Palatial Treat for The Palate
|A happy buzz under seahorse-shaped mini-chandeliers. Photo: Paris Update.|
Be prepared to make a grand entrance when you arrive at the Mini Palais, chef-à-la-mode Gilles Choukroun’s newish restaurant in Paris’s Grand Palais. You first have to cross what seems like an endless vestibule to reach a diminutive reception desk. By the time you get to the smiling hostess, she has had time to case you out. And then into a big barn of a dining room, with massive contemporary light fixtures, color-changing light rings over the bar and a couple of dozen seahorse-shaped mini-chandeliers dangling from the ceiling at one end. A lot of thought and money has apparently gone into the decor.
The Mini Palais is Grand, built to a massive scale that dwarfs diners with a 25-foot ceiling of cast-iron beams. The Mini Palais, a tiny part of the recently restored Grand Palais, seats 140.
My first impression was literally black – almost everything is black, from the ceiling to the uniforms of the teeming staff and the outfits of the many ninja-lady diners. The lighting is mostly dim, although our table for three in the center of the room was spotlit – we could actually see what was in our plates, for which I am always grateful.
One wall has windows onto the great hall, which was being prepared for an event, so I was treated to the sight of dumpsters and hard-hatted workers as we wined and dined. On the street side of the restaurant is a huge balcony with another 80 seats, recently voted the best terrace in Paris. It looks very attractive – cozy, even – and just the ticket for a leisurely snack at any time of the day.
The big innovation at the Mini Palais, which should make the owners of the dreadful pit-stop lunch place across the road in the Petit Palais sit up and think, is that it’s open from early till late, so you can pop in any time between breakfast and a nightcap for a sit-down in supremely civilized surroundings.
I was no sooner seated than I was offered a drink and given a tasty amuse-bouche of creamy chopped smoked salmon with tiny snippings of dill and toast for spreading.
I skipped over the “mini-créas” (presumably snack-sized starters) on the menu and ordered a fresh goat’s cheese “ravioli” with herbs and an innocent-looking emulsion (not one of the trendy foamy ones; it was more like a sauce) of anchovies and lemon; a triumph of the saucier’s art, it was packed with knowing flavors.
One of my dining companions had the “crispy prawns,” which were wound around with crunchy golden strings of olive-oil-flavored extruded mashed potato – another toothsome treat. The most surprising find was the laconically described “lettuce hearts, olive oil and Parmesan.” It would have been a pity to miss out on this artful construction. The hearts had been sliced in two, with the flat side dunked in lightly roasted sesame seeds and dribbled with soy sauce mixed with a mystery ingredient none of us could identify. The generous slices of mellow Parmesan provided added bite.
My main course, filet de bar snacké (whatever that means – perhaps a reference to the modest size of the portion?) came with caramelized endives and a pear/café jus. Choukroun has a likable way of letting vegetables be themselves. On his Web site, he says, “I expose the ordinary to the modern,” and that holds true for his treatment of the humble endive. Cookbooks are full of methods for leeching the bitterness out of endives, but Choukroun takes the bitterness out of it, then puts it back again with a bitter caramel heightened by the concentrated dash of coffee. The combination was extremely satisfying.
One of my dining companions ordered a deceptively simple risotto with crab meat, preserved lemon and cumin. I suspect that the long wait we had between starter and main course was because the risotto was made on the spot. The delicate citrus took the edge off the rich creaminess and had my neurons crying for more.
Then came another example of Choukroun’s philosophy of confronting ordinariness with modernity: a piece of roast beef fillet served with a glazed cooked carrot, fine strands of crunchy raw carrot and a seasoning of orange and “Zan,” a licorice candy originally made in Uzès in the South of France (it’s been around since 1874). There’s modernity for you! It worked superbly with the tender, well-seared piece of beef.
The desserts were masterly. A deconstructed peach melba came in three little cups, one with peach juice, one with chopped peach with pepper and mint (pow!) and one with Chantilly cream mixed with crunchy bits. The warm Manjari chocolate ganache was topped with coconut-flavored foam and licorice ice cream, and the rich coffee tart came with a crust of crushed nougatine.
This meal in a space with a happy buzz was so good that I am prepared to forgive the background music, which was intrusive only at the beginning and end of the meal. I can also almost forgive the fact that the chef proposes a “children’s menu” with that healthful combination of burger, fries, ice cream and soft drink! I wish Gilles Choukroun every success with this venture, but I hope his children’s menu fails. Who takes their children to a posh eatery for a burger and fries?
Update: Last week I revisited Les Zingots, reviewed here last year. One gets the feeling that it is not long for this world. Go there soon for the fries: big, hand-cut, the color of burnished copper on the outside yet melting to a fault within. I’ve never eaten better. The meat is excellently sourced too, and the wine list is a treat. Be quick.
Mini Palais au Grand Palais: Perron Alexandre III, Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Métro: Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau. Nearest Vélib’ station: Corner of Avenue Dutuit. Tel: 01 42 56 42 42. Open daily, 8:30 a.m.-1 a.m. A la carte: €60-€70. Lunch special (Monday-Friday): plat du jour, glass of wine and coffee: €20.
© 2007 Paris Update
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