One of the most magnificent restaurants in the world has been bedevilling me ever since I first dared the walk through the doorway (with a rucksack!) for a coffee, when I was doing a rail-pass winter break during a year abroad in London. The fat and often foolish guidebook – it was such a mind-bending compendium of bad advice I wondered if the writers had visited any of the places they recommended – that was my woeful daily reference droned on about the beauty of this place, which was unveiled in 1901 by French president Émile Loubet as the Buffet de la Gare, and then renamed in 1963 after the glamorous night-train travelling between Paris and Ventimiglia in Italy. So I thought, what the hell, what’s the worst that can happen? I get turned away at the bar for being an obviously impecunious student?
That didn’t happen. Instead a waiter in a long white apron politely indicated the bar, but suggested I step into the main dining room for a look first. And it was staggeringly beautiful in its Belle-Époque grandeur, with dreamy paintings of the destinations served by the station; ormolu everywhere overhead, including a lot of pudgy cherubim, and magnificent brass and cut-glass chandeliers. Some day, I hoped, oh some day, I’ll have enough money for a meal here.
Well, that day came not long after I arrived in Paris. And suffice it to say that the most delicious thing about that lunch before I boarded a train south was the décor. But I kept going back, because the persistent mediocrity of the cooking here and the gallingly high prices they charged couldn’t stop me from wanting to share this room with friends when they visited Paris.
Over the past 30 years, there have been spells during which the food improved, but then it fell back again when the management changed. For me, though, hope springs anew with each relaunch, which is why I went off to dinner here recently to discover the new menu created by Maison Rostang with high expectations. To wit, maybe this time this legendary restaurant would finally become as well worth visiting for its food as it is for its décor.
Dining with a friend, we started with an excellent pâté en croûte of wild game and
foie gras and delicate ravioles de Romans (tiny cheese-filled ravioli from the Dauphiné) in chicken bouillon with girolles, ceps and other wild mushrooms.
“The Rostangs believe the menu here should be a celebration of traditional French cooking,” the waiter informed us, and this made obvious good sense in a setting of such Gallic splendour. “The kitchen also proposes dishes from the regions served by the station,” he added, which explained such mains as quenelles de brochet (fluffy pike dumplings, a speciality of Lyon) in Newburg sauce, and poulet de Bresse – probably the world’s best chicken, from the Bresse region east of Lyon – in a tarragon cream sauce with grilled basmati rice. The quenelles were excellent, as was my sole bonne femme; turbans of the fish in a gossamer sauce of mushrooms, chicken stock and white wine.
The dessert not to miss is the profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce served table-side. Service is cordial and well-timed, and at long last this spectacular restaurant well warrants a meal. Prices are stiff, however, and the wine list could get interesting, too. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Le Train Bleu, 1er étage, Gare de Lyon, Place Louis Armand, Paris 12th. Tel. +33 (0)1 43 43 09 06. Average à la carte €60. www.le-train-bleu.com
From France Today magazine