Before the curtain rises for most grand operas, the orchestra plays an overture, a brief piece that touches on all the important musical themes ahead. In an overture to the delights that await your palate at L'Elysées, the Michelin two-star restaurant's maître de salle, Alain Moser, brings a sealed glass container to your table. It's filled with earthy brown truffles, the rich and very costly ball mushrooms that must, like the buried treasures they are, be rooted out by specially trained pigs and dogs in secret corners of the forests in Italy and southern France.
He opens the lid beneath your nose and the surprising and intoxicating aromas of fertile soil and herbs waft forth. Your senses begin to open to the music of a grand meal. Then comes a plate of savory, tiny mullets, herbed and fried crisp whole, that you pop into your mouth and crunch away. These are the first themes that announce the sensual delights that lie ahead from the kitchen of Alain Soliveres.
Mediterranean cooking is all the rage in Paris, but for Soliveres it's more than fashion; it's in the blood. A scant 36 years old--a very young age to have already established an international following--Soliveres was born in North Africa and moved to France as a child. He learned from his mother the powerful qualities of olives and olive oil, intensely flavored vinegars, peppers, truffles, basil and other herbs, stuffed breads and pungent southern cheeses, sausages, pâtés and fish.
He brings his distinctive homegrown tradition to any dish he serves. His ravioli is stuffed with foie gras and further enriched with a truffle-suffused stock. Buttery sea scallops are decorated and flavored with tiny bits of spicy Portuguese chorizo, olives and tangy parmesan. Meaty roasted squab is served on a bed of polenta in an olive sauce. Even the desserts make allusions to southern Europe. The flourless chocolate tart, a chocolate lover's dream come true, is balanced by the cool bitterness of a basil-flavored sherbet.
The wine list maintains the themes that begin the meal. L'Elysées boasts one of the most extensive Provençal wine cellars in Paris. Coupled with a strong selection from all the great regions of France, no wine lover will lack for thoughtful choices.
If the beauty of the table--each dish is lovingly presented--isn't feast enough for the eyes, the luminous room must count among the most beautiful in Paris. The ceiling of L'Elysées was created by the office of Gustave Eiffel, whose masterwork and symbol of a nation is, of course, the Eiffel Tower. The Art Nouveau-painted metalwork and leaded-glass vaulted ceiling glows in the daylight and, bathed in the warm light of chandeliers reflected off huge wall mirrors, provides an intricate fretwork dome to the small room by night. While a pianist in the lobby of the Hotel Vernet, home to L'Elysées, plays in the background, the young, disciplined, English-speaking staff moves about quietly, anticipating your needs, choreographing every move.
As you lean back after your meal, you can survey the ethereal ceiling through the elegant smoke of one of Moser's carefully selected Havanas or other cigars from his superb humidor. As couples depart, Moser hands each woman a long-stemmed rose. By then, you'll feel as if every theme promised in the overture to this gastronomic opera has been fulfilled.
With its high ceiling, the room at L'Elysées doesn't feel small, but it is. A mere 35 places are available at dinner and 50 at lunch. Reserving at least a week in advance is advised. The restaurant is only open Monday through Friday--it's a popular lunchtime retreat for businessmen from the nearby Avenue des Champs Elysées. (It is closed in August.) Bring a fat wallet ready to be made leaner and a digestive system prepared for one sumptuously rich dish after another, and you'll have a meal youwon't forget.
Marc Wortman is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.
L'Elysées du Vernet
HOTEL VERNET 25, rue Vernet
Dinner $84 and up, without wine (three prix fixe meals: $84, $114, $155; plus, à la carte)