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May 20, 2010 02:21 PM

paris three-stars: best choice for one seasoned and one inexperienced diner?

Hi- So a classmate and I are graduating from medical school next week and will be in Paris the first week of June. Her parents have offered us a blowout dinner anywhere we like. I have been to many Paris three-stars, including Pierre Gagnaire, Arpege, Le Meurice, and Alain Ducasse, as well as former three-stars (Grand Vefour, Taillevent, Lucas Carton), and a number outside Paris (Veyrat, Bras, Roellinger). My friend has only had one serious dinner in Paris in her life, and that was ten years ago at Le Pre Catalan. So I'm torn: I like to have new experiences, so naturally I'm attracted to L'Astrance, as well as to Guy Savoy and Le Bristol. But I want to give my friend an unforgettable experience, especially since it's on her parents' dime. Of the restaurants I've been to, I'm inclined to return for dinner to Arpege, where I had a revelatory lunch a couple of years ago. Any advice from the experts on this forum?

Also, I wonder if people can suggest some delicious Paris bistros for lunch/dinner on other days. I don't have it in me to fight for reservations at Frenchie, Chateaubriand, Comptoir etc., so I'm especially thinking of places that are utterly delicious but not trendy-delicious. Thanks!

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  1. M.E. says Lasserre is her favorite restaurant in Paris; I don't know why they don't have three stars. Ambroisie would be a good choice, if you can get around the somber tone of the place (she refuses to go back). Guy Savoy would be the most upbeat. Hope this helps.

    1. If you're with a non-experienced dinner, you should go for a restaurant that always "works", and I think Savoy is on top of your list, because the meal is conceived as a well-oiled show. The food is always good, sometimes great, but it's always a party. In your situation, I would chose either that or Le Cinq. Le Cinq has the same mastering of the overall dining experience.

      Indeed places like l'Ambroisie or Ledoyen have food orgasm potential but they are sad places and are better enoyed by people who know high quality ingredients and cooking.

      Any three stars can delight a newcomer, but it's always a risk. I would definitely rule out l'Astrance for example, really a place for regular fine diners.

      L'Arpège of course is a major restaurant, and it's nice to show newcomers that fine dining doesn't have to be stuffy or complicated. I for one like to have more meat and more non-butter fat in my meal, but hey, it's a good restaurant. Expensive too.

      Lasserre is pretty spectacular and excellent. Like Taillevent, it has that "American dream of a fancy Parisian restaurant" quality. They're particularly irreplaceable if you want to feel like "you're in the picture".

      As for delicious bistrots, dude, there's nothing else in this board. Besides, only Frenchie is hard to get into.

      14 Replies
      1. re: souphie

        Thanks, Souphie, for your reply. I must say that I always find your comments thoughtful and illuminating.

        My dining companion, while inexperienced in the ways of grand Paris dining, is certainly a sophisticated person, cooks well and has eaten well in her life, and has made clear that brilliance of the food is absolutely her top priority in the selection of the restaurant. I want this to be best meal (really the best FOOD) of her life so far; if you think Guy Savoy is up to the task, then I'll reserve there.

        Regarding L'Arpege, however, where I do already have a table: My previous meal there was the lunch menu (four courses maybe), and I wonder whether you or anyone else can comment on their more exhaustive degustation. Is it a very difference experience? Returning to the restaurant for a longer tasting might allow me to add some depth to my appreciation of the restaurant while sharing with my friend something already special to me....

        1. re: Honoredb

          Well then if you want the best FOOD of her life so far, Savoy won't do. You'll have to reconsider the "not fun" ones, Ledoyen and l'Ambroisie. Le Cinq and l'Arpège can also be in the mix, in different ways. Ingredient wise, Ledoyen and l'Ambroisie are head and shoulder above the others.

          I think l'Arpège is l'Arpège, is always a tasting. Did you find you lunch too short? The big tasting sure has a little bit more of the goods -- like sole, lobster, meat, etc. But it's not fundamentally different, and l'Arpège is all in their egg or their onion, when it's well made.

          1. re: souphie

            I'm really fascinated by your strong feelings for the "not fun" ones ingredient-wise. Hard to imagine that those ingredients could be head and shoulders above what passard and others can obtain...but I do take your word for it.

            I did not find my lunch at L'Arpege short; it was in fact among the most perfect lunches of my life--one of those special moments (as at Michel Bras) when each dish just sings out at you, and when the stark, pared-down, elemental presentation of ingredients makes you feel that all other gorgeous food you've ever had is almost tacky in its over-wrought-ness (which is not to say that L'Arpege's food is not effortful). But I was curious about the longer tasting...sounds like it's more of the same.

            Incidentally, I just made a dinner reservation at Passage 53, but my good friend who is the NY Times food editor says that it's just not good. What's your opinion? I tried to get Bigarrade on the phone but failed. Is the new location of La Regalade very wonderful? Perhaps I'll try that. And is Chateaubriand really a place you can walk into on a Wednesday night at 10pm?

