René Lasserre’s legacy is his eponymous restaurant. One of the most impressive hosts of his day, he entertained the world’s rich, famous and important at his tables for a generation.
Gala evenings, celebrity parties, haute cuisine…this was a world away from the Basque home Lasserre left at only twelve to work in Paris. His first job in the capital was as a busboy, but by nineteen, he was already that restaurant’s maître d’hôtel. Spells at the Pavillon d’Armenonville, the Lido, Prunier and Drouant followed before he realised his dream of owning his own restaurant. In 1942, he purchased what he described as ‘a kind of garage’, but was really a hangar that had been used as a bistro during the World’s Fair of 1937 and disused since, on the Avenue Victor-Emmanuel III (which later became Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt).
His first few years, with Paris under German occupation, were difficult. However, whilst other restaurants, such as Maxim’s on the Rue Royale, were full with Nazi officers, Lasserre fed résistants like André Malraux and Jacques Chaban-Delmas. In 1948, with the war over, he opened Club de la Casserole, making this the place to be seen after movie premiers, gallery openings and other society events. He won his first Michelin star the next year. It was at this time that he, André Vrinat (Taillevent) and Raymond Oliver (Le Grand Véfour) created ‘Traditions & Qualité‘ – a collection of the world’s greatest tables. 1951 brought renovation and today’s neo-Classical mansion was constructed. This new site was to be where gastronomy met entertainment; men in tails served, white doves were released, models walked between tables and all female diners were given small porcelain saucepans as a keepsake (almost a million have been given to date). His second star came in 1952 and, for the next two decades, the likes of Salvador Dali, Friédéric Dard, Romy Schneider, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas and Audrey Hepburn called Lasserre there home away from home; it was over lunch here with André Malraux that Marc Chagal decided to create the ceiling at the Opera Garnier. Another anecdote involves Dali who would order ortolans, but was content to simply smell them (the waiters would more than gladly finish them off for him). Michelin came calling for the third time in 1962 and, even though this last star was revoked in 1982, Lasserre’s kitchen remained a nursery for some of France’s top chefs – Marc Haeberlin, Guy Savoy, Michel Rostang, Jacques Lameloise, Jean-Paul Lacombe and Gérard Boyer all apprenticed here.
In 2001, Jean-Louis Nomicas replaced Michel Roth as Lasserre’s head chef. He had been born in Marseille and begun his career there at l’Oursinade in 1983. Two years later, he joined Alain Ducasse’s Juana (2*) as chef de partie. This was the start of a near-ten year relationship between the two that culminated with Nomicos’ five year stretch as sous chef at Louis XV (3*), Monaco. In 1995, he moved to Pavillon de la Grande Cascade (1*) in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne before joining Lasserre. Here he was a breath of fresh air. He decided to preserve the classics that had made the restaurant its name, whilst simultaneously rejuvenating them. To do this, he called upon his southern roots, regard for the seasons and creativity. He has also spoken of his guiding philosophy, defining three key principles: keep it simple; respect tradition; and refresh tradition. ‘The magic of the kitchen is the continuous creativity. You always create and you have to re-invent yourself twice a day. You work with products that are alive, that come from the earth…You try to be creative. That’s my passion,’ he has said. Chef Jean-Louis has a reputation for demanding quality ingredients and maintains close relationships with his suppliers – he always has his foie gras comes from les Landes, fish from Carantec, beef from Salers, potatoes from Chez Clos. His former mentor, Ducasse, speaks highly of him: ‘Jean-Louis has conviction. His cuisine expresses passion for the product and the search for the basic essentials. The result is brilliant, delicate, elegant.’
