The wave of adventurous cooking that swept through Paris’s neo-bistros in the last few years (Inaki Aizpitarte’s foie gras in herring broth at Le Chateaubriand, say, or Stéphane Jégo’s wild salmon with squid at L’Ami Jean) has now reached the city’s gastronomic strongholds. Today restaurants long known for their starched white linens and classic preparations are focusing on cutting-edge dishes and creative combinations. Here, the top players in Paris’s new culinary field.
Yannick Alléno: Le Meurice
Why He Matters Now: Locavore Alléno has become the chicest proponent of urban farming in France. His campaign to resuscitate Parisian culinary traditions has seen him reinvent the most beloved of dishes, as well as rediscover locally grown ingredients such as asparagus from Argenteuil and peaches from Montreuil. On any given day at Le Meurice’s fine-dining restaurant, Alléno’s prix-fixe Terroir Parisien lunch ($105), one of the best high-end deals in town, mixes the tongue-in-cheek (boudins noirs made of cuttlefish ink-dyed lobster) with the revamped classical (French onion soup with bite-sized Comté croutons replacing the customary cheese gratin). He also oversees the hotel’s more casual Dali, which does the most see-and-be-seen lunch in Paris.
The Backstory: The son of bistro owners from Paris’s suburbs, Alléno, 42, saw a meteoric rise at Le Meurice, winning three Michelin stars: two in 2004 and another in 2007.
Signature Dish: His poulet du père Lathuile, named after the cabaret club immortalized by Manet, is roasted chicken the way it should be: crispy and moist, served diced and covered with a potato crust.
Up Next: Alléno recently opened three restaurants at the new One & Only The Palm in Dubai; now he’s busy building a cooking school in Madagascar through the charity organization Pachamama.
Degustation menu, $295. At 228 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/44-58-10-55.
Jean-François Piège: Jean-François Piège at Thoumieux
Why He Matters Now: The man Alain Ducasse once called “the most erudite of French chefs,” Piège always promised he would open a small gastronomique restaurant that would break all the rules. And now he has, with an intimate 20-seater located above the brasserie Thoumieux (which he also oversees). The India Mahdavi–designed space, fashioned like a private apartment or an intimate supper club, is unique in Paris. It feels exclusive and sexy, with a narrow staircase, a plush aqua-colored carpet and retro lighting. The menu, such as it is, comprises the most intriguing and novel feature here. Almost entirely flexible, it consists of a list of five or six ingredients (langoustines, lobster, scallops, beef and poularde, say) from which guests choose one, two or three, and out of which Piège fashions a dish. Amuse-bouche and dessert are the same for everyone, but you can elect to order one, two or three entrées.
The Backstory: Piège, 40, shocked le tout gastronomie in 2009 when he left his position at the helm of the two-star Les Ambassadeurs, at Hôtel de Crillon, to take over the kitchens of Thoumieux. A mere brasserie seemed beneath someone who had spent 15 years with Ducasse and headed the three-star Plaza Athénée. Yet Piège, along with associate Thierry Costes, of the famed hotelier family, imagined a contemporary brasserie, one that charmed Parisians the minute it reopened, in September 2009: romantic and chic, as a brasserie should be, but with a casual, modern menu that featured calamari carbonara, puffed-crust pizza and churros for dessert.
Signature Dishes: A master of broth bases and texture pairings, Piège recently created a dish of delectable, nearly raw langoustines that came with shavings of cèpe mushrooms and cabbage, another of sliced scallops that finished cooking when topped with a thick watercress broth, and a final one of lobster served with chorizo and calamari diced to a risotto-like consistency.
Up Next: Only weeks after the gastronomic restaurant opened, Piège unveiled 15 small hotel rooms, also located above Thoumieux and designed by Mahdavi. Checking in for the entire experience means getting to taste the chef’s homemade preserves at breakfast.
$90 for one ingredient (plus cheese and desserts), $120 for two, $150 for three. At 79 Rue St.-Dominique; 33-1/47-05-79-00.
Daniel Rose: Spring
Why He Matters Now: The resurrection of Rose’s Spring—the chef closed a restaurant of the same name in August 2009—was the most anticipated Paris restaurant debut of last summer. Set in a 17th-century building on a narrow street in the First Arrondissement, it shows off the 33-year-old’s quietly bold cooking. His bright, inventive fare—whether the three-course meals served at the no-reservations bar in the vaulted basement, or the more formal dining in the room above—brings a rare dose of American informality to the city’s high-end dining scene. The set menu includes ingredients usually found at old-style bistros (pigeon, sweetbreads; “You shouldn’t come expecting chicken,” Rose says) but prepared here with a light, even irreverent, touch.
The Backstory: After a year at Institut Paul Bocuse, in Lyon, and apprenticeships with Jean-Luc L’Hourre in Brittany and Yannick Alléno at Le Meurice, among others, Chicago native Rose opened Spring’s first iteration in the Montmartre foothills in 2006. With only a single market-fresh tasting menu and two communal tables, the stamp-sized venture became the hardest-to-book reservation in town. Three years on, Rose shuttered it to move near Les Halles, opening a fine wine and food boutique before the August 2010 debut of Spring’s second coming.
