While fusion cooking has become standard in the United States, it's still nouvelle in France. And, of course, the French are taking their own liberties with the idea. Since the opening of Alain Ducasse's Spoon in 1998, the trend has been to present classic French food in a Japanese fashion: lots of square plates artfully punctuated with slashes of sauce and flavor-spiked oils. But lately it seems the whole United Nations of cuisine has joined in. At The Kitchen, a new restaurant in the up-and-coming 2nd arrondissement, cheesecake is made with fromage blanc and a "crumble" is simply stuffing in a glass. (Speaking of which, there's a place called Thanksgiving in the Marais. It's Cajun.) And locals are mad for Le Chamarré in the 7th, which serves elaborate French dishes that are tinged with the flavors of the island of Mauritius, where Indian, French, Chinese, and African cultures meet. Chicken with vanilla, leeks, dried apricots, and a pineapple Tatin? Pourquoi pas?
Have a Parisian friend (or your concierge) reserve lunch weeks in advance, as last-minute French-bunglers are told the 28 seats are "com-pleete-ly boooked," even if it's not the case. Then clear your schedule for the afternoon. You'll want time to explore the three-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant's ménu surprise, which delivers on its promise. The mood is proper but set with a wink: tall gilt mirrors reflect the unorthodox flower arrangements—shot glasses holding a few exotic miniatures—and the wine list is accompanied by an antique chart of vinotherapeutic cures. (Dépression nerveuse benefits from four glasses of Médoc. But what doesn't?) Thirty-year-old chef Pascal Barbot worked in Australia and at Arpège, so he's at ease flexing flavors, spicing pigeon with cocoa and paprika or mussels with curry and green papaya. Scallops make a pretty Miró on the (square) plate, accompanied by a circle of watercress coulis and a comma of gingered pear purée. Heartbreakingly tender lamb is offset by a miso-lacquered cube of eggplant and the crunch of humble peanuts. Even the sherbet goes to your head, with the lemongrass base ceding to pepper dynamite. The meal ends, finally, on a more traditional note: madeleines on a lace doily. On a round plate. These honey-soaked cakes are, like Astrance, a new version of a classic. Afterward, walk a few blocks to the Balzac museum to see what happens when you spend all your money on lavish meals. Lunch, $110. At 4 Rue Beethoven; 33-1-40-50-84-40.
This restaurant offers one of the city's most impressive meals. Chef Hajime Nakagawa's frequent-flier status is immediately evident in the ten-table room on the Ile-St. Louis: One half is rustic French, the other is Vongerichten French (dark-wood-and-leather minimalism). The elaborate yet spare amuse—a demitasse of cucumber gazpacho layered with escargots and foam, a translucent slice of leek in Champagne gelée and a swag of black truffle purée—is 100 percent haute cuisine (and Michelin starred at that). But the presentation and extra degree of acidity in the leeks are Japanese in origin. In fact, Tokyo decadence is abundant, from the Champagne (we chose Salon, part of an encyclopedic wine list) to the star appetizer, a hundred-euro mi-cuit lobster for two. It encompasses a breathtaking range of flavors, starting with a briny coral reduction and ending in a hidden center of cream studded with candied hazelnuts and fleur de sel. After this dish, Notre Dame seems dull. Traditional entrées exhibit similar artistry and depth, albeit with a completely fresh look. In stark contrast to the French chefs who've picked up a few tricks on trips to Bangkok and Tokyo, French-trained Nakagawa brings his mastery of both cuisines to the table with harmony and grace. Dinner, $345. At 7 Quai de Bourbon; 33-1-56-81-08-80; www.hiramatsu.co.jp.
L'ATELIER DE JOEL ROBUCHON
Robuchon stunned the food world in 1996 when "the chef of the century" doffed his toque. Just as unexpectedly (but with plenty of fanfare), he announced his plans to open a playful new laboratory next to the Hôtel Pont Royal. From its seating (37 lipstick-red stools set around a sushi bar meets Benihana kitchen) to its friendly waitstaff dressed in New York black, nothing in this year-old restaurant is typiquement français—except the food. For every square plate and shrimp with vermicelli, there are four regional dishes, such as rabbit terrine with flowering thyme. After waiting the usual hour and a half in the hotel bar, diners are determined to either love or dismiss this experiment. A truffled langoustine ravioli, chosen from the section of 22 "tasting portions," is either endearingly clever or nothing more than a $30 dumpling. A bowl of spaghetti carbonara or a perfectly cooked turbot steak served with a pyramid of warm potato salad is either delightfully straightforward or no big deal. The fact that 11 kinds of water are on offer could be the last straw. (What is fun is the list of wines by the glass, which allows you to try a '97 Château Latour for $70.) The thing that's undeniably great about L'Atelier is that it knocks the stuffing out of Paris dining. Sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers leads to unlikely alliances and vocabulary lessons, such as with the chic couple we befriended upon overhearing the man declare his glass of moscato "comme un petit Jesus en culottes de velours." He sent us a glass and we agreed: It was like a little Jesus in velvet underwear! Dinner, $245. At 5 Rue Montalembert; 33-1-42-22-56-56.
ZE KITCHEN GALERIE
Well-heeled Parisians, lured by reviews praising the innovative fusion cuisine, still fill the waiting area two years after William Ledeuil launched his open kitchen. Americans may find the fuss endearing: We've been eating this food for almost a decade, and the room—with its exposed air ducts and colorful tiles on rough concrete—is Marriott chic. The culinary grafting here primarily adds Thai seasonings to French dishes, served with tricky-silverware flair. Two espresso cups, one with cream of cauliflower soup, the other broccoli, are both capped with lemongrass oil and ginger foam—a trend you might have gone to Paris to escape. The dish's eastbound journey appears to make a stop in Holland; there it picks up a side of what seems a lot like croquettes (somewhere between Tater Tots and pork rinds, despite being made from cod and sweet potatoes), and touches down in Japan with an enoki mushroom-topped toast. The galangal-and-horseradish-marinated squid, cooked on a Japanese grill, is accompanied by a very '80s basmati-seaweed pilaf. If you want to feel superior to ze French after a day of condescension, make a reservation and sharpen your chopsticks. Dinner, $110. At 4 Rue des Grands Augustins; 33-1-44-32-00-32.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity.
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