Lasserre lies opposite the Grand Palais. It is a seemingly small, white stucco mansion; unassuming yet serene. On the ground floor are eighteenth century-styled salon privés and waiting rooms; the main room sits upstairs and is reached via a small, velvet-padded, staff-operated elevator. The dining room is a daydream or, for some, maybe a memory; here time does not exist (or at least the clocks stopped forty years ago). One is almost struck with a sense of déjà vu – although I am not really old enough to have déjà vu-ed any of this. It is theatrically belle époque: grand chandeliers, tall arched window frames, silk drapes, balustrades and jardinières. Subtle yellows and oranges aided by soft, warm lighting give the room a comforting fantasy. It appears cramped, but although busy it is not crowded with large tables being decently spaced, their specially chosen placement affording each a view of the whole room (and the whole room of them). Flower-embroidered tablecloths are peachy-salmon coloured and decorated with Bernaudaud plates, monogrammed cutlery, red roses resting in silver swans and silver sculptures of various creatures, which people apparently like to ‘set free’ – my table had a red-eyed, slinky-tailed serpent. The crystal and glass light fixtures are custom made by Cristalleries de Saint Louis whilst the mahogany, moveable trolleys have also been specially designed. The sliding ceiling, a sensation in the fifties, features dancers, angels and was painted by Touchagues. White orchids ornament the room whilst a Steinway sits in one corner, ready to supply live music later (Mack the Knife played tonight) – nothing could be more appropriate.
Shown to my seat, I observed the audience. The restaurant was still rather empty, but it was early. The crowd was composed mainly of foreign diners who were surprisingly young. I felt welcome, but the atmosphere was very…hushed. The menu received, it took moments to order. Local friends, better knowing than myself, Julot and Laurent V, had already told me what I had to have: ‘Get the macaroni! Get the pigeon!’ As their advice was in rare alignment, I had no choice but to obey. The carte also contributed the icing on this capricious cake: what dish but Canard à l’Orange – everywhere a cliché, here a classic – could better embody the nostalgia of Lasserre?
Amuse Bouche: Foie gras et pain d’épice; sablé et oeuf de caille; et crème au parmesan et poire. An assortment of amuses arrived almost immediately: foie gras with gingerbread tuiles; Bréton biscuit with quail’s egg; and tartlet of parmesan mousse and pear. The foie was smooth and not overly rich with a sweet, warm linger left by the ginger; the sandwich was sparked by a smidgen of sour lemon and grapefruit mousse. Creamy egg, sitting atop thick, crumbly sablé, secreted sweet, caramelised marmalade, which had noticeable but agreeable acidity. A crisp basket bore incredibly light yet still sharp parmesan and morsel of moist pear.
Les Pains: Baguette; pain céréales; et pain bis. The breads – baguette, cereal and brown rolls – were from a local boulangerie. The former was nicely crusty, but under-seasoned; the latter two were better in that respect and soft too with the cereal carrying a pleasingly strong seedy aftertaste. Butter was Bordier and so very good.
Entrée 1: Macaroni aux truffes noires et foie gras de canard. Two layers of penne pasta, perpendicular to one another, were gently glazed in glowing parmesan cheese; the plate, punctuated with corresponding circles of celery and black truffle, was overlaid with jus de veau diffused with more truffles and streaked with celery purée. Each macaroni brimmed with a brunoise of truffle, celery and foie gras. The pungent smell of truffle and foie was the first sensation felt. The second, soft pasta melting in the mouth (the secret is that it had been cooked in milk) and disclosing a heady and delectable debris with enjoyably grainy texture. The cheesy crust imparted subtle tanginess; the sauce had substance; and its identical little discs delivered crunch.
Chef Jean-Louis first concocted this at Le Grand Cascade whence he brought it here. It is one of his classics and possibly one of French cuisine’s too as the original recipe (« timbale de macaroni aux truffes ») is Auguste Escoffier’s and over one hundred years old. Here, the dish has been lightened with the introduction of humble, but able, celery.
Entrée 2: Coquille Saint-Jacques en viennoise de noix, pomme vert, poireaux aux huîtres. Then, un cadeau de la cuisine. Scallop, encrusted with hazelnut, breadcrumb and green apple cubes, came with a compact column of chopped oysters and leeks, covered with a wafer of more apple, the two standing in scallop reduction. The lightly-cooked shellfish was soft and moist, its inherent sweetness accentuated by that of the apple. Leek and oyster worked well together; the elemental brininess of the latter balanced by the mellow flavour of the former and by the fruit. The sauce was creamy, salty-sweet and very tasty. This skilfully constructed dish showed off a highly developed understanding of harmony.
