Lazare being the hottest new restaurant in town, I had to reserve three weeks in advance to get a table, but I finally sat down to eat there with two visiting friends from San Francisco on Sunday evening, expecting a prime experience. And we did have one, although there were several hiccups along the way.
But first, some background. Chef Éric Frechon first became known some 20 years ago for a small, unassuming restaurant in an anonymous neighborhood on the edge of Paris that served sublime meals for incredibly reasonable prices. He was soon snapped up by the restaurant of the Hôtel Bristol and became a celebrity three-star chef.
When he opened Lazare, a chic brasserie in the Saint Lazare train station’s shiny new shopping mall in September, it immediately received rave reviews. The decor is extremely attractive, with a copper bar, round white tables with black chairs, gray sofas along one wall, black-and-white tiled floor, wooden shelving stacked with white porcelain, big industrial windows and large blackboards listing the restaurant’s features (all “on time”) to remind us that we are in a train station.
The first hiccup came when I called to change the number of people at our table. The charming young woman on the phone asked if it would be all right to seat us in the “petit salon” (I should have been wary when she felt she had to ask permission) and promised that two of us would be seated on a banquette and that we would be able to see the whole restaurant. That turned out to be untrue. We sat on stools at a high, shared table (not my favorite type of accommodation but unavoidable in new restaurants these days) in a separate room with some views of the main dining room, but not from where we were sitting. Jay and Bobbie seemed happy there, however, so I didn’t say anything.
Glitch no. 2: when a sweet young waiter arrived with our bottle of 2010 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine from the Domaine de la Haute Févrie, he asked if we minded that it wasn’t chilled. Yes, we minded! Who wants to drink white wine at room temperature? He explained that one of their refrigerators had broken down and, at my insistence, brought an ice bucket. He then stood there for a good 10 minutes twisting the bottle in the bucket and chatting with us about the menu. This was rather touching. We thought we had been assigned our own personal waiter, but this special attention disappeared as the evening wore on and the restaurant got busier.
The food was mostly delightful, though perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. Bobbie’s green-bean-and-artichoke salad with hazelnut-oil vinaigrette was a symphony in textures and flavors, including toasted pine nuts and other unidentified crunchy bits.
Jay enjoyed his classic escargots with parsley butter, jazzed up with a tomato sauce and topped with a few toasted pine nuts of its own.
I was very happy with my deep-fried shrimp in a tasty batter, accompanied by a slightly spicy homemade ketchup.
For the main course, Bobbie and I both ordered the slow-cooked lamb, which came with bulgur cooked with preserved lemon and olives. It was very tasty, but I found the accompaniment a bit greasy and over-spiced and the meat a tad overcooked.
Jay was very pleased with his cod, cooked to a turn, with sauce vierge and served with a salad of wilted New Zealand spinach.
The desserts helped make up for my slight reservations about my main course. Jay had a lovely apple tart with amazingly good vanilla ice cream, and Bobbie was thrilled with the “Paris-Deauville,” a soufflé-like cheesecake (or cheesecake-like soufflé?).
My delicious “aumonière” consisted of tender cooked apples in caramel sauce wrapped up in a crêpe package tied with a vanilla bean.
One of the other little dampers on the evening was the occasional odor of cleaning products wafting out of the open kitchen next to us, very unappealing while you are eating. Another was the construction-site paraphernalia outside the full-length window next to us, but that will presumably disappear when the seemingly unending renovation of the Gare Saint Lazare is finally completed.
I expect that most of the little problems we encountered that evening could be explained by the fact that this new restaurant is still working out the kinks and that we were eating there on a Sunday evening, probably the usual chef’s night off.
The staff was unfailingly pleasant, and, even though it is a bit pricey, I will certainly return to Lazare.
Note: Lazare has been named one of Paris’s 15 Best Restaurants of 2013 by FigaroScope.