It’s not every day that you get invited out to a high profile restaurant in Paris – let alone two! Lunch was at Le Minipalais, a restaurant concealed within the Petit Palais, a stone’s throw from the Pont Alexandre with its stunning gold statues and views of the Seine. Dinner was at Allard, tucked away in the narrow back streets between the Boulevard St Germain and the Quai de Conti. I was tempted to simply write a review comparing the two – but the contrasting experiences of the two meals (which had nothing to do with either the restaurants or the food) inspired me to think hard about what is it that makes for a good meal out?
It was a Sunday. The day had been planned as a mix of business and pleasure – the day was for business, the evening for pleasure. I had travelled up on the overnight train from Albi, arriving early on a sunny Sunday morning at the Gare d’Austerlitz. It’s a trip I’ve made quite a few times and I love nothing better than the chance to walk from the station along the cobbled quay of the Seine, with its grey silvery water flowing swiftly past, towards Notre Dame and the quartier of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
A coffee or two later, it was down to business. The morning progressed – talking, planning, schedules – then our potential business partner arrived. Things didn’t go too well and it was a relief when we were invited to lunch at Le Minipalais. There were four of us for lunch, two English, one Dutch, and one French. The plan was to have a relaxed sociable time getting to know each other – and maybe that would help the business discussions later in the day.
I’ve eaten meals in restaurants all over the world – from fashionable restaurants of Michelin star-rated chefs to beach-side shacks serving winkles in polystyrene cups; from grand châteaux to stone-flagged country pubs. Sometimes for business and on an expenses account, sometimes for pleasure in the company of friends or family, sometimes with ‘the man’ – which creates a different agenda altogether!
Being a ‘home-taught’ cook, I have always found it difficult to ignore the relationship of the price of a meal in a restaurant to the ingredients and the surroundings, when coming to a judgement of how good a restaurant is. But on this occasion, I realised there is a fourth element that rarely gets mentioned in restaurant reviews, and it wasn’t until I was on the TGV heading south the next day that I realised what it is.
Eating in Le MiniPalais is a little like eating in a museum – classical pillars towering over you, marbled floors, Roman busts. Not surprising, considering the building, Le Petit Palais, was constructed for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. It still embodies a civic sense of the ‘excellence of Paris’, but now houses an art museum alongside the restaurant which belongs to the renowned Eric Frechon. A three star Michelin winner at The Bristol where he is head chef, Frechon also owns and runs six other restaurants including the Celeste restaurant in London at The Lanesborough. We were told that Le MiniPalais is where diplomats, politicians, and models come to eat – but it was Sunday, and I think they were either at their country retreats or still in bed.
The focus of the menu here is clearly on the ingredients – fresh and seasonal (apart from the March strawberries decorating our Rossini cocktails). The food was what you expect to see in this kind of restaurant – plated up elegantly with small decorative blobs and swirls on large white plates, ingredients you don’t quite recognise balancing on carefully constructed layers – not something you’d ever cook at home. My merlan (whiting), hiding under a wafer-thin sliver of fried brioche, was delicious. My female companions tucked into casserole de veau (veal) and turbot respectively and the only male in our party was happy with his steak tartare and frites.
We all seemed to be enjoying the meal – that is, we were – until our potential French business partner decided it was time to talk business. We must have looked surprised. Maybe it’s a cultural thing? Business meals in Britain rarely involve actually talking the nitty-gritty. There’s an unspoken assumption that the purpose of a business meal is so you can get to know your client or your business partner better – How many kids? What football/rugby team you support? Where do you like going on holiday? It’s about finding common ground and building up a relationship.
I once found this approach taken to extremes in Japan, where I endured a very long ‘business’ dinner at which no-one even mentioned the documentary film project I was trying to get funding for, throughout the entire evening. When I found myself singing a karaoke version of ‘My Way’ at 3am in the morning (in our third whisky bar), I resigned myself to the fact that I’d blown any chance of getting any funding for my film. But at the actual meeting the next morning, I was told (through my interpreter) that I ‘had passed with flying colours’ – that they could definitely do business with someone game enough to go on a whisky bar crawl and sing karaoke.
Back to Le MiniPalais. Contracts were mentioned. Copyright. Had we registered the trademark? I can hardly remember the rest of the meal or tell you whether it was good or bad. As the direction of the business talk went south, the silences became longer and everyone lost their appetite. No, we wouldn’t be having dessert – juste un café s’il vous plait.
So the evening’s meal for the three of us foreigners was indeed a contrast. Dinner was at Allard, a short walk away from our apartment through the back streets. As small as Le MiniPalais is big, it is comfortingly traditional with zinc-covered counters, tiled floors, red-velvet banquettes.
Here, the emphasis is on traditional French bourgeois cuisine with a strong nod to its peasant roots, partly explained by the original founders, Marthe and Marcel Allard, who arrived in Paris from Burgundy in 1932 with their traditional country recipes. It’s now under the banner of Alain Ducasse, who owns 15 restaurants in France, and 12 more across the USA, UK, Monaco, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Middle East.
Wisely, he has allowed the Allard to stick to the model established by Marthe and her daughter-in-law, Fernande – straight-forward cooking that doesn’t forget le terroir – a term used by the French to convey the important link between the land (literally ‘the earth’) and the raw ingredients – whether it be grapes, cheese, garlic, vegetables, beef.
No carefully constructed rectangular servings here. My joue de boeuf (beef cheek) arrived in a small copper casserole, covered with a thick rich sauce, and accompanied by carrots sliced just like my mother likes, in unfashionable round chunks. My companions opted for a sea bass and a simple salad of frisée jaune (a type of winter salad leaf raised like chicory/endives in the dark to whiten it) with bacon and croutons.
As for the conversation, no talk of contracts or business. Instead we pondered the forth-coming elections in the Netherlands and France, moaned about the dreaded Brexit, shared tales of family meals, discussed education and how important it had been for our parents’ generation. We ate, we talked, we laughed, we drank a glass or two. The food was good but simple, and my shock at the prices on the menu was forgotten as I simply enjoyed the company and conversation of friends.
The next morning I caught the TGV for the long journey south. With hours to pass on the train, I had plenty of opportunity to think about what it is we expect when we go out to eat in a restaurant and how we judge what we’ve eaten. Watching the miles of French countryside pass by my window and letting my thoughts wander, I realised that even the most perfect location, the most perfect ingredients, the most brilliant chef – all of these things pale into insignificance if the conversation heads towards awkward territory. The old adage, “Never mix business with pleasure” certainly applies to eating good food in amazing restaurants. To conclude:
- Were they good restaurants? Yes.
- Was the food good? Yes.
- Were the surroundings interesting? Yes.
- Were the prices reasonable in relationship to the meals? Not for me on my budget, but I was very grateful to be invited.
- Did I enjoy one more than the other? Yes – and for none of the reasons immediately above.