Plat Principal 1: Homard rôti au miel de châtaignier et romarin, artichauts poivrades. Resting in chestnut honey, roasted lobster tail, segmented and studded with a sprig of rosemary, was accompanied by a threesome of sucrine-shelled spheres of lobster claw on one side and by a chain of consecutively alternating cross-sections of artichoke poivrade and tomato atop a bed of mesclun vegetables on the other. The lissom lobster was good quality and had been prepared well; succulent and juicy, it was full of sweetness. The dark green globes of lettuce – sucrine is a French variety of Romaine; smaller with buttery leaves and saccharine in taste – and claw meat had corresponding taste and pleasant texture. The pavé of poivrades, lettuce and tomato was earthy, sweet and tangy. The tender artichoke – a variety from Provençe, not as large but much more intense – had discernable nuttiness and a hint of harshness. The rich, rusty honey, with its dark, verging on bitter, tone picked up on this and offset the sweetness of the shellfish as well. Rosemary added to the faint woodiness, as well as to the lovely aroma, of the dish.
Plat Principal 1: Pigeon André Malraux, fruits et légumes de saison. Whole pigeon, deboned at the neck, filled with a farce of foie gras and duxelle of wild mushrooms and roasted with vin jaune and truffle jus, was served with baby onion atop carrot, beetroot, turnip and pear, all aboard a blanket of lettuce; a Madeira, truffle and jus rôti reduction was poured upon the pigeon tableside whilst the fruit and vegetables had already been sprinkled with shallot vinaigrette. Pommes soufflés were supplied separately.
The beefy bird, its meat perfectly cerise-pink, was strong and gamey; the foie within, which the livery-likeness of the pigeon firmly agreed with, was still soft and appreciatively so. The gravy, almost a syrup, was heavy and thick – in a good way. The mushrooms, vin jaune and truffle blended noticeably well, with a mutual nutty note running through each. The fuller flavours of the pigeon were moderated by the moist, sweet and refreshing seasonal sides; their vinaigrette’s acidity cutting through the richness. However, there was a problem with the pommes soufflés, which were cold. Mentioning this, they were removed and replaced within minutes. Additionally, and very pleasingly, the sauce for my course was kept upon a little Bunsen burner on one of the serving trolleys and added to my bird as I ate. Hot. Twice.
There is, unsurprisingly, a story here. It is a signature of Lassere’s and honours their aforementioned habitué, Malraux, a modern-day Chateaubriand, whom Jacques Lameloise can recall always ordered the pigeon (and he ate lunch at Lasserre almost daily). Malraux himself even claimed, ‘my greatest coup is that [Lasserre] created Pigeon André Malraux to outdo another restaurant, Le Grand Véfour, which had invented Pigeon Prince Rainier.’ This is also a recipe that Chef Jean-Louis has reinvented. Its previous incarnation would be considered ‘too much’ for today’s diners (think bacon, cock’s combs and more foie gras), so he cut the quantity, reduced the cooking time and introduced the portion of five-a-day.
While I am in the story-telling mood, I may as well recount how pommes soufflés came to be. According to Larousse Gastronomique, they were accidentally invented in 1837 at a lunch for some VIPs opening a new railway line from Paris to Saint-Germain-en-Lay. Having started frying some sliced potatoes, the chef heard that his guests’ train had problems climbing a steep slope as it approached, so he removed them from the pot, half-cooked. When they finally, unexpectedly, appeared, the cook threw the now-cooled potato pieces into very hot oil and, to his surprise, they puffed up et la suite, tout le monde la connaît.
It was as I awaited my desserts that, suddenly, the celebrated sliding ceiling was exercised and within moments the sky and stars were allowed and able to shine in. However, it was minus five degrees outside, so having let in a blast of fresh, crisp air, it was soon closed.
