A romantic walk through the nearby Place Vendôme under a starlit sky during spring time in Paris was the ideal prelude to dinner at Alain Detournier's highly regarded Carré des Feuillants. But it was to prove sadly to be 'a meal of two halves'.
It began well. The restaurant's interior, redesigned in 2003 by Alberto Bali, is a striking combination of black and grey with, as though to match, the younger dark haired waiting staff dressed in black and the grey haired maitre d' wearing a grey suit. Dramatically tall blood red and white amaryllis stood as sentinels around the room.
The wine list too is inviting, far broader in selection than one normally finds in this city's top restaurants, and it opens with a passionate introduction from Dutournier about the pleasure that selecting wine has brought him over the past 30 years. An extremely well informed sommelier cleverly responded to our request to experiment by guiding us to a choice of three vintages of biodynamic Aligoté from Lalou Bize Leroy's Domaine d'Auvenay in Burgundy (70 euros for the 1998) which proved that in the right hands this particular grape can produce exceptional wine.
Our first courses too were very good. A rhomboid gateau of Jerusalem artichokes layered with foie gras and topped with generous slices of black truffle; Dutournier's classic of oysters under a transparent seawater aspic with a seaweed tartare and caviar from Aquitaine; and three thick stalks of new season's green asparagus with a softly poached egg ingeniously encased in fine slices of asparagus and then quickly dipped in a hot batter, a dish which looked simple but obviously would have taken many man hours to create.
But disappointment set in as soon as our main courses were served at a time when, thanks to the wine, we were feeling relaxed and expectant.
The initial fault lay with the presentation of the dishes. We had with one exception ordered the three fish dishes on the menu – sea bass, monkfish and scallops – but the kitchen chose not to let the flavours of the main ingredients speak for themselves but rather to manipulate them by wrapping the monkfish in black winter radish, by studding the sea bass with mullet roe and coriander, and by slicing and encrusting the scallops. It was all excessively worked with each dish not comprising one harmonious whole but rather three distinct blocks of ingredients – a sign one of my guests, a top female culinary professional, analysed as evidence of a male-dominated kitchen brigade – a correct assessment in view of what we saw of the personnel in the open kitchen as we left.
This would have mattered less had the food arrived hot but in fact all dishes were lukewarm at best. This was partly due to the room's fierce air conditioning, which did successfully remove the cigarette smoke but also caused a diner at the next door table to ask for her husband's jacket. But the root cause was carelessness on the restaurant's part as none of the dishes were brought to the table under cloches, or protective covers.
Many chefs dislike these because, as they are being put on or taken off, they can touch the food, but they are effective - particularly here where the trays of food have to be carried, albeit quickly, from the kitchen across a small covered courtyard to the tables. Significantly, the courtyard opens on one side to the restaurant's entrance and on the other down to a cool cellar which keeps even its white wines at the correct temperature for serving immediately. Again as we left I saw a row of cloches hanging above the pass and wondered why this kitchen, so highly rated, had simply not bothered to use them.
Our disillusionment was not assuaged by a rather bland pre-dessert and a series of desserts whose texture and flavour did not live up to their billing.
On a more positive note, albeit one on a very different scale, and price, anyone hungry treading the well-worn route up to or down from Sacre Coeur or Montmartre will enjoy the simple charms of L'Entr'acte, next to Le Theatre de L'Atelier.
Opened in 1945 by Sonia and Carlos, whose names still adorn the plates, it is now run by their son Gilles who serves in rather cramped, theatrical surroundings dishes such as oeufs en cocotte, frisée aux lardons, MBC (their salad of mâche, beetroot and celeriac), sole meunière, generous slabs of steak au poivre and excellent chips.
As we mopped up a superior crème caramel, the rangy chef appeared from the kitchen with his motorcycle helmet in one hand and a cigarette in the other to mark the end of service with a well deserved glass of quetsch at the bar. When we thanked him, he raised his glass and replied with a smile, "That's what I am paid for."
Carré des Feuillants, 14, rue de Castiglione, 75001 Paris, 01.42.86. 82.82 Monday-Friday. Dinner 120 euros per head
L'Entr'acte, 44, rue Dorsel, 75018 Paris 01.46.06.93.41 Closed Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday. 35/40 euros per head.