July 29, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

Al Fresco Central

l’absinthe restaurant paris
The pleasant, restaurant-lined, car-free Place du Marché Saint Honoré.

In this clement weather, the quest goes on for restaurants offering car-free al fresco dining. With terraces now being the only place where patrons can smoke, however, this is one downside we will just have to graciously tolerate.

And that’s just what we did at Le Hangar, in a truly secluded dogleg right by the Pompidou Centre – so secluded that I’d never even seen it in all my years in Paris, with a fine (for Paris) public garden at the end of it. The terrace was truly pleasant (no cars at all), but the ceaseless racket of the aircon unit just over our heads and two large chain-smoking tables (cigars) just upwind of us, not to mention food that hardly did the owners credit, meant that I am unlikely to go back there, except for the garden.

Next stop, l’Absinthe, a bistro-style eatery that’s part of the mini-empire owned by Michelin-two-starred chef Michel Rostang and his daughters, located on the Place du Marché Saint Honoré, a stone’s throw from the Opéra Garnier and the Tuileries Garden. The centerpiece of the square is a handsome Ricardo Bofill glass and steel office/retail building, surrounded by restaurants offering al fresco dining.

It also seems to be a magnet for English speakers, of which there were many on the terrace when I ate there. The waiting staff gets by in English, although their nervousness at using it shows through in the speed at which they rattle it off: hard work for non-natives like the Japanese woman at the next table.

This being a Rostang outpost, the food aims high, although our considered opinion was that it fell a bit short – way short when it came to dessert. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was loath to try the endangered bluefin tuna, my scruples only being assuaged when the waiter suggested that this might have been the very last of the bluefin in the Mediterranean. It was quite as delicious as I remembered it to be – three nicely seared bits, perched rather strangely on deviled eggs with an intriguing smoky flavor. My companion had the salad of the day: a construction that involved layering orange segments, thinly-sliced fennel, radish and onions, and topping off the whole with shrimp. While very fresh, the shrimp were boiled rather than sautéed and were overpowered by the zing from below.

The main courses – veal hangar steak with roast sesame and veal kidneys with pasta – were okay, but nothing to get your juices going. The kidneys were too polite, and the pasta would have been delicious if I hadn’t had to retrieve it from a sea of very oily gravy, itself sitting under a thicket of more of the arugula that had been served with my starter. Both dishes were served with a side of nice, nutty grenaille potatoes.

From here, things went downhill fast. My dining companion and I swapped desserts half way through, and hard as this may be to believe, neither of us had the heart to finish off the other’s choice. My cherry macaroon bore not the slightest resemblance to the (admittedly) choice offerings of Hermé, Mulot, Ladurée or Dalloyau, but they were, I was assured, made in-house. It must have been an off-day for the pastry chef, who obviously hadn’t used Raymond Blanc’s unsinkable recipe for shortcrust pasty for our other dessert, a lemon meringue pie. The rock-hard pastry case was filled with an oversweet sabayon topped with only just-seared blobs of egg-white. Bland and disappointing. Hey ho.

L’Absinthe certainly doesn’t seem to be trying. Coasting along on papa’s reputation? Still, it’s a pleasant setting for outdoor dining, and the wine list has something of the father’s flair for a good bottle: our glass of ice-cold, bone-dry Quincy to start and the bottle of Pic Saint Loup Clos Marie 2005 were faultless. I would go back for the setting and ambiance, but with considerably lower expectations on the food front.

24, place du Marché Saint Honoré, 75001. Tel.: 01 49 26 90 04. Métro: Pyramides or Tuileries. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 215, rue Saint Honoré, 27 rue Thérèse. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Fixed-price menus: €31 (two courses), €39 (three courses).

Richard Hesse

© 2008 Paris Update

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