If you are fortunate enough to live in Paris, or are planning a trip to the city, and are anxiously looking for a fail-safe restaurant at which to have a special-occasion meal, rest assured that you are not alone. Given the lofty prices charged at the top end of the totem pole in the French capital these days, no one wants to make a mistake when they dine out, especially as a thumping bill would only add insult to injury if you had to endured a disappointing meal.
If you recognise yourself here, then the good news is that I have a very good address to suggest for you, namely the restaurant at this elegant, Neoclassical 19th-century limestone mansion set in beautifully groomed gardens on the edge of the 16th arrondissement. Le Saint James is both a hotel and a private club, which means that only hotel guests and club members have access to the dining room at lunchtime. But in the evening the general public is welcomed to the handsome and spacious oak-panelled dining room with its crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths, velvet-covered armchairs and oil paintings on the walls. Aside from the lovely setting and some of the best service in Paris – the young team here is alert, charming and friendly without ever being intrusive – the reason you’ll want to come is for the intriguing contemporary French cooking of Michelin one-star chef Jean-Luc Rocha, an MOF (meilleur ouvrier de France, the highest award given to the country’s tradesmen and women).
Rocha’s cooking is anchored in tradition and an admirable technical precision but is also light, surprising and festive.
The starter not to miss is his intriguing vegetable couscous with marinated oysters and langoustines, a vividly vegetal composition with an iodine brightness brought by the shellfish, but his foie gras in a candied sesame crust with pickled vegetables and melon sorbet is excellent as well. Next, sample the veal sweetbreads with rhubarb and girolle mushrooms, or the roasted lobster in a spiced bouillon of its own coral.
Don’t pass up the excellent cheese trolley before dessert either, since the fromages come from Quatrehomme, one of the best cheese shops in Paris. Conclude with the very original raspberries with pimenton-flavoured mousse and sponge, lemon caramel and raspberry sorbet, or maybe the Ethiopian mocha cream with cardamom ice cream.
Note, too, that the young sommelière here runs a short but very good list that’s also very fairly priced.
43 avenue Bugeaud, Paris 16th. Tel. +33 (0)1 45 05 81 81. Surprise prix-fixe menu €140, average à la carte €165. www.saint-james-paris.com
From France Today magazine