Dessert 1: Timbale Elysée Lasserre. A tuile coupe, containing overlapping layers of poached pear bearing a sizeable scoop of vanilla ice cream, was crowned with a caramelised sugar cupola and sitting in pear coulis; the plate was dusted with pistachio sugar and adorned with violets and pistachio nuts. Deconstructing the dainty dome with my dessert spoon, I sampled the smooth, deeply flavoured ice cream. Its coldness contrasted with the room temperature of the pears pleasantly. These were juicy, sweet and delightfully fresh. Beneath the fruit, there was a soft sponge which had become soaked in the pear juice and coulis. The biscuit bowl was crunchy whilst the crumbs of shiny coronet did not cling to one’s teeth.
Dessert 2: Trilogie de chocolat ‘coeur de guanaja’, mandarines mikan. This course consisted of three incarnations of chocolate with satsuma: miniature soufflé; tart; and mousse with ice cream. Straight away, the satsumas’ scent was sensible. The soufflé was set upon first; crisp coat, speckled with satsuma zest, was cracked, uncovering a rich, molten middle. Next was the tart with brittle base and thick, dense filling, topped with a peeled pair of satsumas. Last was light, mildly tempered mousse atop ice cream and dark chocolate ganache. Little croustillant chips littered the various tiers and, in this version, the satsuma savour was strongest. Grand cru Valrhona 70% Guanaja was a fitting choice; the dark chocolate naturally floral and faintly fruity already.
Petit Fours: Pina Colada; Caramel avec fruit de passion; macaron citron; truffes chocolats; truffes enrobés; pâte à choux avec crème à la pistache; et crème au citron meringue. The principal petit four was composed of lemon jelly beneath pineapple brunoise, then lime foam and finished with Pina Colada emulsion. Forcefully sour lemon, lively lime, alcohol and acidic fruit made this interesting, if a little strong. The caramels were sticky, but distinctly tart; little swans, creamy and sweet. Macarons were crispy, soft and sugary whilst the meringue, surprisingly cold and properly sharp. Hazelnut and almond encased truffles were quite nice as were the plain chocolates that melted on one’s fingertips.
The dishes here demonstrated that the kitchen is technically very talented. They also confirmed a very refined appreciation for balance, attention to detail and a desire to please all the senses. The chef’s good judgement and willingness to incorporate less common combinations of ingredients came through strongly, for instance, in the coquille Saint-Jacques, scallop, apple, leek and oyster worked terrifically together. Besides pleasing the palate and being easy on the eye, what stood out, were some of the fragrances from the food; these were warm, appetising and distinct. In addition, the quality of produce and execution were faultless. The chef’s fondness for his Mediterranean home manifests itself in his cooking: his skill with seafood; the use of thyme, rosemary, citrus fruits and chestnut honey; and the importance he places on vegetables may all be part of this. Some of the menu is very traditional indeed, but unashamedly so. The dishes may not be what they once were, literally, but the pigeon André Malraux, for example, is still hearty and satisfying. I like this sense of history and story that such recipes possess and so admire Chef Jean-Louis’ enthusiasm for retaining and reinventing these. To me, this shows that he sees Lasserre’s legacy as just as important as his own and having said, ‘I love Lasserre. I’m so proud to be here’, that certainly seems to be the case. Sharing a few words with him after dinner only reaffirms such a modest attitude – he seemed friendly, wholehearted and very nice; and he could not stop smiling.
Once I entered the restaurant, from my warm reception from the doorman before being whisked up in the little elevator to my friendly goodbye from the same gentleman, it was a surreal experience. But a nice one. I was in another world. One of pastel pinks and coral colours, silver peacocks, gilded crystal cups, duck à l’orange, dancing figures, live piano music and roofs that opened. It was not like any restaurant I had ever eaten in and possibly never will again.
I doubt everyone would share these feelings. I am sure some would find it utterly boring, others would hate it. In contrast, however, I thought it rather charming, full of whimsy and of romance. It was an experience.
17 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, Paris, 75008
tel: 0033 1 43 59 53 43
nearest metro: Champs-Élysées-Clemenceau