Jean Imbert is on a roll. After brilliantly relaunching the Relais Plaza, the plus chic brasserie in Paris, at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée last September, the chef has debuted his haute-cuisine restaurant at the hotel.
Known as Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée, this dining room replaces the Michelin three-star restaurant formerly run by Alain Ducasse with a supremely elegant new décor that sees off the odd Barbarella look of Ducasse’s table.
Gold-leaf ceiling medallions softly diffuse the light of huge crystal chandeliers overhead, and the centrepiece of this space is a red marble-topped banqueting table that runs the length of the dining room and is punctuated by huge marble urns, which were filled with pink hydrangeas when I eagerly went to discover the new menu during a recent Saturday lunch. It was an earth-shaking event in French gastronomic circles when it was unexpectedly announced last summer that Imbert would step into Ducasse’s shoes, so I arrived at the hotel with keen curiosity and great expectations after an excellent meal at Le Relais Plaza just after it opened. How hard, I wondered, would Imbert, 40, veer away from ‘la Naturalité’, the futuristic, environmentally-sustainable dining concept based mainly on pulses, grains and vegetables that Ducasse had recently been preaching here?
“I’m very committed to running a kitchen that’s environmentally responsible,” Imbert said when he stopped by my table. “But the goal of my restaurant is to create pleasure. I want people to have a good time when they come here.” And with this prompt, I immediately noticed a subtle but perceptible change in the atmosphere of this sumptuous restaurant. To wit, without losing any of its balletic precision, the staff here were more relaxed than they’d been in the past.
“This move to a style of service that’s warmer and less formal is something chef Imbert felt to be very important,” explained Maitre-d’Hôtel Denis Courtiade, who is one the best in the world in his field.
Even more striking to me, though, was the way the menu has changed, tacking full force towards the storied and sensual shores of traditional French haute-cuisine as defined by such great Gallic chefs as Carême, Gouffé and Escoffier.
“This is quite fascinating,” said my friend, a French restaurant critic who’d joined me for lunch, when the first of the two starters we’d ordered to share arrived. Lobster Bellevue came to the table as an opulent miniature feast, with poached langouste medallions being presented on the back of the shell of the langouste that had provided them, cold-water lobster claws arriving standing straight up in side dishes, and a luscious chequerboard mirepoix of root vegetables in another side dish creating an earthy foil to the flesh of the two crustaceans. If the langouste and lobster claws were perfectly cooked, what was sublime about this course were the two mayonnaises that accompanied it, one made with lobster coral and the other bright with fresh tarragon. Next, a crumbly tart filled with black truffle-flavoured whipped cream and a tableside addition of freshly shaved black truffles. Both dishes were simply exquisite.
Main courses were similarly delicate, refined and technically impeccable. Imbert’s signature main course is a whole poached turbot for two which arrives at the table de-boned with a watercress soufflé, but wanting to explore more than one main between us, I ordered the pithivier of scallops with celery root and black truffles, and it was a stunningly elegant dish, especially because it’s a real gastronomic feat to cook the pastry and the scallops to perfection at the same time. Fancying the duck à la Bigarade even though it’s served for two, my wily tablemate arranged to have half of it served for his lunch and the other half packed up for him to take home. The arrival of the bird at the table was another magnificent moment, since it comes cut into two juicy pink halves with its skin roasted to a crisp and the succulence of the meat heightened by a citrus sabayon. “This is perfection,” said my friend. “And the sabayon is stroke of genius.”
Dessert was a joyous grand finale of six different dishes, including a luscious marquise (chocolate layer cake) and souffléd mandarin orange crêpe flambéed, as is traditional, at the table in Grand Marnier. Service was relaxed, charming, and flawless throughout our meal. Put simply, this is the best new restaurant to open in Paris for a very long time.
Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée
Hôtel Plaza Athénée
25 avenue Montaigne
Tel. (33) 01 53 67 65 00
Le Menu du Jean €296, average à la carte €275.
From France Today Magazine
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Lead photo credit : The team is helmed by Jean Imbert © Boby Allin