Off the plane and into the restaurant. I began my Parisian adventure with breakfast pastries at Alain Ducasse at the famous Plaza Athénée, an old-world hotel constructed in 1911 on Avenue Montaigne. My early arrival meant that some of the pastries were still warm. What a nice way to say hello to the city of lights.
The first thing that struck me about this dining room were the stunning chandeliers. Each of the three was surrounded by a delicate flurry of suspended crystals, reflecting the morning’s sunlight in rainbows across the room. It was ethereal. The hotel’s famous “plaza red” was brought through the recently renovated lobby into the restaurant in the form of table cloths and seat backs, and even the labels on the dozen Hediard jams covering each table. The space certainly had baroque elements; but the more modern colors and carpeting prevented the dining room from feeling stale. It was incredibly warm and comfortable. The other diners were a mix of hotel guests and businessmen wearing both jeans and suits. I suppose that is the contradiction of a hotel restaurant: since many room rates include complementary breakfast, an enforced dress-code would likely raise complaints. And, I wouldn’t have been able to sample the most delicious orange brioche I’ve ever tasted.
The service here is on a different level of attentiveness and refinement than I have experienced at any other restaurant in New York. Keep in mind that this was only breakfast. I’m pretty sure I could have asked for anything, and while the object of my request may not have been available, I’d be confident that an earnest attempt would have been made to get it. After being seated, I was asked if I would like fruit juice. I was not given a selection of juices to choose from, which made sense when I noticed the woman next to me drinking strawberry juice: there was no selection because everything was available! Not yet confident to order special requests in French, I kept it simple with a glass of OJ and a café au lait. After the drinks were poured, I was brought an extensive selection of pastries. I knew right then that this was going to be a good year.
The selection of pastries included a variety of bread rolls: viennois, campagne, et complet, as well as traditional pastries including brioche au chocolat, pain aux chocolat et éclats de noisettes, pain aux chocolat et amandes de Sicile, croissant noise-citron (sweet, country, and wholewheat), (filled with almond cream and covered in lemon frosting), and a croissant plaza réalisé au beurre noisette et vrai miel d’acacia (made with hazelnut butter and acacia honey). One thing became immediately clear: I would have to go to the gym every day. Otherwise, I might die. After that thought, a second plate of pastries was brought to the table: bostock – tartiné de crème amandine (almond cream tart), a roulade aux fruits confits, and Kughelof (a brioche scented with lemon and orange blossom). Perhaps I should be going to the gym twice a day?
I started with the plain croissant, the softest and lightest croissant I have ever experienced. I used to think I liked the “shatter effect,” the aftermath of the first tear of a crispy shelled croissant that leaves flakes on the plate. Not anymore. This crust was indeed crispy; but it was so thin, that it broke silently, letting out a gentle puff of moisture. The flavor was of rich butter; it gently hovered on the fine line between sweet and savory which my jet-lagged palate appreciated very much. The equally impressive pain au chocolat, or chocolatine as they say in Paris (or at least they do here), was filled with sweet milk chocolate and sprinkled with hazelnut chips.
My eyes wondered to the panettone style chocolate brioche, then to the chocolate-pistachio bread, and last to what would be the highlight of this selection of pastries: the Kughelof. Aside from the Kughelof’s scent of lemon and orange blossom, this brioche was rife with moisture. I’m pretty sure that if I squeezed the brioche over a sink, milk would have dripped out. The gently sugared surface added a level of non-cloying sweetness that was the perfect company to a cup of coffee. Another remarkable feature of this brioche was its weight. I’m not sure how it was possible; but this was dense and light at the same time. But to the thought of this brioche possibly violating the laws of physics, my stomach simply replied, “mmm.”
Lastly, as part the “one of everything” rule, I was onto the bread. At first the bread seemed a little dull compared to the sensational pastries I’d just experienced. But then I noticed these three small cups of what appeared to be homemade spreads. They sure were. Unsure of when these were brought to the table, perhaps since I was so immersed in the flawless pastries, I asked for a description of each. I was given souvenir d’enfance en pâte à tartiner chocolat-noisette (a childhood souvenir home made chocolate and hazelnut spread), beurre de cacahuètes mélange de beurre baratte et de cacahuètes caramélisées puis concassées (churnned butter mixed with caramelized and crunched peanuts), and confit au sirop d’érable souvenir d’un voyage à Montréal, une interprétation originale d’une recette crémeuse et onctueuse à base de sirop d’érable réduit (crystallized maple syrup, a souvenir from a trip to montréal; an original interpretation of a smooth and creamy recipe with reduced maple syrup). Lord, I was glad I asked. The caramelized maple syrup was unreal, a spreadable version of the maple candy typically found in upstate New York, Vermont, and even Montréal. The sweetness and variety of these house made spreads breathed life into the bread, which no longer appeared dull.
Overwhelmed by carbohydrates, I needed some protein and ordered two poached eggs. Not like there wasn’t enough food already. But nothing is quite simple here, and these two poached eggs were presented beautifully on a perfect rectangle of crustless whole wheat toast, the green of the spliced asparagus complementing the orange from the fresh egg yolk. To complete the color spectrum, I was also brought a small bowl of fresh berries. How fresh it is to eat berries that were not refrigerated. I also took note of a flavor of jelly I’d never seen before: rose jelly. It was more fragrant than flavor; but still, an interesting addition to an already complete set of flavors.
What a spectacular way to begin my stay in Paris. While I don’t yet have a basis for comparison in France, this was certainly stronger than any pastry selection I’ve had in New York. After my meal I lingered at the table for what seemed like an hour. Not because I felt like an inflated francophile embracing “café culture;” but because I was so full I was afraid that if I got up I might knock something over. Moderation, it seems, will be one of my challenges. I look forward to returning in the near future; only next time, for dinner.