Retooling an established restaurant with a crowd of devoted regulars is a challenge for any restaurateur, but this was especially true when it came to Apicius, a favourite power table of corporate and political France in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, not far from the Champs-Elysées.
Formerly run by chef Jean-Pierre Vigato, this table – named for the Roman epicurean said to have penned one of the world’s first cookbooks – occupies an exquisite limestone mansion that was built in 1860 for the Marquis Auguste de Talhouët-Roy on the site of the former stables of the Comte d’Artois, the brother of King Louis XVI. And one of its greatest attributes is that it’s surrounded by a beautiful garden where, weather permitting, meals are served.
Truth be told, I never much liked this place under Vigato, since I found the food uninteresting and expensive and the service stuffy and aloof to those who weren’t immediately recognisable as French cabinet ministers. But all of that’s changed since brilliant young restaurateur Mathieu Pacaud, 37, the son of Bernard Pacaud of the Michelin three-star L’Ambroisie, took over the restaurant and gave it a new décor and a new menu. Esteemed French interior designer François-Joseph Graf, who did the elegant décor at L’Ambroisie, signed the new look for Apicius. He took his inspiration from the Louis XV architecture of the building, but instead of doing a reverent reproduction of the visual idioms of the era, he puckishly but politely broke the conventions of 18th-century classicism to give the restaurant a younger look. The fitted trompe l’oeil carpeting in the restaurant’s bar and small, intimate dining rooms apes the octagonal stone tile floor patterns of the epoch, while animal print chairs and oyster-grey wainscoting and panelling have the tongue-in-cheek drama of theatre scenery. Overall, the new look at Apicius is nonchalantly chic in the best Parisian traditions of elegance that never tries too hard.
In a similar vein, Pacaud saw off the polite classicism that previously prevailed in the kitchen in favour of a cooking style that is lighter, healthier, assiduously seasonal and produce-centred. Dining here on a mild Indian summer night, my excellent starter of grilled and raw summer squash with girolles and fresh almonds in a sauce of Tomme de Brebis cheese was a delicious summary of all Pacaud’s intentions, because this dish was innocently sensual, pretty on the plate, and exhibited a creativity disciplined by a steely knowledge of haute cuisine technique. Our main courses were outstanding, too, including John Dory fillets with caponata with lime oil, lobster from the Chausey islands with green beans, fresh almonds and a sauce of vin jaune, and lamb with aubergine cannelloni and caviar smoked with cumin. An impeccable chocolate soufflé ended the meal on a festive note and, in addition to a fine selection of predictably pricey Bordeaux and Burgundies, the wine list offers a superb selection of Corsican wines, an echo of the fact that Pacaud is also the consulting chef at the Domaine de Murtoli, one of the best hotels in France, and that he has a deep knowledge of the produce of the island where his mother was born. Service could benefit from being less formal and more convivial, but I expect this will occur as the interregnum period following the restaurant’s reinvention plays out. Note, too, that they serve both breakfast and lunch.
Apicius 20 rue d’Artois, Paris 8th.
Tel. +33 (0)1 43 80 19 66. Average dinner €220.
From France Today magazine