The Return of a Star
The dining room of Restaurant Lasserre in Paris
is a magical place with a legendary name. René
Lasserre was a busboy who, after years of humble and
obscure labor in the basement of Paris high society,
reached the highest ranks of French gastronomy. After
observing how the upper crust lived and dined, Lasserre
had a vision that resulted in his conception of a
luxurious gastronomic world where nothing would be
too good to satisfy the well-heeled foodies of the
that effect, he had the good idea to purchase a filthy,
unwanted hangar—left behind after the close
of the 1937 Paris International Exposition—and
to transform it into a sumptuous mansion near the
Champs Elysées. Lasserre impressed the establishment
with his marketing and public relations skills, luring
in the glitterati such as painters Marc Chagall and Salvador Dalí, writer
and minister André Malraux, actress Audrey
Hepburn and many others. They rushed in to admire
the ceiling, which on clear and balmy nights would
open up to the star-studded sky of Paris (or a sunny lunch during the daytime). Soon Restaurant Lasserre, with its essence of romance, gained the
status of an institution. Many illustrious chefs started
their apprenticeship there, including Marc Haeberlin,
Guy Savoy, Michel Rostang and Jacques Lameloise.
What’s the postscript of this great saga after the March 2006 death of the charismatic René Lasserre? Chef Jean-Louis Nomicos (from the Ducasse galaxy) was called, to preserve the legacy while opening the kitchen windows wide to let the breeze of a new era flow in. Take, for instance, the signature dish of Lasserre, the Pigeon André Malraux named after the famous French writer who was appointed Minister of Culture in de Gaulle’s government. Although everybody raved about it then, today’s palates and stomachs would judge it heavy and “rich” in the bad sense of the word. Nomicos kept the unforgettable recipe on the menu, but interpreted the masterpiece with his own rendition to fit contemporary tastes, cutting on the cooking time, reducing the avalanche of foie gras, and balancing the tender squab meat with vegetables and fruits of the season.
Nomicos left Lasserre in 2010 to create his own restaurant, and chef Christophe Moret, who had seven years of brilliant tenure at Alain Ducasse at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, is now at the helm. While the menu of Le Classiques Lasserre is still available and standards like Sole Grand Palais (thin fillet of fish with frog’s legs and scallops), Ragout (sweetbread Ragout with poultry quenelle and cockscomb), and, of course, Pigeon André Malraux, are present, diners will want to try Moret’s creations which will coin the new era of Lasserre. Don’t expect bad surprises in these novelties: there’s a Ducasse spirit in the quality and continuity. For appetizers, an exotic touch is detected in the langoustines with ginger and lime broth. More continental are the crispy fruits and vegetables cooked in a casserole and seasoned with fresh grape juice vinaigrette. Caviar luxuriates in lettuce en délicate royale and crème légère. Continue with the sea bass with citrus fruit, peppers and sautéed green and white chard and the tender Canette de la Dombes (la Dombes is a large, marshy land near Lyon) cooked with fresh figs in a salmi (game) jus. The presentation of Moret’s menu is brief and simple. No emphasis is needed to underline his mastering of lightness and cooking time.
Caviar with lettuce and crème légère
Pistachio shortbread with citrus fruit
Sweet things arrive from the equally delightful pastry chef Claire Heitzler, most recently from the Ritz Paris, with tours of duty in Dubai and Tokyo. Her desserts are delicate and creative; diners might encounter a Guanaja chocolate soufflé crowned with edible gold leaf or pistachio shortbread topped with fresh and partially cooked citrus fruit. The wine cellar, besides housing the grand crus de rigueur, welcomes less prestigious but worthwhile vintages from the Rhône Valley, the Loire Valley, and from the up-and-coming area of Languedoc. The overall experience is masterfully orchestrated by general manager Guillaume Crampon. Also continuing the theme of making the old new again is the fresh, posh décor of the restaurant, which seats 70 in the two-story space, with a dining room upstairs and private rooms below.
A visit to Restaurant Lasserre is a little bit like paying homage to French gastronomy. It’s a pilgrimage to an heirloom place, a museum of good taste with modern art pieces crafted by the new talented team. If you consider yourself an über foodie, you can't pass up this visit while in the French capital.