At Spoon, a chic place off the Champs Élysées, the chef and owner Alain Ducasse undertakes a culinary analysis of America, deconstructing the icons of American food with his tongue firmly in his cheek. M. Ducasse is one of France’s most famous chefs (six Michelin stars, nine restaurants), who is opening a restaurant in Essex House in New York in June. Macaroni and cheese, Caesar salad and even bubble-gum ice cream are on the menu, along with the sort of Asian fusion dishes that trendy chefs are now turning out all over Manhattan. Only a chef with style and a three-star restaurant (or two) could pull this off in Paris.
And stylish Spoon certainly is. The dining room is Japanese in its elements of design with long, clean, uncluttered lines. Every detail down to the chopsticks ( baguettes chinoises ) on the tables and the loaves of meringue in a basket by the kitchen has been meticulously conceived. On the table next to us is a bowl of American apples, polished Granny Smiths and McIntoshes .Even the fruit juice cocktail adds just the right splash of vivid pink when set down on the table (and it tastes like candy, too).
The clientele is, of course, hardly wearing backwards baseball caps or track suits like many of the tourists passing by on the Champs Élysées. Two women in their 70’s, one in a spectacular green silk suit, are having lunch with a pretty young woman and her boyfriend. At the next table, four Frenchmen drink red wine and smoke throughout the meal.
The cooking at Spoon is conceptual cuisine, food as an experiment. It’s a goof, an in-joke, starting with the menu, which is in English with French subtitles. You order horizontally from three columns and mix and match your dishes as you please (you can even, it says, “zig-zag and create the unthinkable”). The wine list is also a surprise even in a restaurant like this, seriously international, with a large section of well-chosen, heftily marked-up American wines.
Our young waiter emerged from the gleaming open kitchen with a tray of hot towels which he handed out before setting down tall shot glasses filled with a vivid green mousse. Topped with a single asparagus tip cut on the bias, and a small spoon, it was a creamy essence of the great asparagus now in season in Paris.
The iceberg lettuce that American foodies abhor arrived in a glass laboratory beaker topped with squares of bacon the size of Wheat Thins, and blue cheese dressing (not spelled “bleu” as it is on American menus) in a bowl on the side. The dish was awkward to eat: you couldn’t mix it properly and the bacon was too big.
Ceviche, strips of raw white fish, came in a Japanese spoon topped with a mimosa of whitefish and egg yolk. It was subtle and delicious. So were the soft-boiled eggs sprinkled with dried salt cod, chopped garlic and bitter herbs. If you want pasta there’s one kind, “artisan” dried strozzetti, served very al dente, and we had it with a wonderfully rich, garlicky pesto that arrived with its own mortar and pestle.
I don’t know what they’d say in Kansas City about Spoon’s beef spareribs. They are served not slathered in a “rub” and falling off the bone, but as thick rare hunks with barbecue sauce on the side. They’re good–but they’re like steak. The macaroni, in a light gruyère sauce, blows away Mom’s Day-Glo yellow glop. I’d go back to Spoon just for the delicate, spongy mandarin crêpes filled with a julienne of vegetables served with the lacquered pork breast.
The food at Spoon is interesting, but it isn’t necessarily something you desperately want to have again (as opposed to the food at Restaurant Alain Ducasse, the three-star place where I had one of those meals of a lifetime). Much of it is good but workmanlike, like the seared tuna with satay sauce and wok vegetables, or the nicely crisp roasted duck with a bland haystack of chow mein noodles tossed with mushrooms. Chicken wings stuffed with glass noodles certainly get your attention. But I don’t long to have it again.
For dessert there are doughnuts, not Krispy Kreme but a dinner doughnut, light and puffy with stewed red berries. The cheesecake, made with fromage blanc, is smooth and creamy. The macaroon, scented with amaretto, is shaped like a frankfurter bun with a fruit filling squeezed inside like ballpark mustard. The real satire on American desserts is the bubble-gum ice cream, which arrives in a glass version of an Alvar Aalto chair. It’s enough for eight kids, a cartoon-like amount that only Tarzan or Popeye could finish.
There is already a Spoon restaurant in Mauritius, one planned for Tokyo in June and one opening in London later this month in Ian Schrager’s Sanderson Hotel, all serving M. Ducasse’s riffs on the local cuisine. As for New York, a possible Spoon planned for the Royalton is still only a rumor. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with at Essex House.
SPOON FOOD & WINE
14, Rue de Marignan, Paris 75008
Wine list: International
Noise level: Fine
Credit cards: All major cards
Price range: Main courses $13 to $33
Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:45 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Friday 6:30 to 11:30 P.M. Closed Saturday and Sunday
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor