Given the head-spinning bill that will result, the decision to treat yourself to a haute cuisine meal in Paris isn’t one that should ever be made lightly. Rather, it should be made very carefully, with an appropriate amount of research, so you’re as certain as is possible that both the food and the experience offered by a given restaurant will suit. The challenge, of course, is also that what’s ‘sauce for the goose’ isn’t always ‘sauce for the gander.’ Madame may have her heart set on veal sweetbreads smothered in wild mushrooms with a sauce of port wine, while Monsieur might prefer a nice nacreous slab of steamed turbot in a gentle fish fumet with cockles – or vice versa…
Yannick Alléno’s ability to accommodate all appetites at the highest levels of Gallic gastronomic excellence is one reason why I’ve always admired his cooking, and so when he recently took over the kitchen at the beautiful Ledoyen restaurant in the gardens of the Champs Élysées just off the Place de la Concorde, I went to dinner with perhaps impossibly heightened expectations. I’ve known Alléno’s cooking ever since he first won a Michelin star at the Hotel Scribe Paris in the 1980s, and have followed his ascension ever since. Most recently, he held three Michelin stars at the Le Meurice Hotel’s eponymous restaurant, before deciding to step down and take some time off. In the meantime, he was also awarded two Michelin stars at Le 1947, and he’s helmed a brilliant restaurant in Courchevel, and two Terroir Parisien locavore bistros in Paris, plus addresses in Marrakech and elsewhere. Le Pavillon Ledoyen would be his big comeback after that self-imposed sabbatical.
I hadn’t dined in this quietly opulent room, with directoire décor by celebrated French designer Jacques Grange, for a long time. It’s now 30 years old but looks better than ever and I’d forgotten the pleasure of looking out the windows of this tree house-like salon into the lush green crowns of the surrounding plane trees, which are back-dropped by the warm light of a street lamp or two.
The menu was immediately fascinating, for its structure – you choose from a variety of small plates to start and then select a main course – and all are relatively reasonably priced for haute cuisine. Our first dish was supremely elegant and unexpectedly humble, mackerel – which isn’t a fish usually seen in haute cuisine settings, where turbot, sea bass and John Dory have traditionally held sway – with a delicate gelée of hibiscus and shiso leaves. It was deceptively simple, like a well-made watch, and brilliant for its unusual foil of flavours and textures.
A smoked eel soufflé with beetroot and watercress purée was delightful as well, but the starter that really awed us was duck foie gras poached in Rivesaltes wine – the texture was spectacularly unctuous, the sweet vin present in the subtlest of ways, and the meringue-crusted pear that accompanied it a deeply inspired garnish.
If the Japanese Wagyu beef with crispy raviolis, stuffed with olives and green tomato jam, was impressive for the way the filling gently tempered the meat’s richness, then the meal’s masterpiece – a word I rarely use – was a huge cep mushroom head filled with a hash of the same fungus prepared en civet, with onion, red wine, bay leaves, lardons, juniper berries and other ingredients, all sealed with fine, fanned-out slices of another cep head. The en civet method is customarily used for wild hare or other game, but Alléno had the brilliant idea of applying it to these fleshy, feral mushrooms, creating one of the most profoundly original dishes I’ve eaten in a long time. Isaac Newton witnessing an apple drop from a tree came to mind, in terms of the apparent obviousness of Alléno making this connection, but the greatest culinary ideas are often the simplest.
The desserts were as elegant and deeply well-reasoned as the mains, and included a pear roasted in vanilla with tonka bean brittle and salted butter caramel ice cream.
With this new chapter, Alléno is rapidly establishing himself as one of the five or six best chefs in France, and Le Pavillon Ledoyen is a place I would whole heartedly recommend for a very special meal.
Le Pavillon Ledoyen, 8 avenue Dutuit (Carré des Champs Elysées), 75008 Paris. Tel: +33 1 47 42 55 01. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed weekends.
Based in Paris, restaurant columnist Alexander Lobrano has published a new book, Hungry for France, along with a new edition of his popular Hungry for Paris. Find these books and more in our bookstore.
From France Today magazine