A terrace surrounded by green, with red and gold flowers as highlights. A Michelin-starred meal, followed by a cigar—your own, or one from the restaurant's selection. That's what awaits you at La Grande Cascade, in the heart of Paris's Bois de Boulogne, near the Longchamp racetrack.
The cuisine is haute, without the hauteur; the service is friendly, without being too friendly—the kind of professionalism you would expect from a restaurant of this quality. It's a place where couture matters—Parisians love to dress up for La Grande Cascade, even at lunch. The women were chic, the men were encased in tie and jacket.
When I arrived, I was wearing a button-down shirt with no tie, and I was carrying my blazer—it was a warm day, temperature in the 80s, and I was trying to stay cool. I looked around and saw I was very much the exception. So in the five minutes it took for our table to be ready, I retrieved my tie from a jacket pocket, applied a Windsor knot and restored my blazer to its rightful place. When the hostess came to seat me and saw the change, she smiled.
No doubt my wife, Ruth, and I got a better table, in the middle of the terrace. (One man who came with a tieless shirt and leather jacket was relegated to the far end, the equivalent of Siberia.) As my wife sat, a waiter came over with a small upholstered ottoman that matched our dining chairs, placed it by her side and indicated it was for her purse. When the menu was brought, hers had no prices. Sometimes the older ways can be fun.
On winter days and nights, you'll dine inside, in a stunning glass and steel Belle Époque pavilion, classic in its luxury, with dazzling carpets, walls full of color and crystal chandeliers ablaze. The building was once Napoleon III's hunting lodge in the bois; it was transformed into a restaurant for the 1900 World's Fair.
When the weather is good, though, and the sun is shining, the terrace is the place to be: nicely spaced tables protected from the elements by an armada of white umbrellas; a floor of mosaic tile; lattices, evergreens and Tiffany-blue urns filled with flowers that make you feel as if you're in the country—the Loire, perhaps?—rather than a Paris park. But this is not a picnic on the grass—there are starched white linens, crystal and silver, and plates by Bernardaud.
The chef is Frédéric Robert, late of Lucas Carton, and his specialties include macaroni stuffed with celery root, foie gras and black truffles, and blue lobster glazed with acacia honey. These dishes, as you might expect, aren't inexpensive—though they've come down for Americans with the decline and fall of the euro. The macaroni is about $95 and the lobster's about $100. Perhaps a better deal, at lunch or dinner, is the restaurant's daily market menu. For about $78, it includes appetizer, entrée, dessert, coffee and bottled water; for about $102, there's a glass of wine with the first course and another with the main course.
La Grande Cascade's foie gras and artichoke pâté, with fresh artichoke hearts, toast and warm almond milk.
One recent late spring day on the terrace, the meal began with a series of amuses-bouche that set the precise tone —a flaky mushroom tartlet; an eggshell filled with a velvety broccoli cream; and a warm bisque with an intensely concentrated shellfish essence. You should sample the selection of breads—all with the taste, and the crust, only Paris can provide. (Make sure you try the fig bread with nuts.)
First courses included a foie gras and artichoke pâté, with fresh artichoke hearts, toast and warm almond milk—an intriguing and flawlessly matched set of flavors. The main courses included a roasted and sautéed veal with chanterelle mushrooms, peas and onions, in a deeply developed herb sauce; and sea bass with Spanish mussels, avocado and pink grapefruit in a Madras curry sauce. The bass was exquisitely prepared, retaining moistness and flavor, the way fish should be done but too often isn't.
The desserts were supremely satisfying—a caramel fantasy with green apple sorbet; and, my favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb melba, sort of an ice cream sundae, in a large wine glass.
The restaurant has an impressively comprehensive wine list. But if you want to keep it simple, go with the wines that accompany the market menu, chosen by the sommelier to fit the dishes. They can include an uncomplicated Gaillac, Domaine d'Escausses Gaillac Cuvée des Drilles 2008, and a Chateau St.-Roch Côtes du Rhône white 2008.
Then espresso—and the cigars. La Grande Cascade has a small but impressive Cuban selection that includes Cohiba, Ramon Allones, Hoyo de Monterrey and Partagas. They range from 25 to 35 euros. My favorite, when it's available, is always the Cohiba Robusto—an appropriately robust cigar that lasts long enough to relax with but doesn't occupy an entire evening. It's an elegant cigar, in a restaurant that defines a certain kind of elegance.
So sit back on that majestic and beautiful terrace, take in the flowers, the trees—and the cars in the middle distance racing to and from their appointments (or assignations?) and light up in the City of Lights.
La Grande Cascade
Allée de Longchamp
Bois de Boulogne
75016 Paris, France
Phone: 01 45 27 33 51
Reservations: 01 45 27 33 54