Lucas-Carton, Paris

If you eat only one meal in Paris, reserve a table at Lucas-Carton. No other restaurant combines such exciting food, outstanding wine list, elegant ambience and possibly the best selection of cigars among the city's top eating establishments.

Located on the chic Place Madeleine in the heart of Paris's luxury shopping district, Alain Senderens's three-star restaurant is utterly French: sophisticated, sexy and self-assured. The decor dates to the turn of the century: a small room embellished with blond wood carved in sinuous Art Nouveau style, tall mirrors perfect for peoplewatching and intimate banquettes of honey-colored crushed velvet. Silverware rings shine on Limoges china, wine gurgles into crystal decanters and polyglot conversations break up into laughter--all part of a dining experience as complex as chamber music. The lively crowd is a stylish mix of French businessmen and their elegant partners, well-dressed visitors from many nations, and a few old gourmands who look as if they've been eating at the same table for years. Power and pleasure are thick in the air.

Chef Senderens isn't a classicist or a technician; he aims for excitement rather than perfection. In fact, he may even ruin a dish now and then, like the cod steak left so long under the warming lights that the fish dried out and the sauce separated. Don't be afraid to complain; the staff will replace the occasional misfires without hesitation. But Senderens's cuisine is personal and inventive, the most daring to be found in any of Paris's gastronomic palaces.

Rouget is a Mediterranean fish, one of the myriad elements of a hearty bouillabaisse. Senderens elevates it to star status, delicately sautéing small fillets and serving them with black olives, capers and lemon in a simple sauce of warm olive oil infused with Provencal herbs. The flavors are strong and pure, unpretentious yet striking in their definition and harmony. And the dish marries perfectly with the nutty herbal flavors of a fresh white Saint Joseph from B. Gripa.

Senderens regards wine as an essential ingredient. The outstanding wine list, winner of a Wine Spectator Grand Award, offers all the key Bordeaux châteaux back to the 1940s. There are also extraordinary selections of Champagnes and red and white Loire wines, as well as sterling Burgundies.

Each dish on the menu is listed with a suggested wine, available by the glass, and about 60 percent of the customers play the game. When Senderens is on target, the matches are memorable. He even pairs wines, cheeses and different breads: a perfectly ripe Muenster slathered on warm toast flavored with cumin and washed down with a 1989 Gewärztaminer "Kritt" from M. Kreydenweiss is a match made in heaven.

Cigars are just as integral as wine. "A cigar is gastronomy," says Senderens. "It is part of the meal. Just like a cafe allows you to digest, a cigar continues the pleasure of the meal."

Lucas-Carton has one of the most extensive selections of cigars in Paris. The restaurant has every model of Cohiba currently produced as well as the corona, a size dropped in Havana two years ago. Another rarity is the (Cuban) Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. Other brands include Punch, Bolivar, Rafael Gonzalez, El Rey del Mundo, Diplomaticos, Sancho Panza, Quai d'Orsay, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, Fonseca and Quintero. They are kept in perfect condition, and priced at only 15 percent above Paris retail.

Senderens prefers to smoke his cigars with dessert wines rather than spirits. His favorite match is old Madeira with a Ramon Allones, perhaps the Corona Gigantes, 7 1/2 inches by 49 ring gauge. We chose a Punch Punch and a glass of 1947 supersweet Hungarian Tokay. The mellow rich flavors of the cigar and the piquant flavors of the wine were a fantastic combination.

Relaxing in the soft light of a Parisian afternoon, smoking a fine cigar after a lunch whose flavors will linger long as memory, makes even the most extravagant addition (bill) a small price to pay. Lucas Carton offers sophisticated luxury in a perfectly pitched French accent that makes sense in any tongue.

-- Tom Matthews is the New York bureau chief of The Wine Spectator.

9 Place Madeleine
Phone: (33) 42-65-22-90
Lunch: prix fixe three-course meal, $70 without wine
Dinner: prix fixe or à la carte: $150 without wine

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