One Meal in Paris?

| Aug. 19, 2013

One Meal in Paris?

Feast at La Cuisine at Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris for delicious pre-river cruise dining

Paris is teeming with terrific restaurants, from traditional bistros and edgy eateries to Michelin-starred wonders. But with little time before a riverboat or barge cruise, it's difficult to squeeze any in. In August, the effort grows harder as countless restaurants close for annual holidays. Thank heaven for hotel restaurants; they stay open and many of Paris's top tables are in hotels.

I recently ate my way through Paris before a French Country Waterways barge cruise. My best meal was at the simply named La Cuisine (The Kitchen) at Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris.

The hotel's history is reason enough to visit. Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris is officially designated a "palace" hotel by the French government. Only a handful of hotels can claim that title, which ups their rankings above five-star (the highest possible).

Le Royal Monceau opened in 1928 near the Champs-Elysées and instantly became an artists' and intellectuals' mecca. Luminaries like Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway and Maurice Chevalier were regulars. In more current times, the celebrity guest list includes Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert de Niro. (Political junkies should note that General Eisenhower and Ho Chi Minh also graced the premises.)

The hotel eventually lost its luster and closed for two years for a "reimagining" by design visionary Philippe Starck. The late 2010 reopening simultaneously dazzled three worlds: art, hotel and dining.

Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris is equally an art gallery as it is hotel. Every furnishing - even lampshades and carpeting - is frame-worthy. (The hotel has an in-house art concierge.) When you dine here, make time to stroll public areas and shops and behold the beauty.

La Cuisine, the hotel's French restaurant, is Michelin one-star. I often prefer Michelin one-stars to higher-ranked competitors; they're less formal and les pricey. La Cuisine is elegantly casual. Some guests wear jeans and carry motorcycle helmets and no one blinks.

The décor is modern and exciting. The open kitchen takes center stage, where chef Gabriel Grapin (under the watchful eye of executive chef Laurent André) and his team of cooks are star players. The ceiling, hand-painted with a stunning fresco, drips with crystal chandeliers - but their playful style adds sparkle, not formality. Placemats, rather than fancy cloths, cover tables.

The modern French food showcases the country's best ingredients (for which France shines). Constructed with impeccable technique, dishes feature intelligently crafted, unexpected pairings. So much so, guest murmurs are audible when diners first see their plates.

John Dory with Coconut and Curry Sauce

I did just that with my John Dory, a European fish prized for its mild taste and delicate meat. The menu describes it as served with coconut and curry sauce. Surprise. The sauce is actually citrusy and so light, it's almost foam. Curry notes come from spiced tapioca pearls. Where's the coconut? In chunks and shavings about the plate. Genius, indeed.

The Michelin star-winning style extends from first bite to last. Two butters, salty and sweet, hail from a master butter-maker in Brittany. The French bread is criminal; any baguette that golden and crusty should be banned from the dinner table. It's so easy to fill up before a meal.

Roasted King Prawns and Fried Lotus

An amuse-bouche (complimentary hors d'oeuvre) of hot-from-the oven gougeres, eggy, cheesy pastries popular throughout France, are little bites of heaven. Pop one in your mouth for a near-instant melt. And you probably will never taste king prawns - here, crowned with fried lotus - as fresh as La Cuisine's.

Rump of Veal with Braised Chanterelle Mushrooms

My husband is offered a choice of stylish steak knives for his rump of veal; the server needn't have bothered. This meat could have cut with a hard stare, or maybe a butter knife.

Come cheese time (fromage is de rigueur after entrees in France), the daily selection arrives on a black artist's palette. Another nod to the hotel's and restaurant's artistry, and, to eschew the stuffiness of a rolling cart. And yes, selections are sublime.

Even if you are groaning from indulgence, you will order dessert. All are by Pierre Hermé, France's most renowned pastry chef who is adored by foodies worldwide. He became so famous because his desserts soar to heights rather unreachable by his peers.

Hermé takes a concept and then intensifies it 100-fold. Take his Tarte Infiniment Vanille, buttery pastry brushed with vanilla juice and lavished with vanilla mascarpone cream. The vanilla comes from three precious sources - Tahiti, Mexico and Madagascar - and each brings harmoniously different notes - from floral to earthy - to the dessert.

As for me, I went rhapsodic over the ice cream. (Choices are presented on a whimsical paper wheel.) My dish had scoops of both chocolate and salted caramel ice cream. Pierced by dark chocolate shards, the ice cream was as light and fluffy as marshmallows. I sat there marveling; first at my dessert's unbelievable texture, then La Cuisine in general, the ravishing hotel, and finally, our trip to Paris. And isn't that what great dining/travel adventures are all about? (

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