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Paris -- Atelier Maitre Albert review (long)

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Paris -- Atelier Maitre Albert review (long)

Bill Strzempek | Dec 30, 2004 10:45 PM

A delayed posting of my notes from November.
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A photo of an extremely enticing grapefruit terrine with a dramatic shard of caramel sticking out of it made me pick up the phone to try and get a reservation here. The photo was next to Gael Greene's article in Gourmet wherein she described this place as a "scene" that was hard to get into. She also said it was a great place to eat if you wanted to tame the Dollar to Euro disparity. But by the time that dessert terrine showed up, sans caramel chapeau, I felt that Gael Greene had misrepresented this restaurant.

This place is far from a "bang to the buck" place: two of us spent 199 Euros (that's $260 U.S.) for 2 glasses of champagne, a bottle of superb wine, two entrees, mains and desserts, one coffee and one digestive. Nor did I find this place tough to get into. When I called at 7 pm on a Saturday night hoping to get something for the following week, the very genial person on the phone said, why don't you come in at 10 tonight? When we arrived the dining room was 2/3 full. Far from I expected from a snobby "scene", our reception was jovial as the host bantered with us amicably while we waited to be seated. Nor was this a "scene" crowd: it was couples in casual dress (the men in jackets with no ties), a few tables of businessmen in suits, one table of gleefully shrieking women who were having a birthday party and a great deal of fun, and a few tourists here and there. There was even a large table of muscle-T and jeans wearing guys who seemed to be headed to or from the Marais.

The dining room is striking while remaining understated, painted in flat grey paint (not in black laquer; as Greene wrote). The tables are fashioned out of grey faux stone and are left bare without linen. Loosely painted portraits of roosters and chickens are spotlit on the dark walls. Anchoring these grey walls and tables are a medieval (I believe) white limestone fireplace with magnificent carvings and on the opposite end of the room an impressive open rotisserie in front of which poultry, veal shanks and fish kebabs rotate relentlessly in front of bright red heating elements. If I ever go back it would be to try one of those crusty veal shanks which looked very good on the next table....

The most relaxing and inviting locale in the restaurant is the front bar and lounge, which is modern and metallic with the bar being theatrically backlit. There are deep and comfortable designer chairs in which to sip champagne. While I wasn't wild about the night here on the whole, I would definitely go back to have a drink and relax in this superb lounge if in the area and needing a pick me up.

Back to the dining room, where the service put me in mind of that given by college kids working in a fish shack over their summer vacation. There were too few waiters and busboys, and each of them was more harried and forgetful than the next. They made up for this by being friendly to a farethewell, and while it was nice to make new friends in Paris I'd prefer to do it after all the food we ordered was delivered from the kitchen.

The maitre d' suggested two coupes of rose champagne to start (13.50 Euros each) and it was extraordinary – it was Billecart Salmon blanc – and I can't recommend it highly enough, very dry with a hint of sweetness only after the initial sec-sensation passes, not a cloying pink champagne by a long shot. It was the highlight of the evening for me. The other true standout was the wine: Prieure de Saint Jean de Bebian (65 Euros), a full bodied Languedoc red with lots of condensed fruit and a supple body. We hesitated in ordering red with our starters which were both shellfish, but as the wine didn't arrive until we were nearly done with them, it became a moot point. Still, the liquor was the best thing we had here.

The best food we had was the starter of remoulade de moules, a special of the day, a celery remoulade into which tempura-fried moules had been placed, quite delicious and light (11Euros). The other starter was something of a ripoff at 14Euros, listed as Eventail de Saint Jacques, which arrived as two scallops fanned out in paper thin slices, set on a white porcelain plate with a sprig of frisee in center and a drizzle over them of some indiscernible oil which I assume accounted for the high price. Not especially flavorful, this dish seemed more like an amuse bouche than an actual course. The scallops looked forlorn on that stark white plate as if they were a special diet food from a hospital commissary.

For main courses we had two rotisserie items, the 23Euro Entrecote a la Broche (chunks of beef speared on a rosemary sprig) which was nicely seared and juicy inside and sung with the wine, and Brochette de Lotte et Bacon, at an audacious 24Euros for one lonely spear with four medium chunks of monkfish with three shards of bacon interspersed thereon. The serving seemed even smaller given that it too was placed in the middle landscape of an overlarge white serving plate. I commented that it would be perhaps more accurate to list this dish on the menu as "a porcelain plate served with a side of lotte and bacon". The fish was neither juicy nor dried out nor offensive nor distinctive. Ho. Hum. It was served with a "penne gratinee", which arrived ten minutes after the fish chunks. My oh my did it look delicious, all crusted over and golden! I dug in with my fork – and promptly lifted the entire crusty golden melange from the dish as one dried out stuck together mass of overbaked pasta. I looked around for a waiter for several minutes to bring this to his attention, and then finding no one, said what the hell and chewed my way through it anyway, figuring I should be happy that it was "formidable" in the English sense of the word if not in the French.

For dessert there was a creme brulee at 10Euros (see "Ho. Hum," above) and the vaunted, gloriously-photographed-in-Gourmet-magazine "Terrine de Pamplemousse" (10Euros). When I asked the waiter if it was terrific there was a pause before he put forward the notion that it was "rafraichissante". And it truly was refreshing, if nothing more than plump grapefruit sections packed together and held in place by a subtle tea gelatin. Two slices were served on a white plate with a sprig of mint -- the dramatic caramel millenary seen in the photo was not worn this evening.

I had an after dinner drink, a glass of Banyuls port, which nicely reconfirmed that this is a fine place to come to drink, if only passable in which to eat, and not a place to stretch money. When the check arrived its folder billed the place as "Atelier Maitre Albert – Restaurant with Guy Savoy," as if he were doing a guest appearance in a movie of the week. I think they should just drop that billing and call it "Guy's Bar and Lounge," and all expectations would be met by the cozy lounge and the fine wines served.

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