January 12, 2010By Richard HesseArchive
prunier restaurant, paris

Prunier’s Art Deco dining room with black marble walls was designed by architect Louis Hippolyte Boileau and artist Léon Carrière.

Casting around for words to describe the Prunier experience, I came up with “regal,” aristocratic” and “breeding,” in that order. That experience started with the woman who greeted me at the door and took my coat as she chatted about the cold weather and how important it was to keep warm – she herself hadn’t yet removed her muffler, etc., etc. It was textbook meeting and greeting – the Queen of England couldn’t have been more gracious to one of her subjects – and set me up beautifully for an evening of fine food in gorgeous Art Deco surroundings.

Prunier has history. It fairly oozes from the black marble walls, inlaid with gold tesserae in a range of geometric shapes. It was a quiet evening, with scarcely a dozen diners, and before we left, we wandered upstairs to see the smaller private dining rooms, also beautifully decorated, and tried out the restrooms. In the passage leading to them, we discovered a set of Mathurin Meheut lithographs on the wall, with scenes of his native Brittany. Our meeter and greeter told us that the artist had had a lot to do with the restaurant’s decor, confirming my suspicions that the tableware was made by Henriot in Quimper after Meheut’s designs.

An introductory glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough country in New Zealand was swiftly followed up by an amuse-bouche of Prunier’s signature Balik Sjomga smoked salmon in two versions: nori (lightly marinated in wasabi and wrapped in seaweed) and orange (marinated in ginger, honey and orange), reminding me of the old Tom Lehrer line about giving the kids free samples (of drugs, in the song), “because today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele.” I’m hooked. How one can go back to bog-standard salmon after that, I don’t know.

Then we had a couple of sea urchins apiece, as a second amuse-bouche and because we were urchin virgins. With a grownup flavor, unlike anything ever tasted before, they seemed almost fermented and were very, very rich – comparable to the protein shock of eating maatjes herrings in the street market in Utrecht.

I had ordered Prunier’s classic smoked salmon for my starter (not knowing that the Balik was to be set before me) and my companion a lobster salad that came with pesto and a red pepper sauce, decorated with giant basil leaves. The salmon was superb, melt-in-the mouth, delicate. The lobster too was delicate, with a perfect consistency and prettily presented. This may not be molecular cuisine, but they sure know their stuff.

My companion’s line-caught sea bass was a tad overcooked but tasted of the sea. I had a creamy stew of scallops and other tidbits in a Dieppoise casserole, served with mashed parsnips, which the waiter described as a curiosity. While parsnips are largely unknown in France, they are more common now they were than a decade ago, thanks to the current rage for heirloom vegetables. But our waiter couldn’t have known that I had eaten quite a few roasted parsnips with my Christmas goose. Prunier’s version was too sophisticated for its own good, though. I would rather have had something with a less refined texture; parsnips are a root vegetable, and their earthy taste and texture shouldn’t be disguised by over-whipping.

My companion’s dessert was a glass of delicious raspberries (carbon footprint alert!) with real Chantilly cream, which triggered a lengthy discussion about the difficulty of whipping cream in France. My girlfriend Katherine almost walked out on me the day she discovered that France doesn’t do single and double cream like the Brits do, and she grumbles long and loud whenever she makes Eton Mess or Pavlova, making do with supermarket crème fleurette. Still, I thought the Chantilly was a perfect specimen of the genre, and it paired beautifully with my own dessert – a glass of scrumptious Coteaux de Layon dessert wine.

You could end up spending very serious amounts of money at Prunier: a king’s ransom, in fact. But then, what you see is what you get, and a meal in such gracious surroundings, delivered by a warmhearted, highly professional staff, is a right-royal privilege.

Richard Hesse

Prunier: 16, avenue Victor Hugo, 75016 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 17 35 85. Métro: Charles de Gaulle Etoile. Nearest Vélib stations: 3 rue Traktir; 26-32 rue Paul Valéry. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Fixed-price menus: €45 (lunch only), €65, €85, €150 (all-caviar menu). A la carte: €50-€834.

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