Recapturing the glory of French fine dining

French haute cuisine may be under fire, but it’s putting up a fabulous fight at Le Clarence in Paris

From the current menu, cuttlefish with artichoke and nasturtium
From the current menu, cuttlefish with artichoke and nasturtium

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as Joni Mitchell once sagely warbled. As the ancien régime of French gastronomy comes under ever heavier fire from the enfants terribles of another nouvelle vague, and spotless white tablecloths, guéridons, duck presses and red velvet are consigned to the poubelle of culinary history, The Gannet cannot but feel a touch of nostalgia for les arts de la table.

My most recent bout of wistfulness was over lunch at Paris’s gloriously opulent, two‑Michelin-starred Le Clarence, a Proustian moment provoked by the ethereal smell of a fish being filleted: 20 years ago, one of my first great meals was at Restaurant Guy Savoy, where the waiter filleted a whole John Dory at my table, plated it for two, and anointed it with a buttery sauce, all without soiling his cuffs. 

Under the crystal chandeliers of Le Clarence, the fish in question was a wild seabass, baked in a thick salt crust to trap its natural aromas, which flooded out as monsieur gave the crust judicious taps with the back of a spoon. Matched with a raviolo of wild mushroom and a layered terrine of foie gras, it was sensational.

Le Clarence, with its exquisitely decorated rooms, grand staircase and wine-stuffed cellars, recalls a grand hôtel particulier in Bordeaux: deliberately, since its president and CEO is Prince Robert of Luxembourg, great-grandson of the eponymous Clarence Dillon, a fabulously wealthy Texas banker who, in 1935, purchased Château Haut-Brion. Vintages from that historic estate, and its equally legendary sister property, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, are on sale downstairs and, naturellement, take pride of place on the restaurant wine list. 

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Le Clarence feels as though it has been there forever: in fact, it opened three years ago. The owner’s canniest move was to engage the services of Christophe Pelé at the stoves: formerly of the much-praised La Bigarrade, in the 17ème, he has a rare intelligence and a fine grasp of flavour. 

On my visit, lunch started with amuses-bouches in the second-floor salon: the lightest of Comté gougères; barbajuans – beautifully blistered Monégasque pastries stuffed with Swiss chard; and whelks in the shell with a tarragon-spiked sauce tartare. 

Then to the table: scallops three ways –  roasted, with celeriac “cake” and anchovy; raw, with a sorrel emulsion and a tonnato sauce; and wrapped in Bigorre ham with avocado cream. Next, sweet little mussels on the half-shell (Pelé has a masterful touch with shellfish) scattered with coriander; after that, magnificent seafood and roe-deer fillet with artichoke and béarnaise. And I would return for the cheeseboard alone.

My advice is to go, enjoy and splash out: with the proviso that one of those splashes is Château Haut-Brion 1995.

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