian version of les petits farcis, the Nicoise dish of stuffed baby vegetables, the difference here being that they’d been stuffed with spelt instead of meat, and a sublime lobster salad with a zucchini-millet piperade. Next, a terrific Catalan inspired rice dish garnished with fresh baby peans, fine slices of squid and lemon rind, and cooked so that it has formed a delicious crust on the bottom for me, and roast lamb with simmered flageolets and broad beans for Bruno. The strawberry tart we shared for dessert was excellent, too, and were it not for the fact that this place is very expensive, I’d be a regular here this summer.

Finally, for anyone who finds these prices totally out of reach, I had a wonderful meal the other night at a sidewalk table at Au Coin des Gourmets in the Latin Quarter that ran less than 30 Euros with several shared carafes of the house wine. Don’t miss the twelve-vegetable spring rolls or the Vietnamese ravioli, and note that the Crepe Saigonnaise, a crunchy squid and shrimp omelette filled with bean sprouts and fresh herbs, makes for a wonderful summer supper.

Au Coin des Gourmets, 5 rue Dante, 5th, Tél.: 01 43 26 12 92. Mo Maubert Mutualite or Saint Michel. Average 30 Euros. Closed Sunday.

Maison de l’Amerique Latine, 117 boulevard Saint Germain, 7th, Tél.: 01 49 54 75 10. Mo Rue du Bac or Solferino, Lunch menu 40 Euros, Dinner menus 50 Euros, 79 Euros. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner.

La Cour Jardin, Hotel Plaza Athenee, 25 avenue Montaigne, 8th, Tél.: 01 53 67 66 65. Mo Alma-Marceau. Average meal 100 Euros. Open daily.