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Nov 25, 2009 12:55 AM

First Time in Paris, Tips for Escoffier-Style Cuisine

I am visiting Paris for the first time next year and, as part of my trip, I am planning to treat myself to a few of the French capital's gastronomic pleasures. Although I've already done a bit of research, I would still like solicit restaurant recommendations.

As this is my first time in France, I would like to use this opportunity to experience traditional French haute cuisine--a.k.a. pre-nouvelle cuisine cooking. I know it's kind of passé, even unexciting given the inventive cuisines flourishing in Paris right now but I am of the opinion that to appreciate today's culinary trends, it would be best to be acquainted with the classics. Which leads me to the question: which Parisian restaurant serves the best Escoffier-style cuisine (or a more or less accurate interpretation thereof) today: Lassere, Michel Rostang, La Tour d'Argent, Le Cinq, Gérard Besson, Jacques Cagna, La Braisière, L'Angélique, La Terrasse et l'Assiette, L'Espadon? Would it be wise to visit these Michel-starred institutions or would I be better off in a more humble (and not to mention cheaper) place like Guillaume Delage's Jadis? I would really appreciate it if you could use their prix-fixe lunch menus as the point of reference. Although I am planning to treat myself, I do want to mindful of my budget and the slightly weak dollar.

Also, since I am already there, I plan to indulge myself further and continue my French culinary history lesson. As such, should I have enough time and money left, which of these nouvelle cuisine restaurants remains most faithful to the movement's credo and represents the best value for money: l'Auberge du Pont de Collonges (Paul Bocuse), La Maison Troisgros, La Côte d'Or (formerly Bernard Loiseau's), Les Prés d'Eugénie (Michel Guérard), Guy Savoy, Alain Chapel, Senderens? Again, a bit naff but since I was but a kid during the 80's, I never really got to experience authentic nouvelle cuisine--something which I want to reverse now.

Thanks in advance for all your help! I really, really appreciate all guidance I can get.

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  1. I'm not aware of any restaurant in France that still serves food that Escoffier would recognize. The labor requirements are just unmanageable in this day and age. Perhaps the closest would be a meal composed of the few traditional items that have been kept on the carte at Lassere. Outside of Paris, there are a few dishes that have been kept on the menu at L'Auberge de L'Ill that have a link with an older tradition. It'll be interesting to see other responses

    In your second group, Bocuse still serves some of his famous recipes from the mid 70s, executed with a consistency and solidity of technique that remains highly impressive, if somewhat "old-fashioned." Besson in Paris is similar, on a less elevated level.


    1. The closest to old-style, Escoffier-ish food you'll find is, in my opinion, at Michel Rostang. His food style is pre-Bocuse. You will enjoy gratin dauphinois, quenelle de brochet, and other old classics who rely on the skills of cooks. Every bit as old-style is the food at l'Auberge Bressane, with it volaille au vin jaune, soufflé au fromage, crêpes suzettes...

      Then the whole Robuchon connection is very influenced by Escoffier, but also tainted of a lot of modernity. Le Cinq is probably the best example of that. Here you'll still find food that is inspired from very old style, like the game pie of the tête de veau sauce tortue.

      Now, to me a perfect place for a Robuchon like approach, focusing on high skills AND excellent ingredients and simplicity at the service of excellence is Au Bon Accueil. Taste their sole au champagne or their pigeon.

      Gérard Besson is actually of the Bocuse school, i.e. the first steps of nouvelle cuisine, the focus on ingredients, the simplification of preparation, the attention paid to colors and plating. At Besson you'll eat an omelette, or a lièvre à la royale (the Careme recipe). Besson is really exceptionally good with game and truffle. He is actually better than Bocuse for that, if not for the overall experience. Both now seem old and in particular their food can seem heavy, overcooked, and ridiculously generous. Such are the days.

      Visiting Bocuse I think makes a lot of sense, also because it is simply hugely enjoyable... and also just huge. Eat light the day before, ideally the week before. Contrast it with pure light modernity and invention, say l'Astrance or l'Arpège.

      If you're in the neighborhood, Chapel's restaurant is still worth visiting, and it gives a fairly good idea of what Chapel brought to nouvelle cuisine. The same is true about Guérard, but it is pretty much out of anyone's way.