Signature Dishes: Rose is nothing if not spontaneous: His menus change daily, and he doesn’t decide what to cook on any given evening until he sees what’s at the market. Still, certain dishes speak to his style. Recent favorites include a dorade sashimi amuse-bouche wrapped in rustic burnt leek, and pigeon cooked to exquisite tenderness and jazzed up with a side of foie gras with grated lime.
Up Next: For those who miss the old Spring, Rose plans to reprise the communal table experience downstairs in the bar with a series of group dinners that feature set menus and wines. He’ll focus on certain themes, like hunted game, fish and vegetables.
Prix-fixe dinner upstairs and downstairs, $85. At 6 Rue Bailleul; 33-1/45-96-05-72.
Christophe Saintagne: Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée
Why He Matters Now: Saintagne, whom Ducasse appointed in September to run Plaza Athénée’s coveted three-star kitchen, is overseeing a complete back-to-basics revolution. Protocol has been stripped to a minimum (less cutlery, less china), and the menu reads like a cafeteria listing: “Duckling, turnips”; “Sweetbreads, carrots.” Despite the grand palace surroundings, the atmosphere feels relaxed and whimsical: The bacon, thinly sliced fish and country bread amuse-bouche comes wrapped in pink butcher’s paper; the sautéed shrimp come in the pan (the better to dip the bread in the garlicky oil, we suppose). Saintagne’s cooking is ingredient-focused, with very little flourish and minimal intervention. His dish labeled “Lobster, sea potatoes,” for example, is a casserole of those two ingredients stewed in a simple but powerful sauce; and the turbot with Swiss chard is merely steamed over an aromatic bed of seaweed.
The Backstory: As a child, the low-key, unassuming Saintagne preferred cooking with his mother to eating in restaurants. Today the 33-year-old remains relatively free with etiquette: “I have no taboos. I think nothing of serving poultry in the cooking dish.” However, he did train at a number of exclusive locales, the kitchens of the Elysée Palace included, before spending ten years with Ducasse, most recently as chef at Aux Lyonnais. Along the way Saintagne collaborated with the great chef on his tome Nature, Simple Sain et Bon, which could be Saintagne’s motto.
Signature Dish: The humble vegetable and fruit appetizer epitomizes Saintagne’s approach: Each slice of apple, pear, carrot and radish—slow-cooked and served in a buttery sauce infused with tangy cider—tastes like its purest essence.
Up Next: This spring Saintagne plans to offer off-the-menu specials made with particularly exceptional seasonal ingredients. Guests should ask for them when booking.
Degustation prix-fixe lunch and dinner, $480 each. At 25 Av. Montaigne; 33-1/53-67-65-00.
Arnaud Daguin: Café Salle Pleyel
Why He Matters Now: Ever the iconoclast, Daguin began a temporary stint in September at Café Salle Pleyel, the second-floor power-lunch spot above the Salle Pleyel concert hall. He’ll be there as guest chef until July, and by sourcing ingredients from his reliable network of organic farmers, he’s managing to maintain his Michelin-starred standards even in this decidedly non-gastro locale. Daguin’s Basque-inflected menu, a delightful introduction to his craft and sense of humor, changes seasonally and features vegetarian dishes (cooked and raw mushroom salad, squash gratin), playful entrées (duck burger that’s actually slices of duck, foie gras and round celery atop one another), and desserts with a childlike bent (chocolat au chocolat, chocolate disks with cocoa unsweetened whipped cream; and casse-museaux, tiny choux à la creme glazed in Armagnac caramel and served in a vanilla soy milkshake).
The Backstory: The son of famed Hôtel de France two-star chef André Daguin and the brother of Ariane, founder of the U.S.-based gourmet retailer D’Artagnan, the 52-year-old Daguin operates France’s only Michelin-starred chambre d’hôte, a sort of B&B and diner. An original in the rarefied world of French food, he studied philosophy and taught preschool before joining his father at Hôtel de France (André left there in 1996). Later he launched his own place in Biarritz, but Daguin tired of the manic restaurant pace and so, with his wife, Véronique, he opened Hégia, a five-room inn on a restored 17th-century farm in Basque Country. There Daguin developed his trademark environmentally conscious cuisine: organic, sustainable ingredients cooked long and slow, with little seasoning.
Signature Dish: A cold-day favorite, his foie gras brandade at Café Salle Pleyel unexpectedly—but winningly—pairs the taste of sweet-buttery duck liver with the brandade’s smoky cod flavor.
Up Next: Come May, Daguin will be in charge of another, decidedly different lunch spot: a café in the industrial wasteland of Ile Seguin, where Jean Nouvel is set to build a tower. Expect radical vegetarian bentos.
Dinner on concert evenings for concertgoers start at $65. At 252 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré; 33-1/53-75-28-44.