Letter from Paris: Lasserre
By Alexander Lobrano
It’s a continuing challenge for me to cover the top of the Paris food chain for obvious economic reasons, so I was thrilled when a very old friend–we went to Kindergarten together in Greens Farms, Connecticut, called to say that she and her three white miniature poodles were coming to Paris from the well-known Mediterranean seaside enclave for the tax-fleeing rich where she’s currently shacked up, and could she invite me to lunch at Lasserre? I could write volumes on the life of this brilliant and elegant woman, but suffice it to say that this Anglo-Norwegian (Mom from Bath, Dad from Stavanger) American who married her 76 year old God-father when she was 35 is someone who’d make major good fodder for a novel. Since we were kids together, I’ll restrain myself, but suffice it say that when my mother, two brothers, sister and I went to her very grand wedding a longtime ago, my brothers couldn’t stop themselves–“You just watch,” said my younger brother, “She’ll claw his clothes off the moment the vows are done.” “That’s enough of that,” said Mom, with a complicit chuckle.
Well the old fellow hung on for another twenty years, during which time I occasionally visited their town house in a major European city to enjoy one of the most extraordinary private art collections in Europe–Durer drawings, a Degas or two, a Bonnard, a Renoir, and more–after making a fortune by inventing a small but essential industrial valve, this concentration camp survivor, a really lovely and tremendously cultivated man, rightly knew how to live large.
In fact I knew that he’d probably be grudgingly glad know that his widow had invited me to lunch at this legendary Paris restaurant–remarkably astute, unfailingly shrewd, but also vastly generous, he loved to offer empty-pocket types like myself pleasure at the table but was wildly jealous when his wife was in the company of another man, even a perfectly harmless childhood friend. So I showed up on a frosty January day desperately hoping that the dogs would have been left behind at Madame’s hotel. And, Yes! No dogs, which was great not because I don’t like dogs, but because the tending to this trio would have ultimately become more important than the tending to us during lunch.
Everytime I go to Lasserre, it’s a special occasion, since this two-story town-house restaurant in the 8th arrondissment still breathes the glamorous Paris that seduced me as an elegance-starved child in suburban Connecticut. Arriving, a livried door-man hops to it, and then a kindly older lady makes off with your coat and hands you a chit before you’re ushered into the lift to go to the upstairs dining room.
On my way over, I wondered how things might have changed since Christophe Moret, most recently chef at Restaurant Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee, had taked over from Jean-Louis Nomicos, the last chef and also a Ducasse alum. To my relief, making a dash to the men’s before going upstairs, the double-basin pistachio-colored lavabo in the WC, a weird Gallic design on par with certain vintage Citroens, had not been carted way–in my experience, restaurants, shops and hotels invariably decided to remodel just at the moment when their ‘old-fashioned’ decors have achieved a perfect vintage charm. Upstairs, though, an effort had been made to make this special dining room less Auntie Mame–most of the walls–formerly upholstered, have been repainted in a pleasant cocoa brown. Otherwise, though, nothing had changed, thank goodness–there were pots of white orchids around the room as always, and the swell and very serious brigade of professional middle-aged waiters in fitted black jackets was still in attendance.
In a world gone “GAP,” Lasserre still delivers an exquisite, classical unself-consciously French experience of gourmet dining. But wait–why does this matter? Who cares about traditional French haute cuisine? Anyone who really loves good food. Why? Because rather out of fashion though it may be, this ancestral battery of culinary skills is still capable of rendering a swooning lushness and a dose of weak-knee-inducing pleasure that no other kitchen can.
Proof? After a contentious but caring conversation with Madame–how the hell has it happened that such a brilliant woman’s only pulse-raising interest is in paying the smallest amount of taxes possible, Jeesh, we implicitly truced over an identical starter of langoustines in a ginger-lime spiked seafood boullion, and God were they good–four little perfectly poached sea critters nestled in a ruddy vaguely Asian-nodding broth of deeply reduced but very refined shellfish stock.
Next, tender but firm slices of sea bass with with a brilliantly extravagant garnish of black truffles shaved at the table, and so good that I knew that Moret was really galloping after breaking free of the Ducasse stable. And so it went at this lunch, with venison filets cooked perfectly rare with pepper and juniper berries, and finally a sublime “Croustillant aux pommes facon tati, glace vanille,” or Tarte tatin style apple in pastry with homemade vanilla ice cream: exquisite.
So in response to the many people who ask me where it’s worth going in Paris for a grand-slam full-flight high-altitude French meal, I’d have to say that Lasserre hits it out of the park, and bravo Christophe Moret and pastry chef Claire Heitzler.
Lasserre, 17 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, 8th, Tel. 01-43-59-02-13. Metro: Champs-Elysees-Clemenceau. Closed Sunday and Saturday lunch. Lunch menu 75 Euros, Tasting menu 185 Euros, Average a la carte 220 Euros.
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. 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)