The best cigar bar in Paris opened in August. It also happens to be part of the best restaurant in France--Alain Ducasse. Named after the well-known Michelin three-star chef Alain Ducasse of Monte Carlo, the restaurant is the former workplace of Joël Robuchon, who for many remains the greatest chef in France. Robuchon retired from the three-star restaurant circuit in July, handing over his ovens to Ducasse. Ducasse may become the world's first chef with six stars in the Michelin Guide if his new restaurant earns the coveted award.

Don't let any of this intimidate you. Ducasse's new restaurant, located in the fashionable 16th arrondissement in Paris, is more like a private dining club than a stuffy starred French restaurant. Membership is only a matter of appreciating fine cigars, superb wines, great food and excellent service--and, of course, a full waller since dinner can set you back $250 per person.

The dining room hasn't really changed from Robuchon's days, except for an improvement in the lighting. (Cigar Aficionado reviewed the restaurant under Robuchon in the Summer 1994 issue.) The big change is the entranceway, which originally was a cold, unwelcoming cavern of concrete and marble leading to a set of carved, dark oak stairs to the dining room. Now, the entrance goes straight into a small, cozy bar, complete with various sitting areas, cigar cabinets, espresso machines and an amazing selection of brandies, liqueurs and Ports.

"We want people to come in and enjoy the bar and have a cigar, regardless if they are having dinner at the restaurant," says Ducasse, who has been known to enjoy the company of a Cohiba after a long day in the kitchen with his team of chefs. Ducasse now splits his time between his restaurants in Paris and in Monte Carlo.

The selection of cigars at Alain Ducasse is exceptional. Nearly everything is there, from Cohiba Robustos to Punch Double Coronas. Ducasse has a special agreement with his local cigar merchant, who puts aside the best boxes, much like a wine merchant puts away reserve stocks for customers.

Moreover, the cigars in the bar area (they are also available by the humidor in the dining room) are kept in perfect condition in a larger, humidity- and temperature-controlled display case. Prices are about the same as retail in Paris. For example, I was in rapture finishing my dinner with a Sancho Panza Belicoso that cost $11.

However, cigars are only part of the pleasure of going to Ducasse. This is a total dining experience with everything at the pinnacle of quality, from the thick starched tablecloths and finely carved wooden paneling in the dining room to the fabulous cuisine and attentive service coming out of the kitchen. "A three-star restaurant in France is not only about what's on the palate," says Ducasse. "It's everything together."

For those who know the chef's food from Monte Carlo, they'll be surprised by the obvious difference in Paris. Ducasse has been credited with refining and redefining Mediterranean cuisine with his heavy emphasis on olive oil, fish and vegetables in his restaurant in Monte Carlo. His food in Paris is equally refined and innovative, but it couldn't be more different, relying on butter, rich sauces and traditional French recipes and ingredients.

For example, veal stew (blanquette de veau) may sound rather ordinary, but Ducasse greatly refined the dish by preparing the vegetables with a veal stock, cream and butter and separately roasting the veal to perfection before combining the components of the dish. The wine list also is first-class, featuring no fewer than 900 selections from a cellar of more than 45,000 bottles.

With so much to offer at Alain Ducasse, it would be a shame to just stop in at the bar downstairs and smoke a super cigar with coffee or cocktail. Of course, that may be your only option, since the restaurant is usually booked for dinner months in advance.

--James Suckling

Alain Ducasse
59, avenue Raymond Poincaré
Tel: 011-33-1-47-27-12-27 Fax: 011-33-1-47-27-31-22
Dinner: $180 to $250 per person, without wine

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