            1. re: Honoredb

              In October, I had an excellent dinner at Passage 53. I was planning to return in Sept. I wonder if it has changed since then. In Oct. the cooking was perfection, as were the ingredients.

              1. re: Honoredb

                L'Arpège is not trying hard on ingredients. It's really all about Passard's talents. Their famed vegetables are good, but nothing to write home about. Instead of searching the whole country for the best vegetables of the day, the serve you the ones from their garden. And for fish and meat, they just call the same butchers and fish shops we do. So l'Arpège, like most restaurants, does what a friend calls "telephone sourcing". Of course they have good stuff. But they only randomly have stuff that is the best you can find that day.

                To my knowledge, only l'Ambroisie, Ledoyen and, to a lesser extent, l'Astrance, are still fighting to get the best ingredients on earth. The others just don't want to bother. The temptation to just take ingredients for granted is too strong.

                Haven't been to Passages 53 and La Régalade 2. I would not worry about La Régalade, I'm sure it's excellent. And your editor friend is the first bad comment I hear about Passage 53. As to walk in to Chateaubriand, you can try. I'm sure they'll be happy to see you. And then walk to Belleville, for instance, to have dinner.

                1. re: souphie

                  You make a very good point. We congratulate chefs like Passard and Veyrat and Bras (and in New York Boulud) for using the vegetables from their own backyards, but isn't it amazing sourcing that ought to distinguish the very best food? Souphie, what is your opinion of le bristol? A friend had lunch there recently and said that the poularde de bresse was exceptional, as was a fraises de bois dessert that needed to be ordered in advance.

                  So my sense is that l'ambroisie and ledoyen may be too grim to provide the full "wow" that i'd like to give me friend (though you've certainly whetted my own appetite for their food). In a sense, Gagnaire it seems could provide a good balance between excellent food and total experience, but I have had two dinners there, one truly a revelation, with several real challenges to my palate, and one full of admirable misfires. I don't need to go again. So that leaves Le Cinq (not actually a three-star, but who cares?) and L'Arpege and Guy Savoy. What about Le Pre Catalan, after all? Is the food any match for the environment?

                  Regarding Passage 53, actually my Times food editor friend had dinner there with Alec Lebrano. They both hated it! But that's just two mouths on one night. I'll still go.

                  1. re: Honoredb

                    Alec Lebrano details his report of Passage 53 on his blog. His experience was opposite mine. At Passage 53, the fish dishes are cooked impeccably -- I did not have to ask that I prefer my fish "mi-cuit" or "juste", as is typically the case in most places. Also, I think Joel Thiebault's produce is truly superior. Read Meg Zimbeck's review for a better description.

                    1. re: Nancy S.

                      Thanks. It sounds as though the prevailing opinion is very much in favor of Passage 53. People do say that it has quickly gotten much more expensive. Does anyone know how much that means?

                      1. re: Honoredb

                        We had the 80 euro menu in October.

                    2. re: Honoredb

                      The poularde at Le Bristol is indeed exceptional (though, there again, I don't think the ingredients are). As are their dining rooms. Fréchon is a wonderful chef, but he sold his sould to get three stars -- it's full of mousse and other modern gimmicks that are actually detrimental to his real talent, fancy rustic. I wouldn't call the place fun either, and the staff is not particularly playful or charming (while being totally "palace" of course). The real bummer, to me, is that you can't trust any of their menusn especially not the lunch one.

                      I've never been t Le Précatelan. That's because pictures, recipes and seeing the chef cook never led me to believe it was any good, so that I never risked my own money.

                      I don't think l'Arpège is a safe play. It can be wonderful or enraging. That leaves you indeed with Savoy and Le Cinq, and then a lot is a matter of style. Better dessert at Savoy, more modern setting. Le Cinq is more affordable, and has a much more active chef. Both are great: check out pictures and make up your mind.

                      1. re: souphie

                        Do you feel that it will garner a third star? You are clearly a huge champion of Briffard, and you have made me awfully curious. I'm a bit sorry to deprive my friend of the pleasure of saying she ate at a three-star while in Paris (especially as she's paying), but if the food really is on a whole other level from Savoy, then it's a no-brainer. Perhaps Le Meurice would provide a similar experience with the addition of the third star factor (silly, I know), but I've been there often enough.

                        Another question: What are people's favorite bistros for a romantic dinner? That is to say, where the lighting is low, the environment is hushed and cozy without being stuffy, and the food of course is delicious..... Your thoughts are much appreciated.

                        1. re: Honoredb

                          On the basis of my experience strictly as a client, it''s Le Bristol over Le Meurice and Le Cinq by a wide margin. When it comes to clientele my observations yield the same result. In a word, Le Bristol is soingne.

                        2. re: souphie

                          Souphie- or anyone else: have you been to les crayeres under chef Mille? Thoughts/opinions? Considering a trip for lunch.....

                          1. re: Honoredb

                            Les Crayeres is definitely worth a trip for lunch, but why not go for the night? I understand their accommodations are truly luxe and luxurious. and then you could see a bit of the city.