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Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee

The Classics, Revisited

by André Gayot

The dining room of Alain Ducasse in Paris
The dining room of Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris

It’s hard to believe that it was at the beginning of this century that Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée first caused a sensation under the gilded ceilings of the Plaza Athénée. Although he was carefully and smartly sticking to the classics, Ducasse blew a breeze of youth into this venerable bastion of the international establishment. He wrapped the magnificent crystal chandeliers in a translucent bag, redecorated the Louis XV seats with bright pastel fabric, added a snapshot of visiting angels and placed an orange clock on the marbled fire place. His architectural impertinence created a good dose of buzz that’s good for business, but he left no place for controversy on the plate. He turned the market's best ingredients into rare dishes that still reflected the great French tradition. The revisitation of the classics was unanimously acclaimed.

What’s left of this positioning a decade later? Classics will always be classic and if little touches are welcome to accompany the march of times, there’s certainly no need for extravagance in the décor nor apocalyptic transformations or presentations of food. This kind of artificial “revolution” is short lived. So Ducasse concludes: Let’s go back to the basics. Let’s be simple. Bye-bye to the wrapped chandeliers and the perplexing angel motives on the panels. On the plain white table cloth stands a simple geometric ceramic object and nothing else that could distract our attention from the food to come.

Normandy-born chef Christophe Saintagne executes from a rather small kitchen, in which they've managed to squeeze the chef's table, known as the Aquarium. In contrast to the snobbishness that can be inherent in the ultra-researched finger food, the amuse-bouche appears on the table in a rustic preparation as in a bistro: a black pan with lard toasts and “maigre” fish and shrimps, which are to be speared with titanium prongs. But be sure that a luxurious dining experience is in store — the style, look and material of the napkins have been altered to serve specific purposes as the meal progresses, starting with a warm torchon for the hands.

The presentation of the menu is Spartan, with just a couple words to describe a dish, such as "Duckling, turnips" or "Sole meuniére, cèpes." An invitation to just focus on the food and enjoy its true flavors. What counts is the real nature of the products and simplicity. That could be the message, unless it is a call to modesty. In gastronomy, indeed it takes talent to be simple, but no need to tell? Choose for example the "legumes et fruits" (vegetables and fruits): two words only to announce a combination of beet, pear, carrot, celery and quince cooked to distill an elixir enhanced with a hint of apple vinegar. The langoustines rafraichies (chilled) are artistically presented with large dots of caviar, and the heady, warm paté of partridge melts in the mouth. The canette (duckling) as well as the turbot are cooked to perfection and in both cases are served with an accompaniment that reverberates with the flesh of the product: for the former, turnips are poached in a vegetable bouillon, while the fish is steamed with seaweed and rested on a colorful, melting bed of chard, with a small glass cup of lobster bouillon complementing the marine taste.

Langoustines with caviar from Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris Tropical fruit with coconut meringue from Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée
Langoustines with caviar
Tropical fruit with coconut meringue

Pastry chef Nicolas Berger does the great French sweet classics like baba au rhum (although it was invented by a Polish king) and modern delicacies such as tropical fruit with coconut meringue. A procession of carts offers cheeses, teas and infusions of freshly cut herbs, and mignardises (dainty sweets) like nougats, guimauves (marshmallow), candies and ice cream. The endless wine list, overseen by head sommelier Laurent Roucayrol, includes options such as a red, fruity and reasonably priced Saint Joseph and a more elaborate Côte–Rôtie, la Fleur de Montlys, as well as an impressive selection of Grandes Marques Champagnes. Service is meticulously performed by smartly dressed waiters under the watchful attention of the maître d', Denis Courtiade.

Ducasse’s bill of fare has been apparently simplified, or is it just an illusion? The dishes seem frank and straightforward, proclaiming the glory of the product, but we suspect that such beautiful fragrances can only result from a conscious elaboration that Ducasse has chosen to minimize to favor simplicity. But who would complain about such modesty?

(Updated: 10/04/13 CT)

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