In the centre of Paris, the Les Halles quarter takes its name from Les Halles, the handsome old glass-and-steel market halls by Victor Baltard that comprised the city’s main food market until it moved to suburban Rungis in 1969.
Following the move, the market buildings were replaced during the 1970s by the Forum des Halles, a lamentably ugly shopping centre and underground train station. Parisians loathed the flashy building, and reacted by avoiding the neighbourhood altogether. Now, following a billion-euro renovation, the building sports an undulating yellow glass roof and a new brasserie by chef Alain Ducasse, Champeaux, which can seat 180 diners per service.
Though Les Halles is no longer really a quartier populaire, or working-class district, as it was for the eight centuries that it was the site of Paris’s food market, thousands of suburbanites arrive here daily via the RER rail system that connects Paris to the surrounding Île-de-France. Their presence makes this part of the city noticeably younger and, like suburban kids everywhere, they like to go to the shops, have an affordable meal, and mix with friends. Recognising this urban ecology, the City of Paris encouraged a mix of businesses in the newly redesigned Les Halles with the idea of keeping the district within reach of those with more modest budgets.
Against this backdrop, Champeaux represents a studious attempt on the part of one of the great chefs of France to deliver his cooking at prices that are within reach of the largest number of people possible. And this explains the wonderfully diverse clientele of this young lively brasserie, which offers some of the best people-watching in Paris right now.
The food’s good, too, especially the signature dish of the brasserie, the soufflé, which is available in three savoury versions – cheese, asparagus, and lobster – and three sweet ones – Cointreau, pistachio with salted caramel butter sauce, and chocolate. Otherwise, the menu debuts with a mix of traditional brasserie dishes, including onion soup and a green bean salad, and modern ones, including four marinated fish preparations, and an excellent shrimp and avocado cocktail.
Four different cuts of beef come with a choice of garnishes – black pepper sauce, shallot sauce, lemon-parsley butter or sauce Béarnaise. A different dish of the day is offered six days of the week, including blanquette de veau on Monday and pike perch quenelles with crayfish sauce on Friday; other main courses include hand-chopped steak tartare (ask for it without the Jerusalem artichoke chip garnish, which ruins the taste of the meat), roasted lamb, and salmon with a mango-passion-fruit rougail garnish.
From France Today magazine