      Now clearly, one place you NEED to go to have a sense of what nouvelle cuisine was is Senderens. Compare his lièvre à la royale with Besson's to see what nouvelle cuisine is all about. Get his Apicius duck if it's on the menu. L'Ambroisie would do too, differently, more expensively, possibly wonderfully. La Grande Cascade is a close parent of this school.

      Jadis is a great place, but it would be incorrect to assume that he cooks "old style". Appearances can be deceiving, and even when that guy does steak au poivre or boeuf carottes, he is still a Gagnaire boy.

      Incidentally, I did write a blog post on the matter of what is nouvelle cuisine a while ago: I also wrote about a lot of these restaurants from a point of view that seems to be close to your interrogations.

      1 Reply
      1. re: souphie

        Absolutely textbook.
        Soup you have neatly mapped the long parcours of French cuisine. "Early" nouvelle sort of looks old now.
        And so ironic that a poster named Minimalist seeks such a maximalist experience, mais bon... :-)

      2. Thanks so much for your suggestions!

        Souphie, I must say you've gained another blog reader. :) Very enlightening post. It's also very interesting that you seem to (at least, as I understood it) divide nouvelle cuisine into early (Bocuse) and late periods (Senderens, Loiseau, etc.).

        Will definitely try to book a table at Rostang when I go to Paris next year. La Table de JR is something I will also definitely check out (the EUR 59 "club" menu for lunch is hard to beat). From what I've gathered, Robuchon (as you mentioned) melds together cuisine classique and nouvelle cuisine.

        7 Replies
        1. re: theminimalist

          Thanks. I just published two posts on the state of high end cuisine, but they're only in French for now.

          Nouvelle cuisine seen as a march to lightness and simplification and focus on ingredients is actually a process that goes through the history of cooking in France. Already the Medicis brought lightness and simplicity to the cuisine of French renaissance. Carême, then Escoffier claimed to have a lighter approach than their predecessors. Point was lighter, more modern than Escoffier. Bocuse than Point. Bocuse is the start of nouvelle cuisine as such because of the role of simple ingredients as opposed to created flavours. Troisgros, Senderens and Guérard are the next steps in NC, bringing invention and originality, constant search for innovation. People like Loiseau, Ducasse, Girardet, Pacaud, Peyrot, early Passard and Robuchon kind of closed the cycle on Nouvelle Cuisine. As you say in the case of Robuchon, there often was a neo-classic dimension in that third wave of NC. What happens next implies a different relationship to food and the restaurant, with more emphasis on the creative approach and less on the ultimate perfection of food -- contemporary Passard, l'Astrance, Gagnaire, Bras, Roellinger, etc. And then there is the move of chefs away from fine dining to more bistrot dining, something that started, they say, with the bistronomique school of Constant: Camdeborde, Fréchon, Doucet, Jégo, etc. The second wave of creative cuisine in bistrots is championed by Aitziparte at le Chateaubriand, many try to imitate him.

          I think the idea of a historical tour of restaurants is a brilliant and fascinating one. We should set up a tour of restaurants and menus designed to tell the history of French cuisine.

          1. re: souphie

            I thought Aitziparte was Basque, next you'll be claiming Corsican food as French ;-)

            1. re: PhilD

              Yeah, he's basque. Just like Camdeborde, Jégo (Chez l'Ami Jean), Au Dernier Métro and so many others. It has actually become difficult to find a bistrot that does not claim to be SW, and most of the time they mean basque.

              That said, I have challengers for the second wave of creative bistrots -- The main one being Laurent Chareau at Le Chat at Cosne-sur-Loire. I like Bistral too.

              1. re: souphie

                Stéphane Jégo is from Lorient in Brittany.

                1. re: Theobroma

                  I know. That's exactly my point -- CAJ claims to be a basque restaurant just like almost every other bistrots. The idea that basque cuisine is something specific, at least in Paris, is laughable.

                  1. re: souphie

                    Soup, is that true? I thought CAJ was an old Basque bar that Jego purchased for his restaurant and he decided to keep the decor including all the old rugby paraphernalia. The "Basque restaurant" tag has been attached to it for this reason not because Jego claimed to be cooking Basque food.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      Well, he does have the Camdeborde charcuterie, the Ibaiona ham, the "chipirons", the ever present espelette. But there's no question that not much is basque in foie gras roti for two, cote de veau en cocotte, kobe beef, or even riz au lait.