“Ultimately the stars are found in the plate,” says Jean-Luc Naret, director of the fearsome Gallic gastronomic sphinx known as the Michelin guides. “We value fine service and an elegant setting, of course, but the most important element in winning a three-star rating is the food.” And what, then, of the critics who insist that the Michelin formula places too much emphasis on a dated and overly traditional idea of luxury—expensive tableware, fresh flowers, strict formality? By way of response, Naret points to L’Astrance, 37-year-old chef Pascal Barbot’s Paris restaurant, which won its third star in 2007. “At L’Astrance the setting is modest,” says Naret. “But the food is extraordinary and the service modern—polished yet convivial.”
Style of service, however, is just one of the myriad differences one finds among the ten three-star restaurants in the city—the most significant of which is their, shall we say, rather vast variability in quality. The possibility of spending $500 on a thoroughly middling meal being just too awful to contemplate, one must navigate Paris’s three-stars carefully, locating the places that are actually worth the price of admission.
One such is Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée (dinner, $500; 25 Av. Montaigne; 33-1/53-67-65-00; plaza-athenee-paris.com). The expertly curated experience begins at the door, with a greeting from Paris’s best manager, Denis Courtiade, who runs the elegant dining room with surgical, sociological, and psychological precision—service is custom-tailored to every table. Recipe for a perfect meal: langoustines with caviar; Bresse chicken (a rich, flavorful breed from the Rhône-Alpes region) with chanterelles; and one of the most sophisticated desserts in the world: fresh ewe’s-milk cheese with a caramel parfait and bitter-honey ice cream.
L’Astrance (seven-course tasting menu, $270; 4 Rue Beethoven; 33-1/40-50-84-40), meanwhile, as relaxed and fun as Michelin’s Naret suggested, is ideal for demanding gourmets who don’t want as much pomp and circumstance. Maître d’ Christophe Rohat is a charmer, and chef Barbot has become the star of France’s culinary avant-garde, serving subtle dishes like “ravioli” formed by two slices of avocado with crab between them and drizzled with almond oil. And at Pierre Gagnaire (6 Rue Balzac; 33-1/58-36-12-50), the namesake chef displays the most poetic and perfervid imagination of any French chef, with creations like a sweet-pepper gelée with lemon, tuna confit, and foie gras.
Le Bristol (dinner, $290; 112 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré; 33-1/53-43-43-40; hotel-bristol.com), the restaurant in the hotel of the same name, moves between two elegant seasonal settings—in winter, an oval dining room with Hungarian oak paneling and crystal chandeliers; in summer, a glass-walled space opening onto the hotel’s courtyard garden. In each, chef Eric Frechon demonstrates his ability to be both earthy and ethereal, offering dishes such as a cannelloni-like macaroni stuffed with black truffles, artichokes, and duck foie gras, topped with aged Parmesan.
Finally, the restaurant at Le Meurice (dinner, $350; 228 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/44-58-10-55; lemeurice.com) has the most magnificent ambiance of any three-star: a mosaic-floor dining room designed by Philippe Starck with crystal chandeliers and silver armchairs, all overlooking the Tuileries Garden. Chef Yannick Alléno melds tradition and innovation with plates like Bresse chicken in four preparations: broth-steamed spring leeks topped with sabayon; neck stuffed with delicate organ meats, chanterelles, and fresh herbs; boiled leg with rice cream; and breaded breast served with potatoes, asparagus, and sautéed chanterelles.
How to Cook Like a Three-Star Chef
Gastronomy belongs to everyone,” says Alain Ducasse, speaking about his new culinary academy, Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse, which opened in May in the tony 16th Arrondissement. “So the idea of this school”—his first for nonprofessionals—“is to apply what I’ve learned to the needs and interests of passionate individual cooks.” An international culinary entrepreneur overseeing more than 20 restaurants, Ducasse commissioned interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon to convert a sprawling former corporate cafeteria into four perfectly equipped kitchens, with Miele appliances, large central islands, lots of counter space, and induction-heat cooking surfaces (which Ducasse swears are better than gas). The school also has a courtyard, a wine-tasting cellar, a media room, and a boutique where students can purchase the cooking utensils they used in class. Ducasse brought on Romain Corbière, who cooked at his Le Relais du Parc in Paris and Louis XV in Monaco, to head the team of teaching chefs. “The goal in every course,” Corbière explains, “is for students to master several techniques—filleting a whole fish, for example—and to learn several recipes and astuces [tricks and tips].” All classes can be taken at a beginner or advanced level and for a half or a full day, or just an evening. Thus far, the most popular is Haute Cuisine Méditerranéenne, the elegant and highly personal take on Mediterranean cooking that won Ducasse his reputation—not to mention his 18 Michelin stars.
Classes are taught in French, but translators and English-only courses are available upon request. Half day, $230; full day, $390. At 64 Rue du Ranelagh; 33-1/44-90-91-00; ecolecuisine-alainducasse.com.