As a child of suburbia, I love cities with a passion that goes back to my earliest memories of trips into New York City from our safe and pretty but hopelessly dull nest in suburban Connecticut. I was hugely envious of cousins who were growing up in Manhattan, and once, on the way back to the woods from a Sunday visit to them in the big metropolis, I infuriated my father by suggesting that they were really the lucky ones to live in New York.
“New York is a terrible place to raise children,” he said as an edict, and I squirmed in the back seat and asked him why if this was true my aunt and uncle had decided to bring up my cousins there. “The city is dirty, crowded, unsafe and noisy, and it’s filled with all sorts of strange people,” he said, which suddenly crystalized all of the reasons I loved it so much. Then he added, “You’re too young to understand why it’s so awful anyway.” I don’t remember what I said next, but I really got his goat. “That’s enough of that, young man! The subject is closed. New York is filled with oddballs and perverts.” Well, that did it. I made up my eight-year-old mind on the spot to move there as soon as I possibly could, which I did immediately after graduating from college in even more woesomely bucolic and wholesome Amherst, Massachusetts. And through stints in New York, London, and Paris, with long spells in Prague, Rome, Boston and other cities, I’ve never looked back on my urban ardor.
Instead, I’ve become a permanent student of cities, observing them, trying to understand and decipher them, and delighting in their differences. It’s so innate to me that I rarely even notice it anymore, but the other night when I went to meet a friend for dinner at Monsieur Bleu, the stunningly beautiful new restaurant in the Palais de Tokyo, I found myself meditating on exactly why this restaurant is suddenly so exciting to Parisians this Spring while I waited for my friend to show up, and I didn’t have to think very long. As surely as they require supplies of clean water and electricity, along with police forces, street cleaners, and green spaces, all great cities need a regularly renewed wick of glamour to sustain their own myths. And during a difficult spring in Paris, what with the wretched weather, the limping economy, the strident public argument over gay marriage, and the woeful state of French politics, this restaurant comes along as a big votive candle placed on the altar of Parisian elegance, Parisian chic.
With a truly brilliant design by architect Joseph Dirand, this is not only the most beautiful restaurant to have opened in Paris for a very longtime, but the first one in ages that appeals to all of the different tribes of style-setters who make Paris Paris. To wit, you’ll see beautifully groomed as almost only French women can be middle-aged press attaches having dinner with their luxury-brand manager husbands, bien sur, but you’ll also see scruffy social media czars who usually hang out in the 10th arrondissement, hen parties from Neuilly with an alphabet of head-spinningly expensive designer hand bags, film-makers, architects, well, a whole panoply of creative Parisians who are sort of surprised but mostly delighted to be finding themselves in the same room.
As someone who is still surprised that he was once regularly let in to Studio 54 in New York City (I mean, come on, I must been the only person on the dance floor in penny loafers–we’re talking dork with a big D), it’s amazing how often restaurant and club owners forget that the best way to light up the night is with go-for-broke off-the-wall social casting. To wit, there’s nothing duller than eating a meal in a room full of people who are just like you, so for the fashionable restaurant Monsieur Bleu aspires to become–it’s white-hot now, but will this last?–someone with a genuis-level understanding of Parisian sociology has to become the master mixologist.
For now at least, it’s that trendy new place in Paris people very often ask me to recommend. Or a restaurant which is every bit as much about design, atmosphere and people-watching as it about the food, which is just fine, if rather expensive. Young chef Benjamin Masson, a shrewd and solid Breton, came from Petrus, the luxury brasserie in the 17th, and so had ample experience in terms of cooking for a crowd like this one. The menu’s sort of fascinating, too, since it’s such a singular snap shot of what Parisians like to eat right now, in 2013, when they let their hair down.
They’re a few predictable surprises, like the box of modish American comfort foods–bacon cheeseburger, fried chicken sandwich, lobster roll (written in English), and a feint or four at the continuing popularity of westernized Asian dishes (turbot in a teriyaki jus) and Italian cooking in Paris. But what I liked best is the good Gallic grub–a Parmentier of Ospital boudin noir, steak tartare, frogs’ legs with garlic and parsley, and a sublime calf’s liver with a sauce of pan juices elongated with a bit of pomegranate juice (gotta get those anti-oxidants into the act somewhere).
Sorry, I didn’t do any photos of the food. My iPhone was almost out of juice that night, and beyond that, the lighting in this restaurant is so golden-glow perfect that my fumble-fingered attempts at photography probably wouldn’t have looked like much. Instead, I just enjoyed the charming company of my friend Karen and a simple if very pleasant meal. Oh, to be sure, I’d have liked a little more foie gras in my warm salad of baby new potatoes with a soft boiled eggg, and her dressed crab with coriander, beet roots and wasabi was timid. But my roast chicken with morels was a succulent French bird, and her calf’s liver came rare as ordered with silky potato puree. The caramel sundae with caramelized pecans hazelnuts propelled me back to being the exasperating boy I was when I irked my erroneously well-intentioned father by challenging his decision that we should live in the suburbs, and Karen kvelled over a slice of Rachel’s cheese cake.
Since I hadn’t intended to write about this meal, I had to call the press officer for pictures the next day. And when they came, I understood exactly why I’d love these rooms so much. Joseph Dirand has sure-footedly reprised the interrupted glamour of the late art deco, early art modern Palais de Toyko by making it modern, warmer and comfortable. And in doing so, he leapt over some seventy-five years or longer during which almost anything decorative in interior design or architecture was disparaged. With their Lalique (original) inserts, green marble, and brass ocean-liner lanterns, these dining rooms are a sight for sore eyes and a real balm for anyone who’s hoping that this still cutting-its-teeth new century might see a modern revival of the Gallic genuis for sensuality in interior design.
My priority when I go out after-hours is seriously good food, but this restaurant is so alluring that if the weather, or rather, when the weather changes this summer, I look forward to organizing a mid-summer’s night party with a bunch of friends on the terrace in front of the restaurant and enjoying one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (next time round, I’ll go for the tuna tartare and sea bream with artichokes, too, come to think of).
Monsieur Bleu, 20 Avenue du Président Wilson, 16th, Tel. 01-47-20-90-47. Metro: Alma-Marceau. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Average a la carte 65 Euros.www.monsieurbleu.com
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until it closed. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of Hungry for Paris (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris. (Photo by Steven Rothfeld)